Saving Aleppo’s Heritage

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Aleppo citadel’s main gate

Since ancient times, the city of Aleppo in Syria has been one of the Middle East’s largest commercial centers. Located between Turkey and Arabia in one direction and between the Mediterranean and Mesopotamia in the other, the city was a trading crossroads. Egyptian and Hittite merchants were there in its earliest days; the Silk Road passed through it in Medieval times. The wealth gathered by the city through these trade routes was shown in its construction of luxurious townhouses, souks, grand mosques, and madrassas (universities). Landmarks include the 11th century Mameluke Umayyad or Great Mosque, the labyrinthine souq (a rare example of a fully covered medieval marketplace), and Byzantine churches or cathedrals, all built along the streets planned by Greeks and Romans. The most visible landmark is the Citadel, entered through a monumental gate and containing, among other buildings, a temple from the third millenium B.C. and an ornate medieval throne hall. This imposing fortification withstood no less than twenty-two attacks during the Crusades. Aleppo is unique in its display of thousands of years’ worth of architectural styles and especially its dense medieval quarter, so in 1986 it was designated a UNESCO World Heritage Site of “Outstanding Universal Value”.

 

Unfortunately, the strategic location that made Aleppo wealthy may prove fatal to the city. Although the city was not a scene of major protest in the 2010 “Arab Spring”, when civil war broke out in Syria it became part of a vital supply line, and heavy fighting for the city and surrounding areas began in 2012. Historians, preservationists, and many Syrians have watched in dismay ever since as the city’s rich heritage is destroyed. The citadel has resumed its military purpose, and there is speculation of heavy damage due to shelling and bombs. The once-thriving souq has been shown to have suffered very heavy damage. The burned-out corridors are now completely devoid of shops and stalls, and the structure is in danger of collapse. Adjacent to the souq is the great mosque, images of which show a debris-strewn interior, pockmarked exterior, and the complete destruction of the thousand-year-old minaret. Overall it is estimated that forty percent of the heritage site is heavily damaged or destroyed. A ceasefire negotiated today by the UN will, as well as facilitate humanitarian aid, allow international groups to assess the total damage.

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The damaged Umayyad mosque

Aleppo souk on fire

Aleppo’s souk ablaze

Ever since the cessation of conflict in Mali, protecting Syrian heritage has become the top priority for UNESCO. Unfortunately, UNESCO have no real power in Syria, as political groups quickly made the decision that their causes were more important than, and in some cases (such as ISIS and the al-Qaeda affiliated Nusra Front) contrary to the preservation of historic sites. UNESCO have released many statements outlining how heritage can be safeguarded, but many of their proposals are unrealistic. “Preparedness of local leaders and communities” is stressed, but these communities hold little sway over the armed forces occupying their homes. Campaigns to raise international awareness also do little to shift armies. The only measures UNESCO can effectively take are limiting the trade of looted artifacts. As for threatened structures and communities, their only feasible strategy seems to be to wait and hope that when hostilities finally cease, the damage is repairable.

 

With the current extent of damage, it seems probable that parts of Aleppo would need near-complete reconstruction. That idea, reconstruction, is one that is liable to arouse considerable skepticism from preservationists. I myself have previously written about the limits of rebuilding historic sites. The sense of timelessness, the aura given by age, and the links to the past can be partially if not completely lost. An Aleppo civilian is quoted by the Guardian as saying “The souks (make) you feel like you go back in time… people go there to remember who they were and where they came from.” Depending on the extent of damage to the souk, this could no longer be possible.

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The souk prior to destruction

Opponents of reconstruction could support their argument by looking just southwest of Aleppo to Beirut, Lebanon, a city ravaged by fifteen years of civil war and an Israeli invasion. The historic district, with its Ottoman and Colonial buildings, was slated for reconstruction. The job was carried out with heavy funding by the Solidere company, and has been surrounded with considerable controversy. The downtown, detractors say, is now soulless, smothered with the sterile architecture of commercialism, and feels strangely deserted. Solidere appears to be trying to turn Beirut into a cookie-cutter western city and is slowly eating away at the city’s Arabian heritage and identity.

 

But perhaps Beirut cannot be compared to Aleppo, for it was never protected by UNESCO, who have carried out the most famous reconstruction in recent decades- that of Dubrovnik, Croatia. The historic fortified port was battered by artillery fire during a siege in the Yugoslav Wars. The old town of Dubrovnik, a heritage site, was the center of an international, UNESCO-led reconstruction project. Reconstruction work was entirely accurate and the old town was completely restored, and today tourists flock to the city for its historic beauty. The restoration is not perfect- critics complain of the “too-red roofs” among other faults- but given a generation or so to age and these faults may no longer be visible.

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Dubrovnik

For now, however, the prospect of rebuilding Aleppo seems distant as, despite the ceasefire, the violence shows no sign of stopping. Other historic sites are also under threat- shelling has heavily damaged Damascus and Krak des Chevaliers, and looting has taken a toll on Roman Palmyra and the breathtaking Byzantine “Dead Cities”. For now the international community rightly focuses on providing humanitarian aid to Syrians caught in the conflict, but hopefully something can be done to preserve all of these places, each of them unique and valuable, for future generations.

 

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