Syria's treasured heritage of ancient castles, citadels and Roman amphitheatres looked increasingly under threat on Sunday as fierce fighting in Aleppo sent the city's centuries old souk market up in flames.
The war gripping Syria has left almost no area unscathed, turning a country that was once a centre of history and culture, and a magnet for tourism, into a battle-scarred landscape where thousands are being killed.
Aleppo's souk, the largest covered market in the world and a Unesco World Heritage Site, was engulfed in flames on Saturday amid pitched battles between rebel fighters and government troops. Footage posted on YouTube showed the narrow stone alleyways and bazaars, that sold everything from perfumes, fabrics and spices to gold and ladies underwear, ravaged by fire.
Until now the city's ancient medina in Aleppo had escaped the worst of the fighting, but on Saturday, three days after rebel groups announced that they were launching the "decisive" offensive to win control of the city, the fighting came to its ancient streets.
"There are snipers on the tops of the ancient walls and shelling has destroyed several houses," said an activist calling himself Mohammed and speaking to The Daily Telegraph from inside the city. "The fighting is on going and there is shelling damage to some of the old city walls."
Since the 14th century, the souk, located in the centre of Syria's merchant capital, had been a meeting point for tradesmen travelling the Silk Road that historically linked East with West. Its architecture and diversity in wares bore the history of the world's great societies that settled in the city over the centuries, including the Assyrians, Greeks, Romans and Ottomans. The metal cover of the souk was pockmarked with bullet holes from rifles fired in the Syrian's battle for independence from the French. Last month Dr Sok An, the chairman of the Unesco World Heritage Association, appealed for Aleppo to "be saved". But yesterday activists estimated that more than 1,500 of the souk's shops had been destroyed, costing an estimated several million dollars in restoration.
"It is not only the souk that is burning, my heart is burning as well," said an anti-government activist called Hashem who learnt the craft of jewellery-making in the souk before the revolt against President Bashar al-Assad erupted last year.
Unesco officials say that five of Syria's six world heritage sites have already been damaged, including the Crac des Chevaliers, one of the world's best preserved crusader castles.
Parts of the historic streets of the old quarters in the capital Damascus have also been reportedly damaged. Other sites at risk include the ancient desert city of Palmyra.
It is also feared that dozens of Syria's other historical monuments that have survived centuries of history may perish in the civil war. Earlier in the year the ancient walls of Qalaat Samaan castle, also known as the monastery of Saint Simeon that would draw thousands of Christian pilgrims to Syria every year, was damaged. Government forces shelled the site after rebel groups set up a training camp amid its ancient columns.
On Saturday the Syrian Expatriates Organisation issued a plea urging Unesco to implement "plans on the ground" to serve the security of their homeland's ancient sites and treasures.