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Fighting in Syria claims 'monumental' witnesses of human history

Saturday, 3 November 2012 - 10:02am IST | Place: Aleppo | Agency: The Daily Telegraph

It was during this fighting that the souq caught light, flames roaring through the fabrics and spices, the silver and gold shops that were one of Syria's biggest tourist draws.

The furies have not been kind to Aleppo's Great Mosque and Souq. In 1,300 years of history, their columns and colonnades have been consumed by fire, destroyed by earthquake, levelled by the Mongols. Little in recent times, though, has matched the senselessness of their current fate. Caught on the front line of war, they stand scorched and ash-covered, holed by mortar and tank fire.

This week I was shown the full extent of the damage to the souq since the fighting set it alight and burnt its insides to dust. The Great Mosque opposite, built in 715AD by the Umayyad caliphs, has been behind regime lines except for two days in rebel hands; but its suffering is visible on YouTube videos and in the words of those who were there when it became a battleground.

"I used a bucket of water myself to put out the flames," said Mohammed Khalil, a witness to the fire in the magnificent prayer hall. "It was already burning when we got in. The library burnt - there were many old books inside. Then the regime attacked with a tank and mortars. Shells came through."

Aleppo's medieval fabric, its miles of winding markets and 1,000-year-old mosques, Koran schools and merchant houses with overhanging balconies of wood and iron latticework, is being dismantled.

The rebels seized half of Aleppo, including parts of the Old City, in July. For weeks, they were held at bay by troops in the citadel which, as intended by Aleppo's first inhabitants thousands of years ago, acts as a natural raised vantage point. But they were able to make strategic thrusts, and a month ago surged west into the oldest part of the city around the mosque.

It was during this fighting that the souq caught light, flames roaring through the fabrics and spices, the silver and gold shops that were one of Syria's biggest tourist draws, down the miles of arched shop fronts, stripping them of their wooden panelling to the stone and brickwork beneath. Both sides blame each other.

The rebels also claim it was a regime tank that punched man-sized holes through the walls of the haberdashery market; ash eddies in the shafts of sunlight now beaming in.

Certainly, the walls were broken inwards. The once-packed streets stand empty, apart from rebel soldiers. A lone fabric shop was somehow saved. Gaudy sequinned rolls in purple and pink hung from the front. Nearby, the yard in front of the Khan al-Sabun - the caravanserai of the soap-makers - was occupied by a mannequin, her modesty preserved by a rebel's military tunic. Even a war-emptied souq is a conservative place.

The16th-century Khan itself, built by the Mameluks and one of Aleppo's most finely decorated, has bullet holes in the walls, its windows blasted out. The souq is not beyond restoration. When that might happen is less clear.

Ali Abu Assad, a snack-seller, had come to retrieve a grill from his shop in the meat-sellers' quarter, destroyed after 120 years in his family, he said. He was now reduced to a stall selling kebabs in the street, "under the rain and cold". "Thanks a lot to Bashar for all this," he added, sarcastically.

All this district is a Unesco-designated world heritage site. Pictures from inside the mosque's great courtyard, overlooked by its 11th century minaret, show first the flames licking out and then the blackened pediments left behind. Inside, the 15th-century minibar, or pulpit, was razed. Another picture shows a soldier under a smashed chandelier, next to an ancient pillar riddled with gunfire.

Khalil said the fire was started deliberately by regime soldiers as they retreated, as retaliation. The government denies this. Its troops later seized it back, making independent assessment difficult: one expert sent in by the government was shot dead by a rebel sniper, according to state media.

In any case, Khalil was no innocent bystander. He was manning a sniper point in the Khan al-Khaish, once a caravanserai for the bag-making trade. A mirror on a clothes rail jutted out of his stone casement window, giving a view down the street to a similar regime point 10 yards away. The shop's interior was gashed by a grenade thrown by a regime soldier.

From the storey above, shots snapped out over the nearby 13th-century Madrassa Halawiyya. Khalil shook his head but also reflected that unlike the men on either side who had been killed these wonders would yet live to see another day. "It is very bad and very sad," he said. "But we can rebuild it, after the revolution is over."

Unesco has called on both sides to spare these "monuments to human history". It seems neither is listening.

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