Cultural treasures become war casualty in Aleppo
Aleppo is one of the oldest and most culturally rich cities in the entire world. But now, in the midst of a raging civil war, the market at the heart of its historic centre is burning.
Aleppo is among the greatest cultural treasures of the Middle East. With up to 8,000 years of history, it is one of the oldest cities in the world. Across its skyline roll the imposing domes of mosques and churches. Its streets are packed with ancient markets and madrasahs, and towering above them is a grand citadel that has housed civilisations from the Ancient Greeks to the Ottoman Turks.
Today, ‘Aleppo the Gray’ is burning. As rebels struggled to wrestle the city from the grasp of Syria’s dictator Bashar al-Assad, a fire broke out in the covered market (or ‘souk’) that has always been the city’s noisy, bustling hub. Above the citadel rose the smoke from hundreds of centuries-old shops.
The famous market is only the latest cultural casualty of Syria’s brutal Civil War. Even the impenetrable Krak de Chevaliers, described by Lawrence of Arabia as ‘the most admirable castle in the world’, has not escaped damage: when rebel fighters took refuge there, the fortress was pummelled by government shells.
On some occasions fleeing soldiers purposely hid among historical sites, hoping that their enemies will be more hesitant to destroy heritage than human life. Some, for instance, stationed themselves in the remarkable Forgotten Villages, abandoned by the Byzantine Empire in 500 BC and beautifully preserved even today. But the only result was the desecration of yet another ancient site.
This is far from first time that Aleppo has become a battleground. Stripped bare by Mongol Hoards and besieged by unscrupulous crusaders, it has survived and been rebuilt every time. And so it will again. The market passages will one day be infused once again with the scent of a thousand spices, its passages crowded with donkeys carrying bags of cotton and vegetables.
But for the citizens of Aleppo, the flames rising from the their city are destroying more than just bricks and mortar. ‘Our hearts and minds have been burned in this fire,’ said one woman. ‘It’s not just a souk and shops, but our soul too.’
Like many Syrians, this woman was heartbroken by the damage wreaked by war. Assad may be an oppressive tyrant, they say, but nothing can justify this desecration. Our cultural heritage is the most valuable thing we possess, and must be defended at all costs. To destroy it is to destroy what is best about ourselves.
This is no time for such sentimentality, say the more hardened rebels: the freedom of a nation is at stake. Aleppo’s ancient market is beautiful, they admit; but if it must be sacrificed to the altar of democracy and liberty, then so be it – that is a price worth paying.
- Would anything justify the destruction of the Great Pyramids in Egypt?
- Is culture the most valuable thing we have?
- Make a list of the five cultural sites that you believe are the most important in the world. Explain your choices.
- Imagine you are a traveller in the 19th Century and you have just arrived in Aleppo’s hectic market. Describe the scene as vividly as you can.
Some People Say...
“The destruction of a beautiful city is as sad as a thousand deaths.”
What do you think?
Q & A
- It’s sad that the old town is burning, but will it do any actual harm?
- The souk was a thriving, bustling market with thousands of shops and stalls. Many of Aleppo’s residents directly relied on it for their livelihood.
- What about the sites that are no longer used as shops?
- It still has a serious economic impact. Before the Syrian uprising began, the country attracted almost a million visitors each year. Now many of its key attractions are being damaged or destroyed – the Forgotten Villages and Aleppo’s souk among them.
- Does this always happen in wars?
- Yes. The East German city of Dresden, carpet-bombed in World War Two, is one of the most famous examples. The legendary Library of Alexandria was destroyed by rampaging vandals, and when Ancient Romans defeated the great city of Carthage, they bulldozed it to the ground.
- Up to 8,000 years of history
- There is some evidence that the site of Aleppo was settled as early as 6000 BC, though that is disputed. It is probably not quite as old as the Syrian capital, Damascus, but it has been a major city for much longer, forming an important part of major empires from the Hittites to the Greeks to the Turkish Ottomans.
- In Arabic ‘madrasah’ simply means ‘school’, but in English it usually refers to schools specifically designed for teaching Islam. Some of those in Aleppo are over a thousand years old.
- Noisy, bustling hub
- A description from a 19th Century traveller: ‘The dazzling diamonds of the ladies, and the various colours of their dresses, the lights, the singing of the birds, and the trickling of the water falling on the marble basins, made one fancy it to be Fairyland.’
- Lawrence of Arabia
- T. E. Lawrence was an archaeologist, author and army officer who played an important role in the Arab Revolt against Turkish rule. His complicated personality and extraordinary life story were immortalised in the classic film Lawrence of Arabia.
- Byzantine Empire
- When the Roman Empire collapsed in the 5th Century, a large portion in the East stayed intact. It was centred around Istanbul (then known as Constantinople), and lasted until 1453.
- Mongol Hoards
- In the 13th Century, the Mongolian ruler Genghis Khan began a bloody campaign of conquest that led his armies as far west as Austria. Though it was loosely administered and short-lived, the Mongol Empire was the largest land-based empire in the history of the world.