Middle East

Destruction of ancient Aleppo alarms antiquities experts

The Al-Madina Souk market in Aleppo as it looked in March, before being reduced to ashes last week.

CAIRO: The pictures shown this week at a gathering of Arab antiquities experts gave a glimpse into the damage the war in Syria has wreaked on the heritage of one of the world’s most ancient cities.

The wooden gates of Aleppo’s medieval Citadel are gone, a stone engraving above it damaged. A bomb crater now marks the entrance, and its walls are pockmarked with bullet holes. A stump is all that remains of the minaret of the 14th century Al-Kiltawiya school. A rocket has crashed into Al-Mihmandar Mosque, also built some 700 years ago.

The images, taken from amateur video filmed inside Aleppo, were shown at a gathering Monday of antiquities experts from across the Middle East, who warned that Syria’s 18-month-old conflict is wiping out its archaeological treasures.

“Syria is a museum of Islamic history,” said Walid al-Akhras, professor of Islamic history and archaeology at Aleppo University. “That who fires a gun at history is as if he has fired a cannon at the future.”

Aleppo, where there have been settlements for more than 10,000 years, has been the site of fierce battles for more than two months between regime troops and rebels fighters that have brought relentless shelling and gun battles.

Over the weekend, a fire sparked by fighting tore through the city’s centuries-old covered market. At 12 kilometers, it is the Middle East’s longest souk. The fire burned 500 shops, burning through wooden doors and scorching stalls and vaulted passageways.

The experts, however, said the true extent of the damage in Aleppo and at historic sites around the country is still unknown because experts have not been able to get in to assess the damage.

The Syrian conflict has killed more than 30,000 people, according to activists. Hundreds of thousands are seeking refuge outside Syria and entire towns have been destroyed by shelling.

“People haven’t stopped crying over the lives lost and the bloodshed to begin crying over our lost heritage,” said Akhras, who fled Aleppo.

The emergency conference organized by the Islamic Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization at Cairo University aimed to raise the alarm over the destruction of antiquities around Syria. The Saudi-based ISESCO comprises 50 Middle Eastern, African and Asian nations.

Participants said that ultimately the regime of President Bashar Assad is to blame for the destruction.

“The government is responsible first and last for the protection of antiquities,” said Akhras.

Participants expressed concern over looting that has already taken place at museums and the continued shelling of ancient sites, including in Aleppo. Some of the country’s most significant sites have been turned into bases for soldiers and rebels, including historic citadels and Turkish bath houses known as hammams.

Egypt’s antiquities minister, Mohammad Ibrahim, said the world “wants to avoid an Iraq scenario” when looters made off with some of that country’s finest treasures during the U.S.-led military invasion in 2003.

ISESCO representative Abdel-Aziz Salem said saving Aleppo amounts to protecting not just a city and its people, but “Islamic and Arab identity.”

Aleppo, Syria’s largest city, has been a crossroads of civilizations for millennia. It has been occupied by the Greeks, Byzantines and multiple Islamic dynasties. As one of the world’s oldest continuously inhabited cities, Aleppo’s old center was added in 1986 to UNESCO’s list of World Heritage sites, and the city was named by ISESCO as the capital of Islamic culture in 2006.

Cairo University antiquities professor Mahmoud al-Banna said he is in disbelief at what the Syrians are doing to their own heritage.

“What Syrians are doing to their city is no different than what the Tatars or Mongols did,” he said, referring to invasions in the 13th and 14th centuries that devastated the region.

“We are talking about the history of all people, of humankind and not just of Islam,” he said. “The war has been going on for 18 months, but you – the world – where have you been?”

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Daily Star on October 03, 2012, on page 8.




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