BEIRUT: Syrian President Bashar Assad ordered Monday immediate repairs to the Great Mosque in Aleppo, a move likely aimed at containing Muslim outrage after fierce fighting between rebels and regime forces set parts of the complex on fire over the weekend.
Government troops had been holed up inside the 12th century Umayyad mosque, a UNESCO World Heritage site, in downtown Aleppo for several months before rebels fighting to topple Assad launched a push to liberate it this week.
Activist Mohammad al-Hassan said the army had been using the mosque as a base because of its strategic location in the center of the old city of Aleppo.
“It’s all blackened now,” he said, speaking by phone from Aleppo.
The Great Mosque is one of the oldest in Syria, built around a vast courtyard and enclosed in a compound adjacent to Aleppo’s medieval citadel.
In the past few weeks, rebels controlled one entrance to the mosque compound while the army controlled the other. The regime and the rebels are now trading accusations over who is responsible for the fire and damage.
Videos posted by activists online show a large fire and black smoke raging inside the mosque Saturday, and later, its blackened, pockmarked walls. Debris is strewn on the floors where worshippers once prayed on green and gold carpeting.
The videos are consistent with AP’s own reporting on the incident.
“Assad’s thugs set the mosque on fire as a punishment for being defeated by the Free Syrian Army,” the caption on one video read. In another video, a rebel inside the mosque holds up a torn Quran, saying: “These are our Qurans, this is our religion, our history.”
Rebels and activists had complained earlier that soldiers and pro-government militiamen wrote offensive graffiti on the mosque walls and drank alcohol while inside. The rebel in the video is seen holding up an empty bottle, saying it was alcohol.
Assad issued a presidential decree to form a committee to repair the mosque by the end of 2013.
“He burns down the country and its heritage, and then he says he will rebuild it. Why do you destroy it to begin with?” said Hassan, the activist.
Rami Martini, chief of Aleppo’s Chamber of Tourism, blamed the rebels for targeting Aleppo’s monuments and archaeological treasures to try to frame the government. He said the losses were impossible to estimate because of the fighting around the area.
He said that despite the fire’s damage to the mosque’s minbar and prayer niche, the building’s structure appeared to be intact. Martini said valuables were also stolen from the mosque’s library, including a transparent box that contained a strand purported to be hair of the Prophet Mohammad, as well as centuries-old handwritten copies of the Quran.
“This could be the most serious damage since the 1830s, when an earthquake damaged the mosque,” said Martini, who is specialized in repairing archaeological sites and monuments.
The mosque’s last renovation began about 20 years ago and was officially inaugurated in 2006 when Aleppo was chosen that year as the Capital of Islamic Culture.