Aleppo, one of the oldest cities in the world, is often described as the most dangerous city in the world. The destruction is considered parallel to that of Hiroshima after World War II. This industrial capital of Syria is lacking all essential every day supplies of water, electricity, gas and at times even fresh food. The situation of this previously wealthy city is described by the locals as ‘unliveable’.
This paper discusses the effect of the Syrian conflict on the cultural heritage found in the Old Aleppo. It examines the nature and complexity of the conflict. It also addresses social and economic factors that could affect the reconstruction and recovery phase, once the conflict is over.
Introduction and historical background of Aleppo
Aleppo, the largest of Syrian cities, lies in the north-western side of Syria. It was the economic and industrial capital of the country with a population of 3.8 million. The majority of the population were Sunni-Muslims with significant numbers of Christians and Shi’as. The major ethnic group was Arab, with minorities of Kurd, Turkman and Armenian.
Aleppo is known to be the oldest continuously inhabited city in the world. The earliest mention of Aleppo was in the archives of Ebla, Mari, and Alalakh in the third millennium BC. Its location in the centre of the Silk Road made it a target of many kingdoms and the city witnessed the rise and fall of several empires along its history including the kingdom of Yamkhad, the NeoHittites, the Assyrians, Achaemenids, and the Byzantines. This also included several Islamic empires ending with the Ottomans. Finally, the city was occupied by the French before the independence and declaration of the Syrian Arab Republic.
The city went through phases of wealth, poverty, disasters, and prosperity. The heart of Aleppo -known as the Ancient/Old City - is defined by the Greek and Roman period walls. The buildings in this area show the many layers of the city’s history. It is also believed that the old city sits on extensive archaeological deposits.
Before the current conflict, the majority of the surviving architecture was Ottoman and the city was distinguished by its mosques, bazaars, caravansaries, and churches. The Ottomans used the location of the city to launch the trade zone in northern Syria to accommodate increased access to goods from Iran, Ḥijāz and Western Europe. Due to trade, Aleppo thrived and its Souq/al-Mdine was established. This Souq is believed to be the longest covered market in the world. While most of the city is from this period, the most distinguished part of Aleppo, the Citadel, sits on a hill in the middle of the ancient city. Initially built during the rule of Alexander the Great, it was fortified, and further developed during the Zinged reign.
The Ancient City was awarded the status of a world heritage site (WHS) in 1986. In 2006, Aleppo won the title of the Capital of Islamic Culture (cometosyria.com). A lot of organisations and NGOs took interest in old Aleppo including GTZ (German Association of Technical Cooperation), the Agha Khan Foundation, WMF (World Monument Fund), all of which carried out restoration and documentation on the site of old Aleppo.
The conflict and its impact on cultural heritage in Aleppo
The civil movement inspired by the Arab Spring erupted in Syria in March 2011. Even though the situation was as tense as in any other Syrian city, Aleppo as an urban area did not become a part of the armed conflict until February 2012. The key players in this conflict are the Government of the Syrian Arab Republic, opposition civil and armed groups (the main armed group in this category is the FSA), foreign fighters groups, Al-Qaida linked groups and fundamentalists.
The opposition’s armed groups entered the city to ‘liberate’ the ‘occupied’ city by the regime. A few months later, they gained control of the old city. In June 2012, the United Nations declared the situation in Syria as a ‘Civil War’.
Wide-spread violence led to sectarian polarisation, which in turn led to the formation of several armed groups with different ideologies and agendas within the city. The complexity of the situation increased significantly after Al-Qaida-linked groups joined the conflict such as the Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant (ISIS).
When the Free Syrian Army (FSA) first came to the ancient city, they considered the urban fabric (buildings connected through a series of narrow alleys) an “ideal’ place for land battles. The regime responded by shelling and bombarding the old city to fight the terrorists hiding within. The Citadel is currently under the regime’s control.
None of the conflicting parties are trained to protect cultural heritage. While some of the damage is caused unintentionally by certain groups, others have a more aggressive approach that targets heritage deliberately for ideological reasons. A recent example is the destruction of Sheikh Mohamad al-Nabhan’s tomb (a famous figure of Islamic Sufism) in al-Kiltawiyeh madrasa by extremists. It is worth mentioning that one of the major threats Aleppo is currently facing is from fundamentalist groups such as ISIS who have a specific ideology targeting cultural heritage of previous civilisations that are in contradiction to their beliefs.
A number of measures were taken by the main players to protect the surviving heritage at risk in response to the public reactions from both the local and international communities The Directorate-General of Antiquities & Museums (DGAM) covered part of the National Museum of Aleppo to protect the statues, locked part of the collection in the basement and transported the most valuable part of the collection to Damascus.
The DGAM is unable to act in the areas occupied by the opposition. Nonetheless, the Syrian Association for Preserving Archaeology and Heritage also took some measures to protect heritage, including dismantling the Minbar in the Great Umayyad mosque.
Post conflict reconstruction, difficulties and future prospects
The recovery process is not entirely a technical process of reconstructing the physical and economic environment. It also involves helping the people to recover from war effects socially, politically, and psychologically. Therefore, priorities should be established according to the vision of the whole society.
The first priority is to build the capacity to protect cultural heritage of both individuals and institutions in all sectors and levels of the society affected. However, historically significant ruins may be mistaken for rubble and much would be lost if removed without consideration. To avoid removing original elements, knowledge of the area and its historic buildings would be imperative to prevent further destruction. Local knowledge and skills could be employed during the recovery process. International bodies can be of immense help if they work in collaboration with the local community to help it develop frameworks during the recovery process.
Unfortunately, the conflict in Syria has yet to end, and we have no means of predicting the outcome of the conflict. Therefore, recovery will depend on the both the political situation and the extent of destruction. Post-conflict reconstruction of significant historic landmarks can have a healing effect, helping conciliation and the restoration of social and cultural integrity. It might provide a chance to correct past erroneous approaches to restoration of cultural heritage.
For the people who suffered war, thinking of post-conflict reconstruction starts during the conflict, unlike ‘outsiders’ who come into play once the conflict is over. It could help with negotiations during the conflict. People need to change their memories of violence and brutality. ‘Outsiders’ tend to impose fast physical reconstruction, which cannot be absorbed in the early stages of recovery. Reconstruction should be understood in a political manner for it can be more corrupting as the war itself.
For a post-conflict recovery phase to be successful, a clear vision is needed. However, can all the actors involved from local and international organisations share the same vision and more importantly, could they do so in collaboration with the society?
In Aleppo, the damage to cultural heritage is massive and the continuation of fighting will surely result in even more losses. Aleppo is known for its cultural diversity but the cruelty and length of this war has resulted in the loss of its identity and cultural integrity. Once the conflict is over, a full assessment of damage will take several years to complete and some of the lost heritage will probably be irreplaceable.
The whole “healing process can be supported but cannot be imposed. The war-wounded have to learn to walk again by walking”. Aleppo has gone through difficult times and was the subject of many historic disasters. Yet, it was able to recover and flourish and it will manage to recover again once the conflict is over.