80% of Aleppo Old City square destroyed, residents lack tools to rebuild

“Aleppo is the eye of Syria, and the citadel is its pupil.”

After an eight-year campaign, Saladin—the founder of the Ayyubid dynasty—stood atop his conquest of Aleppo’s citadel in 1182, uttering these words.

Over the course of nearly three millennia, countless empires—Greeks, Romans, Umayyads, Mameluks, Ottomans—would all leave their indelible marks upon Aleppo, the manifest crossroads of Middle East trade, with the Old City’s citadel towering above the mosques, markets and bathhouses below.

Over time, foreign invaders and earthquakes chipped away at the centuries-old monuments lining the Old City, which today is a UNESCO World Heritage Site.

Since 2011, rocket-propelled grenades damaged much of the Great Mosque of Aleppo, flames consumed the Al-Madina Souq, and bullets and shrapnel pockmark the citadel.

In the shadow of the citadel, a reportedly Russian warplane fired a missile on the historic Bab al-Maqam neighborhood of the Old City on July 11, sources on the ground told Syria Direct.

Bab al-Maqam mosque before the July 11 bombing. Photo courtesy of Maher Akraa.

The missile ripped through the neighborhood’s central Bezze Square, destroying a market, mosque and bathhouse, all dating back to the 13th century reign of Al-Aziz Muhammad ibn Ghazi, the former Ayyubid emir of Aleppo.    

In the aftermath of the attack, Civil Defense first responders arrived to the scene. The bombs continued to fall as regime forces fired elephant missiles—rocket-fired, improvised explosive devices—and lobbed mortars onto the recovery scene, killing at least 10 civilians, the Syrian Network for Human Rights reported last month.

“The attack destroyed roughly 80 percent of the central square,” Yahia al-Rajou, a citizen journalist present at the time of the attack, tells Syria Direct’s Alaa Nassar and Abdulhadi Khalil. “Everything in the square carried a great deal of historical value, not to mention that it was where the community came together on almost every special occasion.”

Aleppo’s Bezze Square after July bombing. Photo courtesy of Yahia al-Rajou.

For more than three weeks, the wreckage of one of Syria’s most treasured historical sites has remained virtually untouched, as the battle between rebel and regime forces over the nation’s largest urban center continues to prevent restoration efforts.

“While residents were able to clear away some of the debris and wreckage from the site, the damage is simply too great for any one man to undertake,” Yahia al-Rajou told Syria Direct. “Restoring the former grandeur of the square requires large-scale institutional support, which is something we just don’t have.”

Q: Describe the scale of the destruction.

The attack destroyed roughly 80 percent of the central square. All of the stores on the square were completely demolished, while the mosque and bathhouse were partially destroyed. Even the Bezze fountain—one of the oldest antiquities at the site—was destroyed when the oil reserves in the nearby bakery caught fire.

Q: Describe the significance of the Bezze Square.

Residents turned to the Bab al-Maqam neighborhood, and Bezze Square in particular, for almost everything. There, people would shop for food and sweets, home goods and other appliances. There was a pharmacy, a ceramics shop and even a store that sold Aleppo’s famous soap.

Bezze Square was one of the most important heritage sites within the Old City of Aleppo. Everything in the square carried a great deal of historical value not to mention that it was where the community came together on almost every special occasion.

Q: Have people tried to restore what is left of the area?

At first, Civil Defense first responders and neighborhood residents were strictly focused on trying to pull the bodies of the dead from underneath the rubble.

Today, there are no efforts to salvage, much less rebuild, what remains of the square. There was a time where there were organizations concerned with preserving and maintaining such historical sites; however, that time—and those organizations—have long since gone and left the Old City of Aleppo.

Q: How have the residents of the Old City tried to move on after the Bezze Square bombing?

At first there were efforts to try to clean up the square. Some even thought that we could build it anew. While residents were able to clear away some of the debris and wreckage from the site, the damage is simply too great for any one man to undertake. Restoring the former grandeur of the square requires large-scale institutional support, which is something we just don’t have.

Today, some shopkeepers have opened back up small commercial stands in the area, but, because of the blockade, food is frankly just unavailable in the city.

Losing the square meant a lot to us, not just because of the markets but because it was where we once all came together.

 

 

Justin Schuster

Justin was a 2015-2016 fellow at the Center for Arabic Study Abroad program (CASA I) in Amman, Jordan. He received his BA from Yale University with a double major in Global Affairs and Modern Middle Eastern Studies. While at Yale, he served as the Editor-in-Chief of the political journal, The Politic. His previous work and research in the Middle East includes time spent in Egypt, Lebanon, Tunisia, Jordan, and the West Bank.

Abdulhadi Khalil

Abdulhadi is currently completing his Bachelor’s degree in business management but he has a passion for journalism and film-making. He finished high school in Syria before moving to Jordan in 2013. He joined Syrian Direct to improve his understanding of journalism and help in finding a solution for the Syrian issue.

Alaa Nassar

Alaa was forced to flee Damascus with her family because of the pressure from the Syrian regime in 2013. She was a student of Arabic Language & Literature at the University of Damascus. She came to Syria Direct because she hopes to find a new direction in her life and to show the world what is happening in her country.