Syria’s third-oldest mosque damaged by airstrike: ‘A violation of historical sites’

AMMAN: Syria’s third-oldest mosque was badly damaged by a direct airstrike in rebel-held Idlib on Thursday in what one local lawyer monitoring damage to the province’s antiquities calls “a violation of historical sites and places of worship.”

Maarat Misrin’s Great Mosque “was directly hit by a thermobaric missile at midnight last night,” citizen journalist Mustafa Abu al-Zahraa told Syria Direct on Thursday from the rebel-held town 10km north of Idlib city. “It caused major structural damage and destruction in its courtyard, and burned furniture and contents.”

The Idlib Civil Defense reported Thursday’s bombing and posted pictures of personnel responding to the Great Mosque.

The 7th-century mosque “has huge historic value,” Abu al-Zahraa told Syria Direct, adding that it is the third-oldest mosque in Syria, after the Umayyad Mosque in Damascus and the Great Mosque of Aleppo.

Abu al-Zahraa alleges the missile that struck the mosque on Thursday came from a Russian warplane. “Since Russia intervened to support Assad, they’ve been the ones who’ve bombed us,” he said.

Syria Direct could not confirm the source of Thursday’s single airstrike. Neither Russian nor Syrian state media has reported the bombing.

 
Maarat Misrin’s Great Mosque on Thursday. Photo courtesy of Mustafa Abu al-Zahraa.

Maarat Misrin’s Great Mosque has been damaged by nearby bombings before, but never directly hit, Abu al-Zahraa told Syria Direct.

Nearly 1,400 years ago, when Abu Ubaidah ibn al-Jarrah and Khalid bin al-Waleed—companions of the prophet Muhammad—conquered northern Syria in the first half of the 7th century CE, they captured Maarat Misrin, in what is today Idlib province, from Byzantine forces.

The new rulers then converted the town’s church into a mosque and added to the original structure. For more than a millennium, Maarat Misrin’s Great Mosque stood.

Now, “the mosque is no longer suitable for prayer because of the destruction,” said Abu al-Zahraa. “People are afraid to pray there. It’s become a target.”


 Maarat Misreen residents survey the damage to the town’s Great Mosque on Thursday. Photo courtesy of Maarat Misrin Local Council.

Images provided to Syria Direct and posted online by Maarat Misrin civilian authorities on Thursday show extensive damage to the Great Mosque’s courtyard.

Several stone archways have been destroyed, a gaping hole left in their place, with tawny stone blackened by flames. Shrapnel has pockmarked the walls. A modern metal roof providing shade to the courtyard lies on the ground, crumpled and bent like paper.

“This bombing is a violation of historical sites and places of worship,” Idlib native and lawyer Nizar al-Burghul told Syria Direct on Thursday. Al-Burghul is a founding member of Lawyers for Justice, an Idlib organization that documents damage inflicted on Idlib’s ancient ruins and antiquities. “The mosque is the oldest and greatest in Idlib province.”

“We work on all violations against humanity, antiquities and houses of worship, so it is within the scope of our work.”

 
The Great Mosque in Maarat Misrin in better days. Photo courtesy of Al-Aan TV

“The Great Mosque is important for all of Syria, as one of the oldest mosques,” said Maarat Misrin resident Abu al-Zahraa. “Salaheddin al-Ayyubi prayed in it,” he added, referring to the renowned 12th-century Kurdish founder of the Ayyubid dynasty.

Of the more than 760 antiquities sites in Idlib province, “490 have been recorded as damaged,” lawyer al-Burghul told Syria Direct last month.

For Maarat Misrin residents, recent airstrikes have also displaced many residents, and put the main hospital out of service.

“The town is being subjected to a wave of daily bombings,” said resident Abu a-Zahraa, describing “a state of panic and fear among residents.”

On Thursday afternoon, the Idlib Civil Defense reported that a single air raid with cluster munitions used at the outskirts of Maarat Misrin injured five people.

Maarat Misrin is currently controlled by the Islamist factions Ahrar a-Sham and Jaish al-Islam. Jabhat a-Nusra until recently also maintained a presence in the town, resident Abu al-Zahraa said, but fighters “moved the headquarters to agricultural areas three days ago,” a claim that Syria Direct could not immediately confirm.

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.

Maria Nelson

Maria Nelson was a 2014-2015 fellow at the Center for Arabic Study Abroad program (CASA I) in Amman, Jordan. She holds a BA in Near Eastern Studies from Princeton University, with a certificate in Arabic Language and Culture.