Medieval khan in Aleppo’s Old City reduced to rubble

A Russian airstrike destroyed a medieval building housing rebel-held east Aleppo’s only cultural center.

The building, located in Aleppo’s Old City, which is a UNESCO World Heritage Site, dates back to between the 12th and 14th centuries and was originally an inn for travelling merchants, or a khan in Arabic.

With a small grant from an Italian organization, a group of activists from east Aleppo converted the site into the Waraqa Cultural Center late last year. The center held film screenings, vocational training courses and art and language classes. The center’s library contained more than 2,500 books, collected from other east Aleppo libraries damaged over the past five years.

But on Monday morning the historical site, its classrooms and library lay in ruins.

“When I first entered the rubble… I was also struck by how quickly more than a year’s worth of work was destroyed with the push of a button, at the whim of a pilot,” the cultural center’s director Mahmoud Abdul Rahman tells Syria Direct’s Alaa Nassar.

The airstrike struck the center’s central dome, “damaging the building beyond repair,” said Abul Rahman.

 Medieval khan in Aleppo’s Old City reduced to rubble

When the Waraqa center was established it was one of two cultural centers in east Aleppo. But in January the Salafist group Ahrar a-Sham forced the Abjad Cultural Center to close its doors after arresting the center’s director.

“The combatants in this war want to deprive people of an education,” said Abdul Rahman.

Q: What happened on Monday?

A Russian airstrike struck the building’s main dome, which sits directly above the library, at 10 o’clock [Monday] morning. Bombs have damaged the center in the past but the damage was minimal, a side effect of airstrikes in neighboring areas. This time the airstrike registered a direct hit and damaged the building beyond repair.

Once the strikes began, the administration decided to halt all classes to ensure the safety of our students. Had we not closed, we would have seen corpses amongst the rubble.

Given that the center is located in a heritage site, we are documenting the damage. We notified the Syrian Archive, an organization that documents the Syrian regime’s war crimes. We still haven’t communicated with UNESCO, but we have carefully documented the violations in case we are able to get in touch with them.

Waraqa was the only cultural center in [opposition-held] Aleppo. There is one other center, but it is in the western Aleppo countryside.

Q: How was the library affected by the airstrike?

The last airstrike destroyed everything in the library: The tables, chairs, bookshelves and glass. Even the white boards we used in the classrooms were lost.

All the books were under the rubble. We tried to gather everything but we won’t be able to get to all the books until the rubble is removed.

We had roughly 2,500 books in our library, but we haven’t been able to take stock of the total damage because of the heavy bombing.

 An employee of the Waraqa Cultural Center collects damaged books following Monday’s airstrike. Photo Courtesy of Abd a-Rahman Ismail.

Q: Talk more about the building itself. 

The center is located in the Old City of Aleppo, a UNESCO world heritage site. We restored the building [in December 2015] with the goal of converting it into a cultural center to preserve the physical and cultural heritage of the city.

The building wasbuilt between the 12th and 14th centuries, a period famous for the construction of this type of Khan, [an inn for travelling merchants], in Aleppo.

Q: What books did the library contain?

We had a wide assortment of books. There were books about historical conflicts in the Middle East such as Amin Malouf’s The Crusades Through Arab Eyes. There were books by authors such as Gabriel García Márquez, along with philosophical books, scientific textbooks and books on religious history.

We had books on modern history by authors such as Azmi Bishara as well as books on the Syrian revolution. All of our books can be seen on our Facebook page.

We were constantly trying to acquire morebooks to try to understand more about the world we live in.

Q: Who established the Waraqa Cultural Center? What is the center’s mission?

Waraqa was opened last December as part of a collaborative effort between independent activists in Aleppo who wanted to commemorate local culture and heritage. The center seeks to pass this heritage on to the current generation of young Aleppans growing up in the shadow of civil war.

In the first month we didn’t have many visitors, but by the second month the center had become a center of social activity.

We hosted events for activists and citizens, a party commemorating the revolution’s anniversary and conferences for Islamist and civil society organizations.

The center also hosted choir groups, whirling dervishes, Arabic dance teams and educational courses, such as computer courses and language classes.

Since the start, we knew this wouldn’t be a war fought only with weapons. The combatants in this war, we knew, wanted to deprive people of an education, that makes them an easy target for extremist and foreign ideologies.

Q: Can you describe how you felt when you first entered the center following the bombing?

When I first entered the rubble, I was relieved because I didn’t see any bodies among the destruction. But I was also struck by how quickly more than a year’s worth of work was destroyed with the push of a button, at the whim of a pilot.

I felt as though our ideas of change were hopeless in the face of such power. At that moment, I felt as though that missile didn’t just destroy the center, but everything in Aleppo, our hopes and dreams. 

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.

David Leestma, Reporter/Translator

David Leestma studied International Relations at Grand Valley State University. His studies took him to Lebanon, as well as Morocco and Oman with the Critical Language Scholarship in 2014 and 2015. Before joining Syria Direct as a full time reporter, David interned with Syria Direct as a translator and collaborated with ISW to produce the Syria Situation Report.

Mahran Mohammed

Mahran holds a degree in Arabic literature from Damascus university. Originally from Daraa province, he was involved in the earliest peaceful demonstrations of the Syrian revolt revolt. In 2013, Mahran was injured in a regime attack and moved to Jordan. Mahran previously volunteered with Save the Children.

Amal Sulaiman

Amal was born in Jordan 1992. Her family is from Tartus. She graduated with a Bachelor’s degree in business management in 2015. She still visits her home in Tartus and has noticed changes in her neighborhood since the start of the conflict. She hopes to shine a light on the struggles of her people through journalism.