AMMAN: Once a public park with winding paths, ice cream vendors and picnic benches where families would spend afternoons grilling kebabs and smoking shisha pipes, Aleppo’s historic citadel is facing an existential battle, the likes of which it has not witnessed in nine centuries sitting atop a formerly grassy knoll in the heart of Syria’s second city.
Recent video footage of the medieval castle, once a base for resistance against Crusader advances, shows a crumbling structure in what may be a metaphor for the cultural damage wrought by nearly five years of war. While the damage has not been closely catalogued due to ongoing fighting in the area, Aleppo residents tell Syria Direct the change in what was once a pristinely preserved monument is palpable.
“It makes our souls ache to see our heritage and our civilization destroyed,” Huda al-Halabi, a resident of Aleppo, told Syria Direct on Wednesday.
The destroyed walls and ramparts of the Aleppo citadel. Photos courtesy of Halab Today.
Since 2012, various incarnations of FSA and hardline Islamist rebels have tried to wrest the citadel from the regime, who has used the UNESCO World Heritage site as a military base since the beginning of the Syrian civil war.
As a result of this battle of attrition, “both the regime and the rebels are responsible for damage to the historical site” both in Aleppo and Syria writ large, Muhammad a-Shafai, a correspondent with pro-opposition Alsouria and a resident of the city, told Syria Direct on Wednesday.
The fact that Syrian regime forces are actively using the 12th-century stone structure as a modern-day fortress makes it more responsible for damage incurred to the site, the activist said.
“The regime carries the bigger responsibility given it has concentrated [its forces] inside the citadel.”
The citadel is located in the heart of Aleppo’s old city. Like the spokes of a wheel, all major roads run through the surrounding neighborhoods and end at the citadel mount.
From its ramparts, regime forces command a 360-degree view the surrounding neighborhoods from where any attack could be launched from the rebel- controlled neighborhoods to the east, northeast, and south. Regime snipers and artillery teams also use this high ground to rain down fire on the surrounding rebel positions and neighborhoods.
“Snipers are spread out along every part of the citadel to target residents,” said a-Shafai.
Meanwhile, the regime has resorted to using tunnels around the citadel in order to penetrate rebel-held areas, said a-Shafai, though the regime blames such tunnel explosions on “terrorist” groups.
Two weeks ago, a tunnel running form the citadel into a rebel-controlled neighborhood blew up, damaging part of the main entryway to the citadel, reported pro-opposition Aksalser on November 8.
It is a sad fate for a medieval fortress that staved off repeated Crusader assaults on Aleppo in the 12th century.
“Residents never expected a day would come when this citadel would become a source of death for them,” said a-Shafai.
Aleppo resident Huda Al-Halabi reiterated how the citadel, once a symbol of Syria’s culture and heritage is now “tantamount to a hell.”
“The regime has destroyed everything from stones to humans and nothing remains,” Hanaa al-Qassab, president of the Aleppo-based and Syrian Women’s Association and a resident of the city told Syria Direct Wednesday.