The Furies have not been kind to Aleppo’s Great Mosque and Souq. In 1,300 years of history, their columns and colonnades have been consumed by fire, destroyed by earthquake, levelled by the Mongols.
Little in recent times, though, has matched the senselessness of their current fate. Caught on the front line of war, they stand scorched and ash-covered, holed by mortar and tank fire.
The Daily Telegraph this week was the first news organisation to be shown the full extent of the damage to the Souq since the fighting set it alight and burned its insides to smithereens.
The Great Mosque opposite, built in 715AD by the Umayyad caliphs, has been behind regime lines except for two days in rebel hands; but its suffering too is visible on YouTube videos and in the words of those who were there when it became a battleground.
“I used a bucket of water myself to put out the flames,” said Mohammed Khalil, a witness to the fire in the magnificent prayer hall. “It was already burning when we got in. The library burned – there were many old books inside.
“Then the regime attacked with a tank and mortars. Shells came through and landed inside.”
Aleppo’s medieval fabric, its miles of winding markets and 1,000-year-old mosques, Koran schools and merchant houses with overhanging balconies of wood and iron latticework, is being dismantled.
The rebels seized half of Aleppo, including parts of the Old City, in July. For weeks, they were held at bay by troops in the Citadel which, as intended by Aleppo’s first inhabitants thousands of years ago, acts as a natural raised vantage point.
But they were able to make strategic thrusts, and a month ago surged west into the oldest part of the city around the Mosque. It was during this fighting that the Souq caught light, flames roaring through the fabrics and spices, the silver and gold shops that were one of Syria’s biggest tourist draws, down the miles of arched shop fronts, stripping them of their wooden panelling to the stone and brickwork beneath.
Both sides blame each other. The rebels also claim it was a regime tank that punched man-sized holes through the walls of the haberdashery market; ash eddies in the shafts of sunlight now beaming in.
Certainly, the walls were broken inwards. The once packed streets stand empty, apart from rebel soldiers. Incongruously, they have set up video cameras along the snipers’ alley alongside the mosque, monitoring their enemy’s movements on television sets in the safety of the covered arcades. One screen shows what they said was a shell-hole in the Mosque’s wall.
A lone fabric shop was somehow saved. Gaudy sequinned rolls in purple and pink hung from the front. Nearby, the yard in front of the Khan al-Sabun – the caravanserai of the soap-makers – was occupied by a mannequin, her modesty preserved by a rebel’s military tunic. Even a war-emptied Souq is a conservative place.
The16th-century Khan itself, built by the Mameluks and one of Aleppo’s most finely decorated, has bullet-holes in the walls, its windows blasted out.
The souk is not beyond restoration. When that will be is less clear.
Ali Abu Assad, a snack-seller, had come to retrieve a grill from his shop in the meat-sellers’ quarter, destroyed after 120 years in his family, he said.
He was now reduced to a stall selling kebabs in the street, “under the rain and cold”. “Thanks a lot to Bashar for all this,” he added, sarcastically.
All this district is a Unesco-designated world heritage site. Pictures from inside the Mosque’s great courtyard, overlooked by its 11th Century minaret, show first the flames licking out and then the blackened pediments left behind.
Inside, the 15th Century mimbar, or pulpit, was razed. Another picture shows a soldier under a smashed chandelier, next to an ancient pillar riddled with gunfire.
Mr Khalil says the fire was started deliberately by regime soldiers as they retreated, as retaliation. The government denies this. Its troops later seized it back, making independent assessment difficult: one expert sent in by the government was himself shot dead by a rebel sniper, according to state media.
In any case, Mr Khalil is no innocent bystander. He is manning a sniper point in the Khan al-Khaish, once a caravanserai for the bag-making trade but now – or at least until the summer – a clothes shop. A mirror on a clothes-rail juts out of his stone casement window, giving a view down the street to a similar regime point ten yards away. The shop’s interior is gashed by a lucky grenade throw from a regime soldier.
From the storey above, shots snap out over the nearby 13th Century Madrassa Halawiyya.
Mr Khalil shook his head but also reflected that unlike the men on either side who had been killed these wonders would yet live to see another day.
“It is very bad and very sad,” he said. “But we can rebuild it, after the revolution is over.” Unesco has called on both sides to spare these “monuments to human history”. It seems neither is listening.