In Syria's Largest City, Fire Ravages Ancient Market

Curtain of dark smoke hanging over the center of Aleppo near the old city

Published on 8 October 2012

Author(s): The New York Times/ ANNE BARNARD and HWAIDA SAAD

Type:  News Originally published 29 September 2012

Fire swept through the old central souk, or marketplace, of Aleppo, Syria, on Saturday, damaging a vast and well-preserved labyrinth of medieval storehouses, shops, schools and ornate courtyards as fierce clashes between security forces and insurgents vowing to carry out a “decisive battle” for the city continued.

One video shot by antigovernment activists showed a curtain of dark smoke hanging over the center of Aleppo near the old city, a Unesco World Heritage site. Another showed intense, crackling orange flames engulfing heavy wooden doors in what appeared to be one of the market’s arched stone passageways. The activists said they believed that the fire, whose origins were unclear, had destroyed a large portion of the market’s shops overnight, though the claim could not be immediately verified.

For many residents, the old city, with the souk at its center, is the soul of Aleppo, one of the world’s oldest continuously inhabited cities and Syria’s largest. Aleppo has been staggering for months under a bloody battle that has reduced some residential areas to rubble, and with no deaths immediately reported from the blaze, the damage to the souk pales compared with the recent human toll.

Yet serious damage to an area that Syrians widely consider one of their greatest treasures is likely to stir anger at both sides — each of which blames the other for the destruction in the city — in a conflict that seems mired in stalemate. It could also make the rebels’ latest push in Aleppo backfire politically: Some opponents of President Bashar al-Assad were already incensed on Saturday at insurgents they said had operated conspicuously near the old city.

“Our hearts and minds have been burned in this fire,” said a doctor in Aleppo who gave her name only as Dima. “It’s not just a souk and shops, but it’s our soul, too.”

She said she supported peaceful resistance against Mr. Assad, and pronounced herself “annoyed, annoyed, annoyed” with fighters from the rebel Tawhid Brigade, which announced the offensive on Thursday. The fighters said they were seeking to “liberate” neighborhoods that had remained largely pro-government and were being used as posts from which to attack the opposition.

Syrian government soldiers patrolling in Aleppo on Saturday, where fighting with insurgent forces has been fierce in recent days..jpg
Syrian government soldiers patrolling in Aleppo on Saturday, where fighting with insurgent forces has been fierce in recent days (George Ourfalian/Reuters)

But in a Skype interview, Dima said the recent fighting cast doubt on both the rebel leaders’ tactical wisdom and their intentions. She called them “performers” who had needlessly provoked the government by posing for pictures outside the souk and the nearby 12th-century mosque — which she worried would now be shelled — and who “talked nonsense.”

“There is no decisive battle,” she said. “There are no liberated areas.”

Brig. Bashir al-Hajji, the commander of the Tawhid Brigade, said that the offensive had worked and that rebels were progressing toward the heart of Aleppo. Rebels and activists said the government had started the blaze by firing incendiary bullets.

Brigadier Hajji said he had visited the market area, where, he said in a Skype interview, “there’s anger, but anger against Bashar and his collaborators.” He added, “Everybody is angry, trying to save what can be saved from their shops.”

An antigovernment activist from Aleppo who studied historical sites while earning a bachelor’s degree in tourism said the rebels were repeating a mistake they had made in the province of Hama: They hid in the Madiq citadel, an ancient but still-inhabited hilltop fortress there, and government shelling severely damaged it.

“The rebels are not  appreciating the value  of  the  places  they are liberating,” said the activist, who gave his name as Abu Mihyo. He said it appeared the rebels were trying to penetrate the city center through the old city, following a hadith (a saying attributed to  the Prophet Muhammad) that destroying the Kaaba, Islam’s holiest site, is better than shedding a drop of Muslim blood.

“I agree,” he said, but added that the government would destroy anything to beat the rebels, and “we should keep our heritage.” The minaret of the 700-year-old Mahmandar Mosque in Aleppo’s old city had already been damaged by shelling in recent months, he said.

Unesco has said that four World Heritage sites have been damaged in Syria: the old city of Damascus, the ruins of Palmyra, the Crac des Chevaliers crusader castle, and the “forgotten villages” in the north. An estimated 30,000 people have been killed.

Aleppo’s old souk, much of it dating to the 17th century, is not only an important tourist destination but also a vibrant center of commerce and community, housing vendors of pastries, spices, antiques and crafts. In the sprawling old city, “madrasas, palaces, caravanserais and hammams all form part of the city’s cohesive, unique urban fabric,” the Unesco citation reads.

It was unclear how the fire began, but it came after the most intense fighting across the city in weeks. The government said rebels had attacked on a number of fronts in the city on Friday and had been pushed back with heavy casualties.

Activists said that antigovernment fighters had tried to put out the fire, but that it was difficult because of government snipers in the area, who activists have said set up positions in the city’s 13th-century citadel, which overlooks the souk. The souk’s wooden doors and stores of fabric and other flammable materials would have spread the blaze quickly.

The government news agency SANA did not immediately acknowledge the fire, but reported continuing clashes across Aleppo on Saturday, saying security forces “killed and wounded scores of terrorists,” its designation for its armed opponents.

Dima, the doctor, who lives on the western side of Aleppo, said she believed that the fire had been started by incendiary bullets from government snipers. But she blamed the rebels for approaching the old city, which she said had no government target, and said they seemed more concerned with the number of areas they could seize than with their tactical importance.

“They are not the army of freedom,” she said. “They are the army of spite.”

The claims by both sides could not immediately be verified because of government restrictions on reporting in Syria.

Armed insurgents also tried to enter Homs Province from Lebanon but were repelled by the army, which killed several and drove the rest back into Lebanon, SANA said.

In the southern province of Dara’a, where the uprising began, the Local Coordinating Committees, an activist network, said rebels had seized an air defense battalion on Saturday.

Kaysar Habib, an antigovernment activist reached by Skype in Dara’a, said fighters from the Free Syrian Army, the main umbrella group for the armed opposition, stormed an air defense battery in the town of al-Ghariya. After heavy fighting, he said, they took control of the battery, from which civilians and rebels had been fired on.

Hania Mourtada contributed reporting.

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