In the midst of Syria’s civil war, more is being lost than lives. Aleppo may be the world’s oldest continuously occupied city, dating to the era of the pyramids, and at the height of the Ottoman Empire, it was the world’s largest metropolis after Istanbul and Cairo. That antiquity, wealth and diversity left behind magnificent mosques with Mameluke minarets, Ottoman-style bathhouses, and neoclassical columns and balustrades overlooking traditional courtyards tiled with marble and splashed by fountains. But Aleppo’s legacy extends beyond historic buildings. The city welcomed people of many faiths and traditions, while its old rival Damascus, a holy city and a gateway to Mecca, was long out of bounds for Westerners. Muslims, Christians and Jews created Syria’s commercial hub and one of the most tolerant, long-lasting and prosperous communities in the Middle East. “What was sold in the souks of Cairo in a month was sold in Aleppo in a day,” Madame Poche said, quoting a Syrian adage.
As we sipped coffee the week that the civil war began, this refined, prosperous world was already long in decline. “The situation is deplorable,” Madame Poche said in French-accented English, looking with disdain at the crates of cheap Chinese shoes filling the courtyard. Neighborhood merchants complained that the local textile mills had shut down, forcing them to replenish their stock with inferior cloth from Dubai. Despite Aleppo’s status as a World Heritage Site, many old buildings were in serious disrepair. And the once-vibrant Jewish community had vanished.
Since my first visit to Aleppo two decades ago, a coalition of entrepreneurs, city planners and foreign experts began the formidable task of rescuing and restoring one of the cultural and architectural jewels of the Middle East. Last year I walked along the new promenade surrounding the moated and massive ancient citadel. I stayed at one of the bed-and-breakfasts that had sprung up amid the warrens of covered markets to cater to foreign tourists, and I visited a recently uncovered 4,500-year-old temple. At an art gallery, I chatted with a photographer who helped organize an edgy international arts festival — an event unthinkable in dour Damascus.
The growing recognition of Aleppo’s importance in Middle Eastern history and culture makes the burning of the old city all the more tragic. In recent online videos, flames crackle in the closely packed alleys of the covered bazaar, smoke billows from a medieval caravansary, and an armed fighter gestures at the collapsed dome of a 19th-century mosque. Reportedly, more than 500 shops in the 71
2 miles of streets within the region’s largest marketplace have been damaged. The minaret of a 14th-century school is now only a stump. The entrance of the medieval citadel is cratered, and the fortress’s huge wooden gates are gone. A car bomb last week blew out the windows of the Aleppo Museum, one of the world’s best collections of Near Eastern artifacts.