For thousands of years, the Syrian city of Aleppo has sat at the crossroad of the world’s great trade routes, connecting Asia, Mesopotamia, India and Europe. Persian silk and Indian spices made their way east to west on the Silk Road, while the city developed into an economic powerhouse of its own, producing textiles, soaps and dyes.
This thriving commerce gave birth to Aleppo’s labyrinthine warren of covered souks — marketplaces — that stretch some eight miles. But tragically, they have become one of the many casualties of Syria’s war, located on the front lines in this divided city.
On a reporting trip this month, photographer Lorenzo Tugnoli and I witnessed the damage firsthand.
At the limits of Aleppo’s ancient old city, Syrian army soldiers check our papers before allowing us in to the area — this is now a military zone. Tanks lurk at the corner of buildings, and crossing the wide road that leads down to the 11th-century Great Mosque of Aleppo, now inaccessible, requires a dash to avoid sniper fire.
As we enter the winding alleys of the souk, we see that bullet holes pockmark shutters and that stalls are filled with debris.
In 2012, fire swept through the vaulted passageways of many of these ancient markets, as rebels and the Syrian army battled for control.
There is little sign of life here except for the occasional group of soldiers and a single shop owner who has opened up to serve them coffee.
We make our way through Khan al-Khattin, past the flattened Belgian Consulate building. This is one of 19 souks in Aleppo that the United Nations assesses has been severely damaged, out of 45 examined through imagery. U.N. analysts believe that 11 others have been destroyed.
Some of these markets date to the 13th century. Until recently they were some of the best-preserved examples of their kind in the region. The covered bazaars and courtyards were peppered with mosques, synagogues and churches. In the winter, their vaulted ceilings would give refuge from the rain, while acting as natural air conditioning in the summer months.
They were more than just tourist attractions; they were living, thriving communities, part of the urban fabric and the heart of the city.
The striking black-and-white entrance to Khan al-Wazir, one of Aleppo’s most famed markets and once a center for the cotton trade, still stands, as does the 14th-century al-Sahibiyah mosque, which sits next to it in a cobbled courtyard. But the destruction is all around. Huge sheets of corrugated iron have been erected to stop the sniper fire, on top of a pile of debris in the street. The Khan al-Sabun, a market for soap, one of Aleppo’s most iconic products, is gutted.
Many stores are so damaged that it’s hard to make out what they once sold. In some, corpselike mannequins give a clue. “Candies and Toffees” reads one shop sign in English. It’s hard to imagine that five years ago, tourists wandered here.
The pathways narrow as they slope uphill towards the ancient citadel, now a base for the Syrian army. The 150-year-old Carlton Citadel Hotel nearby no longer exists. It was razed after the Islamic Front rebel group spent months digging tunnels underneath it, packing them with explosives and detonating them with devastating effect.
Aleppo, inhabited for at least 7,000 years, has been ransacked and ruined many times. The Byzantines and the Mongols had their go. But modern warfare takes a particularly devastating toll, and many of the treasures of this city, so steeped in history, are simply lost forever.