After years of fighting in Aleppo, much of Syria's largest city has been destroyed. Entire neighborhoods in the rebel-held east have been reduced to rubble by government airstrikes, with civilians forced to survive with limited food and medical supplies.
Now, as the battle for the city reaches its final stages, visitors are returning to the historical sites at the city's center — and taking selfies amid the ruins.
Photographs shot Saturday by Omar Sanadiki of Reuters show groups of visitors in Aleppo's ravaged Old City, once one of Syria's most lauded tourist spots.
In one photograph, a group of women is shown using a selfie stick outside the city's Citadel — a medieval and fortified palace that sits at the center of the Old City. The Citadel, occupied by government forces as a base when the fighting in Aleppo began, came under heavy fire from rebels in April 2013, badly damaging it.
In another image, a woman posed in a car outside the 150-year-old Carlton Citadel Hotel, which lies in ruins after the Islamic Front rebel group blew it up in 2013 with explosives placed in tunnels they had dug underneath. Other images show visitors at the Old City's Umayyad mosque, once one of the largest and oldest mosques in the city.
The mosque's famous minaret, built in 1090, was destroyed during fighting in 2013.
Until recently, the government had classified the Old City a military zone, with only troops, passing journalists and a handful of civilians allowed in. In early December, government forces were able to push the remaining rebels out. Now, in a mark of seeming normality, visitors are returning to the Old City.
“I was afraid to come, but they encouraged me and brought me here,” one woman told a reporter with Euronews.
For the government, the sight of photograph-taking tourists anywhere in Syria is welcome.
Before the war, Syria was renowned not only for its UNESCO World Heritage sites such as Aleppo's Old City but also for its beaches, food and Arabic schools, which attracted visitors from all over the world. About 8.5 million tourists came to the country in 2011, according to the Tourism Ministry, with the industry contributing about 13.5 percent of Syria's gross domestic product that year.
However, those numbers have plunged dramatically since the war started. In 2014, officials said that about 400,000 tourists had visited the country, mostly for religious reasons, though analysts estimated that the real number could be lower. In an apparent bid to reverse this trend, the Tourism Ministry has been releasing videos that ignore the war and advertise Syria as a fun, happy place for a vacation.
Although it seems unlikely that foreign visitors will return anytime soon, the government has been at pains to present itself as the protector of Syria's considerable cultural heritage. It has announced plans to restore its most important historical sites, including Aleppo's Citadel.
But the Old City isn't just a place of history — it was also a neighborhood where people lived. Locals bought food or other goods in souks that have existed for centuries, and they worshiped in the area's mosques, churches and synagogues. Aleppo's long history as a silk-road trading spot and its time under Turkish, French and British colonial rule had helped make it a commercial hub that was both diverse and tolerant.
For those residents now returning, Aleppo's Old City may be hard to recognize — and it's hard to imagine how its communities can be rebuilt.
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