'It Is Our Soul': The Destruction of Aleppo, Syria's Oldest City

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A UNESCO World Heritage site is turned to rubble.

RTR38QI7-615.jpgMen walk on a road amid wreckage after blasts ripped through Aleppo's main Saadallah al-Jabari Square. (Stringer/Reuters)

Parts of Aleppo's historic souk, or marketplace, have been burnt to the ground. The storied Sissi House, one of the region's finest restaurants and famous for its tasty cherry lamb kebabs, has reportedly burnt down. Dar Zamaria, part of a wave of chic boutique hotels being carved out of Ottoman merchant houses (and which I reviewed for the New York Times in 2009), has also reportedly been destroyed. We are witnessing a sectarian civil war, and the dreadful human carnage that comes with it. We may also be witnessing the destruction of a way of life that's evolved over centuries around one of the Arab world's architectural treasures.

If the West is not going to intervene in Syria, it should at least do more to prevent this UNESCO-protected site -- a city that lays claim to being among the world's oldest -- from becoming a 21st-century version of Dresden.

Aleppo is arguably the most enchanting city in the Middle East. Awash in mosques and minarets, the city is also stuffed with Armenian churches, Maronite cathedrals, and even a synagogue, a consequence of its unique position at the crossroads of Ottoman, French, and Jewish influences. Its maze-like souk and massive citadel on a hill are remarkable enough. But throw in hospitable people, trendy rooftop restaurants whose waiters sneak alcohol in teacups to Westerners with a wink and a nod, and the welcoming aroma of underground shops lined with tasty sweets and pistachio nuts, and Aleppo would seem to be custom-built for vacationers seeking a relaxing setting to kick back and nibble on mezze (appetizers).

I traveled to Aleppo, or Haleb as it is known in Arabic, during the holy month of Ramadan back in 2009. Turkey had just opened its borders so that its merchants could cross the nearby border visa-free. And the United States was making overtures toward the Assad regime to repair its sour relations. It was muggy when I visited. But a calm in regional tensions meant that several thousand Westerners began pouring into the city's famed labyrinthine souk to snap up olive soaps, to peruse its gardens, and to bathe in the local hammam, or bath house. I remember the patio of the city's famous, if slightly musty, Baron Hotel, where Agatha Christie once resided, was crammed with loud Europeans smoking late into the night. Across town in Al-Aziziah, Syrian students huddled in front of large screens to watch bad soap operas, smoke water pipes, and sing karaoke.

Like Prague in the early 1990s, Aleppo felt like it was on the verge of discovery, an idyllic (and safe) place for Westerners to sample the best of Arab culture and cuisine. Expatriates would revel in Al Jdeida, an Armenian district of quiet squares and quaint restaurants. This part of the Old City holds a kind of mythical draw for outsiders. Its tangle of narrow cobblestone streets and tucked-away courtyards full of jasmine and citrus trees are a pleasure to peruse; the inlaid wooden doors of its storefronts as ornately carved as the back of a backgammon board. But you can also find austere modernist high rises and wide Soviet-style boulevards (a towering Sheraton hotel in the middle of town looks like it was lifted from Moscow). Perhaps this is what drew a wayward Muhammad Atta, the 9/11 hijacker, to write his thesis on preserving Aleppo's Old City. When I was there, I met with a team of prim German urban planners hired by the city to make Aleppo's districts more livable, less congested, and less ugly.

Aleppo's cultural treasures, including its Grand Mosque and centuries-old souk, are in danger of being permanently damaged by war. The city of Hama just to the south, famous for its wooden waterwheels and aqueducts, was flattened when government forces massacred tens of thousands in 1982. Bashar al-Assad's father, Hafez, then purposefully left open the main highway that ran through Hama so that everyday Syrians could see the devastation wrought on the city and be cowed into docility. The current government has done much the same, stepping up its use of indiscriminate attacks against civilian targets in urban areas. Authorities appear prepared to turn Syria's commercial hub into rubble to root out rebels hiding in its souk.

The loss of Aleppo's historic edifices fills residents with as much grief as any human casualty. "It is our soul," a local doctor told The New York Times.

Aleppo is surrounded by sweeping plains dotted with olive groves and "dead cities," abandoned ruins from the Byzantine age. They serve as vivid reminders of what happens to once-prosperous trading centers left abandoned. The international community owes it to Syrians to defend UNESCO-protected sites like this one. Syria does not need any more dead cities.

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Lionel Beehner is a PhD student at Yale University and former staff writer at CFR.org, the website of the Council on Foreign Relations.

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