Mon 22 Apr 2013
The civil war in Syria, which began in March 2011, has now gone on for so long that it has ceased to be news. As the opposition struggle against the Assad regime has stretched over weeks, then months, then years, the conflict has migrated from the front to the back pages of western newspapers. In the age of the 24 hour news cycle, we like our revolutions fast. We appear to have little patience for this sort of drawn out affair. Only when something truly terrible happens do we take notice. If then.
Last week, for instance, a truce was called in Aleppo to allow for the collection of rotting corpses. Red Crescent workers and members of an opposition council drove into the Al-Sakhour district to pick up bodies, many of which had been decomposing for months. The majority of the dead were children. At a time when the Boston Marathon bombing is grabbing all the headlines, it is worth remembering that things like this are still happening on a regular basis in Syria.
The battle for Aleppo, in particular, has produced tragedy on a truly horrific scale, with over ten thousand dead – over half of them civilians – some 4,500 people missing, a million having fled, and most of those who remain in need of humanitarian assistance. The battle has raged for nearly a year since 19 July 2012, when rebel forced stormed the city. It has featured some 7,000 rebels battling the Assad regime’s army of 10,000. After initially capturing several districts and pressing close to the Old City at the heart of Aleppo, the rebels were driven back. What followed over the next months was a continual cycle of rebel offensives met with government shelling. Initially, the government had the upper hand, but gradually, the rebels expanded their toehold in the city, winning a few more neighbourhoods with each cycle of violence. Eventually, they managed to seize the southwest Aleppo and the towns to the city’s south, thereby cutting the government forces off from reinforcements coming from Damascus. The battle has become a siege.
And in this siege, there are no heroes. Government shelling of neighbourhoods controlled by rebel forces has killed thousands of civilians. Bodies of men and children executed by the military have been found dumped in the Quweiq River, which flows through the city. The rebels, meanwhile, have resorted to car and suicide bombs during lulls in the fighting. They, too, have killed countless civilians. They have undertaken widespread looting to supply themselves. And by taking shelter in civilian homes – often against the will of the civilians, the majority of whom support the government forces – they have contributed to the shelling of innocents. The ones who suffer the most from all of this are the people of Aleppo. The city has become cut off from the outside world. Many of its people are starving. There are reports that soldiers on both sides of the conflict, as well as some civilians, are taking advantage of the chaos to commit rape on a large scale.
All of this horror can numb us to the point where we just want to look away. I cannot. I have watched the battle for Aleppo from afar with grim fascination, because I have spent much of the last three years writing about Syria and the Holy Land in the age of Saladin. In my Saladin Trilogy I chronicled Saladin’s sieges of Aleppo. Now, the past seems to be intruding on the present. The current battle for the city even started in the Salaheddine district. Much of the fighting has centred on the Old City, which the rebels have repeatedly tried to capture. It is this city – which dates from Greek times – that I have described and written about repeatedly in my novels. Now it is being destroyed before our very eyes.
It can be hard for people unfamiliar with the Middle East to understand the significance of this. Aleppo (or Halab in Arabic) is no sleepy hamlet or backwater town. It is one of the great historic cities of the world, with a current population of over two million. At the heart of it lies the Old City, which was at one time encircled by a wall, much like central Paris or London. So imagine open warfare breaking out on the streets of London or Paris and you will have some idea of what is happening in Aleppo today. The Umayyad Mosque which sits at the heart of the Old City is older than the Tower of London, Notre Dame, or the Leaning Tower of Pisa. Also known as the Great Mosque of Aleppo, it has influenced the construction of mosques throughout the world. Now, this symbolic structure has become the focus of fighting between opposition and government forces. The rebels have blown holes in its walls to gain entrance. They destroyed its northern gate. And at one point, the government appears to have set fire to the great structure before retreating. The mosque has not suffered his level of damage since it was largely destroyed in the great earthquake of 1138. Imagine armed men battling for control of Saint Paul’s Cathedral, and you’ll have an idea of what this means in Syria.
The rest of the Old City has not escaped the carnage. In August, shortly after the rebels attacked the city, the great citadel at its heart came under attack. One of the oldest castles in the world, the citadel sits on a mound of white rock that rises above the city. The mound has been fortified since the days when the Greeks controlled Aleppo. It was manned by the Romans and the Byzantines, who build churches atop the mound that stand today. In Saladin’s time, a mighty gatehouse into the citadel was built, and the imposing walls, which rise directly from the stone slope of the mound, were reinforced. The citadel had not come under attack since 1401, when Tamerlane took Aleppo. Now, it has returned to its original function. The great gatehouse build by Nur ad-Din is pockmarked from bullets, and crumbled stone is piled in the entryway.
The citadel, however, was built to withstand attack, and it has stood up surprisingly well to modern arms. The souqs of the city have not. These covered markets are what made Aleppo famous in medieval days and beyond, when the city was the chief entrepôt for eastern goods entering the West. They still are – or rather were – the glory of the city. The souqs – much like the more famous covered markets of Istanbul – consist of streets that have been roofed over with stone. Each street or neighbourhood specializes in a certain good. As the pictures below make clear, they are largely in ruins now.
The tragedy in Aleppo is thus a double one. The human suffering is first and foremost, as it should be. But alongside it is the destruction of one of the world’s great cities. The past that I write about – the past of Saladin and the Crusades – is special in many ways, one of which is that it has remained mostly intact in Syria. Until recently, the citadel, Great Mosque, and souqs of Aleppo appeared much the same as they did in Saladin’s day. One could in a sense step directly into the past. Now, that past is being destroyed piece by piece, as the bloody conflicts that defined the city’s past recur in the present. When writing about Saladin’s sieges of the city – about the suffering of the people cut off from outside supplies and help – I never dreamed I would live to such a thing played out again. It is with great sadness that I have.