Aleppo’s landmark mosque bears scars of Syria’s war

Sunday 29/01/2017
People visit the courtyard of the heavily damaged Great Mosque of Aleppo, overshadowed by a 13th-century citadel, in the Old City of Aleppo, on January 19th. (AP)

Aleppo - The Great Mosque of Alep­po, a centuries-old treas­ure at the heart of one of the world’s oldest cities, is today a grim testament to the ravages of Syria’s war.

The doors have been blasted away, the walls have been shred­ded by gunfire and shrapnel and the minaret where the Muslim call to prayer sounded for 900 years has been toppled and shattered. The wooden pulpit, along with ancient manuscripts from a nearby library, has been carted off by looters.

Syrians are only now able to sur­vey the damage wrought by more than four years of war. Rebels from the countryside poured into Aleppo in the summer of 2012, capturing eastern districts and transforming the Old City into the front lines of a war of attrition with forces loyal to Syrian President Bashar Assad.

The rebels surrendered in De­cember after a massive government offensive and were evacuated to other areas, allowing Assad to re­gain control of the country’s largest city.

The red carpets inside the mosque are covered in debris and damaged copper chandeliers hang from the ceiling. An extensive net­work of sandbags placed by the rebels snakes throughout the com­pound.

Also known as the Umayyad mosque, the site was reopened in 2006 after a 20-year renova­tion project. Aleppo’s Old City, a UNESCO World Heritage Site, also boasts a 13th-century citadel, a sprawling bazaar and several other monuments, nearly all of which have been damaged or destroyed.

Before the rebels stormed the city, the state built a cement wall inside the mosque to secure a tomb believed to hold the remains of the Prophet Zakariya, but an ornate wooden pulpit modelled on the one in Jerusalem’s al-Aqsa mosque was pillaged.

Sheikh Abdul-Qader Shehabi, a senior Muslim cleric who spent years studying and working in the Umayyad mosque, said 70,000 books were stolen from a nearby library. Among those works was a copy of the Quran transcribed in the Middle Ages, which he says was smuggled out and sold in Turkey for $250,000.

Khaled al-Masri, director of mu­seums and antiquities in Aleppo, downplayed the extent of the de­struction, saying the mosque could be repaired within a year and the minaret could be rebuilt in three. “The damage is simple and we can return the Umayyad mosque to how it was,” he said.

But the war is raging elsewhere in the country and even if the cash-strapped government prevails, it will confront a massive reconstruc­tion challenge, not only in Aleppo but in other cities and towns.

“This mosque used to be a jewel,” said Fateh Abdullah Nahhal, a gro­cer who recently took his children to the site for the first time in five years. “All we can say is for God to help us punish those who did this.”

(The Associated Press)