Beirut – Urgent action is needed to protect damaged buildings in the Old City of Aleppo, a UNESCO World Heritage Site, according to Syrian antiquities officials.
“What happened in Aleppo is a disaster,” Maamoun Abdulkarim, Syria’s Director General of Antiquities and Museums (DGAM) told Al Jazeera in a telephone interview from Damascus this week.
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“We have more than 150 heritage buildings with different levels of damage, without taking into account places like the ancient souk, 60 percent of which is destroyed … Many of the traditional houses, dating from around the first century AD, are also damaged.”
Syrian government forces took control of the city in early December, after four years of conflict between government forces and armed opposition groups. During the month since the fighting stopped, Abdulkarim’s team has been photographing the city’s ancient heritage sites and assessing the severity of the damage.
While many buildings remain mostly intact, some have suffered catastrophic damage.
“It’s very sad and it’s a very dramatic situation,” Abdulkarim said. “In Palmyra, if we have to wait years for peace to return, or because we don’t have funds, we can wait. But in Aleppo every new winter will be a further attack on the cultural sites. A lot of the buildings were built using traditional materials – not like the stones in Palmyra, which can wait three or four years, no problem. Aleppo is in danger.”
The war will end, the politics will change, but our heritage remains for all of us, for our descendants, and for us to share with the whole world.
Photographs show snow blanketing the damaged buildings, some of which have lost their roofs or collapsed almost entirely owing to the shelling.
“Syrians have a lot of needs at the moment; it’s not only their patrimony,” he said. “But the situation permits us to carry out preventative emergency work to secure the sites from the winter and the water. We can’t leave things the way they are because in a few years there will be more deterioration.”
Steps have already been taken to begin removing the rubble and debris from around two of Aleppo’s most famous landmarks, the citadel and the Umayyad Mosque.
Other sites await the results of DGAM’s survey.
“We’ve asked the mayor not to move any of the old stones. We have a team there gathering information about the damage, which they will present to us. We will start working in the most at-risk areas,” explained Abdulkarim.
The Aga Khan Foundation, which was involved in the restoration of Aleppo’s citadel in 2008, is participating in emergency discussions in Damascus and representatives of UNESCO are due to visit Syria next week to agree on emergency measures, Adbulkarim said. He added that a major restoration project cannot begin until the conflict in Syria ends.
“We need the Syrian people to come back to Syria, the people of Aleppo to come back to their houses. For real restoration we need peace, we need reconciliation and we need money,” Abdulkarim said.
The Aleppo citadel has suffered only minor damage, he revealed. The minaret of the Umayyad Mosque, which dates back to 1090, was destroyed by shelling in April 2013, but Abdulkarim believes restoration is possible.
“We had thought that the damage to the mosque would be much worse than what we saw when we visited it,” he said. “In general the damage is possible to repair, but we need to go back again in the future to collect the ancient stones from the minaret, make sure that they are protected, and prepare them according to the architectural plans,” he added.
“There are certain parts of the mosque where we need to intervene now, because it’s an emergency, but if we compare the Umayyad Mosque with the souk, the souk is a lot worse.”
Parts of Aleppo’s ancient souk date back to the 13th century, although most of it was built during the Ottoman era, between the 16th and the 19th centuries. Large areas of the souk were burnt down during fighting in September 2012.
“We have lost more than 60 percent of Aleppo’s ancient souk, which was either burned or blown up. It’s completely destroyed,” said Abdulkarim. “We will see if it’s possible to restore it … We need advice from all our international partners, our Syrian architects and engineers and other local partners … Figuring out the best strategy will take a lot of work.”
In July 2015, the DGAM removed 24,000 pieces from the National Museum of Aleppo, transporting them to Damascus to prevent looting or destruction. Although the DGAM is a government-owned agency, Abdulkarim, an archaeologist and professor at the University of Damascus, stresses that the work they are doing to save Syria’s heritage is non-partisan and non-political.
“The war will end, the politics will change, but our heritage remains for all of us, for our descendants, and for us to share with the whole world,” he said. “Syria’s patrimony can never be divided between different camps. It’s a shared heritage that belongs to every Syrian. If it is saved, it’s a victory for everyone. If it’s lost, it’s a loss for everyone. We have to work together to save it for our children.”
He added that the eventual restoration of the Old City would cost millions of dollars.
“The urban fabric of the Old City is intact and there are lots of buildings that aren’t too badly damaged, so in general we must stay hopeful,” he said.
“We will need a lot of money [for the restoration process] but Aleppo will survive … It won’t be the way it was before the war, that’s certain. But we will do the maximum we can to restore it.”