friends have told us that there is only one Eastern city with genuine
ancient architecture, namely the Old City in Damascus. The ancient
Baghdad was the first to be destroyed, then came the turn of the
ancient Aleppo. Ironically, UNESCO listed the Old Aleppo with its
14-16th century buildings as a World Heritage site in 1986. Some
Western organizations were helping the Syrian government incorporate
these medieval quarters into a modern megapolis, while others would
help those who launched a bloody war with the use of artillery in
this open air museum.
rumors that “russkies” are going to see the Old City preceded us
at light speed, moving from outpost to outpost, from receiver to
receiver. Adhering the pre-war tourist guide which we acquired at the
hotel, we make our first stop at the Bab Al-Faraj square, next to the
clock tower built by an Austrian architect in late 19th century. The
magnificent colonial-style houses lining the square are all riddled
with shrapnel. Pieces of plastic sheeting with UN markings are flying
from some balconies. They serve a dual purpose. Snipers can’t see
light coming from inside of the apartment, and strangers can’t look
at women who live there. Streets radiate in all directions from the
square. They stretch all the way to the horizon, though it’s not
recommended to stand in the middle of them. It’s better to press
one’s body against the wall.
ask a militiaman:
the last shelling long ago?
long ago–he replies without any bravado or posturing. It’s been
two days since we got mortar fire.
clock tower is open, which is unheard of. We enter through a low door
and stumble over a pile of unexploded 120mm mortar bombs. The
homemade bombs often fail to explode. Some are painted a cheerful
bright blue color, the same that’s used to paint fences, others are
rusty-red. Any fired but unexploded munition is potentially
dangerous, and military instructions recommend such munitions should
be destroyed on the spot by detonation. But Aleppo has given sappers
plenty of other things to worry about.
climb a narrow spiral staircase, instinctively expecting shouts of
“Forbidden!” or “Buy tickets!” But instead we see an elderly
militiaman join us as we indulge in taking photos of the shattered
city quarters. He pushes us away from the windows and toward dark
corners, explaining his actions with easily understood gestures: two
fingers pointing toward the eyes, and then toward the shattered
window. He bends the index finger and says “Bakh!” The top of the
tower and the window frames are all pock-marked with bullets, with
stained glass crackling under out feet.
first and relatively new quarters of the Old City are totally covered
by Syrian state symbols. For a number of reasons. First of all,
that’s how one demonstrates loyalty to Syria. Secondly, during
fighting in these crazy labyrinths whose twists and turns demolish
everything we have learned about geometry, they made it easier to
establish one’s location. It’s immediately obvious which
side of the front line you are on. We’re advised not to go further
on our own. We await our guide. In the meantime we photograph signs
in Russian, and there are many of them: “Underwear”, “Shoe
repair”… A shrapnel-damaged Pegasus stands still in a building
without a roof, ancient arcs, tall and airy and covered with polished
yellowish marble are poking out from under collapsed stuccoes. The
ancient arcs have survived, while the comparably modern roofs and
stuccoes have not…
next to the Pegasus there’s an inside-out gas cylinder with welded
tail-fins. This is the militants’ favorite munition which has
terrific destructive power and almost no accuracy whatsoever. These
cylinders are launched from worn out tank gun barrels or improvised
mountings in the enemy’s general direction. But for the people who
started a war in a museum that makes no difference, what’s more, in
accordance with their world view all of these works of art must be
destroyed because they are examples of forbidden paganism.
guide turns out to be a girl from the militia. She’s named Roza,
last name Asad, she’s from Latakia and has been fighting here for
three years. Roza is a sapper and has the local labyrinths memorized.
Soldiers stationed at the city block where we were biding our time
tell Roza with total seriousness, without smiling:
these are Russians, our brothers! Keep them safe!
during our trip Roza would tell us when we needed to hung the walls
and where to bend down and run. When we were 30 meters from the
militants and when only 10…
stop for a few seconds on Aleppo’s most beautiful square, the Seven
Fountains Square. Then we dive behind the anti-sniper sheets and
shields. A pack of purebred feral cats scatters from under our feet.
We are struck by waves of smells of urban warfare. The centuries-old
stucco cracked by bullets smells like an old, dusty library and
disheveled old women. But the main components of this complex aroma
are smokeless gunpowder and human waste.
city which is no more
dives into an obscure alley in which a young donkey could not pass a
starved dervish. We find ourselves among the endless rows of an
ancient Eastern bazaar. The booths were either burned down to cinders
or looted clean. The pile of mannequins resembles a morgue after a
natural catastrophe. Some of the mannequins are dressed and their
sight alone makes one nauseous–one can almost smell the corpses.
The market is completely burned out, all that remains are the walls
and soot as thick as a finger…In one of the Aleppo-Suk, Aleppo
bazaar corridors, Roza brings me to a tiny barred window. Behind it
is a tomb covered with green, gold-embroidered rugs. The marble
sarcophagus contains the remains of a Muslim holy man whose name
translates as Burning Ember. A mystical coincidence. Roza quietly
here burned for a week. The gallery was under fire, the militants
tried to use it to get into the city. Even the sandbags at the
machine-gun next were melting from the heat. But the tomb was
untouched, even though sparks were flying here like tracer bullets.
follow Roza out of this tunnel into the light, toward the Citadel.
This is the city’s heart, which began to beat in the 10th century.
The Old City appeared only in the 14th. We sit behind a barricade
made of sand, rocks, refrigerators, and baroque-style chairs and look
at the fortress. Judging by the reflections from binoculars, the
fortress is looking at us. It still contains a garrison of soldiers
and militamen. It is supplied using a system of ancient and modern
underground passages. One of them begins right at our feet. There’s
nothing around except an endless field of concrete and stone piles as
far as the eye can see.
says that the Citadel saved the city. If it fell, Aleppo would have
had to be abandoned. Since it occupies a commanding height, it can
dominate all major streets with fire. But the fortress held out, and
now it is definitely not going to fall. Everything has changed.
silence which has been surrounding us for three hours is the main
confirmation of what our uniformed guide told us. The militants no
longer have the means, the forces, to attack. Their supply routes
have been cut. Everyone is waiting for the end. A happy end.
return by ancient alleys. Destroyed mosques, shattered ancient
facades, the helplessly hanging carved balconies. The Old City which
survived a dozen wars over the centuries does not have a single
undamaged building left. And here’s an interesting detail, which
speaks volumes: at every checkpoint, soldiers were trying to clean up
in the midst of this hopeless chaos