Consistently in modern conflicts, the great monuments of antiquity become collateral damage once shots are fired. In losing historic sites we lose our link to the past and the most direct records of our heritage. History has always been one of the first victims of the collateral damage that war brings. In the Napoleonic Wars, the old city of Moscow burned almost in its entirety, engulfing the centuries old Muscovite city and all its history. Over a century later the world witnessed the grim truth that war can quickly erase our most treasured sites, from the Blitz in London to the destruction of Hiroshima. War has damaged historic sites since the dawn of war, but it wasn’t until the modern era that the destruction became so total, and so easily achieved.
In the past months Aleppo has become the focal point for both sides, each hoping to turn the tide in this once grand city, now ravaged by civil war. It is of strategic importance to both sides, and should either side gain the upper hand and force the other out, it will be counted as a victory of utmost significance. As a movement of the people, controlling the most populous city in Syria is vital for the Free Syrian Army and indeed Aleppo is represented on their flag by one of the red stars, each representing a major part of Syria.
One of the oldest continuously inhabited cities in the world, with estimates dating from between the third and sixth millennium BC, Aleppo encompasses the history of the Middle East in its entirety. From the first Neolithic settlements, to medieval mosques, walls and souks, Aleppo tells the story of the people of the Middle East from the beginning until now. Though as the Syrian Civil War rages on, rebels launched an attack into the Old City, attacking the area in hopes of tactical gains at the cost of the soul of Syria’s past.
The 14th century medieval souk damaged in the fighting has become the center of attention during the battle of Aleppo as this priceless UNESCO World Heritage site burns away, destroying the wooden structures and leaving the great stone rooms vulnerable and weak. In a telephone call to the Associated Press, UNESCO director Kishore Rao said, “It’s a big loss and a tragedy that the old city has now been affected,” later going on to comment on the fact that many other sites, all over Syria, are believed to be damaged by the fighting against the Assad regime.
There may be hope of preservation of some of the souk, but there remains little doubt that this once bustling destination will be just a shadow of what it once was. As the smoke rises and the ash settles we must reflect upon what we have lost in this site, as an open air market, the souk touts little significance in the political spectrum, but is of great significance to the very lifeblood of the Middle East: trade. Souks represent what Syria was for many centuries, the gateway to the East and the bustling center of business, culture, and thought. The souk carried on much as it did in the 1300’s, displaying fine silks and spices, and gathering great minds for talk and exchange. Even though the structure may be damaged, the culture will carry on the tradition and the traditional markets of the Levant will resume just as they have for millennia.
Some of the most destructive losses of Syria’s historic treasures are the result of looting, which has been a major issue whenever conflict breaks out in the Middle East and priceless artifacts are left unguarded. In Egypt, Iraq, Afghanistan and now Syria, history has been destroyed not only by tank shells and fire, but by the bare hands of thieves. As the war rages on we must appreciate what we have, and treasure what remains when the smoke has cleared, preserving the story for ourselves and for future generations, that we might remember who we once were and what was most important to us.
Darrell Rivers is a member of the North American Vexillological Association, a former intern at the Iraqi Cultural Attache in Washington, DC and is a writer for 361Security and HistoricInsights.blogspot.com