Please note that part three of my documentation of cultural heritage was posted in April, 2013, which means that damage since last April until the present day is awaiting documentation.
I have been delaying writing about Aleppo because it means pain revisited, agony relived and scenes of devastation and human loss reenacted. Something about Aleppo stops my heart when I go through the images of annihilation that depict the gradual death of a great city. I do not know exactly how many people died in Aleppo and how many fled with bare nothing to start lives of wandering and displacement. To tell you the truth, I am afraid to know. Too much reality destroys the mind. I do not have that kind of spiritual strength, the strength that can bear witness to the death, the fall from living, the waning, call it whatever you want to call it, of a great immortal city for there has always been an Aleppo starting from the 6th millennium BC to the present day.
I am pulled in several directions :part of me wants to write a personal invocation, an elegy for a dying city and another part wants the researcher in me to document the terrible damage inflicted on the monuments of Aleppo in the context of a historical background, while the artist in me wills me to show in images what was and what has become. To satisfy all three, I am going to start with my invocation, then the documentation and lastly concentrate more fully on the images.
While I am writing now, it so happens that the music of Eric Sati is playing in the background and pouring melancholy strains that sear my soul as it wanders through the scorched allies of the once wondrous Al-Madina Souk. You might ask how I can mourn a city I have never visited or seen except when I was 12 years old on a school trip? I only seem to remember a beautiful park called Al-Sabil. But I can and that makes my grief more poignant. I grieve for what I shall never see or contemplate. I who have dedicated most of my life and art to Arab Islamic art know what it means to lose Old Aleppo to fire, to relentless devastating bombardment and reckless foolish illiterate sacrilegious ignorance.
In the year 1184, Ibn jubayr the Andalusian famous Arab traveller visited Aleppo and was awe=struck by its beauty:
“The city is as old as eternity, but still young, and it has never ceased to exist. Its days and nights have been long; it has survived its rulers and commoners. These are its houses and dwellings, but where are their former residents and the people who visited them? These are its palaces and chambers of court, but where are the Hamdanid princes and their poets? They have all passed away, but the city is still here. City of wonders! It endures. Its kings fall; they disappear, but its destruction has not been ordered”. He continues to say:
Aleppo, may God protect it, is a great renowned city…worthy of special veneration…It has a castle which the tongue cannot express how magnificent and impregnable it is…Its souks are large and spacious and connected together in rows which house all kinds of urban crafts. The souks are all roofed and the shops are furnished with display cases created of well-wrought wood. The souks are all connected to the Great mosque, each through one of its gates. The Mosque itself is one of the most beautiful and splendid mosques. It has a vast courtyard where water is obtained by two wells. ..I have never seen a minbar( pulpit) as wondrous and handsomely shaped as its pulpit, the intricate craftsmanship of which is also displayed in the mihrab ( nich, alter)which rises like a lofty throne crowned with a muqarnas wooden arch. They are all inlaid with ivory and ebony meticulously crafted …in a unique and marvelous fashion that delights the eye….
Ibn Batuta visiting Aleppo in the 14th century displays the same fascination describing it as unique and matchless among the cities of the world. He in turn praises the Great Mosque and expresses his admiration to its courtyard and its wondrous pulpit. He also mentions four madrasas (theologian university and a bemarestan( hospital).
I shall never walk through the meandering winding, rambling alleys, stopping suddenly to catch a glimpse of an ornate gate opening to a courtyard redolent with the perfume of jasmine, showing glimpses of carved friezes and lentils, hanging over windows or nodding under arches. I shall never see the lofty facades of the famous Khans, caravansaries, which welcomed guests from China, India and Central Asia after they have crossed all the stations along the Silk Road, and which also greeted guests by sea and land, arriving from Venice and Europe. Nor shall I stand at the gates of the Madina great souk then stroll inside to explore it, the smell of spices and perfumes wafting over me, the light pouring from above through windows cut in the stone structure, painting in will-of-the-wisp shafts, illusive kaleidoscopic intimations of other bygone times. Aleppo, if I cannot see you, I shall conjure you invoking your glory, summoning your lingering luminous shadows hidden in the corners and crevices of your unique architectural marvels luring me into the before, into a lost kingdom of arches and arcades, into vanishing beauty wrought in wood, stone, plaster, glass, tiles and marble. I am gazing now at your marvelous vaulted souks, endlessly opening into each other in a maze of alleyways and passages, leading to a world of silks, textiles, carpets, spices, gold and all kinds of crafts displaying the craftsmanship of the the wood carvers, the metal engravers and inlayers, the weavers, the book sellers, the antique dealers sitting on their treasures, the cloak makers, the goldsmiths, the coppersmiths, the plaster workers, the ropers and a lot more. The cross vaults rise majestically above me then flow downward making one feel as if walking through a cathedral but soon the hustle and bustle of humanity shatter the illusion drawing one into the colorful crowds.
The great Omayyad Mosque rises regally in its golden simplicity, peacefully summoning the soul to dwell under its arcades and fly over its marvelous patterned vast courtyard displaying elegant stone and marble geometric inlaid decoration.There is something about the Great Mosque’s aesthetic appeal, fraught with clear- cur effortless grace, that inspire in the mind architectural statements of austere yet warm beauty. The minaret, as tall as a building of six floors, dwells in the blue of the skies, its carved inscriptions and trifoil or polyfoil arches resting on elegant pilasters
Not far from Aleppo, stretch the hills where human beings first domesticated wild grasses. “All the wheat we eat originates from those plants and the first farmers. Once those hunter gatherers settled, they set in motion developments that led to towns and then markets.” In Aleppo, since time immemorial, met and congregated peoples of different races and cultures and rulers of diverse ethnicities and dynasties. While Damascus was inward looking, Aleppo was cosmopolitan and outward looking. It has occupied a unique role in the history of Syria. Aleppo’s commanding rambling castle tells it all. Archaeologists date occupation of the site to the 3rd millennium, to the times of Mari and Ibla. Kingdoms and powers found their way to it and took possession. After the Neo-Hittites, there were the Assyrians, the Babylonians, the Aramaeans, the Persians, the Seleucids the Romans and Byzantines. Islam arrived bringing in its wake the Omayyads, the Abbasids, the Fatimids and Hamadanis, the Zangids, the Ayyubids, the Mongols, the Mamluks then the Ottomans followed by the French before Modern Syria arrived. What can you say about Aleppo and its citadel? It is supposed to be one of the oldest and largest in the world. It has an amphitheater which is dwarfed by the castle’s vastness. Most of the area it occupies is awaiting the efforts of the archaeologists and the researchers, but it seems that the bombs and shells of the Assadi Army and the gunfire of the fighters might outrun them. In addition to the variety of architectural styles the citadel displays, the Islamic Ayyubid and Mamluk dominate in the inscriptions , the polychrome striped masonry the gates, the battlements, the throne room, the mosque and others. The citadel sits astride an artificial mound gazing at the distances and the remote countryside where the Dead Cities preach the fate of abandoned forsaken habitats.
Aleppo’s khans(caravansaries), mosques and madrasas, not omitting the Madina souk that was, display, have displayed, or displayed the gradual evolvement not only of Arab Islamic architecture but also some aspects of world architecture. Its arches alone show the development from Roman semicircular, the horseshoe, to the pointed arch, the trefoil, the polyfoil and the muqarnas crowned arch, while its amazing vaulting systems, showcased in the Citadel, the Great Mosque and the Madina souk,, offer us a variety of complex, cross or honeycombed vaults, precursors of the Gothic vaulting and pointed arches. The legacy of Mamluk architecture in Cairo, Damascus and Aleppo was destined to grace the Gothic cathedrals with their soaring knotted arches and give them some of their most distinctive characteristics
When the Mdina Souk burnt to be followed shortly by the catastrophic damage inflicted on the Great Omayyad Mosque, destroying parts of it and exposing the structure to continuous grave danger, I grieved with passionate abandon and for a while my fury and terrible anger were devastating to me and to my way of thinking. I summoned curses on both the Assadi regime and the rebel fighters using the Shakespearean plague on both your houses. I had to endure much criticism because people thought that I did not care enough for the dead and injured people, for the epic tragedy of the Syrians. But it was not so, how could it be? How could it be? I was saturated to the marrow with death, the death of children and innocents, at the heels of which came the destruction of Aleppo and its gradual death to unhinge me even further.
Below, I am going to select some extracts of passages I wrote and posted to facebook and from an article to show the extent of what I had felt:
The fact remainsthat we do not deserve you our Syria. The fact remains that we have impoverished you and stripped you of your immortality. The fact remains that we do not love you enough, value enough, treasure you enough. We have allowed our ignorance and illiterate minds and souls, which are our legacy from a regime which has abolished our true history in favour of an artificial culture, to forget in the heat of the battle that what has been hallowed by time and accumulated human efforts of countless generations should not be risked or endangered. Life does not only reside in us as human beings; it also resides in what we create or accomplish and in our livelihoods and the means of these livelihoods. This is a failure of duty, strategy and planning. Was it really necessary to carry the fighting to the ancient historic quarters of Aleppo? Believe me when I say that I am, like many others- we are burning too as we watch the flames devour our history, our beings and our minds. This is unforgivable and I shall not forgive all those who were involved. I shall not forgive and history will not forgive. Most of all, Syria will not forgive.
I believe it is very unfair to be asked to make a choice, theoretically, between saving the people or saving their heritage and history. When critics try to simplify a grave issue by reducing it to a question demanding a yes or no, one feels completely phased out because what is gained from answers such as yes or the no? This question and others related to it were put to me by the Facebookians on my page and we argued heatedly for a long time. I select some of my answers:
because humanity is what makes civilizations, I wish to preserve both if possible, the people and what they have created and create. They are inseparable and one. Otherwise we would have been living in the stone ages still or in prehistoric times. Knowledge and our human existence are bound together. Civilization dies without people and people die without knowledge. In everything I wrote and made I was fighting for the children of Syria and the people of Syria. I am only stretching the fight a little further because knowledge was passed on to me from our history and civilization. And be assured about my position on the Assadi regime. If I have to die in order to dislodge it, I shall gladly do so. I see this regime as the heart of darkness and it alone bears the overwhelming responsibility for Syria’s tragedy.
And on being accused of loving the stone more than man:
people accuse me of loving the stone more than I love people. They have forgotten that the stone, the souks, the mosques, the homes, the historic buildings, the city which we call Aleppo is a living museum in itself. It is a museum which breathes, moves, dreams, begets children and lives with the lives of thousands. Yes, I am wailing and morning the stone, the wood, the hundreds of years of man’s efforts. This stone is but the livelihoods and the shelters of hundreds of thousands of people. Not loving the stone and protecting it, means thousands of refugees fleeing without shelter on the road of poverty, humiliation and disease. It means slow death and it means killing by slow motion. O, I adore the stone and will worship it in order to save, nurture and hold. I will defend the stone so that life is possible and dignity is preserved. 2 October
To another observation made by a friend, I replied:
I was invited yesterday to speak on Al-Hurra TV which I did provided they used my voice only and not my picture. What does this say? That I know we are dealing with murderers and butchers. When I wrote the article under the weight of the grief I felt for the loss of that which cannot be retrieved, I also meant it to invite controversy and criticism. So you are most welcome to criticize me, my friend. We started a revolution in order to restore all our freedoms including the freedom to criticize for the general good. The way I see things is that man, his environment, his civilized existence and his history are one. If I am defending the Souks, I am not only defending a living museum but people’s livelihood as well. Yesterday I said the destruction of the Souks meant the destruction of thousands of lives. They have no future now but poverty, destitution, hunger with the poorer of them having to join the lines of the displaced on the long road towards slow death. Do I have to tell you about the fate of Syrian refugees or do I have to tell you about the people all over Syria sleeping rough in the parks, streets, schools and the mosque yards. What will happen to them in the winter?
To more questions put to me, I replied:
If you ask me to choose between saving a child or a monument, by instinct I shall save the child. The Souk did not burn to save any body. It was either an accident during the fighting or a deliberate act by Assad’s soldiers. In any case when fighting takes place in any enclosed area, buildings will burn. In my opinion, a world heritage site should be protected by the UNESCO. The UNESCO should have taken measures and negotiated to protect it and the rest of the heritage sites in Aleppo.
–Why do you think I am lacking in humanity, and why do you think you need to convert me when I am already converted. I live by my human and humane values. Have you read my poetry and what I wrote on facebook and the art I made? Do you think I do not value sacrifice and heroism? I share your sorrow, believe me. I am trying to limit our losses, just like all of us are doing. As for my calling on UNESCO to do their duty, it is because I do not think that the Russians, the Chinese or any others who would veto this. It is completely logical to do so. In calling upon them to help Syria, these countries think they are taking sides, at least Iran, China and Russia. I wish to find out to what an extent the International community is lying to itself and to us.
The Great Mosque as it is now, isn’t this a crime against humanity?
And like the idealist I am I pleaded on Facebook:
-All the cultural buildings and centres in Syria should be protected and spared. Only the ignorant, the illiterate and the vandals would treat national cultural treasures which belong to all the Syrian people in perpetuity as part of a falling regime. If cultural centres, carry the name Assad, that does not make them the property of Assad and his followers. Al-Assad library and the Al-Assad Centre for Culture and Art (Opera) belong to the Syrian nation. Do we understand what is at stake? Do we? We see Syria’s cultural and historical heritage go up in flames under our very eyes. The rebels, the Free Syrian Army and every one of us should share in the responsibility of protecting, preserving and defending our cultural heritage against the Assadi annihilation. 29 September
Credits: I am indebted to Google images, the Web and to posts Facebook for many of my images.
© Alisar Iram