Aleppo Souk Destroyed Amidst Fighting

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This story is based on a radio interview. Listen to the full interview.

Audio Transcript:

Marco Werman: The violence in the Syrian city of Aleppo has been relentless. We hear about an untold number of human lives lost in the fighting there between government forces and rebel fighters, but a story about how the fighting has now engulfed a piece of Syria's cultural heritage as well puts that violence into a poignant historical context. Buildings that have been around for 500 years, gone in just minutes. We're talking about Aleppo's Souk, a centuries old covered market that's one of the best preserved in the Middle East. It's been gutted by fire. Hundreds of shops in the souk have reportedly been destroyed. UNESCO, which recognizes Aleppo's old city as a world heritage site described the damage as a tragedy. Syrian born professor Amr Al-Azm teaches Middle Eastern History and Anthropology at Shawnee State University in Ohio.

Amr Al-Azm: The old city of Aleppo is an amazing example of the urban fabric that you see in a Medieval Islamic Arab city. It has all the basic components—the mosques, the hans, the souks, the hans meaning the caravanserai, the private dwellings and the public houses, you know, and so on, so forth—it's this complete mix that comes together that makes Aleppo one of those few rare places in the world where we can see all these different components coming together. In addition, Aleppo is also rather unique in that it is a living, breathing city mixing both ancient and modern together. So when you walk through these souks, and remember, these souks are basically a labyrinth of narrow alleys and passages, very narrow, with stores very, very tightly packed. And as you walk through you can actually smell, breathe what it would've been like to actually walk through a market in the thirteenth, fourteenth, fifteenth or sixteenth centuries. And you would see wares, many of which would've been sold even back then, although you will see next to them also modern wares, you know, plastic bowls, maybe modern material furniture and so forth, but you'll also see all that traditional artifacts and items that would've been on sale in Medieval Islamic Aleppo, particularly the smell of the spices and the goods that would be coming, traveling from the East, from China, right across the world to Aleppo…and from the West, from Europe into Aleppo, as well, and back again.

Werman: Now some parts of the souk date back to the thirteenth century. Where do you get that sense of that Medieval quality in the souk itself?

Al-Azm: Well if you look at the architecture. I mean you have those vaulted ceilings, you have the narrow passages and most of it actually dates to the sixteenth and seventeenth century, but there are some of the very early parts that go back as early as the thirteenth century. And it's that superb preservation that you find, just walking through the souk and just the smells, and the hustle and the bustle and the people wheeling and dealing. And you also see that mixture of different people—you see Turks, you see Arabs, you see different ethnicities sort of mixing there. And I think it's that fabric and mosaic of different entities that would've also reflected what Medieval Aleppo would've been like that make it so real.

Werman: Professor, I have to ask you as many have today, why did this violence occur in the souk? Why this destruction in the souk? And I can only think that the rebels went in to occupy it and made it a target. Don't they know better?

Al-Azm: Well, yes, I mean basically on Friday we had a major push by the opposition, by the rebel forces to try and expand their control of different parts of the city. And that included the old parts of the city. Now, if we just take the argument of who is supposed to be the more responsible. If the rebels are irresponsible, you'd argue that the regime should be the more responsible of the two and clearly, it isn't. And it is indiscriminate. I accept what you're saying in that if the rebels know the regime is indiscriminate in its use of force and will instantly follow them and shell them there and destroy the souks, then they should know better. Remember, the rebels are in a fight for their lives. This is a life and death issue. I'm not justifying why they should have gone there, but ultimately this is a battle for survival in its most extreme forms. And the regimes use of incendiary artillery to dislodge rebels from that place is just typical of its flagrant and blatant use of excessive force, and its willingness to employ want and destruction with no thought for the effects afterwards. This is very important. The Assad regime and the people who are fighting for it have clearly said time and time again, al-Assad [speaking Arabic], which means essentially, Assad, you know, you support the Assads or we burn the country down. And this is effectively what they did. They were demonstrating in no uncertain terms that you either will be Assad or we will destroy you. And that's what they did, they don't care. They will destroy houses, they will destroy livelihoods, they'll destroy even the history and cultural heritage of this country to maintain their grip on power.

Werman: Do you know how much of Aleppo's souk has been destroyed at this point?

Al-Azm: Right now it's very difficult to exactly assess how much damage has been done. I would say at the very least, 50%, maybe even 70% of the souk has been destroyed, and that is so catastrophic because rebuilding that is going to be very, very difficult and very, very costly. And it's not just about the physical aspect, this is also about people's lives, people's livelihoods; they're entire set of economic existences was based on these stores that they possessed and the goods that they had in them. And now they have been destroyed so there economy here has also been destroyed. And the livelihoods of thousands of families have been affected by this.

Werman: Amr Al-Azm is and associate professor of Middle Eastern History and Anthropology at Shawnee State University. Thank you very much for your time.

Al-Azm: Thank you.

Werman: You can see photos of Aleppo's historic market before and after the destruction, they're at