Instead of colorful, handmade caps for sale to Syrians and foreign tourists, Zakaria Mosuli – the last tailor in Aleppo’s battered Old City – now sews military headwear almost exclusively for soldiers. More than five years of war have turned Aleppo’s historic city center, a UNESCO-listed World Heritage site home to an imposing citadel, into a makeshift military barracks.
Syrian shoppers and foreign backpackers have been replaced by war-weary troops, and colorful souvenir stands have given way to checkpoints dividing the ancient market into rebel- and government-held zones.
“I am the only tailor left in Aleppo’s old city,” says Mosuli in his modest shop in a regime-controlled street of the district.
He snips carefully from camouflaged military-style fabric at his shop, one of a handful in the souk that are still open.
“In the past, I used to sew colorful hats for children and women and young people,” he says.
“But today, my specialityis making army-style caps, as this whole neighborhood has become a military zone and Syrian army soldiers are everywhere.”
Violence broke out in Aleppo in mid-2012, more than a year after anti-government protests first erupted across Syria.
The 13-kilometer ancient market – the largest souk in the world – became a front line.
Its streets are littered with rubble and walls are scarred by years of gunfire, rockets and mortar rounds.
Zakaria says he and his family refused to leave and do not regret their decision.
He brings in fabric from a government-held district into Old Aleppo, crossing several checkpoints and dodging shelling and snipers along the way.
“I have loyal customers who come from inside Aleppo, but most of my customers these days are soldiers and officers.”
Pointing to two small birds that swooped into his apartment, Zakaria says: “These are my only friends. The people have all left.”
Of the 200 families that once lived in the Old City, just 15 remain.
Most shops were shuttered long ago with metal gates painted in the tricolor Syrian government flag.
Other storefronts are charred black from car bombs and shelling, and many have had their windows blown in by rocket attacks.
When an AFP correspondent visited the market, soldiers were strolling through the ruined streets.
Mohammad Zakaria, a 65-year-old barber in the souk, has been wounded three times by shelling and missile attacks on the old city.
But he says work is good as long as soldiers are still around.
“This area was especially a touristic area. My customers were all tourists or Syrians from other provinces,” the hairdresser says.
“But today, as this district has turned into military barracks, my customers are all soldiers and officers,” he tells AFP.
In Bab al-Faraj, a neighborhood adjacent to the ancient souk, Yehya Qoteish stands next to a vegetable stall stocked with tomatoes, aubergines, peppers and watermelon.
“There are a lot of displaced people who fled here because the rents are very low. People have taken to living in abandoned hotels,” he says.
“My customers are displaced people and soldiers,” the 57-year-old says.
Further along in Khan al-Wazir, near the citadel, a pro-regime fighter carrying a baby and followed by his wife trudges home among the rubble.
Elsewhere in the Old City, 66-year-old Sarkis still sits outside his storefront every day – even though he hasn’t had a customer in years.
He learned about photography and camera equipment from his brother, and stayed in the Old City to keep their shop running, despite the increasingly dire situation.
“I got used to seeing dozens of tourists in my shop, but today, there are only soldiers who pass by just to check in on me.”
Sarkis says he could not bear to leave the neighborhood where he was born and raised: “These few meters around my shop are my life, not just my livelihood.”
His children visit him every week, begging him to leave the ravaged district, but Sarkis refuses. “I was born here. I want to die here,” he says.
Still, Sarkis says, he wishes that just a single customer would come by to ask about photographic equipment or even just a camera battery.
“I’d give it to him for free!”