Aleppo’s Old City, shelled, burned and shot up during years of fighting in Syria’s civil war, can be rebuilt, the local representative of the United Nations cultural body UNESCO said.
“Our vision is to rebuild the Old City exactly as it was before the war, with the same stones where we can,” said Mazen Samman, UNESCO’s associate programme coordinator in Aleppo.
There are detailed plans for the Old City’s great medieval mosques, souks, bath houses and citadel from an earlier restoration that should allow exact reconstruction, he said.
But while that may be true of the most treasured monuments, whole districts of less celebrated alleyways and traditional houses that gave the Old City its character are also now rubble.
Reviving the Old City is important for Syrian President Bashar Al-Assad both as a symbol of the returning power of his state, but also because of Aleppo’s economic importance.
The fighting in Aleppo ended in December when the Syrian army drove out opposition groups, but they still hold swathes of the country and Assad’s government is hobbled by Western sanctions.
Now gradual efforts are being made to revive the city, one of the oldest in the Middle East.
The United Nations and international cultural agencies say they are committed to preserving and restoring Syrian heritage, but it will ultimately rely on local effort.
It needs local government to ensure work fits the character of the Old City, both architecturally and in how land is divided between shops, houses and public spaces.
It depends on the Old City’s 100,000 former residents choosing to return to their homes and businesses, many of which are now piles of stones and concrete.
But it also needs the skills of Aleppo craftsmen, many of whom left the city during the war, some killed, others departing with the opposition fighters or starting new lives as refugees abroad.
“We are thinking of making a school for craftsmen,” Samman said.
One of the craftsmen who might help set up that school is Mustafa Al-Now, a worker in the ornate, painted wood panels, windows, doors and ceilings that adorn old Aleppo houses.
Since the opposition groups took control of his district in the Old City, his workshop has been located in a west Aleppo park. Carved panels, painted with delicate floral patterns in red, gold, black, brown and green, stand against the walls.
His was one of three workshops where the craft was practised in Aleppo, he said. The others are now closed and many of the skilled workers are gone.
“I have to teach a new generation,” he said.
A few miles to the east, in the Hamidiya quarter of the Old City, Al-Now’s old house and former workshop are strewn with rubble instead of the antiques that used to fill the shaded courtyard.
He left his home suddenly in 2012, fleeing across the rooftops, fearing rebel reprisals because his workshop featured photographs of Al-Assad, who had visited during a tour of the city.