A landmark mosque in Aleppo was burned, scarred by bullets and
trashed — the latest casualty of Syria's civil war. President Bashar Assad yesterday ordered immediate repairs to try to stem
Muslim outrage at the desecration of the 12th century site.
The Umayyad Mosque suffered extensive damage, as has the nearby
medieval covered market, or souk, which was gutted by a fire that
was sparked by fighting two weeks ago. The market and the mosque
are centerpieces of Aleppo's walled Old City, which is listed as a
UNESCO World Heritage site.
Government troops had been holed up
in the mosque for months before rebels launched a push this week
to drive them out.
Activists and Syrian government
officials blamed each other for the weekend fire at the mosque.
Rebel supporters also alleged that
regime forces defaced the shrine with offensive graffiti and drank
alcohol inside, charges bound to further raise religious tensions
Many of the rebels are Sunni
Muslims, while the regime is dominated by Alawites, or followers
of an offshoot of Shiite Islam.
"It's all blackened now," activist
Mohammad al-Hassan said of the site, also known as the Great
One of Syria's oldest and largest
shrines, it was built around a vast courtyard and enclosed in a
compound adjacent to the ancient citadel.
Al-Hassan said the army had been using the mosque as a base
because of its strategic location in the Old City and he blamed
Assad for the destruction.
"He burns down the country and its
heritage, and then he says he will rebuild it. Why do you destroy
it to begin with?" al-Hassan said in a telephone interview from
Fighting has destroyed large parts
of Aleppo, Syria's largest city with 3 million residents and its
former business capital.
Activists say more than 33,000
people have died in the conflict, which began in March 2011 and
has turned into a civil war.
Five of Syria's six World Heritage sites have been damaged in the
fighting, according to UNESCO, the U.N.'s cultural agency.
Looters have broken into one of the
world's best-preserved Crusader castles, Crac des Chevaliers, and
ruins in the ancient city of Palmyra have been damaged.
Both rebels and regime forces have
turned some of Syria's significant historic sites into bases,
including citadels and Turkish bath houses, while thieves have
stolen artifacts from museums. Karim Hendili, a Paris-based UNESCO
expert who oversees heritage sites in the Arab world, said
Aleppo's Old City has been hardest hit.
The fire that swept through the souk
burned more than 500 shops in the narrow, vaulted passageways,
destroying a testament to its flourishing commercial history.
"After the loss of the souk, there
is now major damage of the mosque," Hendili said.
The "soul of the city" is really
being damaged, he added, "and this is difficult to repair."
Video posted online by activists show a large fire and black smoke
raging in the mosque Saturday, and there also are shots of its
blackened, pockmarked walls.
Debris is strewn on the floors where
worshippers once prayed on green and gold carpets. The videos are
consistent with AP's reporting of the incident. "Assad's thugs set
the mosque on fire as a punishment for being defeated by the Free
Syrian Army," the caption on one video read.
In another video, a rebel inside the
mosque holds up a torn copy of the Muslim holy book, saying:
"These are our Qurans. This is our religion, our history."
The rebel in the video also held up
an empty bottle, saying it had contained alcohol.
The Syrian government said it pushed
back rebels out of the mosque after the weekend fighting, although
activists gave conflicting reports on who controls it.
Rami Martini, chief of Aleppo's Chamber of Tourism, blamed rebels
for targeting the city's monuments and archaeological treasures.
He said the losses were impossible
to estimate because of the fighting in the area, but added it
could be the most serious damage since an earthquake in 1830s
struck the mosque.
Despite the fire, the structure of
the mosque appeared to be intact, although a gate that leads to
the ancient market was burned, said Martini, who is specialized in
repairing archaeological sites and monuments.
The platform inside the mosque, or
minbar, and the prayer niche also were damaged by the fire,
Martini said. The wooden minbar is identical to the one burned in
Jerusalem's al-Aqsa Mosque in 1969, he said.
Valuables were stolen from the mosque's library, Martin said,
including a transparent box purported to contain a strand of hair
from the Prophet Muhammad, along with centuries-old handwritten
copies of the Qur’an.
Assad issued a presidential decree
to form a committee to repair the mosque by the end of 2013,
although it's not clear what such a body could do amid a raging
The mosque's last renovations began
about 20 years ago and were completed in 2006.