Activists: Large part of ancient souq in Syria’s Aleppo in ashes

“The fighters tried to put out the fire but failed to do so”

BEIRUT  – AFP – 1.10.2012 –  Large parts of Aleppo’s covered market, the largest of its kind in the world and a UNESCO world heritage site that traces its history back to the 14th century, have been reduced to ashes as government forces and rebels fight for control of the city.

The historic market was largely undamaged by earlier fighting in Syria’s largest city, but in the early hours of Saturday some of its shops caught fire during clashes in circumstances that remain unclear. The flames spread rapidly, partly because many of the small retail units tucked beneath the market’s ancient arches were full of fabric, and have now ravaged at least 1,500 shops and are still burning, activists said. “It is not only the souq that is burning, my heart is burning as well,” said an anti-government activist called Hashem who learned the craft of jewelry-making in the souq before the revolt against President Bashar al-Assad erupted last year.

The souq’s devastation is a reminder of how the 18-month-old conflict — in which both sides are struggling to gain the upper hand and activists estimate 30,000 people have been killed — is destroying Syria’s rich cultural and historical legacy as well as the lives of its 22.5 million people.

Aleppo’s old city is one of several places that UNESCO, the United Nations cultural agency, has designated world heritage sites and which are now at risk.

UNESCO believes that five of Syria’s six world heritage sites have already been damaged. Other heritage sites include the ancient desert city of Palmyra, the Crac des Chevaliers crusader fortress and parts of old Damascus.

It was not immediately clear how the fire in the market started but activists accused government forces of using incendiary bullets to attack rebels who had taken up positions there after launching a new offensive in the city on Thursday.

“The fighters tried to put out the fire but failed to do so.  The market — Souq al-Madina — comprises a network of vaulted stone alleyways and carved wooden facades and was once a major tourist attraction and a busy cosmopolitan trading hub on the ancient Silk Road from China. Its many narrow alleys have a combined length of 13 kilometers making it the largest covered market in the world and it sells everything from soap to jewelry to clothing.