DR Ross Burns speaks at AKU on Wednesday.—Fahim Siddiqi / White Star
DR Ross Burns speaks at AKU on Wednesday.—Fahim Siddiqi / White Star

KARACHI: The widespread destruction in the Syrian city of Aleppo is known to all. But Dr Ross Burns’ talk on ‘Aleppo: A city and its architecture’ organised by the Aga Khan University in collaboration with the Institute of Architects, Pakistan-Karachi Chapter, on Wednesday carried much hope when he asked people not to assume that Aleppo was finished because many of its historical monuments can still be reconstructed and restored.

Focusing mainly on the Citadel, the mosques at the foot of the citadel and the Great Mosque of Aleppo, the author of many books on the history and archaeology of Syria, including Monuments of Syria said that when we think about Syria we think about the people of Syria. The country had a population of 22 million of which some 12 million have left their homes. “But,” he said, “even if they are not in Syria anymore they miss their homeland dearly and want to go back there someday.

“So, assuming that the country and its cities, especially its historic city of Aleppo, are completely destroyed would be like a bad gesture to the citizens of Aleppo who would like to have their historic city and its monuments back,” he said.

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“Among them are stone masons, engineers, architects, etc. They may come back to repair these places because it does not really need big bucks to do that,” he said, implying that their expertise and love for their country and its monuments can fix the damage. “It it is safe to debunk the theory that Aleppo is finished never to return,” he added.

Taking the help of a detailed map of Aleppo, a city of two million people, Burns marked and classified the various areas into zones showing the depth of destruction there due to the ongoing Syrian civil war. Some places have been damaged due to shooting and some due to bombs. Both the rebels and the regime are responsible for the destruction.

“The tunnel bombs have been used mostly by the rebels to gain access to the government area, which is in the walled city, and not easy to reach,” he said. “Therefore most of the damage has been in the population areas outside the walled city where there are newer buildings such as civilian housing, schools and hospitals, and not many historic buildings,” he explained.

“Aleppo is a legendary city due to its rich mix of cultures,” he said, while delving into the city’s history. “It has been the centre of exchange for many routes so it has seen much foreign trade and western activity,” he added.

“Aleppo has also been mentioned twice in the works of Shakespeare due to its magnificent architecture though not all of that magnificent architecture in the Citadel has survived over the years, and not really due to war,” he pointed out.

Still there was the Ceremonial Plaza at the entrance of the Citadel, the Great Mosque of Aleppo and the other mosques there. Burns showed what they looked like followed by the recent damage to them. Most depressive was the destruction of the beautiful, tall minaret of the Great Mosque. “The Great Mosque was built on the model of the Umayyad Mosque, the great mosque in Damascus. And its minaret carried a variety of styles and intricate designs,” he said.

“The rebels blame the government for its destruction and the government blames the rebels for it,” he said. “Either it was hit by tank fire by the regime or it was blown up by rebels, who didn’t want it to fall in the hands of the regime,” he said.

“But judging by the blocks fallen down intact shows that it collapsed from fire rather than getting blown up,” he pointed out, adding that he had prepared a list of some 800 buildings in Syria which have undergone significant damage but can be brought back into operation.

Published in Dawn, October 26th, 2017