Marie Roudani, AFP
Last updated: 23 September, 2012

Aleppo’s Old City souk now on the front line

A Syrian rebel commander makes the most of a lull in the fighting in Aleppo’s Old City to play the tour guide, pointing out historical and cultural sites.

“On the left is the spice market. In front you can see the Umayyad mosque. But don’t go in there — it’s on the front line,” Abu Mohammed says.

The front line is an alley that runs alongside the mosque, barely a yard (metre) wide. Positioned at the end of it are Syrian army snipers who shoot at anything that moves.

A rebel sniper crouches behind a wall holding up a rod with a mirror attached to the end, attempting to target regime soldiers he glimpses through the makeshift apparatus.

Fighting broke out in the country’s second city in mid-July, and since then rebels and regime forces have faced off in various neighbourhoods.

Clashes in the Old City, however, have featured more small arms fire, as the two sides vie for control of an alley, a mosque, a church or a bathhouse.

Surveying the alleyways of locked shops, a rebel fighter tells the story of the “biggest souk (market) of the Middle East.”

He leads visitors to the Hammam al-Nahasin bathhouse, built in the 13th century, where rebels lie on mattresses laid out in small alcoves.

The fighter-cum-tour guide uses alternative routes to avoid the fire of regime snipers only 50 yards away, all the while evoking the Ottomans, the Mamluks, and proposing a visit to the old French consulate.

Other rebel fighters join in, dressed in their fatigues bearing the Free Syrian Army (FSA) insignia. They point out the rows of what used to be fabric and embroidery stalls under covered galleries, now totally deserted.

Further along in the abandoned marketplace, shopkeepers have ventured out to retrieve what goods they can, bundling them into large bags before scurrying away once more. None of them wants to speak to journalists.

Everything seems to be intact. “No FSA members have touched anything, it’s up to the storekeepers to come and claim what they left in their shops,” Abu Mohammed says. “We’re not terrorists as the regime claims.”

The Syrian government has accused “groups of armed terrorists” of being behind the violence in the country since anti-regime protests first erupted in March 2011.

Rebel fighters position themselves at intersections in the Old City, keeping watch and sipping tea.

The alleys of shops have largely escaped the air strikes and shelling that have destroyed so many other districts of the city, Syria’s commercial capital.

“The regime doesn’t want to bomb this area because it doesn’t want to antagonise the traders. If they begin to support the revolution financially, the situation will change significantly,” Abu Mohammed says.

On the corner of one alley, a building hit by an artillery shell smoulders. All that is left of it is a metal frame and a pile of rubble.

A shopkeeper with a large sack on his back shuffles past as helicopters fly overhead at high altitude.

“When they’re that high, we’re safe. They don’t target the Old City, so they’re off to attack other neighbourhoods,” Abu Mohammed adds.