Last updated: 30 September, 2012

Aleppo shopkeepers look on as ancient souk burns

A huge plume of black smoke billowed over Aleppo’s ancient market quarter on Sunday as fire devoured the wares and wooden fittings of the historic souk of Syria’s commercial capital.

Shopkeepers could only look on as the inferno sparked by weekend clashes between troops and rebels ripped through textile and perfumery sections of the market, ravaging family businesses dating back generations.

“I inherited my store from my father,” one shopkeeper told an AFP journalist in the city. “I have worked here for more than 40 years. I never imagined this would happen.

“I feel paralysed. This is a dirty war, and we are the ones losing out.”

Persistent explosions rocked the covered market on Sunday as rebels armed with grenades and makeshift bombs pushed towards the Umayyad Mosque in the heart of the Old City as part of the all-out offensive in Aleppo they announced on Thursday night.

Before the rebellion against President Bashar al-Assad’s regime rule erupted in March last year, the UNESCO-listed covered market would have been packed with tourists.

But since mid-July the city of some 1.7 million has become the key battleground of the uprising.

The continuing fighting prevented store owners from reaching their shops on Sunday to assess the full extent of the damage but most were just relieved to have escaped without injury.

“I watched my store burn to the ground on television,” a second store owner told AFP.

“Thank God no one was hurt. But I am very nervous. There is still fighting in the souk. You don’t know what might happen.”

The market quarter is one of the centrepieces of Aleppo’s Old City, listed by the UN cultural organisation as a world heritage site since 1986.

With more than 1,550 stores, the souk is one of the largest in the world.

Its existing buildings are mediaeval, but historians say the site has served as a market for more than 2,000 years.

“My whole life I have made a living from my stores,” another shopkeeper told AFP, adding that he owns a total of seven in the souk.

“I just hope that no new fire breaks out as my biggest store is still safe. Should that burn down, I will lose not only my goods, but also my childhood memories.”

Rebel fighters say they will press on with their offensive in the historic heart of the city but are not unconscious of the damage that is being inflicted.

“It’s part of the heritage of mankind that’s being destroyed,” a rebel fighter, who gave his name only as Abu Riad, told AFP.