Zeina Elcheikh writes about the loss of Syria’s heritage to war
While waiting for a Heavenly resolution, since the whole world failed to decide on what to stop or whom to support, my heart breaks for the sight of children—the same age as mine—being traumatized in and outside Syria, a country with an outstanding past, a sad present, and a future full of question marks.
In the sad present, where souls and stones have been destroyed, one finds refuge looking to the past. It is a glorious past, rich in heritage, with six sites on the UNESCO World Heritage List. That heritage, subject to tremendous destruction from the conflict, has spurred discussions and calls among experts to debate the post-war reconstruction of the country, its heritage and its devastated memory.
Among various sites in Syria, one has a special place in my heart, though it is neither internationally recognized nor listed. The horrifying pictures in the daily news, however, have brought a different kind of recognition to the Old City of Homs, and made remembrance for me additionally painful.
Homs (Hims or Emesa) had been one of the Syria’s caravan cities, and historically served as a main commercial center. It is strategically placed at the intersection of the natural north-south corridor and the access route from the Syria Desert to the coast, through the break in the coastal mountain chains. Its location is also determined by the Orontes River which flows through it. Homs, the governorate, is a well-known tourist destination in Syria, in which two of the Syria’s World Heritage Sites are located: Palmyra and Krak des Chevaliers. As in the city itself, there is the citadel mound Qalat Ossama with some Arab fortifications on its upper parts, and lower levels dating back to the Bronze Age. The Arab conqueror Kahlid Ibn Al-Walid is buried in Homs, and the mosque named after him is the symbol of the city. Homs has also historical cemeteries: such as Al Katib, believed to have over 400 of Prophet Mohammad’s disciples buried in it. The city was a key point in the Syrian road and rail networks and a base for several major industries. However, its old parts have been—sad to say—one of the most bleeding conflict’s areas.
The Old City of Homs had been walled, with seven gates: Bab Houd, Bad Al-Dreib, Bab Al-Sibaa, Bab Al-Masdoud, Bab Tadmor, Bab Al-Torkoman and Bab Al-Souk. Only a few glimpses of the old walls survived after the Ottoman period, and only the remains of one gate survive in Bab al-Masdud (the closed gate). Similar to the typical Islamic urban cores, the Old City of Homs consisted of a traditional souk, hammams, residential complexes and many mosques with historical significance. The souks in Old City are one of the city’s most vibrant spots with all kind of goods, scents, spices and jewellery on display. A few old houses have been converted into restaurants, in a form of tourism investment providing not only exceptional ambiance, but also good food. Moreover, churches such as Um Al-Zunnar (where the well-kept belt is believed to belong to the Virgin Mary) and Mar Elian are among the most visited spots, but suffering like the other parts of the Old City from war damage.
The Old City of Homs is just one example of recent destruction of cities and heritage in Syria. Aleppo, whose Old City is another World Heritage Site, has seen its citadel, old souks and great Ommayad mosque damaged by attacks and raids. Moreover, several museums across the country have been looted, adding insult to injury to a situation that, in the least that could be said about it, is heartbreaking.
Although my encounter with the Old City of Homs was for a project on a tourism trail within the framework of the Urban Development Program (UDP), all planning now has to do with humanitarian response and emergency aid. It will be along time before anyone considers any other contexts.
What will the future bring for this part of the past? Will it be another Oradur-sur-Glane, a witness to a massacre, and become a destination of black tourism? Could it be reconstructed, like Dresden, to regain a destroyed memory? Would it be a new Beirut, where the post-war reconstruction of its vibrant center caused social damage? Or perhaps the past, along with the present, should be wiped away to move on to the future?
Whatever the future holds, a scar will remain, hurting, when one remembers…
Zeina Elcheikh, Syrian architect, holds an M.Sc. from Stuttgart University. She worked with German International Cooperation and the French Institute for the Near East in Syria. In Egypt, she joined the UNESCO office as an intern with the Wadi Halfa Museum project. She is also a member of AiP‘s Advisory Board.