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In Syria’s Aleppo, old bazaar struggles to come back to life

January 22, 2018

In this picture taken Thursday, Jan. 18, 2018, Syrian men remove rubble from a damaged shop at the old market in the old city of Aleppo, Syria. Fighting has long died down in Syria's largest city but Aleppo's centuries-old market still has to come back to life, more than a year after government forces retook rebel-held neighborhoods around the Old City. (AP Photo/Hassan Ammar)

ALEPPO, Syria (AP) — Fighting has long died down in Syria’s largest city, but Aleppo’s centuries-old market has yet to come back to life, more than a year after government forces retook rebel-held neighborhoods around the Old City.

Few shops have reopened in the once sprawling bazaar in the historic quarter, with UNESCO estimating that as much as 60 percent of the Old City was severely damaged and 30 percent destroyed.

Shop owners and local officials hope the international community will help renovate this important part of the city that witnessed some of the worst battles since Syria’s crisis erupted in March 2011.

The bazaar, or souk, is believed to be one of the world’s oldest covered markets. People would come from far to buy textiles, clothes, perfumes, spices and hand-made oriental products. The market is part of Aleppo’s Old City — a UNESCO World Heritage Site — which also boasts a 13th century citadel, the Great Mosque of Aleppo, also known as the Umayyad Mosque, and several other monuments, nearly all of which have been damaged or destroyed.

Walking through the market’s narrow streets, damage is everywhere: alleys blocked off with debris, domes knocked down, shops with no doors and piles of mangled metal at every turn.

But Ali Moaz is optimistic, standing outside his textiles shop he reopened in November for a few hours a day. The textile stores are in the part of the bazaar known as Khan al-Gumruk. Other parts — the spices market, the gold souk and the handicrafts bazaar are still deserted.

Sales are slim, but “as a start it’s good,” he says.

He was luckier than most: when he returned to this part of Aleppo a year ago, he found most of his store intact. “I felt as if I was born again,” he said.

Mahmoud Mimeh was not so lucky. He returned last year to find his shop had no back wall and everything had been looted, his losses in the thousands of dollars, he said. He paid 1.25 million Syrian pounds — about $2,700 — just to have the wall fixed, a fortune in a country where many get paid less than a $100 a month.

The market still has no water, electricity or telephone lines. They worry about thieves coming at night so Mimeh and the others have hired a guard to watch over their stores.

The government organized an exhibition at the bazaar in November, hoping to breathe new life into the Khan al-Gumruk after four years of fighting that engulfed the area.

Syrian rebels battling President Bashar Assad’s forces stormed the eastern half of Aleppo in July 2012, including the Old City, triggering bloody battles that claimed thousands of lives and left much of what was once the country’s commercial hub in ruins, scenes reminiscent of World War II devastation.

Rebuilding the market — including restoring its cobblestones alleys and domed covers with small openings to let the sunlight in to their past glory — won’t be an easy task, and it will likely come with a price tag in millions of dollars.

At the market’s edge, a crane is clearing debris from the Umayyad Mosque, its famous 11th century minaret reduced to a pile of stones.

Bassel Nasri, vice chairman of the Aleppo Chamber of Industry, says he is convinced international organizations will be interested in renovating the Old City.

“It’s registered as a historic site by the United Nations,” Nasri said.

On a sunny day at the bazaar this weekend, Marwan Torokji, a tall man with gray hair, was busy repairing his textile shop. Carpenters set up wooden shelves where he will place giant rolls of cloth.

“We cleaned the area, removed the debris and we are fixing our shops,” he said, beaming with pride.

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