The Ancient City of Aleppo was declared a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1986, due to its largely unchanged architecture constructed during the 12th to the 16th centuries. The Great Mosque is a key building of the Ancient City, with origins dating back to the beginning of the 8th century and the first imperial Islamic dynasty. The Great Mosque has a long and complicated history as a site that has been repeatedly invaded, damaged, and rebuilt by different dynasties, including the Abbasids, Byzantines, Armenians, and Mongols, and, most recently, during the Syrian Civil War.
The Great Mosque’s final plan, following renovations by Nour Al-Dine Zangi in 1158 AD, takes the form of a hypostyle plan, with a large central courtyard surrounded by four halls. The courtyard itself features an intricately patterned black and white stone floor surrounded by columned walkways. The main prayer hall lies to the south of the courtyard and features a shrine reportedly housing the remains of Zechariah, the father of John the Baptist; an important figure in both the Islamic and Christian faiths. The prayer hall also contains a 15th century minbar and mihrab. The ceiling is an elaborate cross-vaulted system with archways and small domes. The minaret, which stood at 45 metres tall, consisted of five levels and was heavily adorned with sculptural ornamentation.
During the Syrian Civil War, the Great Mosque was captured by rebel forces in early 2013 and within a few months had sustained severe damage as a result of ongoing fighting. In April of that year, the minaret was completely destroyed. The state news agency Sana reported that rebel fighters from the Jabhat al-Nursa group, who had links with al-Qaeda, were to blame, but others claimed that the minaret was hit by Syrian Army tank fire. In addition to the ruin of the minaret, valuable objects from the Great Mosque’s Museum, including a box reported to contain strands of the Prophet Muhammad’s hair, were subject to looting. The Great Mosque is now undergoing an extensive restoration project, but it is estimated that in total 30% of the Ancient City of Aleppo has been destroyed in the crossfire of the Civil War.
In the current climate of conflict, how can we protect holy and historic sites? Should tougher international measures be put in place to ensure that cultural heritage does not become in itself a casualty of war, both as intended victim and as collateral damage? When buildings become battlefields, should heritage organisations, such as UNESCO, be granted greater powers to protect? And should architecture, when ruined, be left as a reminder of the atrocities of war, or should it be rebuilt so it can function again?
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