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Arts + Culture: Lessons from the Minaret

Amal Hanano is a well-known Syrian writer and blogger, as well as an associate editor of Syria Deeply. Here she explores this week’s destruction of the Umayyad Mosque, the architectural pride of her hometown of Aleppo.

Written by Amal Hanano Published on Read time Approx. 5 minutes

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I still remember how it smells, musty and old. It smelled like the air has never changed for centuries. The 1,000-year-old stone, worn rugs and stacked holy books were timeless. I remember how it was peaceful inside. No matter how hot it was outside, it was cool inside the vaulted rooms. A calm world tucked within a world filled with noise, dust and now chaos.

I remember how we would go sometimes to pray and other times with visitors. We would drape the long black abayas over our street clothes and cover our hair. We would laugh and take pictures of each other in the courtyard while old men recited verses in a corner and pigeons flew under the arches. It was a place to connect to your history, to your identity and to tell others, who were not from Aleppo: “This is where we are from. This is who we are.” This is where you come to face your roots. It was a place that existed forever, a place we thought would exist long after we were gone. But we were wrong.

They say that people make their cities. But if you are from Aleppo, one of the oldest cities in the world, the city has made you much more than you have made it. So when pieces of our history are destroyed one by one, pieces of us are lost, fragment by fragment.

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“We really don’t know [whether Umayyad was targeted on purpose]. The story of the regime is that the jihadists blew it up on purpose, and the story of the Free Syrian Army is that it was under regime control and the regime had planted explosives within the mosque, and then the regime blew it up. It’s highly unlikely that the rebels or Jabhat al-Nusra would explode the minaret. Jabhat would not do that to a mosque. It was probably either targeted by the regime or fell as a result of crossfire.

It’s so sad and it’s so old. It’s 960 years old. And the mosque itself was built in the 8<sup>th</sup> century. The site, the ground, went back to Hellenistic times, then in Christianity it was a church. All of the Old City of Aleppo is like that, layers of history built on top of each other.

Mosque minarets were really used as urban planning devices.

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They planned the streets around that mosque to center around the minaret, so that the minaret would be in center of your [vantage point].

It’s very symbolic. People are really devastated. A lot of people changed their picture on social media to show the minaret. Or rather, a broken minaret. It’s part of our identity [in Aleppo.] The BBC got backlash for heavily covering it, because people said, ‘Why are you covering the destruction of a minaret when so many people are dying?’ But there is that sense that it’s part of our identity, and people are mourning it.

People in Aleppo are extremely proud of their architecture, especially our minaret. It’s a big sense of pride for people from Aleppo. And this is the most important site in the city, after the citadel. “

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‘The minarets, like trees, have souls.’ – Nizar Qabbani

*The lesson of the minaret: every tyrant will fall and the city remains. History has taught us that the people find a way to pick up the pieces of their city and rebuild. One thousand years from now, these years will be a chapter in history books. The future people of Aleppo will visit this sacred site and will feel the calm and peace once more. The stone will be old again. They will point to the square tower and whisper to their children the tale of this minaret that falls every few centuries when the lesson of tyranny must be taught to a people who had forgotten. Those people of the future are lucky. They will be unaware of the pain of living those years, unaware of the shame of writing this chapter. History is abstract and seamless to them, like it once was for us. It is merely a story they can recite while they trace their fingers over the stone and remember without consequence. I envy them.** *

*We were once like those people, telling tales of barbaric Mongols or tragic fires that had destroyed the Umayyad Mosque, the Great Mosque of Aleppo. Instead we will have to be the ones to pick the pieces this time and find a way to rebuild, to heal and to restore what was erased. Even when the rebuilding is done and the blood has stopped flowing, we will never be able to enter these sites without remembering what was lost. It will never smell timeless again for us. History will never be seamless with our memory again.**We know that what we will rebuild is a replacement for something that was once perfect. Something that can never come back and will never be the same. We will be destined to whisper to our children and grandchildren: “Once upon a time, there was a minaret that was 1,000 years old. We loved it and we loved our city. But we had forgotten our history. We had forgotten that the hatred of men destroys all that we love, all that is sacred. And one day we woke up and the minaret was gone.*

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Until then, people from Aleppo, who are now scattered around the world, go to sleep knowing that tonight Aleppo’s skyline is missing yet another sparkling green light that once was the jewel of our city, missing yet another voice that once joined a symphony of voices calling to prayer. Another beloved soul joins the thousands of murdered souls of our city. The city grows darker and quieter, but we also know, from our history, it will never die.

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“The architecture in Aleppo is different from anywhere else in Syria. The buildings are made of stone, a limestone that’s very famous. And the history, the preservation of the Old City, is very unique. The core is a UNESCO world heritage site. What’s really sad is that before this destruction, Aleppo, and Fez in Morocco, were the two best-preserved Islamic city cores in the whole world. All the other cities were destroyed and rebuilt and modernized except Aleppo and Fez. And the Assad regime itself spent so much money rehabilitating the Old City. They even brought in a German organization that does restoration, and they did massive projects with it. That was their ‘thing.’ And now they’re destroying the Old City they helped preserve without thinking. Nothing is sacred to the regime anymore. Nothing means anything.” (As told to Karen Leigh.)

Hanano’s Foreign Policy piece on Aleppo, “The Land of Topless Minarets and Headless Little Girls,” can be found <a href=”http://www.foreignpolicy.com/articles/2012/12/11/the_land_of_topless_minarets_and_headless_little_girls” target=”_blank”><strong>here</strong>.</a><a href=”http://www.foreignpolicy.com/articles/2012/12/11/the_land_of_topless_minarets_and_headless_little_girls” target=”_blank”> </a>

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