Year on, Aleppo is licking its wounds

Mohammed Assaf, above, a supporter of the rebellion against President Bashar Assad, is still grieving the ‘tragic’ day he had to flee his Aleppo home. (AFP)
Updated 20 December 2017

Year on, Aleppo is licking its wounds

ALEPPO: The streets of Kalasseh, a neighborhood of Aleppo formerly held by rebels, are jammed with traffic again and its pavements are packed with people and overflowing market stalls.
But the rows of flattened buildings flanking them are a constant reminder of the devastating battle that had reduced a city that was one of the jewels of the Middle East to ruins by the time Syrian government forces retook it a year ago on Friday.
“It’s crowded... people are coming back,” says Khayro Moselmani, a former taxi driver from the neighborhood.
Miles away in Idlib province, Mohammed Assaf, a supporter of the rebellion against President Bashar Assad, is still grieving the “tragic” day he had to flee his Aleppo home.
December 22, 2016 was a turning point in the Syrian conflict: after four years of relentless fighting that gutted the city and killed thousands of civilians, government forces retook control.
It was the beginning of the end for the rebels, who went on to relinquish most of their bastions to regime forces backed by Russia, whose formidable firepower tipped the balance.
The eastern part of Aleppo that was the rebels’ stronghold was leveled by Russian and Syrian air strikes.
Months of siege left tens of thousands of people starving and in need of medical attention, and eventually led to their evacuation just a few days before the regime took full control.
A year on, life is slowly returning to the city. Water and electricity are back in most areas, the mountains of rubble are being trucked away, the streets cleaned and resurfaced.
Moselmani fled Aleppo in the summer of 2012 as rebels took over the city’s east, and moved to Tartus, a coastal town in the heartland of the Alawite community to which Assad belongs.
He returned to his hometown a month after the government took it back and found his home had been destroyed.
“At the time we came back, it was almost unthinkable to see a single person in the neighborhood,” the sexagenarian, who now sells grilled meat on the street, remembered.
“Now, they are coming in and out... Thank god, there is security.”
The activity on the streets offers a stark contrast with last year’s eerie, post-apocalyptic pictures of deserted districts in one of the oldest continuously inhabited cities in the world.
On one thoroughfare, workers are trying to fill a gaping hole in the side of a building. Further down, some recently returned residents have had to make do with temporary plastic sheeting to replace their collapsed roof.
“At the time of the rebels, it was starvation,” said Salah Moghayer, a resident of the Salhin neighborhood who used to work in a hammam.
Like thousands of other residents, he was evacuated at the end of the siege and returned in early 2017.
“The hammam was destroyed. As soon as it is repaired, I will take my old job back,” said the father of three daughters, who now works as a porter.
Unofficial estimates say around 500,000 people, about half of east Aleppo’s population, have returned.
Fabrice Balanche, a visiting fellow at Stanford University’s Hoover Institution, warned however that the rebirth of what was Syria’s commercial hub is still a long way away.
He said the looting of the industrial zone and the flight of Aleppo’s business community has crippled the city.
“They are in Gaziantep (Turkey), where they have rebuilt their factories and brought all their workers with them. They have no intention of returning,” he said.
The city was reunited a year ago but the divide has not been erased.
West Aleppo was also damaged but not nearly as much as the city’s east, where many residents who lived under the rebels are too scared to come back.
“I haven’t made any plans to go back because with a president who is a despot and oppresses people, it’s just not possible,” said Mohammed Louai. “I would surely be arrested.”
The 22-year-old now lives in the neighboring province of Idlib, where many of Aleppo’s routed rebels and their supporters fled.
“It was as if someone was tearing your heart out... We were in shock for six months,” he said.
Mohammed Assaf, a young man of the same age, was one of the Aleppo-based rebels forced to relocate to Idlib a year ago.
“We’d rather not remember that day... Even with a one percent chance to free Aleppo, we were happy to stay.”

Lebanon’s seabed yields its historic secrets

Updated 37 min 32 sec ago

Lebanon’s seabed yields its historic secrets

  • Divers find pottery and stone in shipwrecks dating back 2,300 years
  • Discoveries are from Alexander the Great’s siege of Tyre in 332 BC

Forty meters down, on the Mediterranean seabed off the coast of Lebanon, the divers knew they were looking at history.

Among the shipwrecks they investigated this month at 11 sites south of the city of Tyre, they found pottery and stone that had been there for more than 2,300 years.

“The shape of the pottery confirms that it dates back to more than 332 BC,” said the Lebanese archaeologist Dr. Jafar Fadlallah.

Mohammed Al-Sargi, captain of the diving team that found the wrecks, is even more certain. “The pottery and stone found on these wooden ships indicate that they were part of the campaign of Alexander the Great, who in 332 BC attempted to capture the city of Tyre, which was then an island,” he said.

“According to the history books, Alexander built a causeway linking the mainland to the island. These vessels might have been used to transport the stone required for the construction of the road, but due to the heavy loads and storms, they might have sunk.”

UNESCO recognized the archaeological importance of Tyre in 1979, when it added the city to its list of World Heritage Sites. Lebanon’s Directorate of Antiquities, in cooperation with European organizations, has carried out extensive excavations since the 1940s to uncover its historical secrets. They have revealed that the ancient maritime city included residential neighborhoods, public baths, sports centers, and streets paved with mosaics. The discoveries date back to the Phoenician, Roman and Byzantine periods.

During the Phoenician era, Tyre played an important role as it dominated maritime trade. It contributed to the establishment of commercial settlements around the Mediterranean and the spread of religions in the ancient world. It also resisted occupation by the Persians and the Macedonians, choosing to remain neutral in the struggle between the two bitter enemies. However, Macedonian king Alexander the Great considered gaining control of the island and establishing a naval base there to be a key to victory in the war, and he set out in January 332 BC to conquer it at any cost.

The area in which the diving team discovered the wrecks is “an underwater desert with no valleys or seaweed, a few hundred meters from the coast of Tyre,” said Al-Sargi.

“We found 11 sites, some of them close to each other and others far apart. In each location, there were piles of stones and broken pots.

“We continued to explore the sites quietly to keep away fishermen and uninvited guests. We sought the help of archaeologists, who assured us that the discovery rewrites the history of the city, and specifically the campaign of Alexander the Great. So, we decided to put the discovery in the custody of the General Directorate of Antiquities for further exploration and interpretation.”

The most recent find, which Al-Sargi described as a “time capsule,” is only the latest important discovery made by the team in Lebanon.

“In 1997, the divers discovered the submerged city of Sidon,” Al-Sargi continued. “In 2001, we discovered the city of Yarmouta opposite the Zahrani area. In 1997, we discovered sulfuric water in the Sea of Tyre. We conducted studies on fresh-water wells in the sea off the city coast.

“We are not archaeologists and we cannot explain what we have seen. Our role is to inspect and report to the relevant Lebanese authorities and abide by the law.”

Fadlallah, an archaeologist with 40 years experience of working at Lebanon’s ancient sites, picks up the story to explain what he believes to be the significance of the discovery at Tyre.

“The sites are about 700 meters from where Tyre beach was when it was an island,” he said. “The piles of stones were 50 meters to 200 meters apart and the pots seemed to have been broken by a collision because there was not one left intact. This means that these stones and pots were on ships and there was a violent collision between them.”

He said that studies of the remains of the pots suggest that they are of Greek origin.

“There are various forms of them,” he said, “and it is clear that the ships that were carrying them were related to the ships of Alexander the Great during his campaign on Tyre, and they appear to have been hit by storms.”

There are, of course, always skeptics — among them Dr. Ali Badawi, director of archaeological sites in the south at Lebanon’s General Directorate of Antiquities. The pots alone did not constitute sufficient “evidence that the ships belonged to the campaign of Alexander the Great,” he said.

“What was published by the captain of the divers contains unclear details, and the subject should be based on scientific explanations. I think that the sea is wide and piracy was possible at the sites of the submerged ships.

“Exploration operations are taking place in the breakwater area, involving a French mission and Lebanese archaeologists. Before that, a Spanish expedition along with marine archaeologists participated in examining the remains of a ship dating back to the BC era.

“Ship exploration is very expensive, and the city of Tyre was subjected to numerous military siege campaigns and many ships sank. But this does not mean that we will not investigate this new discovery, according to the instructions of the minister of culture.”