Aleppo’s Al-Madina Souq, the heart of the city and center of its centuries old history of trading, burned on September 2012. The fire, possibly set deliberately or perhaps the accidental result of nearby fighting, destroyed much of the massive complex of shops, warehouses, religious buildings and hammams that dated back to the 14th century. The loss to the city goes far beyond the physical destruction. Al-Madina was a vital public space in which all religious groups and classes of the city interacted, where commerce was favored over faith and where Aleppians built trading networks that spanned the globe. The reconstruction of the Souq will be essential if Aleppo is to recover its previous vitality but that will require imaginative processes that go beyond simply rebuilding what was there before.
The Souq, the largest covered market in the world with 13 kilometers of shops, was severely damaged in the fire. In 2014, UNESCO assessed the Al-Madina complex and found that 34 of the 45 souqs had severe visible damage and about 1,500 of the 1,600 shops were damaged or destroyed.1 The fire may have started due to nearby fighting. There is no evidence is was started deliberately but no investigation has taken place. The extent of the damage is enormous; the commercial heart of Aleppo and its complex social networks have been destroyed.
Those networks provided a vital civic function in the city. Pragmatism was bred into the bones of even the most religious Aleppians. In the 14th century, Arab Sunni merchants who preferred not to deal with Shia Persians hired Armenians to act as middle men in the silk trade. In these ways, multi-faith and multi-ethnic networks developed that retained a resonance up to the present day. Now many of those who owned businesses in the Souq have fled the city.
Reconstruction of the Souq will be an essential part of rebuilding Aleppo but there are many challenges ahead. Ownership will be hard to document and in some cases those with claims will have left for good. Reconstruction will need to consider historical accuracy but also provide for improvements demanded by merchants and shoppers. Many of those with traditional construction skills have left the city and the chain of education by which techniques are passed down risks being broken. On top of these issues, there may be commercial pressures to build in a newer style.
The precedents elsewhere in the Middle East do not offer much hope. In Beirut the downtown Souq, once a vital commercial center, was abandoned for so long that there was little prospect of it ever recovering. Traders had moved elsewhere and shopping patterns had changed. The Souq was rebuilt as a modern shopping mall with only the faintest nod towards traditional design or organization of the Souq. No provision was made for smaller traditional traders; instead it has become a charmless set of international stores that could be found in any large city. Doha attempted to recreate a more traditional feel in a downtown district but the effect is artificial and sterile, a theme-park emptied of history or spirit. Urbanism across the Middle East has turned away from history in favor of sterile, controlled and private spaces focused on consumerism and tight social control.
For Aleppo to succeed, it will be need to put as much emphasis on recreating the social linkages that made the Souq as it does in putting the stones back together. Only with a slow and patient process of consultation will sufficient consensus develop on how to rebuild, how to sequence the construction and how to address the many problems that will arise. Revitalizing the Souq will be essential if Aleppo is to recover a key public space that is not just at its physical center but lies at the heart of its identity as a cosmopolitan trading city.
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