“The procedures for the reconstruction of old Aleppo are very complex and difficult, for the municipality wants to rebuild it according to the old plans using old stones and arch structures, all at our own expense, which is very costly and inconceivable,” said one of Aleppo merchants from the old market, (Al-Madina) to Enab Baladi.
During the battles between the opposition and Assad forces, since mid-2012, Aleppo had been under continuous bombing for four years that transformed a goof number of its buildings into rubble.
According to the preliminary assessment by the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) by the end of 2016, the battles destroyed 60 percent of the city’s landmarks, 30 percent of which were completely destroyed, particularly in its eastern, northern and southern neighborhoods, with no accurate statistics given.
Aleppo was the most damaged province compared to the other six provinces that the specialized research team appointed by the World Bank inspected to measure the degree of damage using satellite images. The team ended up concluding that about 58.1 percent of Aleppo has been totally eradicated.
However, the suffering of the citizens of Aleppo did not end with the Syrian regime’s control over these neighborhoods. Apart from the large numbers of the city’s population who have been displaced by force, attention is focused on the “reconstruction” game and who is liable to reconstruct what has been destroyed by the fights in order to bring back the inhabitants to their neighborhoods and the merchants to their markets.
Enab Baladi has contacted merchants who are familiar with the issue of reconstruction after their shops have been demolished in the old market (al-Madina), the oldest and longest roofed market in the world according to the Guinness World Records Book. It discussed with them the market reconstruction plans, the expected duration, how it is to be done, who is to assume responsibility for that, and the possible procedures to get the merchants back.
Abu Ammar, 73, who asked not to be named for security reasons, has since a very young age been one of the merchants of the region. He inherited his shop at the entrance of the copper market in front of the Great Umayyad Mosque, from his father who, in turn, inherited it from his ancestors, as it is the case for the majority of Al-Madina merchants, or as the popular saying goes: “a merchant all over”.
Old Aleppo merchants have started the process of reconstruction almost three months ago. The reconstructed places are the areas and markets that extend from Aleppo Fort passing by the carpets market and al-Saqtiyah Souq up to the two doors of Antioch, and other areas around the Fort and the Great Mosque.
Merchants are to Bear the Expenses
The problem for the merchants whom Enab Baladi contacted lies in the duration and cost of the reconstruction process especially with the absence of a tangible and concrete plan. According to their testimonies, the Syrian regime’s government has not yet determined a reconstruction plan, and is instead indirectly ‘forcing’ them to defray its costs on their own.
They can barely choose not to start the reconstruction process, albeit bearing its costs, because they need to reopen their shops, regain their income sources, and minimize the damage they have suffered for years after their shops closed as fast as they can.
The Prime Minister of the Syrian regime, Imad Khamis, visited Aleppo early in February 2017, accompanied by 15 ministers, and talked about the efforts his government is doing to mend the current situation at the levels of services and economy and proceed with reconstruction. The initial reconstruction budget, planning to cover 14 projects, has been fixed to about one billion and 100 million Syrian liras.
However, a government official, who asked not to be identified, confirmed the absence of a concrete plan to start the reconstruction process, and the subsequent absence of a specific budget.
The regime’s government accepts compensation requests from citizens whose properties have been destroyed but according to special schedules determined by the related committees which estimate the cost of the damage. In addition, the final approval requires enough examination time, but no explicit deadline for such examination has ever been indicated, according to the official.
The reconstruction process of Aleppo will be carried out following the old plans at the municipality, starting with the types of stone , the shape of the arches, the height and the construction area when the city was listed by the UNESCO in the World Heritage List of Humanity in 1986.
Within this ambiguous framework, there are other problems that merchants face. These are divided into two categories: the first one involves the process of removing the debris, which must be a first step before any other, albeit literally at the expense of merchants; and the second has to do with another stage, that of applying for the required reconstruction license.
The Government Requests a Disclaimer
Despite the unidentified cost for removing the debris according to the damage degree in each and every individual building, the regime government refuses to remove them on its own, claiming it will isolate stone from dust on its own accord, yet merchants will bear the costs themselves.
It is noteworthy that, according to identical testimonies by different merchants, the government is asking them to sign a disclaimer so as not to ask for any compensation later on or any special property tax reduction, that they call “proprietorship dues”, and water, electricity and telephone bills, even if they have not been used during that period, in addition to any value-added interests they might have accumulated.
This has caused anger among merchants, knowing that, in late February, Aleppo local government, under the control of the regime, announced that it has signed 10 contracts worth 975 million liras to remove the debris, open up main and secondary streets, implement services projects in the different neighborhoods of the city, and remove the destroyed cars from the streets and collect them together in definite places.
Main Streets First
From his side, the official denied the government’s procrastination in removing the debris. He pointed out that the majority of the main streets in the destroyed areas of the city have been opened and equipped for cars, vehicles and people passing by. He stressed that “the government has priorities in dealing with the issue of removal that take into consideration the importance of the area, its population density, and the extent of destruction that took place in it. The government is initially focusing on the main streets.”
The official pointed out that companies such as Military Buildings and Projects Construction and other specialized companies are continuously working 24 hours a day, non-stop, in addition to private contractors.
When asked why merchants were required to defray the expenses of removal, the official considered that Al-Madina is too old, its streets and alleys are too narrow, and that it was difficult for large vehicles to enter them.
Some merchants expressed their desire to start with the removal of the debris, to quickly reopen their shops that had been closed for years. They also expressed their willingness to cover the expenses. Therefore, the government suggested that they isolate the stones (which will be later reused since they are all antique, and their use corresponds to the old plans) from the dust that would be later on transported by skid steer loaders, as the official reported.
Let us assume that merchants do manage to remove the debris in front of their shops, or the debris of their shops even, they should get a license before they start the reconstruction process, and this is yet another tragedy.
Two Complicated License Application Cases
Through information which Enab Baladi collected from merchants, there are two complicated license application cases that the owners failed to get because of the special procedures needed in the old market and its special status in the first place.
According to the merchant Abu Ammar, the first case is that obtaining a reconstruction license is very difficult, and it takes a lot of time, effort and money. He pointed out to the need to obtain the approval of the Committee for the Reconstruction of Old Aleppo, which is currently responsible for planning these procedures, and then to send the approval to the parliament which would issue a resolution approved by the President of the Syrian regime, Bashar al-Assad, through a decree to decide on the reconstruction process.
These procedures may take up to two years since the properties are not isolated from each other, and the cost of obtaining the license may reach up to one million Syrian liras, at the merchant’s expense, according to the supervising engineer of Abu Ammar’s property whom Enab Baladi asked about some procedures.
However, the official in the government replied that this is “illogical”. He explained that the process of issuing the license is not that complicated, and requires a number of logical procedures, which vary in duration and cost depending on the construction process and depending on its peculiarity. This is in case there were legal restrictions on the property, such as a dispute among the inheritors, or in case it was illegally built or does not conform to old plans.
Obtaining a building license in the old city of Aleppo or even wanting to bring some modifications to the building requires the municipality’s approval, provided that the old plans in the records are respected and that no building material which is alien to the general outlook of the rest of the buildings is used, and this is not new.
The official talked about a case he encountered. Within two weeks, he managed to obtain a building license for one of the shops of the old Souq, whose location he did not specify, and it cost about 150,000 pounds, at the rate of 1500 Syrian liras per square meter.
What are the Procedures to Get a License?
The concerned person must bring a title deed, or any document proving that he or she is an owner, tenant or pawnbroker of the property to be repaired.
Thereafter, he hands out the old property plan that is registered in the municipality, so that he does not trespass the boundaries of the other properties next to his own.
And then he is sent to the reconstruction committee, which in its turn studies the request and prepares a specialized engineer who would examine the property’s location and provide a plan and a full vision of it and specify the degree of damage it was exposed to.
The specialized engineer then presents the result to the committee, which issues the license in accordance with the laws.
An Unknown Future in the Hands of the Directorate of Awqaf and the Municipality
The second case of the complicated licenses is the case of Abu Laith and Abu Mohammed, two pseudonyms for two men who own shops at the beginning of the Souq Al-Madina between the Sabaa Bahrat street and the Great Mosque. They are shops that belong to the Directorate of Awqaf which it rented to Aleppo merchants for many years. These merchants fear that they will also lose the stores.
Abu Laith was able to obtain the required license from the Directorate of Awqaf to start renovating his shop. However, he faced an unexpected problem. The municipality refused to grant him the license on the grounds that these properties “should return to the municipality in case they have been destroyed for any reason.”
In Al-Madina, starting from the copper market in front of the Great Mosque, there is a series of shops that are owned by the Directorate of Awqaf. The merchant pays for a nominal annual rent. These shops’ property is transferred from one merchant to another according to a ‘vacancy’ contract, which may be worth millions because of the importance of these shops and their strategic location in front of the Umayyad Mosque at the beginning of the Souq in the way that links the Fort of Aleppo with the roofed market, and the previous parking place for tourist buses.
It was impossible for Enab Baladi to obtain a copy of the municipality’s law, especially with the absence of any legal reference or any available official documents. When contacting the Aleppo governorate to obtain the license, it refused to deliver any and asked that we refer back to the municipal palace.
But the merchant Abu Ammar confirmed the validity of the claim, for he is a merchant who is old enough to be familiar with the municipal laws that are related to the region he lives in and its peculiarity. He even noted that the municipality may later put these stores up for auction to be rented by another person.
‘Al-Madina’: A Name Written in Gold on White Stones
Al-Madina, as Aleppo citizens call it, is a name that is associated with history, civilization, heritage and architectural beauty that dates back to thousands of years and smells of a mixture of spices, perfumes and meat. Echoes of different sounds reverberate in it: medleys of street vendors, peddlers, visitors mix with the sounds of copper carving and the sight of colorful mosaic images of meters of silk and cloaks.
White stones have been used in the construction of Al-Madina and its roofed market, the oldest and longest market in the world, which extends from the current Antioch gate and passes by Sabaa Bahrat, where the large fountain is located in the center of Douar, which, in the visitor’s mind indicates his/her entry into the old market.
Then comes the Umayyad Mosque, one of the oldest mosques in the city, which is about 1290 years old. Its outer courtyard was a place for children’s gathering to witness the sacrificed animals of Eid al-Adha, especially the camels. Images of themselves running in its outer and inner courtyard are connected with the memory of most of Aleppo’s children in the past.
The sound of the Athan (the call for prayer) ceased from the minaret of the Umayyad Mosque with a very painful hit from Assad’s forces. The bomb hit the heart of the market and cut off the beating pulse of its life for the first time in mid-2013, up to Aleppo Fort, the world’s oldest Fort.
Al-Madina consists of 38 markets, a group of boxes and booths (buildings that are open from the inside, where statesmen, employees and tax collectors used to stay), as well as Ottoman baths that show the civilization and the long history of Aleppo, which dates back to more than five thousand years.
The history researcher, and the former president of the Association for the Protection of Ancient Antiquities in Aleppo, Mohammed Qajjah, said that the history of establishing the Souq of Al-Madina dates back to 312 BC and was it was established by Seleucus Nicator, one of the leaders of Alexander of Macedonia (Alexander the Great).
Al-Madina’s roofed market is characteristically cool in summer and warm in winter thanks to the genius architecture and the stones that were used in its construction. It represents the oldest form of what we know today as mall. From this market, thousands of shops branch out in a chain of 5,000 intersected shops.
The length of Al-Madina is 14 kilometers, with a total area of about 16 hectares. Its most important markets are: Zerab, or Dherab in the past, where currency used to be minted; the coverlets; Saqtiyah (variety); soap; cotton; Istanbul and customs markets.
It is not possible to pass by without mentioning the name of the gold market, since Aleppo merchants are famous for gold and its making, and its goldsmiths have been awarded international awards in this respect. When gold, wedding and the bride’s preparations are mentioned in Aleppo, Al-Madina is the first place comes to one’s mind. In addition, this market must be visited in preparation for the wedding ceremonies and arrangements, starting from gold to cloth and cloaks and countless goods that the market included throughout its long years of existence.
Al-Madina has been destroyed more than once, but it was repeatedly reconstructed, which made its construction style vary according to the era in which it was built. The market in is well-known-look is much different from the old one, especially after being burnt by Tamerlane when the Mongols invaded the city.