Standing in the square and closing my eyes tight shut, I could just about imagine what it must have been like in days gone by: the place thronging with people, the faithful chanting, churchgoers flooding in and out of the great cathedrals that stood proud and tall close by.
What a difference a few years can make. Here, at the heart of Aleppo’s ancient Old City, the ravages of war have left their cruel mark almost everywhere you look.
As we stood there on a cold winter’s morning, our guide, Aleppo’s Melkite Greek Catholic Archbishop Jean-Clément Jeanbart, drew our attention to the blackened façade of a Church-run orphanage that occupied one side of the square. “Many people died there,” he said sadly, adding that the brother of a priest had died in the block of flats next door when a bomb set the whole place alight.
Behind the archbishop the once-grand Maronite cathedral stood with a vast hole in the middle where a bomb had smashed through the nave. Nearby, his own Greek Catholic cathedral was a shadow of its former self. Archbishop Jeanbart said that he had had to abandon the site four years ago for fear of abduction, a fate that had befallen two fellow Aleppo archbishops – Yohanna Ibrahim and Boulos Yazigi.
Kidnap was one threat; being killed on the spot was another: the archbishop estimates that 60 bombs of one form or another landed in this part of the Old City over the course of the war.
On December 23, the guns finally fell silent and an apparent victory was handed to Syria’s President Assad in the battle for the city. Today, the cacophony of bombs is replaced by an eerie silence. Will the people come back? Not yet. With a political settlement still a distant hope, people are just marking time.
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