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Russia strives to present itself as the rebuilder of Aleppo

The Mufti of Chechnya, Salah Mezhiev, toured Syria in April. He visited Damascus and the war-torn city of Aleppo, a city recaptured by Syrian troops and their Russian allies in December after vicious fighting.

Mezhiev met Chechen troops serving in a military police contingent deployed by Russia this year. He expressed the desire of the Chechen Republic, a part of the Russian Federation, to rebuild the Great Mosque of Aleppo. The Umayyad Mosque was destroyed by the fighting in April 2013 and its rebuilding has become a symbol of Russia’s influence.

Moscow is determined not to give Saudi Arabia, Qatar or Turkey any of the reconstruction work, so it has nudged the Syrian government to take its offer of US$15 million for the job, arguing that the honor of rebuilding Syria belongs to the Kremlin and its friends.

The Umayyad Mosque is at the entrance to the souk in the Old City. It is the biggest mosque in Aleppo, built in the 11th Century, during the Umayyad Dynasty of Islam. The architectural splendor of the mosque means it is regarded as a treasure throughout the Muslim world.

The mosque is to the people of Aleppo what the Pyramids of Giza are to Egyptians or the Great Wall to the Chinese. The mosque is reputed to contain the remains of Zechariah, the father of John the Baptist.

Damaged buildings in Aleppo. Photo: Reuters/Abdalrhman Ismail

Damaged buildings in Aleppo. Photo: Reuters/Abdalrhman Ismail

In the battle for Aleppo, the minaret of the mosque, erected in 1090, the prayer quarters and the courtyard were reduced to rubble. As was the adjacent museum which housed priceless pre-Islamic manuscripts and a small box containing strands of hair believed to have come from the head of the Prophet Mohammad. Looters have pillaged what remained.

Painstaking restoration work is due to begin in the summer. The work will be supervised by Russian architects. Their role has provoked fiery debate in social media among Syrians on all sides in the civil war. Opponents of the government in Damascus are outraged that Russia has a say in the restoration, the Kremlin having fanned the flames of war since its troops entered the fray in 2015.

Even among supporters of the government in Damascus, many think the money should be spent on easing the plight of the millions of people displaced in six years of fighting, the uncounted number maimed and the families of the 500,000 people killed in the conflict.

The mosque has been damaged or destroyed before, and rebuilt each time. The third-deadliest earthquake on record, in 1138, ruined parts of the mosque and killed more than 200,000 people. The mosque was sacked and torched by Mongols led by the grandson of Genghis Khan in 1260. Hulagu Khan and his troops overran Aleppo, slaughtered of all the men and enslaved the women and children. Another deadly earthquake, in 1344, badly damaged the mosque. The Mongols, this time under Tamerlane, attacked Aleppo again in 1400 and sacked the city, doing more damage to the building.

The sun sets over Aleppo as seen from rebel-held part of the city, Syria October 5, 2016. Photo: Reuters/Abdalrhman Ismail

The sun sets over Aleppo. Photo: Reuters / Abdalrhman Ismail

In rebuilding from its most recent conflict, Russian President Vladimir Putin is glad to see his friends pitch in to help but it is clear he wants to have a final say in who rebuilds Aleppo. He is determined that Turkey will be kept on the sidelines, fearing that it has designs on the city.

The Kremlin also intends to play a role in the reconstruction of the ancient city of Palmyra, which Islamic State in Iraq and Syria captured in 2015 and last year. the damage includes the temples of Bel and Baalshamin, the Monumental Arch, the Valley of Tombs, the Roman amphitheatre and the city museum. Most were blown up and then looted. The ISIS occupiers smashed more than 200 valuable artifacts, lopping the heads and hands off treasured statues. They destroyed the eastern tower of the Fakhr al-Din al-Ma’ani Castle, a Mamluk-era fortress.

The government in Damascus says repairing the damage done in Palmyra may take up to 10 years. Polish experts involved in the reconstruction of a 15-ton statue that stood by the entrance to the Palmyra Museum began by scouring the cobbled streets of the city for tiny fragments of the statue.

The civil war has ruined built heritage elsewhere in Syria. Fighting badly damaged the Maronite church in Aleppo. It caused the collapse of a bridge over the Euphrates in Deir ez-Zor, which had been built by the French in the 1920s. It destroyed the Armenian Genocide Memorial Church in the same city and the Seventh Century Khalid Ibn Al-Walid Mosque in Homs.

Asia Times (29 May 2017)