Caught in the crossfire of a battle in which neither side will surrender, Syrian architect Marwa Al-Sabouni reports from the besieged old city of Homs
We like to cheer on the underdog. Generally people will support the weak in a fight against the strong, even when there is little moral difference between them. But we rarely think of the people and places caught in the crossfire.
Watching Tom and Jerry we hope cunning Jerry will get the better of powerful Tom, but in the process they end up ruining their home, breaking things that don’t belong to them to defeat each other, resulting in destruction all around.
The Old City of Homs has experienced this violent dance all over its ancient buildings and its coherent society. This sieged part of the city today is living the life of Leningrad during the Second World War. In fact it is a double siege; 73 Christian civilians with their priest are being held as hostages by troops, who are in turn being besieged with their families.
It has been widely reported in the Western media that women and children trapped in Homs are to be rescued - allowed to get out of the city. At the time of writing civilians are leaving but it is of little comfort, the old city is beyond rescue. The losses that this city has endured surpass piecemeal attempts at intervention.
Inside the old city, houses and their courtyards were built using the basalt black stone of the region. Churches and mosques were built in the same way next to or in front of each other. It was common to hear Christian bells and the Muslim call to prayer echoing through the streets at the same time. Syrians were living in this harmony for decades; even the Khalid ibn Al-Walid Mosque, which held an extremely sentimental value for the people of Homs, was built by the hands of Muslims and Christians working together but today stands half-demolished by bombing.
The people of Homs rely on the hand-made social system; many neighbourhoods of Old Homs are named after major families, we still know each other by family tree. If you meet someone in Homs, the first thing he or she will ask you will be ‘who is your father, your mother …’, we all seem to know each other.
Enhancing the old city’s micro-culture was the old souk – an Ottoman-style covered market housing fabrics and gold along with crafts such as copper carvings and blacksmithing. Outside the walls you would have found clothing and domestic equipment while across the street would be the farmers’ market; fish and chicken stalls wrapping all the way around. Condensing the activity, doctors’ clinics and offices sat above in the upper storeys of the surrounding buildings. The old souk was no urbane configuration, yet life inside was vibrant, the whole city living and working there. Now it is a ruin.
Our way of life has been demolished along with our buildings. Homs is the only city in Syria that has seen its centre completely destroyed. The Old City of Homs is dead; people have lost their homes, their furniture, clothes, even photos. They have lost their jobs, their churches, mosques and medical facilities; but the most important thing, the most hurtful thing, is that the people have lost each other. The love and harmony that existed between communities and religions has been shattered. The wounds that have been opened in this area are deeper than bullets. Caught in the crossfire there is no winner and no underdog to cheer for.
About the author
Marwa Al-Sabouni is an architect living in Homs, Syria