ALEPPO, Syria: Men throw rubble into the courtyard of a historic inn here as merchants gather below to oversee the resurrection of their war-battered shops.
The shopkeepers have returned for the first time to clear the debris left behind by years of fighting after their century-old trading ground became a front line.
“I was so happy to see my shop still standing amid the trash despite a little damage,” says Antoun Baqqal, 66, one of the traders in the Khayr Beyk Khan.
Once famous for its bustling souks and old citadel, Aleppo’s Old City has been rendered almost unrecognizable by some of the worst violence in Syria’s nearly six-year conflict.
After years of fighting, many of the city’s famed souks have been completely destroyed.
But the shops of Khayr Beyk have largely survived, even if some stores inside the two-floor inn, known in the region as a khan, have seen their facades ripped off in the fighting.
“I sent my friends pictures of their shops to encourage them to come back, until they all returned one by one,” Baqqal says.
Rebels overran east Aleppo in the summer of 2012, effectively dividing the city into a regime-held west and opposition-controlled east.
“The army was here. They used to sleep upstairs and downstairs in the shops,” Baqqal says.
But after regime forces seized east Aleppo in December, retaking the whole city, he was able to return to the cloth workshop he inherited from his father.
When he found his father’s photo lying on the ground, he dusted it off and hung it back up on the wall.
“I’m going to tidy up the workshop so my son can take over, so he can put my photo next to my father’s one day and remember me fondly.”
Like a ‘family home’
In the courtyard, Zakaria Aziza, 55, scrolls through his phone, comparing old pictures of the more than a dozen shops he owns to their appearance today.
Customers used to flock from across the Arab region to admire the shopping venue’s textiles, he says.
“The khan once overflowed with material. You could hardly walk between the shops for all the customers,” Aziza says.
“Today it’s also hard to walk around—but this time it’s because of all the rubble and trash.”
In the courtyard, a mulberry and a lemon tree survive amid the mounds of waste. A rusty yellow safe and gaping white fridge lie among the debris.
Tugging on a rope, two boys pull a plastic tray full of rubble, then dump its contents onto a pile.
Authorities have promised to collect bags of debris and help with restoration, but Aziza says reviving the souk will take a year at least.
Catching his breath on an old red sofa nearby after clambering to the site, his 35-year-old nephew Mazen says he has been playing in the old market since he was a child.
“It feels like the family home,” he says, as he helps his uncle supervise the clean-up.
Years of shelling have eaten away at the souk’s historic black and white walls, which have been charred in the clashes.
But sunlight still spills in from one of the openings in its arched roof.
At the souk’s entrance, Mohammed Nour Mimi, 60, rummages through his store to find surviving musical instruments in the dust.
For years he has carried around the keys to the covered market’s giant wooden door, determined he and other traders would one day return.
“Merchants will come back to chat over coffee and shisha,” he says, “whether the souk opens again or not.”