A spice stall in Souk Madina.
Thirty thousand people have died in Syria's civil war—and the killing is only intensifying. Obviously, human beings are any war's most appalling casualties, but there are cultural conflagrations that matter, too—vital spaces laid waste, lost forever. Few alive today have experienced the reputed grandeur of old Warsaw, leveled by Nazi bombs in World War II. How would the celebrated Aztec city of Tenochtitlán have weathered the centuries? We'll never know, because the Spanish flattened it in the process of conquest, building over it what we now know as Mexico City.
Unhappily, the violence in Syria has spread to the "ancient city" section of Aleppo, a UNESCO World Heritage site and home to the famous Souk Madina, a vast market vending everything from meat to spices to fabric since medieval times. On Saturday, reports Reuters, a clash between government and rebel forces sparked a fire that swept through the old market, burning a substantial portion of it. According to Reuters, it's the largest covered market in the world—"a network of vaulted stone alleyways and carved wooden facades" whose winding interior hallways "have a combined length of eight miles."
The extent of the damage remains unclear, but it appears extensive. Reuters reports that local observers say at least 1,500 stalls are ruined, and were, as of Sunday, still burning. UNESCO Director-General Irina Bokova has issued a missive deploring the destruction. "The Aleppo souks have been a thriving part of Syria's economic and social life since the city's beginnings. They stand as testimony to Aleppo's importance as a cultural crossroads since the second millennium B.C.," she wrote. I have emails into the UNESCO press office seeking an update on the damage.
Though I've never been to the Middle East, Souk Madina has long occupied a place in my imagination for the storied richness and diversity of its spices, produce, and meat, the maze of hallways and vaulted ceilings that make up its endless stalls, and the sheer grand chaos of a teeming old market. So I contacted a few US food authorities from whose writings I've learned to revere the cooking of the Eastern Mediterranean to get their perspective on the apparent disaster.