BEIRUT — The 11th-century minaret of a famed mosque that towered over the narrow stone alleyways of Aleppo's old quarter collapsed Wednesday as rebels and government troops fought pitched battles in the streets around it, depriving the ancient Syrian city of one of its most important landmarks.
President Bashar Assad's government and the rebels trying to overthrow him traded blame over the destruction to the Umayyad Mosque, a UNESCO world heritage site and centerpiece of Aleppo's walled Old City.
"This is like blowing up the Taj Mahal or destroying the Acropolis in Athens. This mosque is a living sanctuary," said Helga Seeden, a professor of archaeology at the American University of Beirut. "This is a disaster. In terms of heritage, this is the worst I've seen in Syria. I'm horrified."
Aleppo, Syria's largest city and a commercial hub, emerged as a key battleground in the nation's civil war after rebels launched an offensive there last summer. Since then, the fighting has carved the city into rebel- and regime-held zones, killed thousands of people, forced thousands more to flee their homes and laid waste to entire neighborhoods.
The Umayyad Mosque complex, which dates mostly from the 12th century, suffered extensive damage in October as both sides fought to control the walled compound in the heart of the old city. The fighting left the mosque burned, scarred by bullets and trashed. Two weeks earlier, the nearby medieval covered market, or souk, was gutted by a fire sparked by fighting.
With thousands of years of written history, Syria is home to archaeological treasures that date back to biblical times, including the desert oasis of Palmyra, a cultural center of the ancient world. The nation's capital, Damascus, is one of the oldest continually inhabited cities in the world.