As Damascus and Aleppo contend for the title of world’s oldest inhabited city, Homs is far more than simply a point between the two. More, too, than Syria’s third biggest urban area and, thanks to its oil refinery and factory complex in Hassia, heart of the country’s heavy industry.
Text and photos: Pablo Sapag M.
The city once known as Emesa owes its name to a pre-Roman Arab tribe, or to the Aramaic name for the site dedicated to the worship of the god the Romans called Elagabalus.
Homs was brought into history by strong women. Julia Domna, wife of Septimius Severus and the most powerful of the Roman Empresses, was from Homs. Many people from the city are today named in her honour.
A century later, in 267 CE, Zenobia founded a splinter state in Palmyra, in present-day Homs Governate, the largest in Syria which now, as then, provides the human, cultural and commercial connection between the desert interior and the Mediterranean, and between the Aleppine north and the Damascene south.
This, perhaps, is why Homs so effectively represents Syria’s diversity. It is also, perhaps, why it has been threatened by the self-styled Islamic State and other organisations since 2011. Now fully or almost rebuilt, the Christian and Muslim temples which were occupied by armed groups between 2012 and 2014 are evidence of the multiconfessional nature of Syrian social life.
Homs is home to the Syrian Saint Mary Church of the Holy Belt, which has conserved a relic of the garment belonging to the mother of Christ, said to be one of the oldest in the world. It is also home to the Greek Orthodox Church of Saint George, and the Mosque of Jaled Ibn al Walid.
All these sites are to be found in the very heart of the city, a stone’s throw from Shukri al Quwatli Avenue, named for one of the heroes of Syrian Independence.
First it faced down the Turks. Then French Imperialism. On its outskirts are Old Clock and New Clock squares, the latter site of a tower which has become the symbol of the city, donated by one of the daughters of the historical emigration to Latin America.
Between these squares are the neighbourhoods of Hamidiyeh, Bustan Diwan and Bab Hood, also occupied by armed groups, many of them jihadists.
The location of Homs, on a crossroads close to Lebanon, the desert, the coast and on the motorway that connects Damascus to Aleppo, explains the vulnerability of a city in which almost every district has witnessed conflict. From Bab Amro, in the south-western suburbs, to Al Zahra in the east, and reaching Al Waer, which early this year was the last to be evacuated by anti-government armed groups.
Now conflict-free, Homs is not hiding its scars. Nor is it resting on its laurels: tireless work is underway, carried out by the people of Homs, local authorities and numerous NGOs.
They are attempting to restore rather than rebuild, since other than on the very edges of the affected areas, the majority of buildings have not suffered structural damage, as Governor Talal Barazi explains. It is calculated that €2,300 will pay to clear a house, replace doors and windows and, where necessary, restore water and electricity supplies.
The owners of apartments in the buildings that will have to be demolished have a year to demonstrate ownership of the property, and, in accordance with Law 10, will be awarded a new home in the buildings that are already under construction.
Beneficiaries of the law will be able to move in to the new home, or put it up for sale or rent. A percentage of the new houses will also go to the city council.
Barazi and his team, ethnically and religiously diverse, as is the entire Syrian administration, insist that the aim is for displaced inhabitants of the city, whose population once numbered a million, to return as soon as possible to their homes. They calculate that around 35% have already done so.
Contributing to this is a sense of security in a city where shots where shots and explosions are no longer heard, and which has already seen the return of traffic police, who in Syria are not armed.
In 2011 they were among the first to be picked off by snipers from the Gardenia Tower, a hotel under construction near the Asi u Orontes river, used as cover by armed groups, some of them jihadists, who had infiltrated the country from Lebanon.
The rebels were later driven out by the Syrian army, which then installed its own snipers in the building during the subsequent battles for Homs. The building has been renamed the Tower of Death. It is a revealing yet simple name.
It is just another story in an ancient city whose children have never claimed for it titles or capital status, the propagandising resonances of which are as overblown as they are vacuous. Even less so when suggested by those who do not recognise Homs’ true nature. This is a city whose football team is called Karama: Dignity. As simple as that. Like Homs. No more, no less. Yesterday, today, and always.
(Translated by Kit Sedgwick: kitsedgwick.com)