The majority of the shops in Souk Qastal Al-Hajjarin in the old city of Aleppo, around 150 shops in total, remain closed for business despite the fact that regime forces have controlled the entirety of the old city and eastern neighbourhoods since forcibly displacing the opposition in late 2016.
Historically, Souk Qastal Al-Hajjarin was known for its laurel and olive oil soap factories. In 1875, the neighbourhood contained 138 homes, bordered to the south by the Hatem and Jeb AsadAllah streets, to the north by Bhesita street, and to the east by the Ali and the old tanning workshop streets, an owner of one local historic shop told The Syria Report.
Important landmarks in the souk include the Salhiya or Qadiriya corner, one of the oldest street corners in Aleppo, as well as the Sharbaji Mosque, the Nahuieen Mosque, the Shadhiliya School, the Wati Mosque, and the Orphans’ Office. Also in the souk is a water station built by the deputy of Aleppo, Yalbugha, in 1753, the New Bathhouse, and the Oil Khan, open since 1742. The souk has a water well that opened in 1900 and was known as Qastal Al-Hajjarin, the name that the souk itself eventually took.
A road passes through Souk Qastal Al-Hajjarin leading to the Bab Al-Faraj square, and another road to Bab Al-Janan. Three years before World War I, Sheikh Mahmoud Ibn Sheikh Mohammed Khair Al-Din Al-Halwi, a professor of the Salhiya Sufi Order, built 13 commercial shops on awqaf, or endowment, lands and leased them for the benefit of the Sufi Order.
During the First World War (1914-1918)war, the local authorities of the Ottoman Sultanate demolished a number of houses and shops in the neighbourhood and widened the roads. With the end of that war and the collapse of the Ottoman Sultanate, the neighbourhood expanded, and the shops proliferated, making Souk Qastal Al-Hajjarin one of the most prestigious historic souks in old Aleppo.
In the second quarter of the 20th century, the Aleppo municipality opened a street in the old souk destroying many archaeological landmarks. On both sides of the new street, modern buildings appeared, occupied by bank branches, jewellers, gold shops, precious fabrics shops and carpet traders.
The shops in Souk Qastal Al-Hajjarin belong to their owners, most of whom inherited them from their fathers and grandfathers within families native to the area. In 1974, the Aleppo City Council took over all the shops in the neighbourhood – around 150 shops in total – for the purpose of zoning and expanding the Bab Al-Faraj area. According to the plans set for the project, the majority of those shops were slated for demolition. While waiting for the expansion and demolition, the Aleppo City Council rented those shops to their owners, and they became occupants via rental contracts.
Then in 1986, UNESCO listed the old city of Aleppo on the World Heritage list. Consequently, implementation of the approved zoning plans was halted, but the shops remained owned by the City Council. The situation remained as it was until 2011. The zoning plan was not implemented and the shops were not demolished – nor, however, were they returned to their owners or compensated for.
The souk witnessed a general strike in mid-2012 as part of the Syrian revolution, making it clear that many occupants were against the regime. From 2012 to 2016, the souk became a site for regime forces to position themselves near the frontline with the opposition, which at the time was entrenched in the old city of Aleppo. The souk was subjected to vandalism and destruction, primarily when the regime forces opened the talaqiyat in its walls and ceilings, which are openings used for shooting and mortar shells, as well as for monitoring, sniping and reconnaissance. These talaqiyat were also struck by opposition forces in their response to regime weapons fire. This is besides the demolition operations that occurred in the historic souk to make way for armoured vehicles and heavy military machinery.
Despite the regime forces regaining complete control of east Aleppo in 2016, they did not help shop owners restore and rehabilitate their properties in the souk. On the contrary, they tried to obstruct such work. In 2018, the Aleppo City Council issued Decision No. 78 to again seize the shops, preventing their occupants from repairing and reopening them before paying the full rent due for the years 2012-2016. The council also decided to triple the rental prices for the shops.
One shop owner told The Syria Report that the City Council seized his shop in 2018, along with dozens of neighbouring ones. They were forced to pay SYP 2 million in rent due for the years 2012-2016, during which the shop was closed due to regime forces’ positions in the market and its transformation into a military zone.
Some former shop occupants refused to pay the new rents, amid rumours that the City Council will return and force them to vacate the shops even if they make the request back payments. Meanwhile, some shop occupants have filed lawsuits against the City Council.
In an even more unusual step, in August 2022, the City Council issued Decision No. 4532, cancelling the previous Decision No. 78, and reinstating the old lease contracts with the market shop occupants, provided that the legal claims are withdrawn. Then the council returned in 2023, and raised the value of the shop rents many times over. Now the monthly rent per shop is around SYP 250,000, though rents vary based on shop size.
According to some shop owners, the City Council’s policy is an intentional move to evict the remaining souk occupants in favour of the Qaterji Development and Real Estate Investment Company. Some accuse the Qaterji company of influencing the governorate and city councils, pressuring them to force shop owners to leave. The ultimate goal is unclear.
Interviewees told The Syria Report they suspect that the company’s final aim is not just to lease the shops after their owners have vacated, but is linked to a broader project related to emptying the shops first and then embarking on a complete souk renovation project. Some occupants pointed to the possibility of Qaterji partnering with international or local organisations for the souk’s renovation, and then reinvesting in it. Some shop owners said that they are even deprived of benefiting from Decree No. 13 of 2022, which grants extensive tax facilities and exemptions within the old cities in the provinces of Aleppo, Homs and Deir-ez-Zor.
Hussam Qaterji, an Aleppo MP for the People’s Assembly since 2016, is one of the most prominent businessmen loyal to the regime to have thrived during the war years. Qaterji primarily worked in buying oil and wheat for the Damascus government from northeastern Syria during its control by the Islamic State organisation, and later by the Syrian Democratic Forces. He heads the Qaterji International Group, which includes various companies, one being the Qaterji Development and Real Estate Investment Company established in August 2017, and headquartered in the Aleppo governorate building.
Several shop owners said that some employees of the Aleppo City Council and the governorate council are now working for the Qaterji Company. They receive high wages from the Qaterji Company on the condition of continuing in their official jobs in the municipal councils. Shop occupants accuse these employees of facilitating the Qaterji Development and Real Estate Investment Company’s business interest at the expense of the shop owners, as well as the governorate and city councils.