Aleppo's Souk Madina now a battleground following fire
Traders' future is uncertain after fire left shops in ruin at bazaar that is now a sniper's paradise
The familiar passageways have turned hostile, the comforting labyrinth now a maze of menace.
But Abu Taher threaded his way through the alleys of Aleppo's ancient Souk Madina on Tuesday, past piles of debris and charred storefronts, determined to see whether his textile shop had survived the recent conflagration. He came alone, risking his fate to the hidden gunmen seeking targets.
"It's our livelihood," he explained, abruptly bursting into tears, a man of 60 weeping amid the desolation.
Abu Taher found little sympathy, however, from a group of armed rebels camped out in front of a trashed pistachio emporium, 50 metres from the front lines and the current range of government marksmen. The rebels have seen many of their comrades killed as they battle the forces of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad.
"Why are you crying about a shop [when] people are dying?" one combatant with a Kalashnikov rifle dismissively asked the grieving merchant, who, like others, requested that he be identified with a nickname for security reasons. "Go back home, uncle."
His shop, as it turned out, was unscathed. But some nearby establishments had not survived the onslaught.
Last month's devastating fire that raged around the ancient bazaar is said to have destroyed hundreds of shops. Many still don't know the fate of their businesses, their families' lifelines.
Aleppo's Old City, a United Nations-recognised World Heritage Site, has become a battleground. The core of the covered market is abandoned and dangerous, a place where rival snipers train their rifles and shells fall almost every afternoon. The shoppers and tourists are long gone.
The nearby medieval citadel, the city's signature landmark, remains a government stronghold. The historic Umayyad Mosque, meanwhile, has been a site of combat, changing hands in the last week. As of Tuesday, it was back under government control.
Preservationists worldwide have expressed concern for the fate of the sprawling bazaar of Aleppo, a Silk Road terminus. Once bustling, the passages beneath its vaulted stone arches are now lifeless except for scurrying cats and the occasional militiamen making their way through, wary of an attack.
Opposition activists said government shelling started the recent blaze; wood structures and combustible goods such as clothing and draperies quickly fed the flames. But so far the cause remains unclear.
On Tuesday, several journalists who entered the dense warren saw considerable damage, but the epicentre of the blaze was unreachable because of snipers. Under rebel escort, visitors were advised to dash past various crossings on which government riflemen were said to have their weapons trained. Gunfire echoed in the passageways. The rebels, with little formal military training, have difficulty securing the jumble of lanes and alleys, making it a sniper's paradise.
In the sections that were accessible on Tuesday, the stone archways, hanging lamps and massive wooden doors separating areas of the market appeared largely intact. But the souk is massive, covering hundreds of hectares, and the full extent of the damage remained unclear.
Whatever the fate of the bazaar's physical structure, the fighting has been a disaster for residents and merchants.
Many Old City denizens seem to bristle with resentment at the opposition force, which they view as having brought war to their enclave. Most of the fighters appear to be from rural areas, fuelling the sense of division between rebels and residents.
"We're caught between two sides, and we're with neither of them," said one merchant, who, like others, wanted to give only his first name, Hussein.