Established near the end of the Stone Age, Homs was Syria's third-largest city, and its destruction under Bashar al Assad threatens to send it back to 2300 BCE.

For as far back as one can remember, the Khalid ibn al-Walid Mosque in the central Syrian city of Homs, was a majestic building where prayers were held daily, attracting visitors from all over the world.

Now everything has changed, nine years of grinding war have destroyed large parts of the mosque, ended the daily prayers and basically rendered the mosque abandoned as ordinary people are forbidden from entering its premises.

The destruction of this heritage site came in the wake of the popular revolution that broke out in early 2011 against Syrian regime leader Bashar al Assad. The mosque in Homs was a starting point for the escalating demonstrations that earned Homs the title, the ‘capital of the revolution’.

With the expansion of opposition control in 2012, Damascus demanded support from Iran and then Russia, which eventually expelled the opposition to northern Syria from late 2015 until 2017.

As the influence and presence of Muslim extremists grew within anti-Assad forces - especially those who believed that prayer was not permissible in mosques with shrines - there was a clear declaration of indifference for what was happening to the mosque and the shrine of Khalid ibn al-Walid.

A revered Islamic place

Khalid Ibn al-Walid was born in Mecca, present-day Saudi Arabia and was a commander in the service of the Prophet Muhammad who gave him the famous title ‘Sayf Allah’ (the Sword of God).

Ibn Al-Walid led the Islamic conquests in Iraq, then took control of Damascus and Homs in 636 AD and met with the Muslim armies in preparation for the battle of Yarmouk, in which Emperor Heraclius and his army of about 100,000 Byzantine soldiers were defeated by Walid who had a force of anywhere between 15,000-45,000 soldiers.

An inscription in the Khalid ibn-al Walid mosque.
An inscription in the Khalid ibn-al Walid mosque. (Harun al Aswad / TRTWorld)

This display prompted Omar ibn al-Khattab, the second Muslim caliph, to isolate ibn al-Walid in order to stem people’s infatuation with his heroism. The leader settled in Homs and died there, and since then, Homs is known as the city of Ibn al-Walid, and the neighbourhood surrounding the mausoleum known as the al-Khalidiya neighbourhood.

Homs was spared destruction in 1400 by Timur, the Mongol conqueror, because of the symbolism of ibn al-Walid's shrine.

The inscription on a plaque inside the mosque reads: "This is the famous companion [disciple] mosque, our master Khalid bin Al-Walid and its fixed shrine, the old building was built in 653 AH [1237 AD] by Sultan al-Zahir Baibars, then the administration of Sultan Abdul Hamid II Al-Othmani in 1318 AH issued a renewal of its building after its demolition, With the efforts of the people of virtue, so it was built The year 1363 [1943 AD] from the migration of the Master of the Messengers, God bless him, his family and all of his companions."

In the modern era

Residents of Homs have long been known for their humour and beauty, a local popular saying goes, 'Damascus and its water, Homs and its daughters'. It’s also famous for its sweets and is the third-largest city in the country.

Although it is the birthplace of Assad's wife, its residents have been under the tight grip of state security since the massacres that killed thousands of opponents in the nearby city of Hama in 1982. The popular saying the ‘walls have ears’ prevailed to push dissenters into silence.

A mosque guard, pictured, prevents civilians from entering the mosque and photographing it from the inside.
A mosque guard, pictured, prevents civilians from entering the mosque and photographing it from the inside. (Harun al Aswad / TRTWorld)

The people of its southern neighbourhoods, who belong to the same Alawite sect that Assad belongs to, had broad authority and the governor was planning in 2007 to establish residential projects called the "dream of Homs" by demolishing civilian homes in the old neighbourhoods.

This pressure led people to gather at Khalid ibn al-Walid Mosque Square in early 2011 and it became a starting point for the demonstrators who called one of their largest demonstrations ‘Good Friday’.

A massive revolution

The demonstration was a major turning point during which the protesters tore up the first pictures of Assad and his father and raised the ceiling of demands to overthrow Assad's rule after they were initially calling for the removal of corrupt officials.

The Mosque Square, which was the starting point for the largest demonstrations in Homs.
The Mosque Square, which was the starting point for the largest demonstrations in Homs. (Harun al Aswad / TRTWorld)

Human Rights Watch estimated in 2011 that security forces had killed 587 civilians in Homs within four months, at that time the highest casualty rate in Syria, including 40 killed under torture, and 16 during the funeral of one of the dead in front of the ibn al-Walid mosque.

Amid these events, prominent activist Abdul Basit Al-Sarout emerged, who led mass demonstrations and later became a senior military commander before he was killed last year during a battle in northern Hama.

Many officers refused to confront civilians, defected from the Syrian Army and established the first Free Syrian Army battalions, most notably the Khalid bin Al-Walid and Al-Faruq Brigades, led by prominent leader Abd al-Razzaq Tlass, the first defecting officer.

Fierce wars

In early 2012, Tlass led Syria's first battle against government forces, which lasted nearly 22 days in the Baba Amr neighbourhood, where Assad's attacks killed prominent American journalist Mary Colvin.

The square in front of the Khalid ibn al-Walid mosque, and the destroyed building of the labour pharmacy where the intelligence forces were stationed.
The square in front of the Khalid ibn al-Walid mosque, and the destroyed building of the labour pharmacy where the intelligence forces were stationed. (TRTWorld)

The battle for Homs became an existential battle for Iran, which together with Assad's forces, imposed a deadly siege that lasted nearly three years, prompting the rebels to engage in one-sided negotiations that expelled them to the north of the country.

Ibn al-Walid Mosque was in the midst of fierce battles, and rumours of a robbery spread to the shrine of Khalid bin Al-Walid, and the authorities sealed the mosque.

A joint report by ESCWA and the British University of St Andrews estimated the losses of the Syrian war at $442.4 billion and estimated that Homs is the fourth most destroyed city in the country.

“The devastation is everywhere in Homs,” Iyad Baroudi, a 32-year-old father of three, told TRT World.

Widespread destruction

“Most of the buildings have been cracked, occasionally crumbling. Civilians are often seen sitting in front of their destroyed homes meditating or crying silently,” he added.

As the country's economy continues to collapse due to war, and fewer jobs, civilians are forced into unsafe choices.  

"Civilians have been exhausted by rents, which forced some of them to live in their demolished homes in al-Khalidiya and the other neighbourhoods,” Baroudi said.

Interior of Khalid ibn al-Walid Mosque and Khalidiya neighborhood of Homs, Syria damaged heavily after rocket and howitzer fire (2013).
Interior of Khalid ibn al-Walid Mosque and Khalidiya neighborhood of Homs, Syria damaged heavily after rocket and howitzer fire (2013). (Harun al Aswad / TRTWorld)

Yet Assad claims that conditions in the country are excellent. Last month, he held a conference in Damascus, in which he called for refugees to return.

“There are no services, a government employee told my relatives that the plan to restore landlines in Khalidiya will not start before 2030,” Baroudi said.  

“There is no lighting at night, the litter attracts fierce dogs, which increases the fears of the people,” he added.

In July, the Homs City Council explained to state media that the action plan for the removal of damaged buildings amounts to about 1 billion Syrian pounds. Only 105 of the 840 properties have been removed.

However, Baroudi who uses a pseudonym for fear of retribution, explained that the repairs are concentrated only on the main roads.

“Every morning I meditate on the destruction on my way to work, and every evening I dream of seeing life in Homs before I die,” he said