By Angus McDowall
ALEPPO, Syria (Reuters) - Aleppo's Old City, shelled, burned and shot up during years of fighting in Syria's civil war, can be rebuilt, the local representative of the United Nations cultural body UNESCO said.
"Our vision is to rebuild the Old City exactly as it was before the war, with the same stones where we can," said Mazen Samman, UNESCO's associate program coordinator in Aleppo.
There are detailed plans for the Old City's great medieval mosques, souks, bath houses and citadel from an earlier restoration that should allow exact reconstruction, he said.
But while that may be true of the most treasured monuments, whole districts of less celebrated alleyways and traditional houses that gave the Old City its character are also now rubble.
Reviving the Old City is important for Syrian President Bashar al-Assad both as a symbol of the returning power of his state, but also because of Aleppo's economic importance.
The fighting in Aleppo ended in December when the Syrian army drove out rebels, but they still hold swathes of the country and Assad's government is hobbled by Western sanctions.
Now gradual efforts are being made to revive the city, one of the oldest in the Middle East.
The United Nations and international cultural agencies say they are committed to preserving and restoring Syrian heritage, but it will ultimately rely on local effort.
It needs local government to ensure work fits the character of the Old City, both architecturally and in how land is divided between shops, houses and public spaces.
It depends on the Old City's 100,000 former residents choosing to return to their homes and businesses, many of which are now piles of stones and concrete.
But it also needs the skills of Aleppo craftsmen, many of whom left the city during the war, some killed, others departing with the rebels or starting new lives as refugees abroad.
"We are thinking of making a school for craftsmen," Samman said.
One of the craftsmen who might help set up that school is Mustafa al-Now, a worker in the ornate, painted wood panels, windows, doors and ceilings that adorn old Aleppo houses.
Since the rebels took control of his district in the Old City, his workshop has been located in a west Aleppo park. Carved panels, painted with delicate floral patterns in red, gold, black, brown and green, stand against the walls.
His was one of three workshops where the craft was practised in Aleppo, he said. The others are now closed and many of the skilled workers are gone.
"I have to teach a new generation," he said.
A few miles to the east, in the Hamidiya quarter of the Old City, Now's old house and former workshop are strewn with rubble instead of the antiques that used to fill the shaded courtyard.
He left his home suddenly in 2012, fleeing across the rooftops, fearing rebel reprisals because his workshop featured photographs of Assad, who had visited during a tour of the city.
Now he stoops to pull a dusty, faded fragment of painted wood, his own work, from under a large fallen stone. In a nearby alleyway, still mostly intact, he shows a wooden bay window that he restored years ago for a hotel in an old house.
But in Jedaidah, a warren of narrow alleys dipping under stone archways, there is terrible damage. In an old restaurant by an alleyway, where oil drums marked a front line, and with an unexploded gas canister bomb in the courtyard, the woodwork is all burned.
Outside the Citadel, the huge fortress on a steep hill above the Old City, hundreds of families gathered in the early evening to watch the setting sun soak its pale stones in gold.
The area was a favorite destination for Aleppans and tourists alike before the war but was for four years a front-line no-man's land of sniper bullets and shellfire.
Loud blasts still rang out as people sat at the one reopened cafe or strolled around the long moat, but the noise was from artillery pounding rebels outside the city and nobody paid it any heed.
Any sustainable restoration of the Old City would depend on drawing back its established residents and business owners. But even where their property has not been destroyed, possessions and wealth were looted.
In Jedaidah quarter, a modest doorway led to a pretty little courtyard shaded by a fig tree and a grape vine, an arched niche standing by a stone stair leading up to the roof.
The work benches with low-hung lights in a side room with elegant tiled floor showed it had once been a jewelry or gold workshop. On the courtyard floor lay two metal safes, crudely cut open and empty. Such remains of looting are present in areas that were controlled by each side during the fighting.
Despite such losses, there was evidence in every part of the Old City visited by Reuters, accompanied by a government official, of people returning.
In Souk al-Qamash, a covered textile market surmounted by three high domes and ringed by a frieze of scallop-carved stones, Mohammed Maymi, short and amiable, was repainting his shop.
During the fighting he visited it from his home in a government-controlled area every time the corridor across front lines was open. "I just wanted to smell the smell of the souk. If I couldn't smell it, I would explode," he said.
His example, clearing and cleaning his shop despite the charred black walls of the souk around, points to the chance that Aleppo's Old City might one day be resurrected.
Such things have happened before. Last year, the 16th-century Ottoman Ferhadija mosque in Banja Luka reopened, recreated from its original stones 23 years after it was blown up during the war in Bosnia.
(Editing by Giles Elgood)