Architectural masterpieces dating back centuries have been annihilated. Bustling marketplaces turned ghostly quiet. And basic infrastructure – hospitals, schools, roads – has been pummeled into dust.
Syria’s civil war, which marks its seventh year on Thursday, has transformed ancient cities into scenes of apocalyptic devastation.
Since the March 2011 uprising against President Bashar al-Assad’s regime exploded into a civil war with a dizzying array of fighting factions battling each other, entire neighborhoods have been wiped from the map.
Even in cities were the fighting has officially ended – such as Homs, Aleppo and Raqqa – government reconstruction is almost nonexistent, instead falling to civilians to mend the pieces of their broken neighborhoods as best they can.
And with governments and NGOs reluctant to hand money to Assad-controlled Syria for reconstruction, its once-vibrant cities continue to crumble.
Here’s a look at the before and after.
Greater Damascus: ‘Garden of Eden turned Hell’
Founded in the 3rd millennium B.C., Damascus is one of the oldest continually inhabited cities on Earth and the seat of power of Assad’s regime. While the UNESCO World Heritage-listed old city has escaped much of the ravages of war, its sprawling outer suburbs have been pounded to near-oblivion.
The rebel-held enclave of Eastern Ghouta, on the northeast outskirts of Damascus, is home to about 400,000 people and since mid-February has been the focus of a renewed offensive by the Russian-backed Syrian regime.
Eastern Ghouta is one of the last major rebel-held areas of Syria, along with Idlib in the north. Were the Assad regime to take back control – as it appears poised to do – it would mark a significant turning point in the country’s civil war.
Eastern Ghouta’s Jobar neighborhood (pictured above), on the eastern border of Damascus city, has suffered some of the worst damage.
CNN senior international correspondent Ben Wedeman remembered a very different Eastern Ghouta before the war: “According to local tradition, the Ghouta, once a sprawling oasis on the outskirts of Damascus, was the Garden of Eden. When I lived in Damascus many years ago, I regularly went with my parents and their friends for picnics there and remember sitting in the cool shade by bubbling irrigation canals, playing backgammon under trees heavy with fruit.
“Today, it’s perhaps the closest thing to hell on Earth.”
Aleppo: Syria’s ‘commercial heart’ broken
Once the commercial heart of Syria, Aleppo has gone from a bustling city of more than 2 million people – about the size of Houston – to a crumbling and bloodstained shadow of its former self.
The battle for eastern Aleppo, particularly in its final stages, was among the fiercest of the war. Thousands died and hundreds of thousands more fled before the regime, backed by Russian air power, recaptured the city from rebels in December 2016.
Some progress has since been made rebuilding the devastated city. Thousands of residents have returned to try and salvage what’s left of their homes. Electricity runs most of the day, versus just a few hours during the height of fighting. The Syrian government is also building power lines in the desert between Damascus and Aleppo to make supplies more reliable.
But most areas still require reconstruction on a grand scale.
Among eastern Aleppo’s worst-hit areas was the UNESCO World Heritage-listed old city and its 12th century Umayyad Mosque (pictured above).
The regime and opposition groups blamed each other for its partial destruction in April 2013.
Homs: The ‘capital of the revolution’
Once known as the “city of black and white stones” for its distinctive architecture, Syria’s third-largest city Homs became better known as the “capital of the revolution” after mass demonstrations against Assad in 2011.
The government recaptured the rebel stronghold in 2014, following an offensive that destroyed much of the multicultural city’s distinctive mixture of mosques and churches, souks and squares.
Almost four years later, the Baba Amr neighborhood that was the epicenter of the rebellion remains in ruins.
“Our homes do not just contain our life earnings, they contain our memories and dreams. They stand for what we are,” said Marwa al-Sabouni, a young architect who hopes one day to rebuild her hometown Homs. “To destroy one’s home should be taken as an equal crime to destroying one’s soul,” she told CNN in 2016.
Homs’ National Hospital (pictured above) appears to have been destroyed in the fighting.
The hospital was used as a detention center by the Syrian military, activists on the ground told CNN in 2012.
Raqqa: Apocalyptic scenes in ISIS capital
Raqqa was the capital of ISIS’ so-called caliphate in Syria, and the terror group’s last major stronghold in the country before US-backed Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) recaptured the city in October 2017.
During almost four years under ISIS’ hardline Islamic laws, schools were banned, cultural sites destroyed and the heads of executed residents placed on spikes in the city’s main square.
Months after Raqqa was liberated, it remains a scene of apocalyptic devastation. “Piles of gray concrete rubble and charred, hollowed-out buildings have replaced homes and schools,” CNN reported shortly after ISIS was forced out. “You can drive for miles without seeing even a flash of color. The odd tree hanging on for life offers a flicker of brown and faint green.”
ISIS militants bombed the Uwais al-Qarni Mosque (pictured above), in 2014, according to Reuters.
The terror group sought to destroy cultural sites that did not fit its extreme view of Islam, including the ancient city of Palmyra in central Syria, along with the Mosul Museum in Iraq.
Zaatari Refugee Camp: A city in the desert
Zaatari Refugee Camp in northern Jordan is home to almost 80,000 Syrian refugees, making it the fourth-largest city in the country.
Since first opening in 2012, the small collection of tents has swelled to a semi-permanent settlement with its own schools, hospitals and even a collection of shops dubbed the “Champs Élysées,” in reference to the famous boulevard in Paris.
But with more than 5.5 million Syrians fleeing to neighboring countries since the country was plunged into civil war, the United Nations has warned that Jordan cannot continue to bear the brunt of housing so many of them.
Zaatari (pictured above) is situated some 12 kilometers from the Syrian border.
For its residents, this is not a permanent solution. But with so many of their hometowns destroyed by war, and unlikely to be rebuilt anytime soon, they are left with few other options.
CNN’s Tamara Qiblawi contributed to this report, drone footage by Gabriel Chaim