ALEPPO, Syria (AFP) — The majestic citadel atop Syria's ancient city of Aleppo, the Masyaf fortress of the sinister order of the Assassins and the castle of Arab conqueror Saladdin have all been given a new lease on life as part of a project by the Aga Khan to promote Islamic sites.
"We don't do enough to illustrate to the peoples of our world the greatness of Islamic civilisations," the 71-year-old billionaire spiritual leader of the world's 15 million Shia Ismaili Muslims told AFP in an interview.
The Aga Khan, who last year celebrated 50 years as head of his community, said at a recent ceremony capping work in Aleppo that his goal is to educate the world on the wealth of Muslim culture.
"Because they don't know our history, they don't know our literature, they don't know our philosophy, they don't know the physical environment in which our countries have lived, they view the ummah (the Muslim nation) in terminology which is completely wrong."
The 13th century citadel is in the heart of Aleppo -- one of the world's oldest inhabited cities at the crossroads of ancient trade routes -- and is a World Heritage Site along with Saladdin's castle.
Battered by a long history of bombardments, pillage and earthquakes, the citadel's surrounding walls and some of its 19 towers were strengthened while two mosques, a hammam or bathhouse and a palace were also restored.
For five years dozens of workers restored the minaret of a mosque, baths and the imposing palace within the castle of Saladdin, originally built by the Crusaders on a windswept mountain ridge.
The Masyaf fortress is a mediaeval eagles' nest which served as home to the Assassins, contract killers who were an offshoot of the Ismaili sect of Shia Islam who were persecuted as infidels by the dominant Sunni Muslims.
General conservation work was carried at the rugged site, and part of an outer wall was rebuilt.
The Aga Khan Trust for Culture carried out the work in close collaboration with Syria's antiquities department, and also revamped the landscape around all three sites to make it more tourist-friendly.
"My interest in working in Syria is to take the various lead countries of the ummah and say, let's start, let's move together, let's revive our cultures so that modernity is not only seen in the terminology of the West, but in the intelligent use of our past," the Aga Khan said.
His visit to Syria was part of a tour of some 35 nations that began in July last year to mark his Golden Jubilee, or 50 years since the Aga Khan became leader of the community in July 1957, succeeding his grandfather.
Fuelled by his enormous wealth the Aga Khan -- who ranks 11 on the Forbes list of the world's wealthiest royals with a fortune estimated at one billion dollars -- has since 1967 also led an apolitical, secular foundation.
The Aga Khan Development Network is involved in projects from promoting health to education, architecture and the rehabilitation of historic cities.
Helping the poor to improve their lives is also high on the Aga Khan's agenda. As a youth he dreamt of becoming an architect before graduating instead from Harvard University with a degree in Islamic history.
"In the Judaeo-Christian world, charity is a notion which evokes generosity with nothing in return," the Aga Khan told AFP on the sidelines of his visit to Syria.
"In Islam, the 'best of charities', but not the only one, is to help the poor be self-sufficient," he said.
"I was born with Islamic ethics, in a Muslim family. There is nothing wrong with being well off as long as money has a social and ethical value and is not the object of one's own greed.
"That is why I wanted to set up institutions that can manage everyday problems based on Islamic values.
"One of the principles of Islam is that on his deathbed every person must try to leave behind a better world," he added.
Restoring Islamic sites in Syria was also central to his goal of building bridges between religions and cultures.
"Syria wants to be a secular state where all religions co-exist, even if the majority of the Syrian people are Sunni" Muslim, the Aga Khan said.
His Ismaili sect split from mainstream Shia Islam in the 11th century and its followers live today in some 25 countries across Africa, West and Central Asia, the Middle East, North America and Western Europe.
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