Old Damascus has been ignored for too long. Things are starting to change now, but one plan – in the name of modernisation – could do more to harm, than conserve the city’s incredible history.
The area in question is between Bab As-Salam and Bab Touma just outside the walls on the north eastern side of the Old City. It is the focus of a massive petition.
The treasured old city of Damascus is facing a battle for survival, says Lucy Fielder.
Huddled against the Barada River that flows through Syria’s capital city, lies an ancient warren of streets. Alleys twist off right and left; like traps for the uninitiated outsider they may lead only to a locked front door or yield a glimpse of an orange tree in a courtyard. Jasmine flowers tumble down the walls and the timber and plaster houses are so bowed with the weight of centuries they almost touch overhead. Take another turn and you emerge, blinking, onto a bustling main thoroughfare. Tiny Mamluk-era shops with stone arches spill their wares onto the pavement.
The above could describe any part of the old city of Damascus, perhaps the most intact ancient Arab city in existence. Yet the bulldozer threatens its houses, watermills and workshops with demolition. In their place developers want to build an eight-lane motorway flanked by high-rise blocks.
Experts fear old Damascus’s treasured listing as a UNESCO World Heritage Site is also in jeopardy if the plan to broaden the Al-Malik Faisal Road goes ahead. “I think you could say the city is in more danger than it has ever been since it was sacked by Timur in 1401,” said a leading conservation and heritage expert, who like several other specialists only agreed to speak on the condition of anonymity because of the sensitive nature of this issue.
2007 presents opportunity and risk. Conservationists are grooming the city to take the Arab Cultural Capital crown next year. Areas will receive facelifts; tourist facilities will be enhanced. But the 30-year-old road plan may come to pass as soon as this month unless lobbyists apply the brakes somehow.
Shopkeeper Ibrahim Hamzeh says all his neighbours have received notices to evict their homes, which lie just outside Bab Al-Salam – one of the seven gateways to the old city. “We’re just waiting for our turn,” he said in his shop that sells carpets and trinkets near the Umayyad Mosque. “This will destroy a community. All our friends and family live around here but if we are relocated it will be to an area 25 kilometres outside the city.”
Thousands of residents of the endangered Al-Uqaiba and Al-Amara historic suburbs, outside the walls between Bab Al-Salam and Bab Touma, say they also expect to be re-housed in the Adra industrial park and satellite town.
Proponents of the plan insist that the 40-metre-wide space to be cleared contains houses no more than 70-years-old. But Hamzeh disagrees. “It’s an old area, my house is at least two hundred years old and there’s a vegetable market that has been there for hundreds of years.” According to available information most of the buildings in the areas on either side of the city wall are roughly the same age – dating from within the past 250 years since a 1759 earthquake. The development plans will mean centuries-old communities will vanish with the clay and timber.
“Damascus’s uniqueness and value is as an intact old Arab city. That’s not confined to within the walls,” said the conservation expert. Walking through the doomed area, a restoration specialist pointed out an Ottoman watermill in Al-Amara made of timber and plaster. “Imagine what an amazing restaurant this would make,” he said. “Imagine a glass floor with the river and the workings underneath. All Damascus once ate bread from this mill.”
Damascus grew beyond its wall in the 12th century and by the 18th and 19th centuries two thirds of its historic houses lay extra-muros outside, according to a 2001 International Council on Monuments and Sites report. As a result “the status of World Cultural Heritage site has been given to the entire town,” wrote the report’s author, Stefan Weber. “But the Syrian administration has unfortunately considered only the quarters intra muros as worthy of safeguarding and has enacted laws and set up a council for protection of only these quarters.”
ICOMOS, which evaluates the state of heritage sites, is to report to the World Heritage Committee in June. Veronique Dauge, head of UNESCO for the Arab world, gave the following statement by telephone from Paris: “We’ve visited Damascus and we are in close contact with the authorities in order to present the plans to the World Heritage Committee in June.” But one expert described de-listing as “very, very likely. It’s the right thing to do.”
Most people believe the Syrian Government is not aware of the degree of risk. “Only the President can stop this now,” said one expert. “I think the governorate is acting with good intentions but there’s a lack of awareness,” said another. “They can’t want Damascus to be taken off the list because the World Heritage listing is such a huge economic asset, but I don’t think anyone is taking the threat seriously enough.”
UNESCO warned Damascus governorate of the danger in the last few months, according to Mouaffak Doughman – director of the old city until late last year and now a lecturer at Damascus University’s architecture faculty. He said he believed the plan was on ice for a few months – though the eviction notices suggest the contrary.
“I think the governorate has started to think in a new way. They asked me to explain the dangers to them and I said there were many: cutting the outside and inside of the old city off from each other, covering the Barada river over and the environment concerns – the extra traffic will be very bad for the old city,” he said. Although some officials insist green land would be landscaped on either side of the new road, Doughman said tower blocks were planned instead.
Where Al-Thawra road slices through Bahsa and Saruja, already run-down concrete high-rise buildings blister up between old houses and markets. Souk Al-Sarouja resembles a limb of the old city that is withering without a blood supply; three-lane highways enclose its puzzle of cobbled streets and clay and timber houses, mosques and hammams. But perhaps the most eloquent testimony to the urban development ethos of the past few decades is in Al-Marja Square, where the 1347 Yalbougha Mosque was knocked down in the 1970s to make way for the vast concrete hulk that squats there now, half-built and subsiding.
Sarouja is also at risk. Large areas have been sold off for demolition to build tower blocks. Re-privatising the land may not be simple, say experts, but compared to losing an irreplaceable medieval suburb, it may be the best option. Sarouja was known as “Little Istanbul” in Ottoman times, when Syria was ruled from the Turkish capital, because of its wealthy inhabitants and elegance. “Some of Sarouja is older than what is in the old city,” says Rajab. “Some is Mamluk, some Ayyubid. That means 800 years old!”
Officials say the expansion of the Al-Malik Faisal road will ease the traffic in the old city and expose its walls. But according to Doughman, the widening of Al-Malik Faisal road will sever the traditional roads between the ancient suburbs and close the stranglehold of highway and concrete around the old city. And with each act of demolition, the protected area within the old city becomes more like a museum.
Michel Ecochard, a French urban planner commissioned to draw up a traffic scheme
for the capital, originally conceived the road in 1968. Ecochard envisaged clearing a space around Damascus’s monuments to show them off and creating large boulevards. Courtyard houses were subsequently lost to modern buildings and street-widening schemes, but public outcry blocked the highways that were to cut through the old city. In 1972, a law came in banning any demolition intra-muros. But the historic suburbs of Al-Amara, Al-Bahsa, Qanawat, Sarouja, Al-Uqaiba and Midan were left vulnerable to development.
Luna Rajab, architect and member of the Friends of Damascus residents’ body, said Ecochard did not take Arab architectural influences into account. “In France buildings have exterior elevation. There’s something to see. With Arab architecture the beauty is on the inside. The city wall wasn’t built to be seen, so it was always covered with houses.”
Between Bab Touma and Bab Sharki the old walls are exposed but largely unremarkable. “They’ve done nothing here. There is no lighting or plaques to tell you of the historic events that happened here,” said one architectural expert. “Is it really so important to have the whole wall showing?”
A jumble of old houses cling to the Barada River outside Bab El-Faradis, which means ‘Paradise Gate’. A litter-strewn wasteland behind them forms an island between two branches of the Barada. “It really was a paradise here – a garden. People used to come for picnics,” the expert said. He produced an old photograph, which shows the houses in a better state of repair and surrounded by luxuriant plants dipping their tendrils into the river. “When this area is destroyed we’ll lose an historic opportunity to restore it, boost tourism and provide different investment opportunities – hotels, restaurants, cultural centres. Nobody’s interested in new buildings.”
He estimated that around 300 craftsmen would be sent away when the area falls and at least 300 attractive old courtyard houses will be lost. “I say to the them (the developers), don’t come to the old city if you find it ugly. Build your dream elsewhere. We’re happy with our ugly old houses,” he added.
A metro, a ring-road, moving public buildings outside the centre and providing a car park and banning parking along the existing Al-Malik Faisal road to free up an extra couple of lanes are among the solutions conservationists say should be investigated before the demolition ball starts swinging.
The expanded Al-Malik Faisal road would narrow into two-lanes on either side of the centre “so it will be a bottleneck,” said one critic of the plan. “At least this should be studied. If they can prove this will ease the traffic, fine. But experience elsewhere shows that more roads equals more cars,” he added. Rajab argues that an urban masterplan for all of Damascus is crucial. “The old city is not an oasis in the desert,” she said.
Since the first courtyard houses were converted to restaurants in the 1990s, the old quarters – which the middle classes abandoned in favour of mod cons and wide streets – are enjoying a renaissance. Young people stroll through the streets of a weekend evening; jazz bands entertain crowds in Mar Mar – a popular bar in Bab Touma; the wealthy dine on mezze in Elissar Restaurant; and on a Friday morning, students, tourists and Damascenes have breakfast beneath the orange trees in Beit Jabri’s courtyard.
But some say development needs to be more organised. “Damascus is the oldest inhabited city in the world and we need to keep it like that, not turn it into a museum,” Rajab says. “Old buildings must be given new functions at times, but the restaurants and hotels should be confined to certain areas to preserve the residential nature of the city.”
Many who renovate their houses do so with little expertise and even less taste. Columns, painted “Mamluk” stripes and fantastical, pseudo-oriental details abound. Owners need financial help to buy traditional materials cheaply says Beshr Al-Barry, an architect at the directorate of the old city. The directorate in Maktab Anbar Palace does its best to regulate the work, but there are too many houses and too few staff. About 5,000 traditional courtyard houses lie within the walls, he says, and a 1997 survey found 90 percent needed urgent repair.
After the French audit of the Old City in 1936 until 1996 families were banned from doing any internal restructuring work to their homes, even building a new bathroom. “So people would go around the rules, and build at night,” Al-Barry said. The 1970s stand out as a disastrous decade. Faced with disintegrating old houses that were hard to renovate and low in value, owners sold their painted wood panelling, tiles and fountains to antiquity sharks.
“For the past three or four years it has been getting better because there are new graduates in restoration and the level of technical training has improved,” Al-Barry added. A new generation of craftsmen must learn the old techniques and a pilot scheme to give cheap, long-term loans to owners to restore their houses has worked well in Aleppo, experts say. Al-Barry said such a plan was in the pipeline for Damascus.
But even old houses within the old city walls are not as safe as they should be. Near Bab Al-Salam, inside the walls, a vast modern mosque takes the space of perhaps 20 houses and a bulky concrete extension is being added. “If we’re not careful, in another 20 years there’ll be hardly any old houses left,” the architectural expert said.
In spite of this, welcome plans to tart up the old city are underway, starting with Souk Medhat Pasha. An EU-Syrian project aims to put the jungle of electric cables that swing overhead underfoot and remove the clutter of plastic signs and air-conditioning units from the Ottoman arched shop fronts.
Most importantly the Roman sewage system that overflows and damages walls and foundations is to be upgraded, starting with Straight Street. “We need to preserve this as a living city, and the best way is by improving the quality of life and services for residents and reducing the problems they face everyday,” Al-Barry said.
EU-Syrian projects to boost sustainable tourism in the old city include picture maps with routes through the city and plaques on the khans, madrassas and bimaristans. An “old houses” route will give tourists a peep behind the doors of a number of Damascene buildings and religious, bazaar and handicraft tours are being drawn up. A sound and light show on Salah Ad-Din Square by the Umayyad Mosque will also teach tourists about Damascus’s old city. “I’m aware of a change in thinking towards the old city of Damascus, it’s now seen as a potential area of investment,” said the project’s director, Ersan Ali.
But renovation within the walls is unlikely to save Damascus if homes and shops are destroyed outside them. If the old city of Damascus is listed as a heritage site “in danger” in June, the loss of its World Heritage designation altogether could follow as soon as six months later, experts say. It would be a sad irony if the city were to fall from grace just months after it was crowned Arab Cultural Capital for 2008.
Issue: Mars 2007