The busiest road within the city walls has been closed for the past year, as it is ripped to pieces. Walk along Medhat Pasha – called Straight Street in the Bible – and bulldozers are tearing up the ground, and look to your left and right to see the shops being gutted.
Essentially, a new Medhat Pasha is being built.
Whenever I walk along there, I am staring at the ground – trying not to trip over the rubble. Looking up at the roof is not an option. But maybe you should.
The tin roofs over Medhat Pasha and Souq Al-Hamidiyeh date from the Ottoman refurbishment of the main Souqs. During the insurgency against the French occupation, they were punctured by gunfire. And they’ve remained that way for almost one hundred years. The shafts of sunlight which pierce into the dark souqs are blindingly beautiful, and a daily reminder of Syria’s struggle for independence.
But the centuries-old black Medhat Pasha roof, which was decorated by history, has been replaced by a new white one.
Here it is six months ago, with the old roof.
Of course, the Old City can’t survive on memories. It needs to be renovated to keep living. But the Old City is heaving under the weight of the bulldozers which have been brought in.
Early on in the work, the digging destroyed a much-loved bar at the eastern end, Abu George. Metal rods now hold up the neighbouring buildings to stop more walls collapsing.
The cobbled stones on the ground have been laid along parts of the road – only to be ripped up for a second time. Shoppers and shop-owners compete for space with the workmen. The shops are still open – life can’t be put on hold.
It’s not just the exteriors that are being brought into the 21st century – all of the shops are being refitted. The authorities are paying for them to be gutted and refurbished. A similar scheme improved the tourist souq alongside the Omayed Mosque a few years ago.
Damascus is a living city, not a museum piece. So as much as work like this is disruptive, it is vital. When the dust settles – and there is a lot of it – a new Medhat Pasha will emerge. One in keeping with its glorious history, but fit for life in the twenty-first century.
Next week, in part three – official documents hint that a thirty-year-old plan to force residents out of one of the oldest parts of Damascus – and build tower-blocks – could be put into action within months.