Damascus is dotted with shrines and places of historic interest – the great majority of which are uncared for.
At first sight, Madrassat Al-Saheba seems like any other school in Damascus. In one of its classes, however, stands an 800-year-old shrine to al-Saheba Rabeea Khatoun, the niece of the famous Ayyubid leader Saladin. Once the school’s founder, Saheba’s shrine now serves as the teacher’s desk.
The Al-Saheba shrine is one of the many monuments, holy places and historical sites that have been misused or simply demolished over the past 40 years. While no one knows exactly how many such sites are scattered throughout Damascus activists warn that the future of many shrines could be in serious jeopardy unless more is done to catalogue and protect them.
The lack of care afforded these lesser known sites dates back to 1968 when French architect Michel Ecochard was appointed to produce a master plan for Damascus. The resulting blueprint ignored the city’s traditional urban fabric. Unlike Western city planning where, for example, a cathedral is usually located in front of a square or other space ensuring the building is seen in its true dimensions, mosques, historical buildings and other sites of interest are crammed within the urban fabric of Arab cities. As such, it is impossible to apply Western urban planning methods to Damascus without demolishing important historical buildings and sites. Although Ecochard’s plan was never fully implemented, a Western-based urban plan is still being forced on Damascus. The result is that many shrines and other historic sites are simply overlooked for preservation.
Poor management by Syrian authorities exacerbates the problem. The Ministry of Religious Affairs (MRA) rents out numerous houses containing shrines for trivial rents. As many of these rental contracts do not contain a date of expiry, tenants cannot be forced to leave the houses. The MRA has also failed to check on the condition of the shrines and sites under its care and, as such, many have been demolished or damaged by uncaring renters.
“A shrine’s fate depends on a renter’s goodwill,” Hasnaa Jawish, a member of a joint committee investigating the condition of shrines in Damascus, said. “They either keep the room where the shrine lies or use it.”
Nadia Khost, a member of the Cultural Committee of the Governorate of Damascus, is the driving force behind a law which added the MRA’s estate of shrines, ancient mosques and historical buildings to the Ministry of Antiquities’ list of historical monuments. Such a move classifies the sites as antiquities and makes them subject to stricter protection measures. Khost was kicked into action after visiting a rental property and finding a shrine room being used to store timber.
“Renters still use the shrines for their own good and the Governorate of Damascus often sacrifices historical buildings and shrines for the sake of opening a new road,” she said.
Khost said the attitude of Damascus Governorate and the MRA regarding shrines and historical buildings needed to change, from viewing them as any other piece of real estate to that of deserving the utmost care and respect. She points to the Madrassa Al Shameyah, a 1,161-year-old Ayyubid school built by Sit al-Sham, Saladin’s sister. Damascus Governorate had planned to turn its courtyard into a car park, but as a member of a panel charged with preserving sites of historical importance in Damascus succeeded in saving the area from falling under the development sledgehammer. The panel eventually forced the governorate to locate the new development 360 metres from the school and also successfully lobbied to restrict the building’s height so as not to obscure the school’s minarets.
“The MRA didn’t care about the school which is from its own portfolio of properties,” Khost said. “It was the panel and the Ministry of Antiquities who fought to save it from demolition.”
The panel’s success in blocking development plans soon brought it under heavy fire. Property developers, real estate traders and Damascus Governorate banded together to overthrow the organisation little more than two years after its establishment. It was replaced with the Municipality of Old Damascus which draws the majority of its members from Damascus Governorate.
Since then, the Madrassa Al-Kahereya, a 1,210-year-old school, has vanished along with several other important buildings. “The Governorate of Damascus simply erased the school from its new urban plan,” Jawish said.
Jawish said the governorate has also tried to remove the shrines of Ibn Asaker, one of the most important Syrian historians, along with Arslan al-Dimashqi, a well-known Sufi sheikh credited with miracles, and Farroukh Shah, the nephew of Saladin and one-time Emir of Baalbek. Given the shrines were dedicated to well-known personalities, Syrians among them, the MRA prevented their demolition. Shrines and tombs dedicated to lesser known historical figures are, however, easily removed as few people know of their importance.
The absence of a clear database logging each historical site and its condition also hampers preservation efforts. When applying for permission to take photos for this article, approval was delayed for several months because the MRA could not provide an address for many of the requested sites. While the MRA, Damascus Governorate and the Ministries of Tourism and Antiquities established a joint committee in 2006 to document all shrines in Damascus, its findings remain unavailable.
“Putting signs on each shrine and historical building is necessary to save them from demolition,” Khost said.
For some, the lack of care afforded to many of Damascus’ historical sites has become too much to take lying down. Muhammad al-Khatib, a Syrian sheikh who studies the history of Damascus shrines, became so frustrated at what he saw as a lack of respect for local history he decided to take matters into his own hands. In an attempt to raise awareness about the problem, Khatib spent an hour every Friday following afternoon prayers recalling the history of the Dar Al Hadith Al-Ashrafiya, one of the most prestigious religious institutes for the study of the Hadith in the Islamic world.
Khatib said he held the talks to raise awareness about the treasures housed in Damascus. He is disappointed lectures on the shrines of Damascus and lesser known public buildings, along with tours introducing them to the public, have not been organised as part of the Damascus Arab Capital of Culture festivities.
“While the Roman monuments in Syria are preserved as an important touristic attraction, we turn our backs on countless monuments of the Arab and Islamic civilisation and leave them to fall apart,” Khatib said.
This article was published in Syria Today magazine.