Building New Opportunities from the Past

Syria must play a key role in dispelling negative images of Islam in the West by doing more to promote its rich Islamic past.

Syria must work harder to highlight the greatness of its former Islamic civilisation and culture and intelligently use the past to strengthen the modern development process, His Highness the Aga Khan, chairman of the Aga Khan Development Network and spiritual leader of the global Ismaili community, said during a recent trip to Syria. The Aga Khan made the comments at the inauguration ceremony of the Aleppo Citadel in Syria’s second largest city on August 26.

Speaking at the ceremony, the Aga Khan emphasised the importance of reviving the history of the civilisations of the global Muslim community, the Ummah. “We don’t do enough to illustrate to the peoples of our world the greatness of the Islamic civilisations and cultures of the past,” he said. “The background to this initiative is very simple. It is to illustrate to the peoples of our world, the history of the civilisations of the Ummah, 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 in terminology which is completely wrong.”

The Aga Khan also said that Syria, with its wealth of architectural and cultural treasures, holds a unique position in the history of Islam. “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’,” he said.

Cultural restoration programme

The ceremony marked the completion of a nine-year cultural revitalisation work programme on the citadels of Aleppo, Salah ad-Din and Masyaf that once formed a system of fortresses in central-western Syria. More than just simply restore historical sites, the programme, carried out by the Aga Khan Trust for Culture (AKTC), worked to provide sustainable development opportunities. As such, it included developing management guidelines and investing in visitor infrastructure such as visitor centres, pathways and signage, in addition to training antiquities staff, local craftsmen and building professionals in modern conservation practice. The programme also recruited and trained locals from poor communities living around the historical sites to help in the restoration process, providing employment opportunities to some of Syria’s most disadvantaged communities.

“By rehabilitating these environments we create an indigenous economic process,” the Aga Khan said. “It’s not driven by tourism.

It’s simply driven by improvements in the quality of life. People trade, they do their things. It’s true that tourism is one of the factors, but I think our experience up till now is that it is more important to create that economic dynamic of the community.”

Works at the Aleppo Citadel focused on Ayyubid, Ottoman and Mamluke features of the fortress and were partly funded by the World Monuments Fund. The AKTC landscaped around the citadel’s entrance, created a pedestrian zone and improved traffic planning and lighting in collaboration with the Directorate of the Old City of Aleppo.

Works at the Salah ad-Din Citadel focused on the Ayyubid and Mamluke sections, mainly the mosque, minarets, school and baths. Although the school and mosque were structurally stable, successive phases of modern repairs using inappropriate materials had altered and damaged the historic fabric. Where feasible, the modern interventions were carefully removed. The walls, ceilings and roofs were then repaired and finished using materials and techniques identical to those employed by the original medieval craftsmen.

The unique location of Salah ad-Din Citadel, perched on a ridge between two deep ravines amid a green forest, coupled with its architectural variety, makes it a site of rich tourism potential. Yet the number of people visiting the site is decreasing. Therefore, the AKTC also worked on promoting and marketing the ruin.

The Masyaf Citadel is the smallest and least known of the three sites targeted in the restoration programme. Although the castle’s superstructure remained intact, it had been significantly damaged by earthquakes and invasions. The site has also been used for accommodation, as well as a place to tether livestock. The AKTC’s work at this site involved minor reconstruction work to prevent collapse and consolidate the deteriorating ruins.

The project at Masyaf also involved improving the town centre – upgrading the markets and pedestrian areas and creating more attractive facilities for visitors, as well as conserving and enhancing the historic remains of the Old City. In collaboration with shop owners and local authorities, AKTC rehabilitated the town’s local souq.

The project also worked to improve building regulations by granting free design assistance to land and house owners who intended to build in the central area. A number of pilot rehabilitation projects for sensitive buildings were also prepared to promote new, adapted designs for the inner town area.

After the inauguration, the Syrian Government and the AKDN signed three new agreements for projects in the areas of microfinance, health care and tourism. The tourism project will see the AKDN invest SYP 920m (USD 20m) to restore and convert three houses in Old Damascus, Beit Nizam, Beit Sibai and Beit Kuwatli, into a five-star hotel.

The Aga Khan Development Network (AKDN) focuses on health, education, culture, rural development, institution-building and the promotion of economic development. It is dedicated to improving living conditions and opportunities for the poor, without regard to their faith, origin or gender.

This article was published in Syria Today magazine.

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