Sustainable Living (Sustainable Architecture in Syria)

While far from widespread, eco-friendly architecture is beginning to pop up around Syria. It can play an important role in covering the country’s skyrocketing demand for energy.

As Syria runs out of oil and faces ever-mounting pressure on its water and electricity supplies, its growing interest in energy-efficient architecture comes as no surprise. Indeed, experts argue that pursuing eco-friendly buildings that consume less energy and water and reduce pollution is no longer a luxury for Syria. Rather, it is a must.

“Efforts to promote sustainable architecture are very important on a global scale, but they are particularly significant in Syria where natural resources are scarce, energy is expensive to produce and consume and pollution is a major health hazard,” Manaf Hammami, a Syrian architect based in Dubai, said.

While today’s ubiquitous concrete apartment block – along with the country’s building code – pays little attention to energy efficiency or the natural environment, this was not always the case. Syria’s Islamic architectural heritage is a green one, with traditional construction methods and materials carefully selected to work with the natural environment instead of against it, producing houses which were naturally warm in the winter and cool in the summer.

“Islamic architecture in Syria used to be green, paying close attention to the orientation of the house, insulation and natural ventilation, among other things,” Firas Shuman, director of the small grants programme at the UN Global Environment Facility, said.

Individual endeavours

For Syria’s architecture to be green again, large-scale investment in sustainable architecture is needed. Apart from a few large projects, however, eco-friendly buildings in Syria are mostly individual endeavours that depend on expensive renewable-energy sources such as solar power for heating water and generating electricity and grey water recycling systems. Fully incorporating green-building standards into the design of a building is still rare.

At present, the high costs associated with sustainable architecture scares investors away, Houssam Hamwi, head of the project management unit at Massar, an eco-friendly Children’s Discovery Center under construction in the centre of Damascus, said.

“While sustainable buildings are more expensive than concrete-block buildings currently used in Syria, in the long run they pay off,” Hamwi said. “Investors, however, want a quick profit. They aren’t interested in the long-term financial benefits of sustainable buildings or their effect on the environment.”

The lack of local experience and professionals in the field of eco-design is yet another cause of concern among those trying to promote eco-friendly architecture in the country.

“Syrian expertise in sustainable architecture is based on individual initiatives,” Hamwi said. “We need governmental support to develop and encourage eco-design and push investors to finance eco-friendly projects.”

Furthermore, subsidised energy prices and the lack of public environmental awareness mean few people feel the need to save energy, making public demand for sustainable housing in Syria low. Individual efforts are, however, taking shape.

“While visiting Syria I’ve been commissioned to design two houses on a large plot of land outside the city of Aleppo,” Hammami said. “My client is very interested in building a home that not only satisfies his comforts and needs, but is also based on the principles of sustainable design. He wants his house to serve as a prototype for future developments in the area.”

Sustainable architecture

In an attempt to promote sustainable architecture in Syria, the General Company for Engineering Studies and Consulting (GCEC), the General Institute for Housing (GIH) and the National Energy Research Centre (NERC) partnered with the EU to build 18 eco-friendly apartment blocks in the Damascus suburb of Qudssia. The five-storey blocks are part of the New Youth Residential Complex, consisting of some 12,600 flats in total. The complex is due to be finished by 2013.

To make the residential complex eco-friendly, architects used double glazing, thermal insulation, glazed stairwells to enhance natural cross ventilation, solar water and space heating and energy-efficient lighting technology. As a result, residents are expected to reduce their energy bills by 80 percent for hot-water heating and 50 percent for heating and cooling their apartments. No wonder then that up to 1,200 young, low-income Syrians have already applied for apartments.

“Reducing energy consumption is a significant economic benefit to our country, as well as reducing greenhouse gas emissions from heating or cooling devices,” Safwan al-Assaf, general director of the GCEC, said.

Assaf said the project was first presented to the EU after studies were carried out comparing comfort levels in traditional Arabic houses in the Old City of Damascus with modern houses.

“The results persuaded the team to promote the advantages of traditional building methods in old Damascus and to rediscover design measures from the past,” Assaf said. “The overall energy concept is based on passive building design measures combined with new energy-efficient technologies and the use of renewable energies.”

Other initiatives being undertaken include the opening of an eco-friendly park in Damascus complete with exhibition space and a conference room by the local NGO Friends of Damascus, together with the Fije Water Directorate and the small grants programme at the UN Global Environment Facility. The park incorporates a grey water recycling system for watering its spaces. Erfan el-Bezreh, head of the park’s executive committee, said similar projects are planned for other spaces throughout the capital.

Change is also being mandated from the top. Last month the government held the country’s first national conference on green architecture. It is also reviewing the country’s national building codes to regulate and enforce stricter standards on design and the use of insulation. While still a work in progress, the aim is to introduce and enforce codes which help reduce the consumption of energy by keeping houses and buildings warmer during the winter and cooler in the summer.

“Syria is heading in the right direction, but it’s not fast enough,” Hamwi said. “With the international economic crisis at our heads, sustainable architecture in no longer a need, it’s a must.”

Sustainable architecture focuses on using environmentally-conscious design techniques in the field of architecture. Broadly speaking, sustainable architecture seeks to minimise the negative environmental impact of buildings by enhancing efficiency and moderation in the use of materials, energy and development space.From a design point of view, sustainable architecture takes into account the climate a building is being constructed in and its orientation, seeking to produce a naturally cool space in the warmer months and a naturally warm space in the cooler months. From a materials point of view, an energy-efficient building needs to be well constructed, sealed and insulated, with energy-efficient doors and windows. Solar hot water heating systems and energy-efficient lightbulbs and appliances can also greatly reduce a building’s energy consumption.

This article was published in Syria Today magazine.

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.

History Endangered

Damascus is dotted with shrines and places of historic interest – the great majority of which are uncared for.

The 800-year-old shrine of al-Saheba Rabeea Khatoun serves as the teacher’s desk at Madrassat Al-Saheba in Damascus

The 800-year-old shrine of al-Saheba Rabeea Khatoun serves as the teacher’s desk at Madrassat Al-Saheba in Damascus

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.

The Shrine of Darwish Basha in Bab al-Jabeyeh / Photos by Manaf Hassan

The Shrine of Darwish Basha in Bab al-Jabeyeh / Photos by Manaf Hassan

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.

Muhi al-Din Ibn Arabi is a popular Sufi sheikh and Islamic philosopher. His shrine, which was built in the Rukn el-Din area in 1240, is visited by dozens of Muslims every day.

Muhi al-Din Ibn Arabi is a popular Sufi sheikh and Islamic philosopher. His shrine, which was built in the Rukn el-Din area in 1240, is visited by dozens of Muslims every day.

“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 shrine of Seif al-Din Abu Baker, the brother of famous Ayyubid leader Saladin, is hidden in the Maktaba Al Adeleya Al Kubra, an 800-year-old library that was built in the Asrouneyeh area near the Omayyad mosque.

The shrine of Seif al-Din Abu Baker, the brother of famous Ayyubid leader Saladin, is hidden in the Maktaba Al Adeleya Al Kubra, an 800-year-old library that was built in the Asrouneyeh area near the Omayyad mosque.

“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.

The shrine of Baybars, a Mamluk Sultan of Egypt, lies in the Maktaba Al Zahereya Al Kubra in the Asrouneyeh area, near the Omayyad Mosque. The shrine, which was ereceted in 1277, is currently under restoration.

The shrine of Baybars, a Mamluk Sultan of Egypt, lies in the Maktaba Al Zahereya Al Kubra in the Asrouneyeh area, near the Omayyad Mosque. The shrine, which was ereceted in 1277, is currently under restoration.

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.

The Real Damascene House

Thousands of traditional houses line the streets of the Old City of Damascus, but few have preserved their original interior design. Raed Jabri, the owner of a 300-year-old house, describes the traditional characteristics of a real Damascene home.

Crammed together in narrow alleyways, old Damascene houses provide privacy for their owners with windows that overlook the street from only the second floor upwards. Even then, the windows are covered by a wooden khis – a hand-painted shutter which keeps curious eyes at bay. Inside the house, however, windows of different sizes and architectural styles overlook the main courtyard, reflecting the light and giving the Damascene home its airy character.

Forget the fancy porch or the flashy doorbell, only small rickety doors feature on the plain crumbling walls of an old Damascene house. Whether the inside is fit for a king or a pauper, a true Damascene home maintains a modest outward appearance. In keeping with humble tradition, there is no need to highlight the difference between rich and poor when it comes to exterior home improvements.

In every Damascene house, there is a corridor that leads to the courtyard so that visitors don’t come straight into the courtyard and see all the family members. In bigger houses there’s usually a door in the corridor that leads to the reception room used to receive strangers or formal guests who don’t join the family in the courtyard.

The design of the courtyard’s floor looks like a chessboard or a labyrinth, made from a mixture of basalt and a rosy coloured stone called ‘mazzey’. The combination of these two stones is not only visually intriguing but also serves a practical purpose; whilst basalt absorbs heat, ‘mazzey’ stays cool. Thus, no matter the time of year, the courtyard remains at a moderate temperature.

In the centre of the courtyard sits a gushing fountain. Families usually put Damascene roses and jasmine in it to give the courtyard a perfumed scent. Large Damascene houses might have several such water features, some of which are actually located inside the rooms. The fountains are built of mazzey – this keeps the water cold enough for the fountains to serve as refrigerators for storing fruit. This is especially useful for keeping seasonal summer favourites such as watermelon fresh and chilled!

Years ago, old Damascus operated a unique water system in which each house had its own well. The fountains were supplied with water from a branch of the Barada River called Banias. Water was pumped into the highest fountain in the street where it would cascade over the edges and flow down through water pipes and into the fountains of neighbouring houses. All of the fountains in the Old City were connected by pipes, using the same regenerated water. With the modernisation of the Old City’s infrastructure however, this once efficient, ancient, water system slowly died out.

Harmony and symmetry are the most important characteristics of a Damascene home, thus the eastern and western wings of the house are always designed with a symmetrical number of windows and doors. To the south of the courtyard sits a ‘leewan’, a covered area of the house which provides the family with shade from the sun and makes for a comfortable resting spot during the hot summer days.

Branching off to the right of the ‘leewan’ is the ‘Murabba’a al Juaani’ – the “internal square” and to the left is the ‘Muraba’a al Barrani’ – the “external square”. The rooms above these two squares are called ‘al-Qasr al-Sharki’ – “the Eastern castle” and ‘al-Qasr al-Gharbi’ – “the Western castle”.

Labourers would finish decorating each room of the Damascene house by inscribing poetry and the date of completion on the wall. Legend has it that each letter in the poem stands for a number, with the sum total revealing a mystical date or sometimes even a hidden treasure!

In addition, beautifully decorated little alcoves known as ‘Dakouneh’ or ‘Mishkat’ are carved into the courtyard walls, providing a ledge for lanterns to sit on at night and sheltering their flames from the wind.

The bedrooms are raised a level above their doors in order to keep in as much warmth as possible during the cold winter nights. The cold air is trapped in the lower space between the door and the step, protecting the bedroom from icy drafts.

This article was published in Syria Today magazine.

The Last of the Unknowns (Profile of Hungarian archaeologist Balazs Major)

As his quest for historical sites around the country continues, Hungarian archaeologist Balázs Major reflects on what makes Syria a unique archaeological treasure trove.

The Last of the Unknown

Though still at the beginning of his career, Hungarian archaeologist Balázs Major has already made quite a name for himself. With diplomas in Arabic studies, archaeology and history from the Eötvös Loránd University in Budapest, and numerous courses and missions in his name, Major, 32, seems to never rest. He is always busy excavating new sites, making reports, giving lectures or writing scripts for documentary films on archaeology, all while preparing for his PhD.

Major’s unwavering energy is no surprise to those who know him; both his parents are doctors fully dedicated to their profession, who taught their son the importance of hard work from an early age. “Work was their life and hobby,” Major says. “They spent most of their time curing people, even beyond the call of duty.” In addition to medicine, Major’s parents had a deep interest in history and archaeology. Together with his father, Major made several long trips to different countries, sometimes visiting more than 10 archaeological monuments a day.

Major’s first close contact with the Arab world was at the age of 11 when his parents moved to Libya for work. In spite of the political difficulties and the American embargo on Libya, Major remembers the period between 1986 and 1990 as one of the happiest times in his childhood. “My interest and love for the Arab world and civilisation stems partially from that experience,” Major says. “Besides the exotic environment and the ancient monuments, the kindness and open-heartedness of people there were a great inspiration to me.”

As a child, Major was especially attracted to the Middle Ages and the castles from that period. As he grew up, his interest focused on the 12th and 13th century, when European chivalric culture was flourishing, and a brilliant Islamic civilisation reached its apogee in the Near East. “The meeting of the two worlds, mainly in the time of the Crusades, always fascinated me,” Major says. “I was never interested in the wars themselves, but rather in how the Easterners and the European population lived together for almost two centuries.”

In order to conduct proper research on the subject, Major realised the importance of understanding both sides. “As a researcher from the 21st century, you can never hope to understand these past cultures if you are not able to read the sources they both produced.” Driven by this belief, Major not only studied modern languages such as English, colloquial Arabic, French, and German, but also Latin, classical Arabic and Syrian Aramaic.

Historical sources gave him little satisfaction though. Rather they made him long for objective archaeological confirmation. “I never really wanted to sit in a library and write a ninth book based on information in eight others,” Major says. “I was always trying to discover something tangible as well. For this, you have to be an archaeologist.” From then on, Major knew exactly where to go. “It is common knowledge that if somebody is interested in archaeology or history in general, the best place to visit is Syria.”

Although there is a high concentration of monuments from a given period in countries such as Egypt, he feels that very few countries can pride themselves on having first-class monuments from most periods of human history. Amongst these, Syria is evidently the leader, while it also possesses treasures from the Crusader, Ayyubid and Mameluke period. The many undiscovered and undocumented sites in Syria are just the cherry on the cake.

The las of the unknown

With the permission of the Syrian Directorate General of Antiquities and Museums (DGAM), Major directed a Hungarian archaeological mission in 2000. The mission’s main activity was conducting archaeological field surveys to document already known monuments and also to detect and save as many new archaeological sites as possible. “We discovered dozens of hitherto unknown archaeological sites,” Major says. “We found medieval towers, fortified caves, chapels, mills and settlements from the Late Antiquity period (+/- 200-700 AD), among others.”

Concentrating its efforts on the interior of mountains, the mission discovered well-preserved settlements from Late Antiquity. This proved that Dead Cities existed in coastal areas as well, and that there were almost as many as in the region around Aleppo which is known for them. At the same time, ceramic evidence suggests that most of them were still inhabited in the 13th century, which means that there must have been some kind of continuity from the 3rd century to the Middle Ages.

In 2003, Major gave himself entirely to finding and documenting the medieval cave castles that are mentioned in Arabic sources as the strongholds that guarded the Orontes Valley in the north of Syria. Major’s mission identified three castles in the caves and hundreds of rock-cut chambers and graves, most of which Christian hermits constructed during the Early Middle Ages.

After seven years of joint work, the DGAM asked Major to form a Syrian-Hungarian mission for the excavation and research of Qal’at al-Marqab. “This was an honour,” Major says. “Besides being one of the largest castles in the Near East, Marqab is practically untouched and offers unique opportunities for research.” Moreover, Major sees Marqab citadel as a possible school providing training opportunities for Syrian archaeology students in the most recent research methods and modern technologies. As the rectors of the Catholic University in Hungary and Tishreen Syrian University have just concluded an agreement of cooperation during the mission, Major’s ambition can easily be attained. “There are many young, talented and devoted Syrian archaeology students who are ready to work under all circumstances,” Major says. “They are just waiting for the opportunity.”

The Last of the Unknown

Yet working in Syria is a mixed blessing as the extreme richness of the sites forms a great challenge. “I could say, with only slight exaggeration, that there is not a single square metre in Syria without archaeological remains either above or below the ground,” Major says. Meanwhile, there is an unprecedented amount of development, especially in the coastland, both in the expansion of agricultural fields and in civilian infrastructure. This threatens countless archaeological sites, most of which have not been discovered yet.

Though Major admits that preserving every single archaeological site would practically mean bringing life in Syria to a halt, he insists on the importance of finding and registering all the sites in order to choose the most important ones that should be protected at all cost. “Most of our efforts have been devoted to this cause,” Major says. “In most cases, we have been in a very tight race with the developers.”

Local people’s fear of registering archaeological sites with the government forms another problem. According to Major, many people are still uninformed about the aims of the DGAM. “They have the misconception that if there is an archaeological site on their land, it automatically means some kind of disturbance in their lives,” he says. But when it comes to foreigners, it’s a different story. Locals are more prepared to give them information on archaeological sites. “The hospitality towards a person from abroad usually makes locals overcome their fears,” Major says.

In fact, Major attributes 80 percent of the mission’s success to local populations in the countryside. “No matter how many diplomas we possess,” Major says, “the locals are the real experts in knowing the archaeological sites of a given area.” This may also be the key to Major’s personal success. His down-to-earth attitude and involvement with local families adds a lot to his work. “When after a hard day’s work we’re invited to dinner with an old man from the village who tells us ancient legends,” Major smiles, “that’s when I’m sure that I have found my real home.”

This article was published in Syria Today magazine.

Saving the Spirit of Sham

How do you preserve one of the oldest cities on earth without transforming it into a noisy tourist zone? I went with Francesca de Chatel to meet some of the developers, planners and conservationists who are trying to save the Old City of Damascus.

Photos by Manaf Hassan

Photos by Manaf Hassan

Like stepping into a scene from Arabian Nights – that’s what it’s like when you walk into the Talisman, one of Syria’s first five-star boutique hotels. Housed in an old palace in Damascus’ Jewish Quarter, it has 16 ornately decorated rooms and suites and two passion-red courtyards overflowing with jasmine, roses and fruit trees. However, a brief visit to the Dabaan house just next door will bring you back down to earth with a brutal jolt: the family of seven also lives in a traditional Damascene house, but every night Fatima Dabaan and her relatives go to bed fearing the ceiling may fall on their heads as they sleep. Centred around a small courtyard, the two-storey house has six rooms, of which only one is still in use. In the others, the wood-and-earth ceiling has started to sag ominously, while large patches of mould and humidity draw intricate patterns on the walls.

“This used to be the living room, but we had to clear it out, because the external wall is caving in and the ceiling is falling down,” says Mrs. Dabaan, a widowed mother of two. She explains that the upstairs rooms are completely inaccessible as the floor is not safe to walk on, and that even in the only room they still use, the ceiling is slowly giving way. The Dabaan family, who live off SYP 6,000 (USD 126) a month, have been tenants in the house for the last 50 years and have watched it gradually fall apart without being able afford restoration or maintenance. “The municipality keeps promising that it will send someone to fix things, but they never come,” she sighs helplessly. “And now that winter is coming I really don’t know what we are going to do.”

The stark contrast between the crumbling Dabaan family home and the luxurious Talisman Hotel around the corner is a consequence of nearly seven years of uncontrolled real estate development in the Old City. Since the late 1990s, more than 90 hotels and restaurants have sprung up, profoundly changing the character of city’s old quarters and gradually driving local residents out of the neighbourhood. Many of those who have stayed complain that the many new eateries are an infringement on their privacy: they say locals today feel like strangers in their own neighbourhood and that their streets have been turned into busy thoroughfares filled with strangers. “Certain parts of old Damascus have become overcrowded and noisy day and night,” Maher Salma, a resident of Qaymarieh says.

In the Dabaan house, the wood-and-earth ceiling has started to sag ominously, while large patches of mould and humidity draw intricate patterns on the walls.

In the Dabaan house, the wood-and-earth ceiling has started to sag ominously, while large patches of mould and humidity draw intricate patterns on the walls.

Entertainment zone

Architect and heritage expert Luna Rajab explains that while the changes have only become apparent in the last few years, the movement was already initiated in the 1950s when people started leaving the Old City and seeking more modern accommodation in the new city. Their former homes were either abandoned or used as storage spaces and rapidly deteriorated. Others were let out to tenants who often could not afford – and also often didn’t care – to restore the house. At length many of them put their houses on sale, and the investors who bought them found that the only way to restore them was to open them up to commercial activity.

Beit Jabri owner Raed Jabri was the first to open a restaurant in the Old City in the 1990s. Unlike most other restaurant owners, Jabri has a close personal connection to the old house that is today a popular restaurant near the Omayyad Mosque: he grew up in it and it has been in his family for generations. After he left home though, the house was gradually abandoned by the rest of the family and rapidly fell into disrepair. Jabri decided to save the house, and soon realised that the only way he would be able to afford that would be to open a small café in the courtyard. The café soon became a restaurant, and Jabri was able to restore his family home step by step.

“What makes Beit Jabri different, is that I didn’t start off with a business idea or with the aim of getting rich out of this. All I wanted is for people to be able to come from the street and see how beautiful this house is,” he comments.

Since Beit Jabri opened its doors in 2001, 85 other restaurants and cafés have sprung up in the alley ways of the old town. A further 25 have obtained licenses and are soon to open. In addition, 30 hotels have obtained licenses. “Giving restaurant and hotel licenses is the only way to restore the houses,” Amjad Arz, the director of the Old City, says. “People can’t afford to restore and banks don’t give house loans to Old City residents.”

The development of so many new restaurants and hotels worries not only locals but also conservation experts. “I’m not against restaurants and hotels in principal,” Rajab says. “But I am against turning the whole city into an entertainment zone. The development is making the city lose its identity.”

Grand Schemes

To address the issue of uncontrolled development and help preserve the character of the Old City, the municipality has outlined an urban master plan for the area within the city walls which includes restrictions on the further development of restaurants. Arz explains that the Old City has been divided into different zones, with three “restaurant areas” in Qaymarieh, Bab Tuma and Midhat Pasha. Other neighbourhoods are reserved for residential use and small hotels. Working in cooperation with the EU-funded Municipal Administration Modernisation (MAM) project, the Directorate of the Old City also aims to improve conditions for local residents with new job opportunities and financial assistance to restore homes.

The plan includes creating better job opportunities to encourage people to stay in the Old City area. “We can’t consider any kind of industry,” says Erfan Ali, the MAM programme director. “Instead we want to focus on traditional sectors like handicrafts, textiles and small industry, and also tourism.”

Ali explains that tourism development is an important component of the master plan and that, if carried out correctly and according to certain restrictive guidelines, it can benefit both the Old City and its residents.

“We want to keep local shops and workshops in the Old City, we want to keep mosques, churches and monuments and preserve them,” he says. “At the same time, Damascus is not a dead city – it is alive and part of a larger city and region. Most of the shops in the Old City don’t actually serve tourists, they serve locals and Syrians. For example, in the Souq al Souf, you will see hardly any tourists – this is where Syrians from the south come to do their shopping. Tourism is therefore not the only source of income for the Old City.”

The MAM project has also developed a traffic master plan to ban cars from the Old City and introduce a parking system with parking lots outside the city walls. Inside the walls there would be a form of environmentally friendly transport with electric cars and a tramway running around the city walls.

As for home restoration programmes, the Directorate of the Old City has started working with the German technical cooperation programme, GTZ, which recently completed a 13-year project in Aleppo to help low-income residents to restore their homes through a system of small loans and grants.

Project manager Regina Kallmayer says that this housing fund would allow home owners – and possibly tenants too – to apply for loans to carry out minor improvements in their houses. “Things that would make it more attractive for them to stay in their homes, like installing a bathroom or a kitchen, or fixing a wall,” she says.

Applicants would have four years to pay back the interest-free loans and low-income families would receive up to 25 percent of the money as a grant. Kallmayer says that the experience in the Old City of Aleppo was very successful with a low default rate on repayments. “Over the total quota of loans there was between 2 and 5 percent loss. This was mainly the case in families where the main breadwinner suddenly died or became disabled,” she says, adding that she sees great potential in the Old City of Damascus.

Between the Directorate of the Old City, the MAM project and GTZ, it seems there are plenty of ambitious schemes to rehabilitate, improve and develop the Old City in the coming years. It now remains to be seen how much of the plans will be implemented and whether they will succeed in keeping local residents in the Old City.

However, regardless of all the changes the old city is going through, Jabri believes that the Shami spirit still survives in many small things. “People still go out in their pyjamas to buy bread from the corner bakery, moms still send their kids out in their slippers to go and buy laban from the local shop…”

He said that given that there are now restrictions on the location and number of restaurants, their development is not a bad thing; on the contrary, he believes they have brought a new energy to the city. “Before, the Old City went to sleep at 6pm and there was no one in the street after that. The opening of restaurants has brought new life to the Old City,” he says, adding that the city is evolving together with society.

“The people who come to Beit Jabri today reflect the mosaic of society. We have foreigners and locals; we have muhajaba girls and girls in short sleeves, old and young… What matters in the end is the preservation of Damascus as a city with people. It is the oldest continuously inhabited city in the world and should not be turned into a museum.”

I wrote this article together with Francesca de Chatel for Syria Today magazine.