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 City of Jasmine and Poetry

As Damascus prepares to launch the events for Arab Cultural Capital 2008, local writers and historians reflect on what this millennial city means to them and how it has influenced their life and work.

Abd al-Nabi Steif, general director of the Syrian Organisation of Books

Photos Manaf Hassan

Abd alnabi steif

“The importance of Damascus as a capital of Arab culture stems from the fact that it is the oldest continuously inhabited city on earth, at least 10,000 years old. Moreover, Damascus was the centre of the world for at least 100 years during the Omayyad period. Even Andalusia was more or less an extension of the Bilad al-Sham civilisation; Cordoba was the counterpart of Damascus, while Seville was the counterpart of Homs. Therefore, I think it’s a great occasion for all of us who love Damascus to reinstate it as the cultural capital of Arabs, Muslims and even humanity as a whole.

I love Damascus, and I’m proud that I was born here. Though I lived in Oxford for 10 years and had many work opportunities in Europe and the US, Damascus brought me back to my country. I’ve explored every corner of Old Damascus; I could find my way through its small alleys blindfolded.

For the last half century, Damascus has been neglected. We don’t have a reliable public transport system, or enough gardens and leisure areas. We face great problems, like pollution and traffic. It would be good to address these issues in 2008, when Damascus is the Arab Cultural Capital.”

Nadia Khost, Damascene writer and one of the founders of the Committee for the Preservation of Old Damascus

Nadia Khost

“Damascus boasts a long and rich history. It’s the gate to Jerusalem, located in the heart of the Arab world. It’s our responsibility to save its historical identity. Announcing Damascus as the Capital of Arab Culture is a good opportunity to do that.

The most important thing is to announce that the Old City’s urban scheme is permanent. In addition, plaques should be mounted to explain the origin of each historical monument in Damascus. Important shrines, such as those of the Ayyubid women, have today passed into oblivion. These women founded schools in the Middle Ages in what is currently Salhiye Street, and these have been closed and neglected for years. We should restore the schools and open them to the public, which would teach the younger generation about their past. I think young Syrians are detached from their history, and I believe this is culturally, ideologically and politically dangerous.

As for the future of cultural life in Damascus, two approaches are possible: one puts a lot of effort into the project, digging deep for inspiration; the other has a fast food ideology, fast results with little attention to the value of the final product.

Damascus is a very precious city. It’s rooted deep in my heart. It hurts me a lot, however, to see it being polluted and neglected this way. It is so sad that many Damascenes don’t appreciate this great city.”

Kheiri al-Dahabi, Damascene novelist

Kheiri Al Dahabi

“I don’t think that any Arab capital actually deserves the name of Capital of Arab Culture – all of them have potential. Of course, there are culturally distinctive capitals in the Arab world, such as Omayyad Damascus, Abbasid Baghdad, or Moroccan Marrakech. Nevertheless, Damascus is the closest to my heart as I’m a Damascene myself and I know how Damascus formed and was formed by its culture.

Damascus is synonymous to the Omayyad period, to Saladin, to Sultan Nur Ad-Din and to a long line of scientists and intellectuals. The Omayyad mosque, which I consider to be a miniature of Islamic civilisation and a metaphor for religious coexistence, is a symbol of Damascus, this great city that receives and loves everyone and never looks down upon others.

We’re lucky that Damascus has been named Capital of Arab Culture and we, as Syrians, should pay our debt to her by producing culture. Today, Damascus faces many challenges. I live in a neighbourhood that has 350,000 inhabitants – as many as the population of all of Damascus in the early 20th century. In my district, there aren’t any theatres, cultural or social clubs; there aren’t any expressions of a modern society that transforms the inhabitants from individuals into a community. Commercial art is gaining more popularity than profound art. But as the Koran says: ‘The froth vanishes and what benefits people stays.’ We hope so…”

Colette Khoury, Damascene novelist and poet

Colette Khoury

“Damascus is the ever-young city, though it is at the same time considered history’s firstborn daughter. You can feel the continuity of life here; you find women wearing frocks and belly-dancing in the traditional houses of the Old City. Others live in modern apartments, wear mini-skirts and go to discos. This is why it continues to flourish, because Damascus adapts to each generation.

The new generation has a different way of expressing itself. They’ve left books for the sake of TV, computers and the Internet. But I don’t see this as a problem; every generation has its own interests. It’s true that people today are materialistic and that the middle class is vanishing, but these things change with time. I believe that there will be a renaissance.

The name “Damascus” reveals a lot about the city. Legends say that the Romans called this city “Du-misk”, which means “very aromatic”. When I was little, Damascus indeed had a very pleasant scent of jasmine. The word Damascus also means “to build rapidly” in Old Arabic. It is said that our city is called Damascus because it was built soon after Noah’s flood. In Europe, there is a common saying that when someone is lost or in trouble and then finds a way out, they “are converted on the road to Damascus”. This saying stems from St. Paul, who wanted to kill the Christians in Bab Tuma in Damascus. On his way to the city, he had a vision of the resurrected Christ and converted to Christianity.

There are many beautiful cities in the world, but what is special about Damascus is that you discover her beauty gradually. The more you stay in Damascus, the more attached you become to her.”

Nasr ad-Din Bahra, Damascene journalist, writer and radio broadcaster

Nasr ad-Din Bahra

“Damascus is a culturally distinctive city because of its antiquity and its history as the capital of the Omayyad Empire, whose boundaries stretched from China to the Atlantic Ocean. Damascus was the home of Arab culture since pagan times, and throughout the Islamic, Omayyad and Abbasid periods it produced countless intellectuals, especially poets. Moreover, Damascus has peerless antiquities such as the Omayyad Mosque.

However, Damascus underwent huge architectural changes that destroyed many of its historically important houses and alleys. Building suburbs, on the other hand, wiped out great parts of the Ghuta and the green areas. Damascus also underwent large demographic changes during the last half century. Today, more than three million of its inhabitants come from other cities. This has brought about political, social, and cultural changes.

Culturally speaking, this demographic change has however been very constructive. Many poets, novelists and thinkers moved to the capital. This migration made Damascus Syria’s cultural centre.

Damascus actually breathes culture. Growing up in the Old City is what made me an intellectual. You can’t escape culture in such a city where every inch tells something about its history and the history of the millions of people who lived here. For me, Damascus is more beautiful than a lover. She never leaves me, not even in my sleep.”

Mahat Farah al-Khoury, Damascene poet and translator

Mahat Farah al-Khoury

“I was born in Damascus, and I first saw the light of day in one of its old traditional houses. Damascus is my roots, and it is present in all my writings.

Damascus, which is the cradle of the three monotheistic religions, forms a great example of religious coexistence. The neighbourhoods in old Damascus formed a mosaic of Jews, Christians and Muslims living together like a big family. I remember how we shared breakfast with our Muslim neighbours in Ramadan. I’ll never forget the funeral of Dr. Isaac Tawtah, a Jewish family friend; 4,000 people walked in his funeral, most of them Muslims and Christians. I felt as if all Damascus was mourning him. Religion has always been part and parcel of the history of Damascus, its past, its present, and hopefully its future.”

This article was published in Syria Today magazine.