The Restoration of Old Damascus

The Conservation Trend

Damascus is most likely the oldest continuously inhabited city in the world. More and more private persons are setting about restoring the dilapidated Old City – the outcome in many cases are even worse. Mona Sarkis reports

A 15th century </i>iwan </i>in Damascus (photo: Mona Sarkis)
Only half of the 16,832 Damascene houses listed in the Ottoman Almanac of 1900 still exist. Pictured: A 15th century Iwan in Damascus

​​Ten years ago the restaurant Beit Jabri opened in a traditional Damascene residential house, thereby ushering in a boom that is still going strong. And this is not only because its 18-meter high main hall and 23 rooms distributed on two floors offer everything from shisha to an Internet café. It is above all the love of and painstaking attention to historical detail that has impressed even archaeologists.

It was not easy to restore the structure, most of which originates from the eighteenth century – the three-winged reception hall dates from 1744 – especially not after its history, which still makes owner Raed Jabri cringe. Until 1973 his family had inhabited the house, built in 1905, but then had to give it up because it was too costly to maintain. The heirs scattered, and the house fell into decay. Finally, strangers occupied it as a warehouse.

"Slum-like chaotic warren of alleys"

A downward spiral that most of the old Damascene houses have experienced: sometimes due to the cost of maintenance, but mostly because the "nouvelle ville" built at the beginning of the twentieth century wooed inhabitants with its modern infrastructure and spacious streets. The increasingly slum-like chaotic warren of alleys in Old Damascus seemed "inferior" in comparison, and more and more members of the middle class left the Old City. Vice versa, the poor rural population started moving in.

Vacant houses as well as scattered and discordant heirs, as in the Jabri case, or low rents as well as laws that long gave landlords little power to act against renters accomplished the rest: the houses fell into decay. Hakam Roukbi knows the story quite well. A year and a half ago the architect bought the 3,700 m2 Beit Farhi house.

This historical residence, which belonged to influential Jewish banker Hayim Farhi in the eighteenth century and in which Suleiman Pasha spent the night after his military campaign against Damascus in 1810, had recently been housing approximately fifteen families – at the same time. "The whole place was like a garbage dump."

Mistakes and blunders

Starting in 2008, the building with its five inner courtyards will be presented as a first-class hotel. Whether it will also be a first-class restoration remains to be seen. Bassam al-Zreik, who, commissioned by the well-known Thlass Kheir family, has been renovating the Beit al-Quwatli with its (once) breathtaking mirror hall for three years now, is fundamentally skeptical about "restorative moods." The regulations are not strict enough," he complains, having resigned his position as deputy minister of culture after six months. For example, concrete:

Concrete is permitted in "certain amounts." But what "certain" means is uncertain. Nothing harms the traditionally lightweight building material more than the unprofessional use of heavy concrete. The walls in Beit al-Quwatli, for instance, were bulging outwards by 70 centimeters because the historical structure of clay and poplar could not hold up to the extensions tacked on by the previous inhabitant. Cement is not much different. The traditional limestone would not, if covered with cement, be able to breath and would pulverize within a few years.

Add to this the sometimes strange understanding of decoration which "embellishes" the jewel of Damascus, the Ummayyaden Mosque. Its first-century Roman walls were partially rebuilt, and its eighth-century marble and fourteenth and fifteenth-century fountains were replaced by modern "interpretations," enumerates Stefan Weber in his" Damaskus Risikoreport" (Damascus Risk Report).

In comparison, the poorly renovated boiserie panels in Damascus' famous discotheque, Marmar, in the Christian district Bab Touma, look ridiculous. The outcome of the quick investment in nostalgia, however, is deplorable: Marmar is located in a house built at the turn of the seventeenth century.

'Museumification' as a chance

It can hardly be disputed that the classical Oriental city, where everything is within walking distance, cannot hold up to the increase in private traffic. The trend toward "museumification" in the form of small oases is doubtless followed at the expense of the animated texture of everyday life that has always distinguished Old Damascus. Nevertheless, it could play a major role in saving the Old City from an insidious excess of planning. Thus it is even more important that the museumification really preserves what is concealed behind the words "most likely the oldest continually inhabited city in the world."

Such as the Beit Al-Aqqad. The house, built in several phases upon the ruins of the Roman Theater of Herod, was exemplarily restored by the Danish Institute of Research and Culture from 1996 to 2000.

Starting with the star medallions in Mamluk tradition on the façade of the northern reception hall, the fourteen-meter-high iwan (a vaulted hall or space, walled on three sides, with one end entirely open) from the fifteenth century and the inner courtyard, which received an arabesque floor of basalt and marble after the major earthquake of 1759, to the "Blue Room," which was elaborately restored in the Turkish Rococo style around 1860. The ancient arch relic of the Herod Theater can also be marveled at again in one of the offices. Vis-à-vis the computer.

Mona Sarkis

© 2007

Translated from the German by Nancy Joyce

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