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Volume 33, Number 2March/April 1982

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Restoration of Damascus

Written by Phil McConnell

After 8,000 years, Damascus, the oldest continuously inhabited city in the world, is about to have her first facelift.

The precise age of Damascus is open to debate and some historians say other cities - Byblos in Lebanon and Aleppo to the north - are older. But the evidence in favor of Damascus seems overwhelming. Neolithic finds from Tell Ramad on the outskirts verify that the site was occupied as early as the seventh millennium B.C.; third-millennium cuneiform tablets recovered at Ebla (see Aramco World March-April 1978) refer to Damascus by its present name, Dimashq; Egyptian texts of the 14th century B.C. mention Damascus; and Old Testament references suggest that Damascus was regarded as ancient in the ninth century B.C. Just on the basis of age, therefore, restoration of Damascus would be extraordinarily difficult; her wrinkles go deep. But Damascus is also very large. During the Roman period, Damascus was as big as Rome itself - and 10 times the size of Paris-and even now its ancient quarter is much larger than those of many capital cities in Europe.

Restoration plans, moreover, are ambitious. "Our goal isn't solely to buy deteriorating historical buildings and restore them as empty relics of the past," said Dr. Afif Bahnassi, Director General of Syrian Antiquities and Museums. "We don't want to create a ghost town of monuments, we want to revitalize the old city by restoring centuries-old homes and public buildings and to bring back residents who have moved to suburbia"

As in many cities in the United States, the move toward preservation came as a result of urban sprawl; in 1970, for example, major building projects began to re-shape Damascus and threatened its wealth of historic buildings. Alarmed by this, the Department of Antiquities, in l976, organized a commission to oversee the protection of Old Damascus, and soon after the area within the original city walls and its seven gates was declared a "cultural property" in which future building, manufacturing and the dismantlement or destruction of edifices were forbidden. "Even repairs must now be approved by the Department of Antiquities," Dr. Bahnassi said.

In itself, that move was a substantial challenge. "Capital cities of Europe take great pride in their ancient quarters which, in terms of area, are miniscule in comparison to the old city of Damascus," Dr. Bahnassi said. 'The walls and ramparts of old Damascus very clearly mark an area of 1.36 million square meters or about 140 hectares (346 acres). The eastern gate, Bab al-Sharqi, dates to the Roman period and opens onto the Roman road, the Via Recta or Street Called Straight. Six of the old city gates were built in medieval times - the 12th to 15th centuries"

But Damascus plans to do more than simply preserve what's there; it also wants to restore its national treasures: some 100 historical public monuments that have withstood earthquakes, fire and the ravages of time. Among them are 50 mosques, 30 public baths, 12 caravanserais and seven 12th- to 15th-century schools. In addition, Dr. Bahnassi said, the Department hopes to restore an estimated 300 houses of 18th to 19th-century vintage—an exciting as well as a challenging project.

'Traditionally, Arab houses were large, having as many as 18 rooms to accommodate the patriarch, his sons and their families. But after World War II, as sons tended to move into their own homes, and servants, needed to maintain large dwellings, became too expensive, elderly couples had no choice but to close off sections of their homes.

"Then when the old people died, the heirs left the houses deserted or rented portions of the dwellings to villagers and others moving into Damascus. In some cases, as many as eight to 10 members of a single family rented one or two rooms which led to overcrowding and rapid deterioration of some of the loveliest old homes in the ancient quarters.

"You might say;" Dr. Bahnassi continued, "that the biggest problems we confront are uninhabited, deteriorating houses which we can't afford to buy, and the uninterested owner's policy of renting family homes to too many people or to traders who use them as warehouses."

To cope with these problems is difficult, he said. "The Department of Antiquities has funds to purchase one to three old dwellings each year. This is not sufficient to save the great number of houses that are rapidly deteriorating from desertion, overcrowding and misuse by businessmen. And even if it was sufficient, we must relocate the villagers and refugees. No matter how rare or historically valuable an old house is, the Department of Antiquities cannot simply purchase it and evacuate the tenants. We must find housing for them or pay the difference it will cost them to live elsewhere."

Restoration of these homes, nevertheless, continues to excite Department of Antiquities planners. They say that whatever its scale, restoration is the way to salvage these treasures - and they're happy to give examples. One is Bait Jabry an elegant 28-room mansion reached by the streets that wind northward from the Roman Arch on the Street Called Straight to 40 Swaff Road. Although virtually deserted since 1972, this proud old house exhibits vestiges of elegance the onlooker can't miss: damask roses, jasmine, citrus trees and vines flourish untrimmed in the courtyard whose tiles were laid more than two centuries ago.

So far, 10 generations of Jabrys have lived in the mansion and Aghyad, grandson of the present owner, is determined to keep it in the family. "My roots are here," Jabry says. "Why should I ever consider moving to an air-conditioned box in the suburbs?"

With the help from the Department of Antiquities, therefore, Jabry is trying to renovate Bait Jabry. In January for example, the department agreed to supply architects, stone masons and carpenters to restore the house, and Jabry agreed to pay the department on a long term basis.

It will not be cheap. There are 110 windows in the crumbling palace, and 57 panes must be replaced; the roof over the south-east corner, damaged by water, is being rebuilt; and the 12-meter ceiling (40 feet) of the iwan - an extended balcony -requires a forest of scaffolding for work on a 200-year-old mirrors set into handcarved beams.

Like numerous counterparts in the United States, who have chosen an anachronous life style, Mr Jabry has taught himself carpentry and weaving and is simultaneously repairing the walls and doors and weaving fabrics for salon furnishings and draperies. But there are limits to what he can do himself. The mansion's doors, for example, are one-of-a-kind, the first in Syria paneled in marble, which only highly skilled craftsmen can repair, and there are massive cedar-wood window cornices which, Mr Jabry says, "were carved by the grandfather of my grandfather?

The whole mansion, in fact, is a craftsman's dream. Room after room displays the ultimate in 18th-century Damascene ceilings - hand carved and painted beams whose designs were intended to - and could - compete with the motifs woven in the oriental carpets. One salon is decorated with murals of steam-powered ships which called at Beirut in the 1840s and a tile in the main reception salon bears a calligraphic inscription stating that the house was completed in 1158 A.H. (1745).

Another resident of Old Damascus who is determined to stay is George Arida, whose 14-room, 19th-century home standing amid a courtyard rich in ferns, palm trees and roses is a prime example of an upper-middle-class residence in the Christian quarter of Old Damascus. "I love this house and I hope my daughters will live in it after I'm gone," he said.

A third example is the Dahdah Palace, south of the Roman Arch on the Street Called Straight. An 18-room dwelling, the place was constructed more than 300 years ago by a Turkish pasha. Now owned by George Dahdah, whose family has had it for more than 50 years; Dahdah alone has spent well over 500,000 Syrian pounds to restore it.

In addition to mansions there are other structures that the department hopes to preserve. Bait Nassan is the only remaining factory of hand-loomed Damascene silk in Syria. The factory, located outside the city walls, directly north of Bab Sharqi, is on the verge of closing.

Fortunately, this will have no effect on the mansion inside the walls. The Nassan family purchased the dwelling in 1866, when it already was 115 years old, invested a small fortune over a century ago to restore and expand it and opens it on special occasions to such guests as the Agha Khan and the late Charles De Gaulle. As a result the Nassan family has opted to remain in the building, a choice that the Department of Antiquities hopes more established families will imitate.

"As we restore gracious old homes, we're encouraging the owners to return to them so that in the future, visitors can see how Damascenes once lived," Dr. Bahnassi said. "We hope to transform classic Arab dwellings - such as the Jabry home — into restaurants, as was done in Beirut before the war, and guest lodges, convert palaces into museums or small intimate inns and restore old baths and caravanserais so that the public can use them as they were centuries ago."

Projects on this scale, obviously, require both expertise and money and Damascus, fortunately, has received both on an international basis. In 1978, for example, when Dr. Bahnassi called for the formation of an international committee to preserve the old city, the response was immediate and ayear later, in April 1979, participants from France, West Germany and the United States set to work on projects with Syrian colleagues. This international commission meets three times a year to review the progress of four committees which are tackling four areas critical to the preservation of Old Damascus.

One committee, under Dorothea Sack of West Germany, who is preparing her doctoral dissertation on the urban problems of Old Damascus, has prepared sets of maps, which cover the "intramuros" (within-the-walls) area of the old city. To do so, she has, with the aid of Syrian collaborators, interviewed nearly every resident of the old city and prepared exact sketches of houses as they once were. On another set of maps she has indicated which houses are worth preserving - and on still another set has indicated mosques, shops, schools and other public buildings.

Other areas lie outside the walls. Mindful that many jewels of Islamic architecture exist outside the old city walls, the Department of Antiquities has assigned Jean-Paul Pasqual of the Damascus French Institute to research Maidan, Bab al-Jabiya, Suq Saruja and Qanawat, and has asked Dr. Michael Meinecke of the Damascus German Archaeological Institute to map Salhyeh, a 19th-century summer resort of Damascus where such luminaries as Sir Richard Burton and Lady Jane Digby lived. Dr. Meinecke has already identified and documented more than 20 public monuments dating from the mid-11th century onward.

A final area of study is a demographic-socio-economic survey which the Syrian, French and German experts are doing jointly by distributing questionnaires by hand to every known resident of the old city. "From these questionnaires we hope it will be possible to determine how people lived in the old city in the past and what their needs are if they remain there," Dr. Bahnassi said.

"Very recently, I walked the streets of the old city with the governor of Damascus. Over and above the words of the specialists, we wanted to learn from the residents themselves what their connection is with the suqs and the services within the city.

"We came up with some disturbing facts. More than 500,000 people are in the old city during the daytime but less than 15,000 live in it at night. Because of the low rents, merchants are using the old city as just a center of trade for everything from used tires and flashlight batteries to plastic wash tubs and transistor radios. What's worse, they have their factories and storehouses here.

"Our chief task is to determine how to evacuate these undesirable elements and it seems that to do so we must establish a new market place for them. Old Damascus can thrive alone on its traditional markets and crafts shops of brassware, woodwork, glass and carpets. Let the industrialized trades go to another center. We wish only to encourage handicraft trades to remain in the old city within their historical framework"

The city fathers of Damascus, concerned with faulty and dangerous electrical wiring throughout the area, are also enforcing new safety codes and are trying to diminish the amount of auto traffic in the narrow streets. Last, to improve the appearance of the city, a special establishment has been organized to distribute paint, cement and other building materials to residents, particularly renter tradesmen, who will be obliged to repair and restore the premises under the guidance of museum officials.

Since 1976, the Department of Antiquities has also carried out a number of restoration projects. One was a Mamluk edifice, Madrassat Jakmakieh, which now houses the Damascus Epigraphy Museum, and another, a must on any tour guide's itinerary was the Bimaristan Nureddin.

A hospital constructed in A.D. 1155, Bimaristan Nureddin, now the Museum of Medicine and Science, is the result of more than five years of research and reconstruction. Regarded as a prime example of Ayyubid architecture, its red painted stalactite ceiling contrasts with its sparkling white stucco walls and visitors can see balconies where 21 physicians (ophthalmologists, internists and surgeons) once treated up to 300 patients at one time. In addition, there are replicas of medieval surgical instruments, pharmaceutical equipment and large photographic reproductions of miniatures of early Islamic physicians at work. A charming example of its use as a working museum is that the Syrian Society of Astronomy meets here using a telescope bought by the department. Society members this summer will operate the telescope for the public in the open courtyard.

In May of 1980, the Antiquities Department also opened the 19th-century Azm residence of Suq Saruja as a historical museum. The two-courtyard, 16-room home serves as a conference hall, exhibition gallery and library. Its inauguration was marked with an international conference in which scholars presented papers and showed vintage photographs of Old Damascus.

The latest project is the Hammam Nureddin, a bath house constructed in 1155. For more than seven centuries, the structure was in use. Then at the beginning of this century, it fell into use as a warehouse and the interiors were extensively damaged. The Department of Antiquities purchased the building in 1977 and restoration began under the guidance of specialists from Damascus National Museum.

One of the chief obstacles in restoring the hammam was that many original building materials no longer exist or are too expensive to replace. This is the case of semiprecious stones which were inlaid in the walls. Colored glass has been substituted. The actual bathing rooms are tripartite: a cold room, medium hot room and a steam room. One major departure from the original outlay is a concession to 20th century innovations, namely a large wooden cage containing a sauna.

"We hope the restoration of Hammam Nureddin will set an example for proprietors of other bath houses to refurbish their establishments," Dr. Bahnassi said, noting that in the 19th century there were more than 100 bath houses in the old city. Today about 45 remain.

As part of the effort to revitalize the old city and bring residents and businessmen back into it, the department invited entrepreneurs to make bids on managing the hammam once it was restored. The offer was taken up by a businessman who interestingly enough is named Sabah Hammami.

Another impressive restoration project under way is that of Maktab Anbar, a five-courtyard complex of three houses dating to the 19th century. It will open sometime in 1981 as an Arab Cultural Center for residents of the old city. Last, there is the Khan As'ad Pasha, an 18th-century As'ad a few meters south of the Hammam Nureddin.

"We took actual possession of this structure five years ago, but only last week were we able to dislodge the merchant who used it as a warehouse," Dr. Bahnassi said. "We hope to restore it as a handicrafts sales center and tea room."

"Above all," Dr. Bahnassi stated, "we don't want the old quarter to be restored as an empty showcase, but to make it a living city where visitors can witness and enjoy the life-styles of the past."

Pat McDonnell, who earned an M.A. in archeology at UCLA, broke an ankle during field work in Syria and subsequently stayed on to write and report on Syrian archeology.

The Palace of Memories

More than 25 years before it launched the campaign to restore the Old City of Damascus, the Syrian Department of Antiquities and Museums had already refurbished and furnished the 18th-century 'Azm Palace and opened it to the public as a National Museum of Arts and Popular Traditionstoday the most popular attraction of Old Damascus after the Umayyad Mosque.

A complex of gardens and reception halls, in which mannequins attired in authentic costumes of various periods and areas recreate Syrian lifestyles of the past, the palace is largely the work of Shafiq Imam, the museum director.

"In 1952" he said, "the Department of Antiquities decided more attention should be paid to national ethnography... and I went to work gathering furnishings and every imaginable relic from out of our past to display in the museum"

That was the beginning of a search that has subsequently turned up 4,000 examples of Syrian apparel dating from the 18th century to the present. It was not, however, as easy as it sounds.

"I called on villagers dressed in old clothing and introduced myself. .."he recalled. "In that way, no one regarded me as an outsider from the big city. The people welcomed me into their homes and whenever I spotted something very old or of remarkable craftsmanship, I expressed my admiration and bought it. Before leaving, I would give the people my address and ask them to visit me in Damascus. When they did so, I would show them the acquisitions I'd purchased from them on display and then ask for additional details on their history and manufacture. If I'd shown too much curiosity during my buying trips, the people would have grown suspicious and possibly would have withdrawn their hospitality"

Meanwhile, the Syrian government had taken full possession of what was to be the National Museum of Arts and Popular Traditions: the handsome square Azm Palace, a structure that covers 5,500 square meters (59,200 square feet) and contains 16 halls, 19 small basement rooms, nine second-story rooms, a portico with five arches, 14 fountains, several kitchens, a five-room hammam, five inner courtyards and an exterior courtyard originally intended for horses.

Divided into three main sectionsthe salamlik, for men, the haramlik, or women's quarters, and the kitchen and bath-house, or hammam, the palace is spacious as well as beautiful. Furthermore, Imam said, its origins may go back into Islamic history. Some Damascene historians say it was the first palace of the first Umayyad caliph, Mu'awiya, and there is evidence that, during the Mamluk period, the site housed a treasury where coins were minted.

During the Ottoman period, the governor of Damascus, As'ad Pasha al-Azm, purchased the grounds and built a residence on the site; to meet his exacting specifications, private houses were bought and dismantled for the project, and the finest specimens of bougainvillea, jasmine, roses and cypress trees were planted in the courtyards. The most renowned architects, carpenters, stone masons and artisans were hired and after three years, the palace was completed in 1749.

As the location for a museum, the Azm Palacesometimes confused with the Azm House which has also been restored and opened as the Damascus Historical Museumwas perfect. At the opening, though, Imam and his colleagues were anxious. "It was the first time such a venture had been attempted in Syria and we feared that since most people had the same objects in their homes, they wouldn't feel it worthwhile to come and see them displayed here"

As it turned out, their anxieties were for naught. Indeed, they were amazed at the popularity the Azm Palace received from the first day its doors were opened.

Today it is easy to see why. In addition to its striking setting the museum offers a marvelous variety of exhibits. In the first room, for example, spectators will find priceless pieces of Chinese porcelain and Bohemian crystalremnants front the 17th century when Damascene families often ordered personalized motifs on ceramics from Chinaas well as delicate stemware, lamps and vases specially made in Bohemia for 18th century Damascene clients.

Other rooms in the Azm Palace recreate 19th-century scenes: a young bride being prepared for her nuptial ceremony by women attendants; a pasha holding a reception in the company of his deputy and secretary; a Bedouin tent; a villager of the jabal al-'Arab area serving coffee to his guests; a late 19th-century Damascene coffee house replete with a storyteller, phonograph, flickering light machine and men playing trik-trak.

In another display, mannequins are attired as male and female pilgrims to Makkah and yet another room features an Ottoman mahmal, a gold brocade ten t which was placed on the camel leading the pilgrimage procession to Makkah. There are also displays of rare calligraphy: an egg, on which the entire Koran is written, and a grain of wheatdisplayed under a magnifying glassbearing an incredible amount of calligraphy.

Visitors can also see displays of Syrian handicrafts: weaving, glass blowing, copper and leather working and massive wood blocks used in printing Syrian cottons.

To Imam, handicrafts are more than museum exhibits; they are echoes of a vanishing world. "Our handicrafts are dying" he said. "In the past, the entire family produced these crafts. Now men leave the countryside for the city or the Gulf, women are busy doing the men's chores and handicrafts die out as machine-produced goods replace them at a lower price. I continue to go into the villages and commission the people to make me fabrics, then I do my best to find Syrian or foreign markets for them"

Imam didn't say whether that approach was helpful in preserving handicrafts, but in his description of the folk museum he eloquently expressed what his, and his department's, approach is based upon: enthusiasm and dedication.

This article appeared on pages 2-9 of the March/April 1982 print edition of Saudi Aramco World.


Check the Public Affairs Digital Image Archive for March/April 1982 images.