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December 18, 2017
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Preserving Syria's Past, Building for its Future

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Khan As’ad Pasha, the largest khan in the Old City of Damascus. The building follows a typical Ottoman khan layout with two floors giving onto a central courtyard. (Source: islamic-art.org).

From prehistoric times to the present, arguably no single nation has undergone as much change as Syria. The country has gone through a myriad of epochs, from the early Ebla civilization to joining the Roman Empire; from Byzantium to Islam; from dictatorship to liberation struggle. Architect Philippe Daher is well aware of the transformations his country is currently going through, but hopes one thing will remain the same: the preservation of Damascus' classic buildings.  

Damascus is one of the oldest continuously inhabited cities on Earth and it still holds numerous 18th century homes, old hammams, souks, khans and mausoleums, all folded within the twisted labyrinth of ancient streets and blind alleys.

Although best known in Syria for his ultra modernist constructions, Daher believes that maintaining the integrity of the city's centuries-old structures should be of global cultural importance. Damascus is the oldest continuously inhabited city on Earth and it still holds numerous 18th century homes, old hammams, souks, khans and mausoleums, all folded within the twisting labyrinth of ancient streets and blind alleys, all watched over by imposing walls.

The combined use of black basalt and white limestone give the old city its unique character, but the layout of traditional Damascene houses is typically more oriental, reflecting its religious values, importance of privacy and family life, as well as the climatic needs of the region. While houses seem to be solidly sealed off to outsiders, once in the dwelling, one usually finds vast windows revealing a courtyard garden, typically boasting mosaic tiling, damask rose bushes, citrus trees, jasmine, and possibly a water fountain.

In keeping with tradition, older Damascene homes were divided into three parts - one for men, one for women and, for the affluent, a third part for servants. Decoration was elaborate, with beautifully handcrafted decorated wooden ceilings and built-in cupboards, marble floors of different geometric designs and colours, huge wooden framed mirrors, and elaborate furniture inlaid with mother of pearl. The upper stories, partially projecting over the street, served as living rooms. Their latticed windows allowed the women of the household a chance to peer out onto the street without being seen by strangers.

According to Daher, a century ago there were some 20,000 traditionally architected homes in Damascus. However, today, less than half of these remain. I interviewed him about why this is happening, and what could be done to preserve the architectural history of this culturally rich city.

Why are the traditional homes of Damascus disappearing so fast?

Earlier in the last century, the wealthy began to move to the more modern parts of Damascus or the suburbs, and the poor who moved in did not have the money for repairs. Also, many of the larger houses became smaller and smaller as generation after generation, they were gradually divided up among family members.

In my personal opinion, many of these houses are in very bad condition and in danger of deteriorating; in reality, many don't hold a significant historical or cultural value, and have been divided to many small individual units making it hard to make out the history or shape of the original space for restoration. 

A modern take on traditional mosaic
flooring in a Damascene home
(Photography courtesy of Philippe Damer).

How, then, can the old homes be saved from renovation?

In such cases, renovating the space to fit modern standards of living is actually adding more value to the house, and in the long run, it preserves the tradition and life style. My practice has worked on several renovation projects in the old Damascus area, and we found that in some cases, the houses were in great condition and needed very little work, so we mainly just had to preserve the existing architecture. 

On the other hand, sadly, some of the houses we worked on were in a very bad condition and had nothing of value to preserve, and were in need of a drastic renovations to their structure and functions alike, to transform them into stylish living spaces that provide healthy, comfortable conditions to the occupants.

When renovating these houses, how do you manage to merge the old with the new?

In most of our renovation projects, the focus was on creating more spacious living rooms that could benefit from the natural sunlight and ventilation already provided by the open court yard. We also introduced a fusion of tradition and comfort through the use of modern technologies and standards; this appeals to a wider demographic and, in turn, helps raise awareness of the old Damascus in order to keep our architectural heritage alive.

An Ottoman courtyard-style home dating
from around the early 20th century.

It sounds like you and your firm are working hard to preserve Damascus' architectural heritage, but surely there must be other forces at work doing this?

Of course! Responsibilities for planning control over the old city and its management are mainly in the hands of two government departments, the Commission for Safeguarding the Old Town and the General Directorate for Antiquities and Museums (DGAM). But still, the effectiveness of the conservation policy relies on full participation of various interests within the city such as public/private partnerships, all levels of government, the financial community, and of course, citizens.

There are a lot of changes going on in the Middle East at the moment, and Syria seems to be on the brink of a major change itself. How do you picture the architectural future of your country?

I think Damascus will continue to maintain its eastern charm, and the old Damascus will be an artistic hub for creative people from all over the world. The old souks and cultural areas will have to mix with the modern world and technologies, but the suburbs and seaside will probably be more developed and filled with entertainment complexes and developments. Due to the strategic location of Syria, the country will no doubt be under the influences of globalization, but it will definitely maintain its old cultural and traditional heritage, which the Syrian people are still very attached to. 

 

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