Preserving Heritage, and the Fabric of Life, in Syria

ALEPPO, Syria — At first glance it seems an unremarkable scene: a quiet plaza shaded by date palms in the shadow of this city’s immense medieval Citadel, newly restored to its looming power. Foreign tourists sit side by side with people whose families have lived here for generations; women, both veiled and unveiled, walk arm in arm past a laborer hauling tools into an old government building being converted into a hotel.

But this quiet plaza is the centerpiece of one of the most far-thinking preservation projects in the Middle East, one that places as much importance on people as it does on the buildings they live in. The project encompasses the rebuilding of crumbling streets and the upgrading of city services, the restoration of hundreds of houses in the historic Old City, plans for a 42-acre park in one of the city’s poorest neighborhoods and the near-decade-long restoration of the Citadel itself, whose massive walls dominate the skyline of Aleppo, one of the oldest continuously inhabited cities in the world, and a gem of Islamic architecture.

The effort, led by a German nonprofit group and the Aga Khan Trust for Culture working with local government, is the culmination of a major philosophical shift among preservationists in the region. It seeks to reverse a 50-year history during which preservation, by myopically focusing on restoring major architectural artifacts, sometimes destroyed the communities around them. Other restoration efforts have also sparked gentrification, driving the poor from their homes and, at their worst, fostering rage that plays into the hands of militants.

By offering an array of financial and zoning incentives to homeowners and shopkeepers, this approach has already helped stabilize impoverished communities in a part of the world where the most effective social programs for the poor are often still run by extremist organizations like Hezbollah and the Muslim Brotherhood.

“The project in Aleppo is quite an exceptional model,” said Daniele Pini, a preservationist who has worked for Unesco, the United Nations cultural arm, throughout the region. In places like Cairo and Jordan, he said, those who would restore historic buildings and those who live in them are often at loggerheads. The Aleppo plan, he said, “allows people to adapt the old houses to the needs of modern life.”

Correcting Past Blunders

The role of postwar urban planning in the rise of fundamentalism is well documented. In the 1950s and ’60s nationalist governments in countries like Egypt, Syria and Iraq typically viewed the congested alleys and cramped interiors of historic centers not as exotic destinations for tourists but as evidence of a backward culture to be erased. Planners carved broad avenues through dense cities, much as Haussmann had before them in Paris. Families that had lived a compartmentalized existence — with men often segregated from women in two- or three-story courtyard houses — were forced into high-rises with little privacy, while the wealthy fled for villas in newly created suburbs.

But while preservationists may have scorned Modernist housing blocks, they were often just as insensitive to the plight of local residents who got in their way. Even as they worked to restore architectural monuments in the Muslim world, they could be disdainful of the dense urban fabric that surrounded these sites. Neighborhoods were sometimes bulldozed to clear space around landmarks so they would be more accessible to tourists.

Agencies like Unesco often steered governments toward a Western-style approach to preservation. Traditionally a family might have built onto a house to accommodate a newly married son, for instance, adding a floor or a shop out front. But those kinds of changes were often prohibited under preservation rules.

“The word ‘athar’ — ‘antiquities’ — became a horrible word because it meant preserving our houses but not our traditions,” said Omar Hallaj, the chief executive of the Syria Trust for Development and a preservationist who has worked in Syria and Yemen.

These tensions grew with the boom in global tourism, as cities around the world sought to give travelers the “authentic” experience they craved, but in a safe, tidy and germ-free environment. The Old City of Damascus, for example, has in the last decade become a major draw both for the international tourist set and for Arabs who began traveling closer to home after Sept. 11. According to informed estimates, the number of foreign visitors to Syria has quadrupled over the last five years.

Even as the city government races to preserve its character, its courtyard houses are being converted into boutique hotels and fashionable restaurants. Many 20th-century structures — including impressive examples of early modern architecture from the time of the French mandate period — remain unprotected. The city has introduced incentives to keep some homeowners, but many preservationists think it’s too late.

Militant Islamic hardliners, meanwhile, have had equal disdain for both the modernizers and for the preservationists, many of them Western, who followed them.

via NY Times


About Ahmad Amirali

I am a secondary teacher by profession, pursuing my career further in the field of teaching and learning. I love to read and even more love to share of what I read.
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