In 1925 the French bombed Damascus from the air for 48 hours, killing nearly 1,500 people and leveling whole historic neighborhoods. It was fifteen years before the Luftwaffe destroyed a town in northern Spain for Franco. Fifteenth century architecture was reduced to rubble – one contemporary photograph shows the ornate wall of a courtyard house teetering around ruins, its doorways opening up to a pile of stones.
Via MidEast Image: “photo by the Daily Mail published on 5/11/25, and titled:DAMASCUS BOMBED BY THE FRENCH,NATIVE QUARTER IN RUINS.” THE SMOULDERING RUINS OF THE NATIVE QUARTER IN DAMASCUS ,WHICH SUFFERED SEVERELY FROM THE BOMBARDMENT BY FRENCH ARTILLERY FROM ABOVE THE ANCIENT CITY”.”
Druze farmers in the Jebel Hauran south of Damascus had taken down a French surveillance plan in July and by the fall their rebellion ballooned to a widespread Syrian-Arab nationalist revolt against the French. The Druze had been “transferred” there from their home in Lebanon by French and Ottoman troops, following hostilities with Maronites in the 1860s.
For Michael Provence, who wrote an authoritative book on the subject with subtle references to the insurgency in Iraq, the 1925 revolt opened the Middle East to its first forceful articulations of Arab nationalism following the collapse of the Caliphate and the imposition of colonial order. Predating the Palestinian revolt of 1936-39, which Timothy Mitchell called “the first sustained anti-colonial rebellion in the Arab world,” (quoted from Rule of Experts: Egypt, Techno-politics, Modernity) the Syrian uprising and the subsequent French devastation of Damascus translates the struggles of Syrian sovereignty and their primacy in the history of self-determination in Bilad ash-Sham.
The bombs landed hardest on the commercial hub south of the Damascus Citadel between the late-Ottoman-era markets of Hamidiyyeh and Madhat Pasha. When it was rebuilt, Damascenes called the area al-Hariqa, “the fire,” lit by French bombs. The name holds today, listed plainly on maps, an outlier of urban regularity hanging on the edge of the UNESCO-protected Old City.
Around an axis of a pedestrian plaza with a large central fountain extends a neat grid of commercial streets. On a map the box of Hariqa looks like its own walled area – a bit of European urban planning amid the jumble of lanes and alleyways otherwise obstructed only by Straight Street, the Via Recta, which St. Paul walked down.
Via MidEast Image: “Original photograph by Luigi Stironi, Damascus, of the aftermath of the French bombardment Sunday October 18th 1925.”
In targeting Damascus the French ensured they killed more than people, wiping out a piece of the city’s unique record of eastern Mediterranean residential architecture, An Ottoman yearbook in 1900 recorded nearly 17,000 houses in the province of Damascus, of which it’s estimated half still stand today (see Jakob Skovgard-Petersen and Stefan Weber, “Modernizing Private Spaces: The ‘Aqqad Family and Houses in the Late 19th and the 20th Centuries” pdf).
“In all the eastern Mediterranean – from Egypt to Greece – the Syrian towns of Damascus and Aleppo are the only large cities which preserve domestic architecture on such a scale,” Skovgard-Petersen and Weber wrote in a book on the restoration of one Damascene mansion, the Bait al-‘Aqqad, now the Danish Institute. “Other important cities, such as Cairo and Istanbul, have lost practically most of their residential architecture and preserved only those buildings considered historical monuments (mosques, schools etc., and some major residences).”
That the French destroyed a part of Damascus is not unknown history – it’s the subject of books, and a detail in general histories of the mandated Middle East. And yet in light of recent growing attention to the architectural preservation of the Old City, which more often these days means renovating a neglected Ottoman merchant house and turning it into another restaurant or boutique hotel that fabricates a memory-product of “Old Damascus,” the destructive remodeling of Hariqa eighty years ago assumes new meaning.
Look beyond the irony that the French blew it up and later became key players in UNESCO, which designated the Old City a World Heritage Site in the 1979. The Roman-era sewers of the Street Called Straight have been dug up and replaced in the last few years, prompting articles on the shoddy beautification – little more than new wooden doors – of the shops that line the cobblestones.
Via MidEast Image: “Photograph by Luigi Stironi 1925, of the Sidi al-Amud area of the old city of Damascus/Syria, bombarded by the French Mandate authorities in Oct. 1925… A Sign of the French Laffayette Gallery still standing in the middle of the road. On the left is the Quwatli House,one of the most spectacular of the old mansions of the old City. The Quwatli’s Mansion served as the residence for Ibrahim Pasha during the Egyptian period 1832-40,and later as the German Consulate.“
Dedicated voices call for preservation of Damascene architecture, for the lifting of stones one by one from a courtyard, cleaned, and placed painstakingly back in place, as they were in the last decade at Beit Jabri, among the most popular places for tea and shisha by a fountain in the Old City. (Ignoring the Shish Tawouk, which is pliable and comes with a side of spaghetti).
Out of the charms for Old Damascus a desire comes to preserve formal architecture and develop new historic space. An imagination for an Ottoman or pre-Ottoman past emerges, tied essentially to the realization of the courtyard dream – even if cement or poured concrete has been used between the old stones (as in a number of these hotel and restaurant conversions), even if the fountain has been lit and made into a swimming pool (as in the 200 Euro-a-night and up Hotel Talisman).
Pleasure capital shapes architecture. Like the saving of traditional houses in Marrakesh and Fez by ex-pat Europeans and astute Moroccan hoteliers, the preservation/restoration of the Old City of Damascus is central to the country’s arrival on the profitable travel pages of New York and London print. But keeping Hariqa in mind, minding that French bombs flattened a section of the city so hard that one word – Guernica – spurs a host of terrible associations, how does history fit into this grand development scheme?
Damascus burning in October, 1925, via MidEast Image