Mohamed Atta, preservationist

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Slate this week published a very intelligent three-part story on Mohamed Atta, the architect. No reporter had really read his Masters thesis, written in university in Germany, to see how urbanism and preservation, the fly-over highways of Cairo and the courtyard houses of Aleppo, Syria, shaped his view of the part of the world where he was born and the part of the world he moved to and attacked. The story’s main argument is that Atta interpreted Aleppo as the same “Oriental-Islamic city” as European Orientalists and modern-day neocons: as a city defined by its formal and primordial disagreements with the West, and with Western architecture and urbanism, which encroached or destroyed traditionally Islamic space and functions. That ideology, it is argued, shaped Atta’s world view as a a defender of traditional society, an anti-modernist. By supposedly equating courtyard houses with the “abaya” or “burka” (an awkared metaphor by the author, since privacy and the traditional Arabic courtyard house was never exclusively Muslim), Atta became more than a formal preservationist and protector of Old Aleppo. He interpreted the formal assaults to Aleppo’s heritage as a reflection of the threats of the West on his interpretation of the ideal Islamic society, manifested in an old conservative neighborhood in Aleppo. Bab an-Nasr. Conveniently, Atta ignored the fact that Bab an-Nasr was historically diverse, never only Muslim, but rather also home to many Christians and Jews, the very picture of diversity and religious mixing that defined the Ottoman Middle East and still describes Syria and especially Aleppo today.

“While it may not be surprising that Atta’s interpretation of Aleppo’s history is deeply colored by ideology, the way in which he misinterprets the neighborhood’s history gives us insight into how Atta saw the world,” Daniel Brook writes. “Islamist ideology is based on restoring a supposed Middle Eastern golden age that existed before Western encroachment and secularization. Atta has written this arcadia into his thesis.”

The contrast of shoddy modernist government offices, each adorned with flairs of Ba’ath propaganda, against alleyways, monuments and most of all houses, hundreds-year old courtyard houses, mostly of limestone, that are Aleppo. The history is not just the concrete and the stone, but the human diversity of these historic neighborhoods and its shape on the city. Large stone houses that housed wealthy merchants ownd their existence to cosmopolitanism, to trade routes and movement across regions, for a range of Christians, for Jews, for Muslims that made Aleppo the busy commercial link between Ottoman Anatolia and Europe to points east, from Persia to China. It’s an accurate portrait of Aleppo and Syria’s history, one defined by diversity and an inherent and necessary mixing, which makes it a welcome change to the usual reporting of Syria today.

As Daniel Brook writes,

Thanks to its central location, however, the Middle East has never been cut off from outside influence. Over the millenniums, Aleppo was conquered by the Babylonians, Greeks, Romans, Persians, Byzantines, and Arabian Muslims, to name just a few. While in the Orientalist conception the Middle Eastern city is shaped exclusively by Islam, in reality, both the pre-Islamic history of Aleppo and the significant non-Muslim communities of its more recent past shape the cityscape to this day. Walking through the souq Atta so loved, it seems a tangle of passageways. But viewed from above, it is revealed as perfectly rectangular. The souq was built into the Hellenistic Via Recta (Straight Street) leading from the city’s western gate to its center. Rather than a pure expression of Islamic civilization, the souq is evidence of a larger conversation between cultures. In a secular reading of history, the Arabian Muslims who conquered Syria in the sixth century are no more or less foreign than the Greeks who had conquered it in the third century BC. Even Aleppo’s courtyard houses, which Atta sees as a physical expression of Islamic doctrine, have roots in ancient Rome.

Rather than being a manifestation of Aleppo’s distinctive “Oriental” style, they are evidence of the city’s enduring connection to the West.

Read the rest here. The photo is Aleppo from its Citadel, from my Flickr page.

In Syria, delicate preservation work is pushing against profit-driven speed.

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DAMASCUS, SYRIA – It claims to be the world’s oldest capital city, outlived only by Aleppo, Syria; and Jericho, on the West Bank. The proof is there, in Mesopotamian texts that mention Damascus and in a deep urban foundation of streets, houses, and sewers from every civilization, piled on top of one another.

The fairly straight street that cuts across Damascus’s Old City was once a colonnaded Roman road: the Via Recta or “Street Called Straight” from the Bible. After the Muslims conquered Syria, then ruled by the Byzantines, Damascus became the capital of the first great Islamic empire. At its peak in the 8th century, the Umayyad dynasty spread from North Africa across Asia, its center at the sparkling Great (Umayyad) Mosque, a former pagan temple, then a church, that claims to house the head of John the Baptist.

But it is the city’s more recent history that is reshaping contemporary Damascus. As Syria slowly opens its socialist economy to tourism and development, scores of traditional Arab houses from the 17th to 19th centuries have been restored and reopened as boutique hotels and restaurants in the capital’s UNESCO-protected Old City.

Three late-Ottoman era houses south of Straight Street – Beit Nizam, Beit Sibai, and Beit Kuwatli – that were once the residences of Damascene notables and later, European consuls, are at the center of an increasingly frenetic pace of development often motivated more by profit than good preservation practice. The Aga Khan Development Network (AKDN), which promotes historic preservation and development projects throughout the Muslim world, has invested $20 million to restore and reopen the three houses as a boutique hotel.

Read the rest of my recent story for the Christian Science Monitor (which grew mostly out of my Fulbright research in fair Sham) here. Photo courtesy of the Aga Khan Development Network office in Damascus.