Aga Khan in Old Damascus

Syrian Houses

Photo by Matjaz Kacicnik/Aga Khan Development Network

It’s back to Damascus (though I’m in New York) with a new story in Architectural Record about a restoration project of the Aga Khan Development Network in the Old City of Damascus. The accompanying slideshow, care of the AKDN’s photographer, looks very nice.

The Old City of Damascus, in Syria, might be a UNESCO World Heritage site, but in recent years money has poured in for new hotels and restaurants. Dozens are already open, while licenses have reportedly been granted for more than 150 hospitality projects across the half-square mile area. In some cases, old buildings were razed to make way for newly constructed establishments. Others involved the often-hasty restoration and conversion of historic courtyard houses. With a lack of technical expertise, cheap concrete has replaced stone and mud brick, and many developers decorate with a pastiche of Orientalist elements.

Now the Aga Khan Development Network, the organization that promotes the preservation of Islamic heritage, is hoping to demonstrate a new development model for the area. The group is in the midst of slowly and judiciously restoring three of the Old City’s most splendid late-Ottoman houses: Beit Nizam (Nizam House), Beit Sibai, and Beit Kuwatli. All three will reopen collectively as a yet-to-be-named luxury hotel. According to Ali Esmail, CEO of Aga Khan Cultural Services in Syria, the AKDN wants “to bring to life those important historical assets” without comprising their architectural integrity.

Read the rest at Architectural Record.

Can conservationists save Oscar Niemeyer’s fairground in Lebanon?

A short piece in the Christian Science Monitor, following up on a visit to a modernist fairground relic in northern Lebanon.

By Frederick Deknatel, Contributor / April 20, 2010

Tripoli, Lebanon

An abandoned international fairground in Tripoli, Lebanon, designed by famed Brazilian architect Oscar Niemeyer – the architect behind Brasília and the United Nations Secretariat in New York, among other buildings – faces an uncertain future.

Nearly complete when Lebanon’s civil war began in 1975, the modernist international fairground was mostly abandoned throughout the fighting and the following two decades of reconciliation and reconstruction. A theater housed in an oversized concrete dome was reportedly used as a weapons dump by Syrian soldiers, who reinforced it with unsightly steel rods, still visible.

Named after Rashid Karami, a Tripoli native and 10-time prime minister who was assassinated in the last years of the civil war, the site is a forgotten, sprawling artifact of architectural modernism.

It tells part of the development story of the 1950s and ’60s, an era of political disruption and ambitious building projects.

Mr. Niemeyer had just completed his signature government buildings for Brasília, Brazil’s capital built on a savanna, when he accepted the commission from Lebanon’s government in the early 1960s. His 15 pavilions set amid an oval park expressed his commitment to reinforced concrete, from the ceremonial arch to the pyramid to the amphitheater, helipad, and curving exhibition hall.

Today the cracked, empty buildings get less attention than the grounds; a conservation group has restored the park’s flora and is now fighting for its architecture.

In 2006, the World Monuments Fund listed it as one of its 100 most endangered sites, in response to a failed plan to replace it with a tourist village based on Disneyland. For now, the maarad, or exhibition, as Niemeyer’s park is known locally, sits near the sea on the edge of the city, its only occupants curious visitors and residents out for a walk.

Mohamed Atta, preservationist


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.


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.

Guernica is memorialized but who remembers Hariqa?

In 1925 the French bombed Damascus from the air for 48 hours, killing nearly 1,500 people and leveling whole historic neighborhoods. It was twelve 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.



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.

laffayetteVia 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