Preserving Heritage, and the Fabric of Life, in Syria

Salah Malkawi for The New York Times

The innovative restoration of the Citadel in Aleppo, Syria, involved not just this landmark but its surroundings as well, including a pleasant plaza enjoyed by local residents and tourists alike. More Photos »

Published: December 26, 2010

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.

“I remember when we first moved into the city of Zabid in Yemen, the local imam started going to the mosque saying, ‘The Germans are here to transform your towns into cabarets and brothels,’ ” Mr. Hallaj said.

What many militant extremists are fixated on is a utopia of the past: a vision of Islam in the era of the Prophet. Not only Western influence, but also three centuries of Ottoman rule — the period when the fabric of most Arab cities was created — is seen as a form of corruption.

“What is interesting about this whole argument between the modernizers on the one hand and fundamentalists on the other is that it all happens on the level of ideology,” Malise Ruthven, a historian who has written books on Islamic fundamentalism, said in a recent interview. Mohamed Atta, the central planner of the 9/11 attacks, once wrote an urban planning thesis on the Old City of Aleppo in which he said he wanted to tear out centuries’ worth of buildings, Mr. Ruthven said. He dreamed of “an Islamic city that was pure and unchanged — frozen in aspic.”

Benefits for Residents

At first sight the plan for Aleppo’s rehabilitation may not seem a radical departure from preservation as usual. Led by GTZ, a nonprofit organization owned by the German government, it began with a two-year analysis of the city’s historic structures that included hundreds of interviews with residents.

With GTZ’s guidance the government began laying more than 323 miles of sewage and water pipes, removing the webs of dilapidated electrical wiring that stretched across its alleyways and replacing missing cobblestones. To encourage building owners and their tenants to stay, the group set up a pilot program that offered interest-free construction loans. For those who accepted, it helped ensure that any renovations followed preservation guidelines.

“The rationale was that if the state is forcing preservation on people,” Mr. Hallaj said, “then the state has a responsibility to pay for that burden. So if they want a historical hand-carved window instead of an aluminum one, the state pays the difference.” Other incentives were put in place to encourage local businesses to stay — the kind of small neighborhood commercial establishments whose importance was championed by urban thinkers like Jane Jacobs.

What makes the project such an auspicious model for the region, though, is its clear grasp of how architecture can both shape and define relationships among social groups. Long before developers got an inkling of what was going on, GTZ and its government partners divided the Old City into zones, with new hotels and restaurants confined to two areas, one around the Citadel and the other in the Jdayde neighborhood. (GTZ describes Jdayde as an area of crooked streets and tiny shops with a large Christian population that would be more accepting of tourists than some of the more heavily Muslim areas.)

These zones, in turn, are being anchored by increasingly ambitious — and often architecturally magnificent — public spaces. The first, Al-Hatab Square in Jdayde, is a small patch of stone shaded by a few trees. Once partly built over with squalid sheds, the square has become a vibrant mix of Syrian families and foreign tourists, framed by old jewelry shops, fish markets and cafes.

It has been a decade since the Aga Khan Trust for Culture began its meticulous restoration of the Citadel. Its enormous moat was cleared of garbage and lined with low-growing plants. The ruins of houses and shops built by Ottoman soldiers stationed here in the 18th century, and destroyed in the 1828 earthquake were torn down. The mazelike interior walls — a monument to medieval paranoia designed to keep invaders from reaching the court’s inner sanctum — were cleared of rubble.

Just as important is the social vision behind it. The road surrounding the Citadel, which choked it with cars and exhaust fumes, has been replaced by a pedestrian walkway bordered by the newly landscaped moat on one side and scattered historical buildings on the other. Many of these are being beautifully restored, including a palatial 1930 neo-Classical structure that is being transformed into a hotel by the Aga Khan Fund for Economic Development. But if some of them — former government ministries built during the early half of the 20th century — are being turned into luxurious hotels for the wealthy, it is the buildings, not the public, that seem to be confined behind iron gates.

What’s particularly striking is the sense of shared ownership and belonging. The poor seem as comfortable strolling along the Citadel’s paths as the rich, which is all the more striking given that Syria is controlled by the authoritarian government of Bashar al-Assad and the ruling Baath Party. It is a expression of how public space, when thoughtfully designed, can promote a more egalitarian vision of civic life.

This atmosphere filters into the surrounding streets. The cobblestones look freshly scrubbed; the heavy wood shutters that front the old shops have yet to acquire the patina of age. But the clash of historical styles and eras that shaped Aleppo — and that made it one of the world’s great cosmopolitan centers — have not been smoothed over. And for the moment at least, you get the encouraging feeling that it is possible to push back at the forces of displacement. It’s a city being adapted for human beings, not for some abstract vision of a global consumer.

There is more to come. A few months ago the Aga Khan Trust for Culture began building the foundations for the 42-acre park in an impoverished neighborhood just outside one of the gates of the Old City. This hilltop site is now strewn with garbage. A sprawling asphalt parking lot borders it on one side; crumbling modern apartment blocks — the kind that 9/11’s mastermind envisioned demolishing — and decrepit 19th-century houses line the other.

The project, which is being modeled on an earlier one in Cairo, Al-Azhar Park, will feature rambling walkways and gardens with views over the Old City to the refurbished Citadel. The trust plans to train local people in traditional crafts like carpentry and stonecutting so they can take part in the park’s construction.

In a speech he gave in Aleppo two months after the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks, the Aga Khan described his mission as creating an intellectual garden “where there would be no possibility of suffocation from the dying weeds of dogma” and “beauty would be seen in the articulation of difference,” a statement crystallizing what preservationists hope will happen now in Aleppo.

A Search for Continuity

The tricky question — and the one that may have the most longstanding impact for the Middle East — is whether Aleppo can carry its vision of social and historical continuity into the future. The government recently started an architectural competition for a new cultural complex that will include a 1,600-seat opera house, library and exhibition space in an area built during the French mandate.

And the city’s mayor, Maan Chibli, said that he recently asked GTZ to help plan for the redevelopment of the informal ramshackle settlements that have sprouted on Aleppo’s outskirts.

“These settlements date from the 1970s,” Mr. Chibli said. “They are part of a social pattern that leads back to the old villages. Someone arrives, then his brother follows. So the idea, as before, is not to destroy these areas. It is to begin by providing them with infrastructure and services, then work programs.”

But how to make the final link between historic preservation and the creation of a contemporary city remains blurry. Many preservationists working here, including some at GTZ, see the last 70 years as unworthy of their interest. And most contemporary architects, whose clients are almost uniformly drawn from the global elite, are out of touch with the complex political realities of the poor in the region.

These are not merely esoteric issues. They have to do with the real lessons that cities like Aleppo and Damascus can teach. Their power is not just the beauty of historical layers. It is that the coexistence of those layers, often piled one on top of the other, embodies a world in which every generation — including ours — has the right to a voice and individual creativity triumphs over ideological difference. It is the point at which tradition and modernity are no longer in violent conflict.

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