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Aga Khan Aims to Set a Good Example in a Threatened Historic District

June 8, 2010

By Frederick Deknatel

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. 

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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.

The dwellings date to the mid-18th to late 19th centuries and once housed affluent merchant families and, in later years, the first European consuls to Damascus. They are mansions really, with sprawling courtyards, ornate receiving rooms, and the traditional, environmentally adaptive layout of traditional Damascene architecture. The high, open alcove, or liwan, off the courtyard stays shady throughout hot summer days, while interior and upstairs rooms receive sunlight through the winter, warming the mud brick and stone walls.

Begun in 2008 with an investment of $20 million, the AKDN project is slated to be finished in 2012. Galleries, cafés, and “showrooms” to Damascene architecture will fill the traditional greeting rooms on the ground floors of the two-story houses. Unlike some conversions that use concrete, the AKDN’s hotel will feature traditional building materials installed by skilled craftsmen.

Still the project worries some local residents and historians who admired the houses as informal museums. Even if the buildings are restored in earnest, they wonder who will patronize the new complex. “Who will go to these galleries and cafés?” said one veteran architect who asked to remain anonymous. “Surely not your average Syrian.”

The Old City is rife with debate over the pace of investment in recent years, and the AKDN’s project fits squarely into these popular discussions. “The idea of investing [in a hotel or restaurant] started in order to create money to finance the restoration [of the building],” said Naim Zabita, an architect. “But this should not be a target in itself, to come only for investment. We want to encourage more people to live in the old town, and it’s not easy because it’s becoming so expensive.”

A nation quickly losing its pariah status, at least commercially as it opens to Western tourism, Syria hosts a wealth of historical Arab residential architecture between the capital, Damascus, and the country’s second city, Aleppo, in the north. But much is in disrepair. The Old City’s classic Arab houses began emptying in the 1930s as wealthy families were attracted to modern, open-plan apartments in the new suburbs. Houses like Beit Nizam, Sibai, and Kuwatli were abandoned; some became warehouses and schools. Poorer, rural families that moved into Damascus for work filled them, as the real estate prices and population in the Old City shrank.

Yet as Syria’s socialist economy began to open up in the 1990s, the Old City became a development target. While the area is now a popular tourist destination, its historic architecture remains threatened. In 2002 and again in 2008, the World Monuments Fund put Old Damascus on its Watch List of heritage sites “threatened by neglect, demolition, or disaster.”

AKDN’s adaptive reuse project could demonstrate a good alternative. "We are hoping to introduce the project as a model to investors and the government as we finish every stage," Esmail said, “from documentation, to design, to restoration." If they succeed, the project could serve as an important benchmark for a country that is expanding its economy, largely through heritage tourism, while preserving its past.

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