Old Damascus has a long history of rising from the ashes

The Bab Tuma quarter, 2016. Image: Ataa Alsalloum/author provided.

As a Syrian architect, my enjoyment is complete when I wander through the districts of Old Damascus. I used to walk with my daughter and tell her stories about each significant place we passed. In Old Damascus – one of the longest inhabited cities in the world – 5,000 years of history come alive. The tight network of traditional streets are complemented by stunning architectural masterpieces, such as the ancient Umayyad Mosque (completed in 715AD), the Roman Temple of Jupiter and the Byzantine arches. The Conversation

Al Asruniyeh souk was our favourite destination on special occasions. Al Asruniyeh is a commercial neighbourhood located between the Citadel of Damascus and the Great Mosque of the Umayyads, inside the walls of the ancient city. The souks of Damascus are part of daily life – bustling marketplaces where political, social and cultural differences are forgotten.

Layers of history in Old Damascus. Image: Bryn Pinzgauer/Flickr/creative commons.

Yet since the start of the armed conflict in Syria six years ago, much has changed in my home town. Although the city remains relatively safe compared to other parts of Syria, many have fled, lives and livelihoods have been lost and treasured cultural heritage has been destroyed.

In April 2016, a fire raged through Al-Asruniyeh. For the local community, losing part of Old Damascus is like misplacing part of their own soul, their memory and identity.

Yet history has shown that despite attempts to destroy Damascus, it has always risen from the ashes, stronger and brighter, powered by the local community. Time and time again, the Damascenes have proven adept at rebuilding their lives and their city in the wake of disaster.

Rising from ashes

For example, in 1860 when Syria was under occupation by the Ottoman empire, the quarter of Bab Tuma in the north-east of the city was ransacked. Over 3,500 houses, churches and monasteries were comprehensively looted and set ablaze. Hundreds of people were killed and thousands were displaced.

The district was rebuilt between 1863 and 1880, by local builders who returned after the clash. Elements of the old Bab Tuma were preserved by using traditional materials to create similar urban forms. Yet innovative features were also added. Builders used new decorative techniques, and added open windows to the façades as a reflection of “new” social needs, opening them up to the street outside.

Again, on October 18, 1925, the city was bombed by the French army in an attempt to quell a revolution against French rule. As a result, the western district – known at that time as Sidi Amoud – was mostly destroyed. Several traditional masterpieces were burned or damaged, and hundreds of lives were lost.

The destruction after the French attack, with the minarets of the Umayyan mosque on the horizon. Image: Wikimedia Commons.

The district was remodelled in 1926 by the French, this time according to modern European characteristics. The local community, who had no voice in this reconstruction, changed the district’s name into Al-Hariqah – which means “fire” in Arabic – to commemorate the terrible event. This rebuilt area has a peculiar character. The orthogonal road network and the heights of the buildings differ from the organic urban fabric of Old Damascus, and the new structures do little to reflect what was lost.

The main square of Al-Hariqah district, 2016. Click to expand. Image: Ataa Alsalloum/author provided.

Rebuilding Al Asruniyeh

Today, Damascenes are once again confronted with the task of rebuilding – and this time, they control the outcome. Yet the loss of Al-Asruniyeh raises critical questions about what should rise in its place.

The history of Damascus shows that whe\n ruins are rebuilt by the local community, the new layer is imbued with the soul of the city. Rather than covering the city’s history up, the new buildings become a part of it. For that reason, community input is needed now more than ever before.


The heritage of Syria has been a source of pride and dignity for the Syrians, despite differences in religion and political opinion. Their built heritage has been always a source of shared memory and history, as we all enjoy its authentic and aesthetic character. Old Damascus, with all its souks, khans and districts, embodies Syrians’ cultural, social, educational and economic values.

Because of this, safeguarding the architectural characteristics of the old city should be a cornerstone of the reconstruction process. City authorities must develop a plan to manage Old Damascus’ urban heritage, in a way that upholds its social and cultural integrity.

What’s more, rebuilding the Al Asruniyeh souk presents an opportunity for reconciliation. Although the armed conflict continues, Syria has been enduring it with dignity and pride. Starting the reconstruction now is vital, to encourage Syrians to return and participate in rebuilding their country, spreading a feeling of safety, ownership and pride in the city once more.

Ataa Alsalloum is a research fellow in architecture at University of Liverpool.

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.

 
 
 
 

A nation that doesn’t officially exist: on Somaliland’s campaign to build a national library in Hargeisa

The Somaliland National Library, Hargeisa. Image: Ahmed Elmi.

For seven years now, there’s been a fundraising campaign underway to build a new national library in a nation that doesn’t officially exist. 

Since 2010, the Somali diaspora have been sending money, to pay for construction of the new building in the capital, Hargeisa. In a video promoting the project, the British journalist Rageeh Omar, who was born in Mogadishu to a Hargeisa family, said it would be... 

“...one of the most important institutions and reference points for all Somalilanders. I hope it sets a benchmark in terms of when a country decides to do something for itself, for the greater good, for learning and for progress – that anything can be achieved.”

Now the first storey of the Somaliland National Library is largely complete. The next step is to fill it with books. The diaspora has been sending those, too.

****

Some background is necessary here to explain the “country that doesn’t exist” part. During the Scramble for Africa of the 1880s, at the height of European imperialism, several different empires established protectorates in the Somali territories on the Horn of Africa. In 1883, the French took the port of Djibouti; the following year, the British grabbed the north coast, which looks out onto the Gulf of Aden. Five years after that, the Italians took the east coast, which faces the Indian Ocean.

And, excepting some uproar during World War II, so things remained for the next 70 years or so.

The Somali territories in 1890. Image: Ingoman/Wikimedia Commons.

When the winds of change arrived in 1960, the British and Italian portions agreed to unite as the Somali Republic: a hair-pin shaped territory, hugging the coast and surrounding Ethiopia on two sides. But British Somaliland gained its independence first: for just five days, at the end of June 1960, it was effectively an independent country. This will become important later.

(In case you are wondering what happened to the French bit, it voted to remain with France in a distinctly dodgy referendum. It later became independent as Djibouti in 1977.)

The new country, informally known as Somalia, had a difficult history: nine years of democracy ended in a coup, and were followed by the 22 year military dictatorship under the presidency of General Siad Barre. In 1991, under pressure from rebel groups including the Hargeisa-based Somali National Movement (SNM), Barre fled, and his government finally collapsed. So, in effect, did the country.

For one thing, it split in two, along the old colonial boundaries: the local authorities in the British portion, backed by the SNM, made a unilateral declaration of independence. In the formerly Italian south, though, things collapsed in a rather more literal sense: the territory centred on Mogadishu was devastated by the Somali civil war, which has killed around 500,000, displaced more than twice that, and is still officially going on.

Somalia (blue) and Somaliland (yellow) in 2016. Image: Nicolay Sidorov/Wikimedia Commons.

The north, meanwhile, got off relatively lightly: today it’s the democratic and moderately prosperous Republic of Somaliland. It claims to be the successor to the independent state of Somaliland, which existed for those five days in June 1960.

This hasn’t persuaded anybody, though, and today it’s the only de facto sovereign state that has never been recognised by a single UN member. Reading about it, one gets the distinct sense that this is because it’s basically doing okay, so its lack of diplomatic recognition has never risen up anyone’s priority list.

Neither has its library.

****
Rageeh Omar described the site of the new library in his fundraising video. It occupies 6,000m2 in the middle of Hargeisa, two minutes from the city’s main hospital, 10 from the presidential palace. In one sequence he stands on the half-completed building’s roof and points out the neighbours: the city’s main high street, with the country’s largest shopping mall; the Ministry of Telecoms that lies right next door.

This spiel, in a video produced by the project’s promoters, suggests something about the new library: that part of its job is to be another in this list of landmarks, more evidence that Hargeisa, a city of 1.5m, should be recognised as the proper capital of a real country.

But it isn’t just that: the description of the library’s function, in the government’s Strategic Plan 2013-2023, makes clear it’s also meant to be a real educational facility. NGOS, the report notes, have focused their resources on primary schools first, secondary schools second and other educational facilities not at all. (This makes sense, given that they want most bang for their buck.)

And so, the new building will provide “the normal functions of public library, but also... additional services that are intentionally aimed at solving the unique education problems of a post conflict society”. It’ll provide books for a network of library trucks, providing “book services” to the regions outside Hargeisa, and a “book dispersal and exchange system”, to provide books for schools and other educational facilities. There’ll even be a “Camel Library Caravan that will specifically aim at accessing the nomadic pastoralists in remote areas”.

All this, it’s hoped, will raise literacy levels, in English as well as the local languages of Arabic and Somali, and so boost the economy too.

As described. Image courtesy of Nimko Ali.

Ahmed Elmi, the London-based Somali who’s founder and director of the library campaign, says that the Somaliland government has invested $192,000 in the library. A further $97,000 came from individual and business donors in both Hargeisa and in the disaspora. “We had higher ambitions,” Elmi tells me, “but we had to humble our approach, since the last three years the country has been suffering from a large drought.”

Now the scheme is moving to its second phase: books, computers and printers, plus landscaping the gardens. This will cost another $175,000. “We are also open to donations of books, furniture and technology,” Emli says. “Or even someone with technical expertise who can help up set-up the librarian system instead of a contemporary donation of a cash sum.” The Czech government, in fact, has helped with the latter: it’s not offered financial support, but has offered to spend four weeks training two librarians.  

Inside the library.

On internet forums frequented by the Somali diaspora, a number of people have left comments about the best way to do this. One said he’d “donated all my old science and maths schoolbooks last year”. And then there’s this:

“At least 16 thousand landers get back to home every year, if everyone bring one book our children will have plenty of books to read. But we should make sure to not bring useless books such celebrity biography books or romantic novels. the kids should have plenty of science,maths and vocational books.”

Which is good advice for all of us, really.


Perhaps the pithiest description of the project comes from its Facebook page: “Africa always suffers food shortage, diseases, civil wars, corruption etc. – but the Somaliland people need a modern library to build a better place for the generations to come.”

The building doesn’t look like much: a squat concrete block, one storey-high. But there’s something about the idea of a country coming together like this to build something that’s rather moving. Books are better than sovereignty anyway.

Jonn Elledge is the editor of CityMetric. He is on Twitter as @jonnelledge and also has a Facebook page now for some reason. 

Want more of this stuff? Follow CityMetric on Twitter or Facebook.