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.

 
 
 
 

The smartphone app placing virtual statues of women on the map

A virtual Edith Wharton in Central Park, New York City. Image: The Whole Story Project.

If you’re a woman, then in order for you to be immortalised in stone, bronze or whatever once you’ve shuffled off this mortal coil, you should either have royal blood or be willing to be sculpted naked. That is the rule of thumb.

A statue that actually celebrates a woman’s achievements is a rare sight. Writing in the New Statesman last year, equality campaigner Caroline Criado-Perez found that out of 925 statues in Britain, as listed by the Public Monuments and Sculpture Association, only 158 are of solo women. Of these, 46 are of royalty, including 29 of Queen Victoria. Fourteen depict the Virgin Mary.

There are signs of change, albeit slow. The suffragist Millicent Fawcett is set to be honoured with a statue in Parliament Square, where currently all 11 of the statues are of men. (They include Nelson Mandela and a nine-foot Gandhi.) The monument is to be unveiled next year to celebrate the centenary of British women receiving the right to vote.

Elsewhere, the late comedian Victoria Wood is being honoured with a statue that’ll be erected in Bury, Greater Manchester. In the Moss Side area of the city, a statue of Emmeline Pankhurst will be unveiled in 2019. Unlike the Fawcett one, neither of these is expected to receive public money, relying on crowdfunding and other sources instead.

So how many more statues of women, regardless of how they’re funded, would we need to build in order to reduce the gender gap? Well, according to Jonathan Jones, art critic at the Guardian, the magic number is: zero.

Jones’s argument, back in March, was that building statues doesn’t advance feminism, but simply traps us in the past. He wrote:

Statues don’t hold public memory. They politely bury it. These well-meaning images melt into the background scenery of our lives.

Whether this is empirically true is questionable, but it’s true that we tend not to erect them as often as we used to anyway. This is partly because there is less space available for such monuments – a noticeable disadvantage cities of the present have compared to those of the past. In order to reduce the imbalance, statues of men would probably have to be removed; many would no doubt be okay with that, but it would mean erasing history.

One partial answer to the problem is augmented reality. It can’t close the gender gap, but it could shine a spotlight on it.

To that end, an advertising agency in New York launched an app at the beginning of May. The Whole Story allows users to place virtual statues of women on a map; other uses can then view and find out more about the individuals depicted at their real-world locations, using their smartphone cameras.


Currently, users have to upload their own virtual statues using 3D-modelling software. But going forward, the project aims for an open collaboration between designers, developers and organisations, which it hopes will lead to more people getting involved.

Contributions submitted so far include a few dozen in New York, several in Washington and one of Jane Austen in Hyde Park. There are others in Italy and the Czech Republic.

Okay, it’s an app created by a marketing firm, but there are legitimate arguments for it. First, the agency’s chief creative office has herself said that it’s important to address the gender imbalance in a visual way in order to inspire current and future generations: you can’t be what you can’t see, as the saying going.

Second, if the physical presence of statues really is diminishing and they don’t hold public memory, as Jones argues, then smartphones could bridge the gap. We live our lives through our devices, capturing, snapping and storing moments, only to forget about them but then return to and share them at a later date. These memories may melt away, but they’ll always be there, backed up to the cloud even. If smartphones can be used to capture and share the message that a gender imbalance exists then that’s arguably a positive thing.  

Third, with the success of Pokemon Go, augmented reality has shown that it can encourage us to explore public spaces and heighten our appreciation for architectural landmarks. It can also prove useful as a tool for learning about historical monuments.

Of course no app will replace statues altogether. But at the very least it could highlight the fact that women’s achievements are more than just sitting on a throne or giving birth to the son of God.

Rich McEachran tweets as @richmceachran.

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