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.

 
 
 
 

Is Britain’s housing crisis a myth?

Council housing in Lambeth, south London. Image: Getty.

I’ve been banging on about the need for Britain to build more houses for so long that I can no longer remember how or when it started. But at some point over the last few years, the need to build more homes has become My Thing. People ask me to speak at housing events, or @ me into arguments they’re having on Twitter on a Sunday morning in the hope I’ll help them out. You can even buy a me-inspired “Build More Bloody Houses” t-shirt.

It’s thus with trepidation about the damage I’m about to do to my #personal #brand that I ask:

Does Britain actually have enough houses? Is it possible I’ve been wrong all this time?

This question has been niggling away at me for some time. As far back as 2015, certain right-wing economists were publishing blogs claiming that the housing crisis was actually a myth. Generally the people who wrote those have taken similarly reality-resistant positions on all sorts of other things, so I wasn’t too worried.

But then, similar arguments started to appear from more credible sources. And today, the Financial Times published an excellent essay on the subject under the headline: “Hammond’s housebuilding budget fix will not repair market”.

All these articles draw on the data to make similar arguments: that the number of new homes built has consistently been larger than the number of new households; that focusing on new home numbers alone is misleading, and we should look at net supply; and that the real villain of the piece is the financialisation of housing, in which the old and rich have poured capital into housing for investment reasons, thus bidding up prices.

In other words, the data seems to suggest we don’t need to build vast numbers of houses at all. Have I been living a lie?

Well, the people who’ve been making this argument are by and large very clever economists trawling through the data, whereas I, by contrast, am a jumped-up internet troll with a blog. And I’m not dismissing the argument that the housing crisis is not entirely about supply of homes, but also about supply of money: it feels pretty clear to me that financialisation is a big factor in getting us into this mess.

Nonetheless, for three reasons, I stand by my belief that there is housing crisis, that it is in large part one of supply, and consequently that building more houses is still a big part of the solution.

Firstly I’m not sold on some of the data – or rather, on the interpretation of it. “There is no housing crisis!” takes tend to go big on household formation figures, and the fact they’ve consistently run behind dwelling numbers. Well, they would, wouldn’t they? By definition you can’t form a household if you don’t have a house.

So “a household” is not a useful measure. It doesn’t tell you if everyone can afford their own space, or whether they are being forced to bunk up with friends or family. In the latter situation, there is still a housing crisis, whatever the household formation figures say. And there is plenty of anecdotal evidence to suggest that’s the one we’re living in.

In the same way I’m not quite convinced that average rents is a useful number. Sure, it’s reassuring – and surprising – to know they have grown slower than general prices (although not in London). But all that figure tells you is the price being paid: it doesn’t tell you what is being purchased for that payment. A world in which renters each have their own property may have higher rents than one in which everyone gets one room in an over-crowded shared flat. It’s still the latter which better fits the label “housing crisis”.

Secondly, I’m entirely prepared to believe we’ve been building enough homes in this country to meet housing demand in the aggregate: there are parts of the country where housing is still strikingly affordable.

But that’s no use, because we don’t live in an aggregate UK: we live and work in specific places. Housing demand from one city can be met by building in another, because commuting is a thing – but that’s not always great for quality of life, and more to the point there are limits on how far we can realistically take it. It’s little comfort that Barnsley is building more than enough homes, when the shortage is most acute in Oxford.

So: perhaps there is no national housing crisis. That doesn’t mean there is not a housing crisis, in the sense that large numbers of people cannot access affordable housing in a place convenient for their place of work. National targets are not always helpful.


Thirdly, at risk of going all “anecdote trumps data”, the argument that there is no housing crisis – that, even if young people are priced out of buying by low interest rates, we have enough homes, and rents are reasonable – just doesn’t seem to fit with the lived experience reported by basically every millennial I’ve ever met. Witness the gentrification of previously unfashionable areas, or the gradual takeover of council estates by private renters in their 20s. 

A growing share of the population aren’t just whining about being priced out of ownership: they actively feel that housing costs are crushing them. Perhaps that’s because rents have risen relative to wages; perhaps it’s because there’s something that the data isn’t capturing. But either way, that, to me, sounds like a housing crisis.

To come back to our original question – will building more houses make this better?

Well, it depends where. National targets met by building vast numbers of homes in cities that don’t need them probably won’t make a dent in the places where the crisis is felt. But I still struggle to see how building more homes in, say, Oxford wouldn’t improve the lot of those at the sharp end there: either bringing rents down, or meaning you get more for your money.

There is a housing crisis. It is not a myth. Building more houses may not be sufficient to solve it – but that doesn’t meant it isn’t necessary.

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

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