Tuesday, March 20, 2007

Let Old Damascus Be

Posted by Abu Kareem

"I will try not to cry until late at night; to cry for my memories and the memories of my family and all that pulls me to this magnificent place. I cannot cry during the day because I have several families whose livelihood depends on my business. I need to think about how to feed them and to insure a dignified life for them." Soon to be evicted store owner in old Damascus as told to Razan Zeitouna.

Several websites and blogs have have reported on the story of the plan to bulldoze a last vestige of old Damascus outside the city walls. It is a critical issue that is worth repeating to give it the widest exposure as the anonymous comment on my last post stated. An article in the magazine, The Architectural Review, aptly titled "The Damascus Massacre" which appeared in 2005 details the history of this ongoing dismantlement of the very heart of this ancient city. It is a history of colonial destruction (the 1925 French bombardment) followed by imposed urban planning, misguided modernization and most recently a combination of neglect, mismanagement, corruption and greed. The current project for the old city date back to the 1968 plans of Michel Ecochard, a French architect commissioned by the city. His plans, followed the Western urban planning ideas of the time, emphasizing urban functionality; hence the focus on wide arterial roads to the detriment of everything else.

The 1968 plans have been met with a variable resistance from Damascenes since then , but even when parts of the plan was implemented, it was done carelessly. In fact UNESCO, which designated old Damascus as part of the World Heritage has been unhappy with the course of events in the past few years. The recent plans and the haste with which they seem to have been implemented have aroused protests but also some suspicions. Interestingly even government controlled media outlets have published articles critical of these plans. The plan when implemented will result in the loss of livelihood and displacement of thousands of Damascenes without plans for adequate compensation.

No one can dispute that change is needed in a city whose population is mushrooming. However, intelligent change takes into account the social, historical and architectural character of the city and minimizes the impact of any planned change. Unfortunately, no such intelligent planning can be seen in the completely unregulated and chaotic expansion of the outer areas of Damascus. Given the opaque and corrupt nature of most government institutions in Syria, there is little confidence that what is being planned is absolutely necessary and if so, that it is carefully thought out and executed.

Razan Zeitouna

Subhi Hadidi

Shady Zayat

Abu Kareem


Syrian Brit



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