The Damascus massacre.
Damascus has no rival in wealth of legend; Abraham, Noah and Gog are among many that appear in its annals. Developed from neolithic times, it has always been recognised as the capital if not of the country then at least of its region. The focus of one of the principal Aramean states of Syria from the end of the 2nd millennium BC, it was integrated in 732 BC within the Assyrian Empire, losing political independence which it only began to recover 14 centuries later.
During Roman times, Damascus was a place of outstanding ornate monuments. Its Temple of Jupiter, built on the site of the old temple of the Aramaean god Hadad, was one of the largest in the whole of the East and sections that still exist today are its oldest architectural remains.
In 660 AD, with the Umayyades in power, the seat of the Caliphate was transferred to Damascus. Its authority spread from the Atlantic to the Indus and from the Yemen to Central Asia. Although contemporary written sources are scant and the celebrated mosque which still keeps the name of the dynasty is the only architectural relic that exists, Damascus undoubtedly achieved its highest flowering under the Umayyades.
During the Crusades, a compromise was reached with the Franks and despite the wars, Damascus was able to expand with a vast amount of religious, civil, funereal and commercial building - some of the best examples of Moslem architecture in existence. Each was remarkable in its form of harmony, restraint, quality of materials and precision of workmanship.
The thousands of acres of gardens which surrounded the old city, accommodated the yearly assembly of pilgrims and the tombs of 'saints', caliphs, attendants of the Prophet and martyrs of Holy War. With the birth of legends about characters like Adam, Cain and Abel, to Jesus and Mohammed, Damascus was guaranteed an eminent position in the Moslem world: 'it was the seal of all the Islamic countries we visited' said the Andalusian traveller Ibn Jubayr in 1184.
It was celebrated over the centuries by European visitors amazed by the archetypal great city altogether magnificent, delightful and prosperous, becoming progressively from the sixteenth century, as the gap between East and West narrowed, the exemplar par excellence of exotic and local colour.
In the first half of the twentieth century, during the period of French rule imposed in 1920 (despite promises of independence in 1915) Damascus felt the full shock of Western Modernism without parallel with its violence and the effects of the intrusion of European taste denouncing the past.
New districts were built to the north-west of the ramparts, destroying some of its best agricultural land. At the same time, the traditional urban fabric entered a process of rapid degradation. Attracted by 'modern' French-style architecture, the Damascan bourgeoisie gave in to foreign influence abandoning their beautiful homes, with courtyards and iwans, which had been much admired by travelling Westerners. The majority of them, overpopulated and badly maintained, are today in a state of irreversible delapidation.
In 1925, Damascus suffered the harshest blow in all its history: a repressive nationalistic insurrection. There was bombing from the air with tank and cannon attacks on the ground. After three days the entire Western section of the city was a heap of smoking ruins. Rebuilt today, this area is called hariqa, 'the fire'.
Immediately after the 'conciliation', during the winter of 1925-26, the French, as Mandatory Authority decided to replan the old topography, so favourable to urban guerrillas on Haussmannian principles. An external boulevard with wide openings was started and spuriously presented to Damascans as a series of 'urban improvements'. In reality it was designed to give 'the best methods of modern means of combat' as a contemporary 'confidential' report revealed.
Functional town planning
By 1968, Syria had been independent for more than 20 years. Damascus appointed the French architect Michel Ecochard to produce a master-plan, rounded on the principles of 'functional' town-planning from the Athens Charter. Ignoring the realities of Eastern socio-history, everything was sacrificed to the great infrastructures of transport. The plan recommended that monuments should be seen in real perspective. For health reasons numerous ancient buildings within the city were denied any architectural value. Outside the ramparts, the Ecochard plan was hardly followed to the letter; inside, the concert of protests which it provoked quickly stopped the works. At the same time the value of age was beginning to be realised.
In 1972, only two years after the coup d'etat which brought General Hafez al-Asad to power, a decree, alas never rigorously applied, forbad all demolition or reconstruction within the city walls.
In 1975 Damascus was registered on UNESCO's list of World Heritage sites, to try to encourage the Syrian authorities to carry out procedures respecting the old city sanctioned by the international community. In the following years, committees or associations were formed, bringing together senior officials, eminent people, academics, and architects, all with one aim - the protection and restoration of old Damascus. New measures regarding building height, materials, land-registry and so on came into force. Unfortunately, they were easily distorted by the authorities themselves or by 'investors' to line their pockets and suit their own needs in return for favours to various ministers.
In 1983, only a year after the oppression of the Hama Revolution and the methodical destruction of the old town along with its historic monuments by troops of the president's brother, Rifa'at al-Asad, old Damascus found itself again subject to arbitrary expressions of power. Inflamed by the hatred that all tyranny - from Herod of Syracuse to Ceaucescu - always feels for the old and organic and the tyrant's instinctive love of the new, rigid, straight and rectilinear, the authorities embarked on the 'improvement' works. With unaccustomed speed, without reference to UNESCO or to the Government Committee on the city, demolition contractors were unleashed. The citadel was cleared on three sides following the plan recommended by Ecochard. To best assure the safety of the officials coming to offer their prayers at the Umayyades Mosque, a wide opening was randomly bulldozed in the west rampart at the entrance to the mosque. Other 'improvements' were announced but public disapproval and protests from UNESCO were beginning to have an effect. The Department of Antiquities came out of its stupefaction and set out to rebuild and patch up the gaping holes in the damaged facade.
Besides the great sham of good intentions put forward by the State, the 'restoration' enterprises were incompetent, cheap and distorted by greed, amateurism and improvisation. None followed the appropriate guidelines. Everywhere there is defective masonry jointing, misuse of plastering, inappropriate materials and equipment, weakness of form, gaudy paintwork and kitsch ornament. Hammams, madrasas, mosques, tombs were spoiled: none of the precious patrimony of the twelfth, thirteenth, fourteenth and fifteenth centuries was saved.
The Umayyades Mosque became a victim, after the Gulf War, due to a 'restoration' decided in high level diplomacy. Financed by Kuwait to say thanks to the regime of Damascus for serving the Arab cause so well by siding with the US and its allies during the conflict, the large west minaret, the most beautiful in Syria, was spoiled. The top of the fifteenth-century minaret was inscribed to commemorate the 'renovation' of the building under the 'glorious rule of President Asad', causing the loss of so much of the beautiful golden patina accumulated over the centuries. The west wall and the tower adjoining the south side, precious remains of the ancient Temple of Jupiter, were partially dismantled. The first-century Egyptian-style capitals of the pilasters, rare in Syria, were nearly all damaged.
Most worrying remains the absence of all technical, architectural and archaeological study, even in basic form. The 'calculations' put forward for certain sections of masonry which would certainly have caused collapse, are regretfully unavailable. On the other hand, their chief designers openly admitted being inspired by an eighteenth-century drawing, by the Russian traveller Barsky, of a monument with griffons. Why then, stop at this mediocre sketch, and not restore the building to its former state before the fire of 1400 or better still to that of 1069?
UNESCO which should have been consulted, and which would have been able to provide technical and financial help, was not even informed. The International Committee reported with great anxiety at the meeting of the Committee of World Heritage in Santa Fe in December 1992 on a simple letter received in November from a tourist 'intrigued by the strangeness of works in progress'. The director of Syrian Antiquities who participated in the meeting put forward a 'Committee of Academics and Architects' who stood guarantee for the necessary works and their conformity to the appropriate regulations regarding design and craftsmanship.
In March 1993, the Minister of Culture, Najja Attar, in a curt, dismissive letter, claimed with firmness that all the guarantees would be upheld, and Syria had no need of assistance. It prevents, unhappily, any of the restorations being effected to this day.
All proposed improvements should be evaluated by a group of architects specialising in historic monuments, to ascertain their worth. The committee should co-ordinate all initiatives from municipalities or different ministries. Failing which Damascus, this urban jewel, already very much disfigured, will soon become just shapeless blocks of stone without soul.