DAMASCUS, Syria — Like Cairo’s Pyramids and Shiraz’s roses, to paraphrase travel writer Colin Thubron, the oasis of Damascus conjures running water. But that was 40 years ago.
These days the Barada River runs dry through one of the world’s oldest cities. Meanwhile tourists, long a rarity in the socialist Syria of Hafez al-Assad, are now flocking to the historic center of Damascus.
But a boon for the country’s economy and image is also a threat to the capital’s heritage, as a spate of often-hasty building restorations and conversions in the UNESCO-protected Old City has turned the area into a kind of historicist fantasyland of nostalgic architecture driven less by preservation than development.
Along with Aleppo, Damascus boasts the highest concentration of preserved, traditional Arab residential architecture in the Middle East. For decades the Ottoman-era courtyard houses and merchant palaces in the half-square-mile Old City crumbled as wealthier residents left for Western-style apartments in garden suburbs outside the city center. The flight began under the French Mandate in the 1930s and continued after Syrian independence in 1946 and throughout the end of the 20th century as the city's suburbs expanded along the dry hills that edge the city.
Since the 1990s and the gradual opening of Syria’s economy under Bashar al-Assad after 2000, new life came into the Old City, with the first conversions of large but faded houses into restaurants meant to capture the spirit and space of an “Old Damascus.”
Investments in boutique hotels soon followed. The attendant spikes in tourism have landed the boutique hotels of Damascus on the pages of international travel sections; British Vogue ran a 16-page fashion spread on visiting Damascus in May 2009.
Many restaurants and more than a dozen hotels now operate in the Christian Quarter, along the refurbished Straight Street, near the Omayyad Mosque, and in the once-deserted Jewish Quarter.
But the effect of such development on the historic architecture and space of the Old City, is a growing concern for architects and historians here.
“The only idea investors have about the Old Town is from an idealistic image that was given through [television] series, or old paintings,” said architect Naim Zabida. “It's more of an imaginary, Orientalist scene. So they keep adding elements to the house that do not necessarily fit with the style or function.”
Traditional materials of wood and dried mud bricks, used for hundreds of years because they are appropriate for the city's winter and summer weather, have often been replaced by concrete blocks and cement plaster to cut costs and maximize returns.
Fourteen boutique hotels operate in the Old City “and we are heading for another 10, minimum,” said May Mamarbachi, a tour operator and architectural historian who carefully restored and opened the first boutique hotel in the Old City, Beit al-Mamlouka, in 2005, as part of a doctorate in Islamic architecture. She sold the hotel in 2008 and laments that others have not followed a similar mode of preservation.
“I see cement in all of the renovations,” Mamarbachi said. “[Developers] don't take care of the renovation as a renovation in itself. They are just taking into consideration the end product that tourists will see and how much money it's going to bring back.”
The government has issued nearly 50 hotel and 120 restaurant and cafe licenses, according to the Associated Press, although Zabida disputed those numbers. They are part of an overdue master plan for zoning the Old City being drafted by Municipal Administration Modernization (MAM), he explained, a body funded by the European Union. Zabida is a consultant with MAM and serves on a number of government committees that oversee preservation and restoration work in the Old City.
“I don't see the ratio between sustainable renovations and unsustainable ones done to attract more tourists,” said Daniela Gurlt, an advisor at German Development Services, which cooperates with German Technical Advising and the Syrian government on the rehabilitation of the Old City. “People want to cover the costs of the conversion work in one year, which isn't possible and results in poor architectural choices.”
Often rooms have been halved in size to increase occupancy. Hotel managers demand a private bathroom in every guestroom, though the centuries-old houses were never designed to support so much plumbing. “You may not see the effect immediately,” Gurlt said “but over a few years, if the pipes leak or the structure just can't maintain a bathroom added to every room, you'll start to see erosion in the wooden floors.”
“You don't use mud bricks because it's nice to use traditional materials. It costs more and it takes more time,” Gurlt said. “But you should use it, or at least we encourage using it because these are the sustainable materials always used in the houses that won't damage the building over time.”
In the end, tourist operators and historians say, shoddy renovations and commercial development could threaten the very heritage that makes Syria one of the Middle East’s fastest growing tourist attractions.
“It's a positive thing for the income that is generated for the people here,” Mamarbachi said. “But it's not a positive thing also because with too many tourists we will lose the soul of the city.”
“We are trying to control it,” Zabida said. “Not only as a number, but as an influence on the surrounding houses and areas. Most of the time it's only helping the house that is transformed into a restaurant itself and not really looking to influence the surroundings whether it's infrastructure or noise or whatever else in the neighborhood.”
“It's not nice to have a country that is sold to become big hotels,” Mamarbachi said. “But I'm not selling a country. There is an equilibrium that we have to do.”