Syria's second city Aleppo

New works expected to attract residents back to the old city, restores ancient trading hub.

Syria's second city Aleppo

Aleppo, Syria's second city and one of the oldest inhabited in the world, is enjoying a renaissance that is restoring the ancient trading hub whose magnificent buildings rivalled Istanbul's in Ottoman times.

Architectural gems -- bathhouses, madrassa schools, palaces, churches and mosques -- stud Aleppo's streets, making it one of the richest historical sites in the Middle East.

Calls to prayer ring out from the recently restored Grand Mosque just as they did in the 8th century.

Labyrinthine covered souks that trace their history back four millennia sell spices, the city's trademark laurel soap and the antique textiles that were coveted in Europe.

But it was not always so.

When architect Adli Qudsi returned to his native Aleppo in the 1970s he was appalled to see bulldozers flatten entire neighbourhoods inside the old city walls to build new roads.

"Amazingly beautiful 700-year-old houses were destroyed. For the sake of cars they brought in streets that destroyed big sections of the old architecture," Qudsi said.

Qudsi's response was to assemble a group of activists to block plans to pull down any more of the ancient city.

"It was disastrous, but we stopped it," Qudsi said.

Three decades later, international funding is pouring into Aleppo and it was declared a world heritage site by the United Nations cultural organisation.


But there is still plenty of work to be done.

Old parts of Aleppo largely lost the cosmopolitan character that once defined them due to economic expansion in the 1970s.

One-fifth of the old city was destroyed to make room for roads. Residents of historic neighbourhoods left when they found their courtyard houses overlooked by new high-rise buildings.

Qudsi displays computer maps of a master plan identifying up to 2,000 of 10,000 Arab courtyard houses needing urgent repair.

Cars will no longer be allowed into parts of the old city, such as the circular road around the Ayyubid castle, where a Hittite temple was recently discovered.

The priority, Qudsi said, is to complete renewal of leaking sewage and water systems, laid by the Ottomans and the French, to prevent them from further damaging old houses and monuments.

The infrastructure is being rebuilt, around 60 percent of the sewage and water system has been overhauled and telephone and electricity services in some areas are now up to date.

German experts are overseeing restoration of the 19th century Shibanie Catholic convent and projects to restore the medieval castle are almost complete.

Foreign funding is coming from Germany, the Aga Khan Trust for Culture in London, and the Arab Social and Economic Fund. Syria's government has also taken up the cause of preservation.

"The major achievement of years of fighting and toiling is the fact that the conversion and preservation of old Aleppo has become routine work for the local government. There has been a 180-degree turn," the American-educated engineer said.


Tourists have traditionally enjoyed the beauty of Aleppo, set among the Northern plains and going back to the early second millennium BC. Taken over by Alexander the Great and legendary warrior Saladin, the city has survived cholera and earthquakes.

The work is also expected to attract residents back to the old city, which used to house 300,000 people in the 1940s and now holds one-third of that number.

Property prices are on the rise. Mohammad Fawzi, an Egyptian engineer, bought a 700- or 800-year-old courtyard house next to the citadel for $50,000 a few years ago and renovated it.

"Once you live in an Arab house you don't want to live anywhere else, although it was a struggle to find craftsmen capable of doing restoration work," Fawzi said. "Prices have almost doubled since then but they are still a bargain."

Renovation work is complex. Some houses used too much concrete, compromising the old flexible limestone roofs that helped Aleppo survive earthquakes.

"There isn't sufficient technical assistance being provided to help restore the old houses, but there is no doubt that improvements are being felt in Aleppo," Fawzi said.

The old Christian quarter outside the city walls has already seen a revival and hotels and restaurants blend in among renovated neighbourhoods.

One house was converted into Qudsi's state of the art office, where Western and Syrian architects who want to specialise in preservation come to train.


Güncelleme Tarihi: 20 Eylül 2018, 18:16