You are using an outdated browser.
Please upgrade your browser
and improve your visit to our site.
Skip Navigation

Dear Syria, Save Damascus' Old City

I am confident that my favorite places in the Old City of Damascus still exist—after all, they’ve been there for centuries—but I am less confident that they will exist in recognizable form in a month or two. The rebels are at the gates of the Old City, and there is reason to doubt that the impending assault on Damascus will spare it. When confronted earlier in the war with the danger of pulverizing Syria’s heritage, the Assad regime has achieved a perfect record of unsentimentality. The Crac des Chevaliers—the world’s best-preserved Crusader castle—suffered shelling, and the ancient center of Aleppo has been pounded into dust. (Assad’s lack of sentimentality about the more than 40,000 dead civilians goes without saying.)

Damascus’s Old City easily surpasses these other sites for cultural importance, and it too could face ruin. So far, almost no fighting has reached the Old City. But its population is diverse, and its Christian Quarter includes religious minorities who have profited from the secular Baathist regime. In addition, much of the Old City’s inhabitants immigrated in recent generations from impoverished rural areas such as Hauran, and the from the outskirts of the capital. These areas are rebel strongholds—notably Daraa, the birthplace of the rebellion. This mix of rebel sympathizers and regime loyalists could make the Old City contested ground.

That will be a tragedy for Damascenes, as well as for anyone interested in human history and culture. With the exception of Jerusalem’s, there is no Old City in the Middle East as layered and thicketed with the cultural patrimony of the last two millennia. The Old City of Damascus has all the romance of the Old City of Jerusalem, with about a tenth the tourist traps and a seventh the eschatology. Among the most important religious and historical sites in the world is the Umayyad Mosque, at the Old City. It originated as a Roman Temple, then became a Byzantine church to John the Baptist in 391. At the dawn of the Islamic era, it served as a mosque and church simultaneously for several decades, and for the last 1300 years or so has been a major pilgrimage site for both Sunnis and Shiites. Islamic apocalyptic tradition says that Jesus, the second-most-revered prophet, will descend to earth from the Mosque’s eastern minaret.

My own trips to the Old City always begin with Nuruddin Bathhouse. Built in A.D. 1169 to honor Sultan Nuruddin Zangi, the hammam is in the spice market, about five minutes from the Umayyad Mosque. A visit starts with its brightly lit antechamber, with pointed vaults and cushioned mats and mint tea. The bathing ritual starts when an attendant orders you to strip naked, then wraps you in a thin cotton sheet and orders you to walk through an underground stone passageway into a medieval stone labyrinth, dark and billowing with steam, as hot and cold water drips from old faucets in each chamber. It’s easy to get lost, and to imagine that in some unexplored corner, one might find the ghost of Sultan Nuruddin sitting on one of the hammam’s original stones, or the ghost of T. E. Lawrence, whipping himself or buggering a Circassian.

Like all cities that have been continuously inhabited for 2000 years or more (there are not many), the Old City has grown in on itself. Any particular building could be of the colonial era, but have beneath its floorboards an Ottoman structure, and beneath that various layers leading to Roman antiquity. Even the touristy Hamidiyya Market, where you can find tchotchkes and gimcrack souvenirs in abundance (my favorite are the “illuminated manuscripts,” which on inspection are pages ripped from Urdu schoolbooks and dabbed between the lines with gold paint), is a market of Ottoman construction, partially rebuilt in colonial style after flattening by a French aerial bombardment in October 1925. Wood and stucco construction means that certain buildings from the Ottoman era are vulnerable to fire, to say nothing of rockets and airstrikes.

But none of that is to suggest that the Assad dynasty has ever been concerned with preservation. Even in peacetime, it has used and disfigured the Old City to suit personal and political ends. Hafez Assad’s rapprochement with Iran in the 1970s led to his razing a whole neighborhood around what is now the Lady Roqayya Mosque. The mosque, built with Iranian funds, is packed with Iranian pilgrims by 4 a.m. daily. Its design is Iranian, in the style of Isfahan, and widely considered incongruous at best and tasteless at worst. “It’s an eyesore, honestly,” Nasser Rabbat, a Syrian who heads M.I.T.’s Islamic architecture program, told me. “It’s a building designed by a Syrian architect, with the ill-conceived notion of modern architecture dropped in the middle of a poor 18th-century neighborhood.” It is as if Rick Warren built a glassy outpost of his megachurch, in Saddleback modern style, a block from Notre-Dame de Paris.

Similarly, the Umayyad Mosque itself underwent reconstruction during Hafez’s rule. It sits deep within the maze of streets of the Old City, and to approach it through the narrow Hamidiyya Souq, Hafez had to expose himself to assassination attempts. Instead, he bulldozed a corridor from the northwest, destroying buildings and paying zero regard to the palimpsest of history that he tore to smithereens in the process. Rabbat points out that Hafez outfitted the mosque with a pro-Assad plaque, and that the plaque resembles one from 1490 mentioning Sultan Qaitbay, “another despot.”

Damascus has been overrun before, by colonial, Arab, and Crusader armies, and it has always survived—one might even say flourished, since palimpsests require erasure between inscriptions. But modern bombs, rockets, and Kalashnikovs do much more damage than the musketry and swords of yore. And street-by-street fighting of the sort we saw in Aleppo or Najaf could mean wreckage of not only monuments but also ways of life. Certain things can be rebuilt or reconstructed, but when a city is utterly wrecked, the discontinuity can become too great, especially if the reconstruction is overplanned or aimed at tourists.

“These monuments are very much a part of the daily fabric of people’s lives, in a way that may not be the same after the war,” Stephennie Mulder, an art historian at the University of Texas and former Damascus resident, told me. Historical sites obscure to scholars are known to cab drivers and shopkeepers, and the modern life of the city blends uncommonly well with the past. She mentioned Qaimeriyya Street, just east of the Umayyad Mosque. Its most famous cafe, Nawfara, still has a storyteller on staff, in the dying comic-epic bard tradition known in the Levant as hakawati. The cafe has been there for at least 200 years, and Mulder has found evidence of its fountain (“nawfara” means “fountain”) in the 14th century.

“The buildings are still very much functioning in their traditional ways and interwoven into Damascene lives,” Mulder said. The great danger in the short term will be physical and human destruction. Over the long-term, though, if the city ceases to be a living place for Syrians, that will be a cause for sorrow as well, she said. “It would break my heart to see Damascus become Dubrovnik.”