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As tourists flock to Syria's capital, the conversion of the Old City worries historians.
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.