Reconstruction of Aleppo’s Old City faces cultural, logistical challenges

People walk past the old customs buildings, left, and Peoria restaurant, right, near Aleppo's historic citadel, in the regime-controlled area of the city, last year. (File photo/Reuters)
Updated 04 December 2017

Reconstruction of Aleppo’s Old City faces cultural, logistical challenges

DAMASCUS: When Diana — a young woman from Aleppo, Syria, who now lives in London — saw the new facade of her family’s ancient home and others like it in Al-Siffahieh in the Old City of Aleppo, she was underwhelmed.
“(They) look really good, but they don’t feel like home,” she said. “We loved the vintage, washed-out stones because they were material evidence of the glorious past, which gave Aleppo’s ancient city an exotic air.”
Syria’s civil war, which erupted in 2011, has seen Aleppo’s Old City — a location of rich cultural heritage filled with significant archaeological sites, including the Great Umayyad Mosque and the Citadel, dating back as far as the 12th century — transformed into a battlefront for most of the four years from 2012 to 2016, with much of its historical wealth damaged or destroyed.
In January this year, a UNESCO-led mission reported, “Approximately 60 percent of the old city has been severely damaged, with 30 percent totally destroyed.” 
In May, plans were announced to renovate and restore around 250 buildings in Aleppo’s Old City. Tim Williams of the University College of London Institute of Archaeology warns that such processes often fail to take into account the needs and desires of local communities.
“The danger is that top-down, externally motivated projects will focus on the commercially attractive rather that what enables communities to feel that Aleppo is once more their city and home,” Williams said. 
“Aleppo is an example of the need for engaging with the needs of those communities to rebuild themselves, and to examine how heritage and archaeology can contribute meaningfully to that process.”
Mazen Samman, UNESCO’s associate program coordinator in Aleppo, said in August: “Our vision is to rebuild the Old City exactly as it was before the war, with the same stones where we can.” An admirable sentiment, but — Williams suggested — perhaps a misguided one.
“There will always be compromises in what can be rebuilt. Interiors will certainly change and there needs to be care that it is not a pastiche or just facadism, but a realistic attempt to rebuild communities, while also providing 21st century facilities,” he said. “There is a place for new design alongside historic reconstruction. Rather than considering individual buildings, the reconstruction needs to focus on capturing the sense of place of Aleppo and working toward restoring that — the feeling of distinct districts or the central souks, for example.” That would, he stressed, require “a holistic approach, working with local communities, to identify the priorities for reconstruction or repair.”
Williams highlighted one project that already offers hope for a sensitive, appropriate restoration of Aleppo’s Old City — a $648,000 heritage conservation program established by the World Monuments Fund (WMF) that will train Syrian refugees to rebuild historic heritage sites “with a thoughtful program that calls for the rehabilitation of the historic souk, in order to pave the way for the return of commerce to Aleppo and for the recovery of the sense of communal space that the marketplace once engendered.”
But Williams added that UNESCO’s World Heritage Committee is concerned that rehabilitation and restoration works are taking place without quality control and stressed the need for detailed studies and extensive fieldwork before rebuilding begins.
“The pace of redevelopment is always problematic for heritage: Communities want to rebuild their shattered lives and spaces as soon as possible, understandably,” Williams said.
“Good historical reconstruction and repair often takes more time than tearing down the remnants and building anew. The heritage community needs to show that the additional process of good quality restoration and crafts skills are an essential part of building something that can draw communities together again.”
There have already been positive signs that that can happen. On Nov. 17, locals celebrated the completion of restoration work on the ancient Souk Khan El Gomrok — first built in the 16th century — with 100 stores resuming business after being shut for years; exactly the kind of project that Williams believes could result in a successful restoration of the Old City.
“If Aleppo is to become a destination for international visitors again — a vital part of its economy before the war,” he said, “it needs to place sustainable heritage conservation at the heart of a strategic vision.”


UN chief will work with new Lebanon government on reforms

Updated 13 min 17 sec ago

UN chief will work with new Lebanon government on reforms

  • Guterres’ spokesperson said the United Nations was committed to supporting “Lebanon’s strengthening of its sovereignty, stability and political independence”
  • Lebanon formed a new government under Prime Minister Hassan Diab

BEIRUT: UN Secretary General Antonio Guterres welcomed the formation of a new Lebanese government on Tuesday and will work with the new premier to support reforms in the heavily indebted country grappling with an urgent economic crisis.
A statement issued by Guterres’ spokesperson also said the United Nations was committed to supporting “Lebanon’s strengthening of its sovereignty, stability and political independence.”
Lebanon formed a new government under Prime Minister Hassan Diab after the Shiite Hezbollah movement and its allies agreed on a cabinet after weeks of wrangling over portfolios.