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.”


Arab ministers warn of oil spill disasters in the Red Sea

Updated 6 min 25 sec ago

Arab ministers warn of oil spill disasters in the Red Sea

  • The session was held at Saudi Arabia’s request to discuss ways of avoiding a disaster in the Red Sea

Arab ministers have warned of oil spill disasters in the Red Sea and called on international and regional bodies to maintain maritime security in the area.

An Arab League video conference session on Monday brought together ministers responsible for environmental affairs.

The session was held at Saudi Arabia’s request to discuss ways of avoiding a disaster in the Red Sea because of an oil tanker that has been anchored off Yemen’s Ras Isa port since 2015.

The Houthis have prevented international engineers from boarding the vessel to carry out essential repairs and there are fears that the oil it contains will start to seep out as the tanker’s condition deteriorates.

Ambassador Kamal Hassan Ali, assistant secretary-general and head of the economic affairs sector at the Arab League, said that the meeting concluded with foreign ministers being requested to take political action as the oil disaster threat was a matter of politics and security.

The meeting also requested that the league’s general secretariat communicate with the regional and international bodies of countries bordering the Red Sea and Gulf of Aden to preserve the environment and provide technical support in order to submit a report on spillage risks.

Hassan said that finding an appropriate solution to avoid an environmental catastrophe was of major regional and global importance because the scale of such a disaster would threaten marine life, biodiversity, international shipping lines and ports in that location.

He said that the region was facing major challenges that demanded solidarity and unity in all fields, including the environment.

Environmental challenges did not respect borders, he added, and maintaining a healthy environment for the region was a collective issue that required joint effort through plans and strategies adhering to local, regional and international agreements and laws.

Hassan regarded the participation of Arab ministers responsible for environmental affairs in the session as evidence of the importance that regional environmental security held for them, their countries and the region in terms of stability and people’s well-being.

He emphasized the close link between the environment and development, which had led to the emergence of the concept of sustainable development.

The preservation of oceans, seas, marine resources and their sustainable use was one of the most important development goals, he said.