DAMASCUS (Reuters) – Pilgrim buses clog a road just outside the Old City of Damascus. Partly to solve that nuisance, municipal planners want to carve a highway through a historic but neglected quarter of the Syrian capital.
“They want to knock down 1,200 shops like mine,” said Bassam al-Ayoubi, sitting among the piled shelves of his hardware store in the labyrinth of alleys known as Souq al-Manakhliyeh.
In these crumbling, crowded streets outside the Old City, which UNESCO lists as a World Heritage site, artisans and merchants make and sell anything from farm tools to copper ornaments, brassware and carpets, just as in generations past.
The governorate of Damascus envisages expanding the busy King Faisal Street, which runs parallel to the northern wall of the Old City, into a highway up to 40 meters (130 feet) wide.
Traffic in the street is often held up by the parked buses of Iranian and Lebanese Shi’ite Muslim pilgrims thronging the modern Saida Ruqqiya Mosque just inside the Old City.
But critics question whether the plan to widen the 1.5-km (one-mile) road, built in the late 19th century, is the answer to the congestion problems in the city centre.
“In the rest of the world, they now stop traffic passing near historic cities because of the environmental effects of pollution and vibration,” said Mouaffak Doughman, a former director of the governorate’s office that deals with preservation and development of the Old City.
The project would demolish swathes of workshops, homes and markets spilling out from the Old City since medieval times. Residents fear that tower blocks, hotels and restaurants will rise in their place, irreversibly altering the area’s character.
“If they do this, the history goes, the culture goes,” said Ayoubi. “It’s a disaster,” he said, adding that thousands of people would be displaced or lose their livelihoods.
Protests from residents, archaeologists and conservationists have forced the authorities to put the project on hold until a committee has reported on its impact and the value of the area. The culture minister is due to receive the report on July 15.
The governor of Damascus has invited UNESCO, which had voiced alarm over the scheme, to join the consultations. He and the culture minister have also told UNESCO that no project will be implemented without the U.N. body’s agreement.
“This is good. It is not a guarantee for us, but it is good enough for the moment,” Nada Al Hassan, program specialist at the Paris headquarters of the U.N. Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization, said in a telephone interview.
“For UNESCO, this area is part of a buffer zone around the World Heritage property,” she said. “The urban fabric itself is valuable, not just the individual buildings. You can’t just erase a neighborhood without affecting the site nearby.”
Some Syrian officials query the value of a buffer zone. “The work is outside the wall. Anyway, it doesn’t harm the Old City,” Tourism Minister Saadallah Agha al-Qalaa told Reuters.
Ayoubi and many other traders and artisans rent their premises and would get no recompense if the urban renewal plan goes ahead. Only owners are entitled to limited compensation.
“We have whole souqs here. If you wipe out the souqs and open up the gates, leaving a few stones, the city will have no meaning. And this is the world’s oldest continuously inhabited city,” Ayoubi said, reiterating a Damascene boast.
Roman, Byzantine, Ottoman and other empires have left their mark on Damascus, founded more than 4,000 years ago, but the pace of change in this rapidly growing city of 3.5 million has quickened since Syria gained independence 61 years ago.
New roads and buildings have devoured several venerable neighborhoods — Syrian law protects only the walled city.
Conservationists advocate restoring rather than razing buildings near the city wall, whose Roman foundations are overlaid by Arab defenses dating from the 11th century onward.
The threatened district, which contains architectural jewels such as the Ottoman-era Muallaq Mosque, is undeniably run down.
Shop hoardings, steel shutters, chaotic cables and centuries of grime hide many of its weathered stone arches and brickwork.
But much of the Old City itself is dilapidated. Decay is not a criterion for demolition, UNESCO’s Al Hassan argued.
“There are voids from things that were done in the past,” she acknowledged. “But other parts are really urban ensembles whose origins date from the 12th or 13th century. So there is this very valuable heritage outside the city wall.
“The city inside the walls cannot be dissociated from the city outside the walls, not only from a historical point of view but also socially and economically,” Al Hassan said.