Life is returning to the Old City of Homs, freed from fighters from al-Qaeda’s Jabhat al-Nusra in May 2014. Last year 1,200 families came back to their homes and 60 shops reopened. Houses are being renovated, restaurants and cafes are functioning. Cars jam the checkpoint into the area. Children carrying fat backpacks of books trudge to and from school.
The most ambitious renewal project is the battered and looted covered souq at the heart of the devastated Old City. The souq is an emblem of Homs. Some 3500-4000 years old, the market was originally built on the edge of the city, a trading post on the Silk Road. The city gradually grew around the souq which was repeatedly renovated by ambitious rulers. Its current structures date to the 13th century Ayyubid dynasty founded by Sahahedin, the warrior king who drove the Crusaders from Palestine and Syria.
Ghassan Jansiz, the architect in charge of the renovation, says the souq was spared the total devastation inflicted on other areas of the Old City because the market was used by fighters as a passage between warring sectors rather than a base.
Over the past two months workers have cleared 99 per cent of the rubble and debris in the souq, completing the first phase of the UN Development Programme (UNDP) project to revive the souq which covers 10-20 per cent of the Old City. The second phase — rebuilding the infrastructure — has begun. A team of 35 architects and engineers are engaged in working out how to restore shops, homes, streets and alleyways using old skills and original materials — local black volcanic stone, wood and metal. The aim is to replicate the souq’s 4,600 shops as they were a century ago, remarks Jansiz as we walk beneath the metal vault, pierced by bullets and shrapnel. Handsomely wrought metal frames holding up removed sections of the vault lay on the ground. “These have to be replaced,” he states, “You can see they were broken and weakened during the fighting.”
On one street, workmen carefully tap into place thin slates with earth between them rather than cement. Cement is banned from the souq and historic houses in the Old City.
Unfortunately, pillage has continued. Even now thieves lever distinctive features from walls and windows. They can get high prices for carved stone symbols based on those used in Roman times to identify products sold in the narrow streets: perfumes, clothes, carpets, or spices and coffee.
The historic Nouri mosque has been scorched and battered but has survived and continues to hold prayers. The mosque was one of the largest in Syria during the 12th century when Homs was a political power and commercial centre. Jansiz points out columns from a Roman era pagan temple converted into a church during the Byzantine period and a mosque under the Muslims. After the conflict, columns and paintings covered for decades were found.
“Homs is a sufi city, both Muslim and Christian, so decoration on buildings is spare,” Jansiz states. But details are elegant and functional. We walk from room to room in the largest and best preserved of the Ottoman hammams (bath houses) built on the ancient Roman model.
We gather round at a table under a tree in the Khan, the inn, where the young architects and engineers involved in the project are bending over plans and discussing their investigations of buildings never before documented.
The third phase of the UN project involves the return of shopkeepers to the souq but since several have already reopened, others can be expected to follow. A cheerful sock merchant says, “Business is getting better every day.” During the fourth phase handicrafts are to be introduced with the objective of preserving Syria’s distinctive furniture and other crafts.
By some, UNDP is considered eccentric for undertaking reconstruction projects while war continues to rage in Syria and Syrians are in desperate need of food, shelter, and medical supplies. But UNDP is determined to forge ahead. Syrians cannot live by bread alone, they need encouragement to stay put and recover from the devastation of war.
UNDP country director Samuel Rizk says the souq serves as a model for other reconstruction in the Old City itself and elsewhere. The old quarter in the Christian town of Maaloula, damaged during fighting in 2013-14, has also been cleared of rubble and is in the process of renovation. UNDP’s aim is to get “people to stay in their homes by providing water and electricity. Without services they leave and become part of the humanitarian crisis,” Rizk states.
Jobs are provided for “a couple of thousand of the most vulnerable,” reducing displacement and the pressure of refugees on neighbouring countries, and on Europe. The cost of the two projects is $2 million (Dhs7.3m): “A little money goes a long way.” Switzerland, Germany and the EU are supporting the effort. “If we had more funding we would go more places,” Rizk states.
Maamoun Abdulkarim, Syria’s director of antiquities, says the work in Homs is being closely monitored by his department. “They cannot restore a [traditional] home or shop in the Old City without our permission and observing international norms” for renovating historic buildings. He insists it is essential to use traditional materials and modes of construction. He warns “emergency work has to be carried out to halt deterioration” in Homs, Maaloula, and Palmyra.” Cameras need to be installed to halt looting.
“But we can’t do anything in Aleppo” where fresh devastation is wrought daily. “Aleppo is Syria’s most important city damaged by war. I am sure we have lost [Aleppo’s rich cultural heritage]. Aleppo’s damage is greater than all the damage elsewhere put together. Aleppo is the symbol of the tragedy of Syria’s cultural heritage.”