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Volume 50, Number 3May/June 1999

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Restoring Old Aleppo

Written by William Graves
Photographed by Jamil Zarnaji
Additional photographs courtesy of Rolex Awards for Enterprise

For millennia—at least since the 20th century BC—Aleppo has stood at a crossroads of trade and empires, astride both the Silk Roads linking Europe with Asia and the caravan route through the Levant to Africa. Even when the Portuguese opening of sea routes into the Indian Ocean eclipsed much of this trade in the 16th century, Aleppo still prospered, and today it is Syria's second-largest city after Damascus, the capital.

Only in our century did the automobile make it attractive for wealthy Aleppines to move to more spacious areas outside the Old City, upsetting its centuries-old economic balance. The city's 1952 master plan accelerated this exodus of wealth, and as municipal officials concentrated their early preservation efforts on the mosques and markets so popular with visitors, neighborhoods built of graceful courtyard homes, linked by capillary streets, were largely neglected. As the Old City's economy gradually declined, fewer and fewer of its inhabitants could afford upkeep.

By 1978, 20 percent of the historic city had been lost outright to the broad avenues and high-rise offices and residences mandated by the master plan. By the 1980's, though the population of Aleppo as a whole had topped 1.5 million, the population of the Old City had dropped from roughly 170,000 in the 1940's to fewer than 130,000. As an architect born in the Old City, Adli Qudsi decided that was already more than enough, and with a small group of fellow Aleppine architects, Qudsi successfully lobbied Syria's Ministry of Culture to declare ancient Aleppo a national historic monument. That brought the master plan, as Qudsi puts it, "to a screeching halt." The government appointed a conservation committee, which included Qudsi, to develop alternative guidelines for future planning in the historic district.

At first the committee's alternatives—most of which tightened building codes to preserve the quarter's character—were not unanimously popular with Old City residents. "The residents were a key factor," says Qudsi. "We not only had to preserve and repair the original architecture, we had to do it in cooperation with the people who lived there, many of whom had small incomes. The solution was obvious: Upgrade the public facilities around them and provide interest-free loans to help them rebuild their own houses according to the approved guidelines."

Qudsi was well-suited to direct this grassroots plan. He was born in a courtyard house in the heart of the Old City, and lived there into his teens. There he developed his devotion both to the Old City and to architecture generally. After attending university in the United States in the early 1960's, he practiced architecture in Seattle until 1975, then returned to Aleppo. Since then he has served as architectural consultant, urban planner, environmental architect and expert advisor to the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO).

"Cities like Aleppo were masterpieces," he says. "Their residential areas—clusters of dwellings with narrow, often dead-end alleyways—drew neighbors together in a feeling of human closeness and safety that reduced the pressures of daily life. And the houses themselves were works of art." Centered around a courtyard that served as garden, playground and inter-generational gathering point, the houses were often designed with matching sets of rooms so the family could use them according to the season: Rooms facing north avoided the summer sun, and those facing south and west absorbed winter warmth.

"Despite their antiquity, these houses are well suited to modern living," Qudsi asserts. "They're roomy and comfortable, and it's a simple matter to add modern conveniences such as private baths, new kitchens, central heating and the like.

"But the Old City's infrastructure is different," he says, citing its 300 kilometers (186 mi) of stone-paved streets, under which run outdated water, sewer, telephone and electrical services. Until these are updated, Qudsi says, "no house or structure within the Old City can be secure."

The cost of such extensive renovations may run as high as $50 million, and the search for financial backing has been a long one. In 1984 Qudsi headed a successful effort to persuade UNESCO to add Aleppo to its World Cultural Heritage list, a move that gave the project international exposure in the field of historical preservation. Utilities in two neighborhoods of the Old City are currently being refurbished with funding from the City of Aleppo and Germany's government-owned Technical Cooperation Corporation (GTZ), which provided some $2.4 million in 1997 and has pledged long-term support.

But it is at the local level that Qudsi's work has proven most innovative. In 1993, with backing from the City of Aleppo and the national government, Qudsi chose a neighborhood of 150 houses and 1500 residents to take part in the pilot project. The next year, the city government adopted Qudsi's rehabilitation plan, based in part on interest-free loans to residents for restoration of their homes. Both the Kuwait-based Arab Fund for Economic and Social Development and GTZ contributed to the loan fund.

Now, with more than 250 loans outstanding and rehabilitation under way, Qudsi and project director Tawfik Kelzieh are finding that many residents have become "much more attached to their homes," and that "ideas of selling and moving out have diminished." Planning of a second rehabilitation area is almost complete.

Last year, Qudsi's dedication and success brought him to the attention of the Rolex Awards for Enterprise, a biennial program recognizing "outstanding contributions to human endeavor," which named him one of 10 "associate laureates." But Qudsi is quick to point out that now, it is the residents who "are really running the show. This just shows what Aleppines can do together," he says.

William Graves served on the editorial staff of National Geographic for 40 years, first as a writer, then as expeditions editor, and finally as the editor from 1991 until his retirement in 1995.

This article appeared on pages 40-43 of the May/June 1999 print edition of Saudi Aramco World.


Check the Public Affairs Digital Image Archive for May/June 1999 images.