In January 2007, the Syrian authorities informed the World Heritage Centre of a large scale project in the King Faisal Street area, adjacent to the northern perimeter of the city walls, which would have involved the demolition of substantial urban fabric of historic value. The World Heritage Committee, during its 31st session, requested the State Party to submit a report by 1 February 2008, and to invite a joint World Heritage Centre / ICOMOS mission to assess the state of conservation of the property.
The State Party submitted a report on 24 January 2008. Its first part includes sections concerned with statement of significance, statement of authenticity/ integrity, and management of the property. This section outlines the official policy towards the Ancient City of Damascus and, although somewhat confusing, the spheres of action of the responsible government departments. In particular, the Commission for the Safeguarding of the Old Town, responsible for strategic planning, has produced a “structure plan”, elsewhere called “Action Plan” or “Integrated Development and Conservation Plan for the Old City of Damascus” in order to give greater attention to the land use patterns and achieve the interior balance between living community and commercial activities, as well as a clear distinction between activities compatible with the area's historic and environmental qualities.
The report also details a number of other initiatives facilitating urban improvements, such as the technical co-operation programme with Japan International Cooperation Agency (JICA), focused on urban planning for the sustainable development of Damascus, and the Municipal Administration Modernization (MAM) Programme, funded by the European Union, aiming at improving the quality and effectiveness of local governance in six cities across the country. In Damascus, the MAM project is working to protect and revitalise the Old City; and several plans have been prepared including the draft of the “Integrated Development and Conservation Plan for the Old City of Damascus”. The German Agency for Technical Co-operation is also supporting the preservation of the Old City of Damascus through financial incentives of the private sector.
The State Party report concludes by summarizing the major threats facing the property and the historical zones surrounding it, including the possible negative impact of development projects which will affect the “outstanding universal value” of the Old City, trendy conversions of many traditional Arab homes, the lack of conservation policy for the historical zones outside the walled city, and inappropriate regional planning projects.
The State Party report also includes a thorough progress report (dated 30 January 2008) by a MAM Programme consultation defining a buffer zone for the World Heritage property. The report documents the current status of the historic suburbs, noting that “four of the five historical suburbs north and west of the Old City have come under protection by the Directorate General of Antiquities and Museums (DGAM) between 1988 and 2006 under the terms of the Antiquities Law. A “Committee for the Protection and Development of Old Damascus and its Buffer Zone” had been created by the Prime Minister on 16 May 2007 to ensure the coordination of planning activities intra and extra muros”. The definition of the buffer zone will be completed by the delineation of specific sub-areas for protection, rehabilitation and redevelopment, approval of the necessary regulatory instruments and institutional structure, and the formal endorsement of the buffer zone by the relevant Government departments prior to its submission to the World Heritage Committee.
While the State Party report shows a strong commitment to address the problems of reviving the social, cultural and economic dimensions of the historic city, there are a number of shortfalls in ensuring these mechanisms will retain the outstanding universal value of the property:
- The statements of significance and of authenticity/integrity presented (in place of the Statement of outstanding universal value requested) are not prepared in accord with the requirements of the Operational Guidelines. As such the results can not be integrated into the management plan requested by the World Heritage Committee.
- There appears to be no clear management mechanism which would coordinate the many projects in place funded externally by international cooperation programmes and internally.
- A conservation oriented management plan requested by the World Heritage Committee, whose emphasis on integrated decision-making could provide the over-arching planning instrument mentioned above, is of utmost importance in order to ensure priority retention of the outstanding universal value of the property, while integrating the development concerns of all sectors concerned with the Old City.
- Finally the DGAM, acting essentially as a development control agency (but not a planning agency), despite its efforts, lacks the authority, the resources and the status to place concern for outstanding universal value at the core of urban decision making for Damascus. l>
A joint reactive monitoring mission (World Heritage Centre / ICOMOS) was carried out in April 2008, focusing on the different issues raised by the World Heritage Committee.
The mission report recalls a visit by World Heritage experts, invited by the State Party in December 2007, which confirmed the results of a study carried out by 18 local experts, namely that the King Faisal Street Project would negatively impact on the World Heritage status, even though situated outside the core area of the inscribed property. The mission report notes that local and international experts agreed that “the project would have implied a serious threat for the integrity of the whole historic fabric and the meaning itself of the World Heritage site of the “walled city”. The property would have remained definitively separated from its northern suburbs, with negative effects on its environmental conditions and economic and social vitality that would have added to the deterioration of its urban fabric and heritage values”. During the April 2008 mission, its members were notified that, excluding the portion concerned with the restoration of the City walls, the project had been cancelled.
The mission report documents the social and economic pressures and conditions combining to increase rates of deterioration of the building stock, in spite of the many conservation works carried out to preserve the major traditional souqs and monumental sites in the central core of the Ancient City. Large parts of the remaining historic fabric, within and outside the city walls, suffer from a severe physical and functional decay, reflecting the transformations occurred since the 1930s which developed the modern City Centre adjacent to the Old City and modified its functions and role with relevant changes in the socio-economic structure and land-use. It appears that the deterioration and the misuse of the historic residential stock are rapidly increasing, largely due to the poor economic conditions of the largest part of the resident population. Many houses are empty and in a state of advanced disrepair, particularly in the Jewish quarter, where many properties have been abandoned by the owners, and the absence of legal tools, which would allow their re-use for housing or other compatible activities.
The most important public works program consists of the comprehensive renovation of the infrastructural network, concerning the main spine of the Ancient City – the Medhat Pasha street, also called the “Via Recta” – and the major perpendicular streets of the roman grid. The program is due to be implemented in 2008, with a complex and integrated set of interventions. The mission report underlines that whereas these works represent a fundamental step forward to the physical and environmental rehabilitation of the Ancient City, the works have unfortunately been carried out without a previous archaeological impact assessment and, apparently, with insufficient supervision by competent staff, due to time and budget limitations. The infrastructure improvements have been strategically combined with an extensive program of refurbishment and restoration of the street fronts; even if the quality of the materials and the execution are quite appropriate, and testify of a very effective site implementation management, these important works suffer from an uniform and sometimes insensitive design that in many cases do not adhere to the internationally established conservation requirements.
The mission report also notes shortcomings in the restoration and rehabilitation process taking place for some decades in the historic city. It stresses notably that recent interventions have implied large demolitions and redevelopment without respecting the texture of the historic fabric, and definitely represent a harmful precedent.The report however notes that a remarkable effort in the conservation of the major architectural heritage has been made in recent years by the Governorate’s Directorate of Old Damascus and the DGAM and that the issues of urban rehabilitation are nowadays addressed by several projects and studies carried out by different institutions, demonstrating that the need to ensure a consequent effort in conservation seems to be largely shared by all the concerned bodies.
The mission report underlines that, nevertheless, many of the recent and ongoing interventions still demonstrate that more sensitive planning as well as architectural and archaeological approaches, which would consider the whole historic urban fabric and not only the individual registered monuments as heritage to be preserved, need to be adopted. To this regard, an effort has to be made to raise awareness amongst officials and public opinion about heritage values of the Old City, and to increase management capacities and technical skills on conservation methods and techniques.
The mission notes further that definition of a buffer zone for the Old City is now well advanced on the agenda of the State Party. However, the World Heritage Committee’s request during its 31st session “to consider extending the boundaries of the property in order to include its valuable historical neighbourhoods”has not been addressed.
There is an urgent need to ensure a better coordination amongst the various public institutions, both in performing the planning process and in implementing the most relevant projects, and the new planning tools under preparation should provide a clear definition of the different levels of protection to be applied to the different parts of the urban fabric, with an accurate identification of the types of interventions required or permitted.