Syria - Aga Khan Historic Cities Programme
Aga Khan Development Network

Syria: Revitalising Historic Sites

Historic Cities Programme in Syria

In 1999, the Syrian Directorate of Antiquities and Museums asked the Aga Khan Historic Cities Programme (AKHCP) to provide technical assistance for the conservation and reuse of a number of historic citadel sites in the country. The Citadels of Aleppo and Masyaf and the Castle of Salah ad-Din were selected. The restoration of these sites encompassed the refurbishment of public spaces, the provision of tourism infrastructure and a number of socio-economic programmes.

Azhar Park ProjectThe Castle of Salah ad-Din stands high on a mountain ridgeTop: The fortified entrance of the Citadel of Aleppo.
Bottom: The Castle of Salah ad-Din stands high on a mountain ridge.
Each site presented a different set of challenges. The Citadel of Aleppo, which rises above the ancient city of Aleppo, is one of the foremost monuments of the Islamic world. Inside the walls, a long history of bombardments, pillaging and earthquakes had taken its toll. Conservation focused on a number of key areas that had a spatial or historic coherence: the Ayyubid Palace complex, the western section of the Citadel crown and the main surrounding walls.

The Castle of Salah ad-Din stands high on a mountain ridge surrounded by forest. It has been described as “the greatest Crusader building enterprise of the twelfth century”. The armies of Salah ad Din took the castle in 1188.  Conservation projects have focused on the palace complex built by its Ayyubid conquerors.

Masyaf Citadel is smaller in scale than Aleppo or Salah ad-Din and situated on the edge of a provincial town. A fighting castle rather than a royal seat, and more rugged in character, the Citadel is one of the most complete mediaeval fortresses surviving in Syria. Most of what remains standing dates from the period of Ismaili occupation in the twelfth and thirteenth centuries. The project included conservation of the entire structure. Just as at the other Citadel sites, the physical conservation work conserved the ruined character of the monument whilst adding support and strength where required. A small townscape improvement project, in Masyaf, focused on upgrading of the central market complex, Souk al Saghir.

In all cases, the objective was to create exemplars of historic monument conservation, thereby setting a benchmark of good practice, and to develop skills of local crafts people and professionals through training. Sustainability is a key aspect of AKHCP’s projects; the programme at the Citadels included investment in facilities such as visitors’ centres, pathways and guidebooks, and development of site management procedures.

Citadel of Aleppo Perimeter Project

During the early stages of the Citadel projects, the initial scope was expanded to include the context of the sites. In 2002, a major urban improvement project commenced in the perimeter area of Aleppo Citadel, which was devised in close collaboration with the Aleppo Old City office. The project included significant investment in landscaping around the Citadel, creation of a pedestrian zone at its entrance, traffic planning and conservation of key buildings. The objective was to enhance the Citadel’s place in the city and realise its potential as a significant contributor to economic development in the old city.

Aleppo Old City Development

One of the oldest cities in the Middle East, Aleppo developed as a crossroads between east and west, straddling important trade routes linking the desert to the sea. Until 1930, the city remained more or less confined within its mediaeval boundaries, limited by its walls and early suburbs, which were surrounded by pistachio, fig and olive groves.

Today, approximately 100,000 people, or five percent of the two million population of the city, live in the historic Old City. A great many monuments are found amidst the historic fabric of the city.  It was recognised by UNESCO as a World Heritage Site in 1986.

As part of ongoing activities, AKHCP was in the early stages of a project to create a park in an area of waste ground just outside the city walls at Bab Qinnesrine. Social projects were also being implemented in several adjacent, mostly low-income residential areas, around the proposed park site, with the aim of raising living standards. These include vocational training, education and health programmes. The thrust of these efforts in Aleppo was to enhance Aleppo’s historic urban fabric and stitch together two attractive poles on the northern and southern end, thereby realising the potential for these projects to become significant contributors to the economic development of the Old City.  The overall aim of these urban regeneration projects in the historic centre is to improve the overall quality of life.

Click on the image to download the brochure on HCP Activities in Syria Damascus Beits Restoration

In 2008, AKHCP began work on a benchmark project for the adaptive use of landmark buildings in the historic city of Damascus.  AKHCP, along with the Aga Khan Fund for Economic Development, an AKDN agency involved in tourism promotion, embarked on the restoration and development of three historical palaces, Beits Sibaie, Nizam and Quwatli, into hotels.
Each site, using state of the art technical and engineering techniques to survey the walls, ceilings and floors, has been carefully documented. Once the documentation and planning were completed, a team of experts began the process of restoring the worst damaged parts of the buildings, starting with those areas that were in danger of collapsing.