Damascus, Syria, 16 February 2004 – His Highness the Aga Khan, Imam (spiritual leader) of the Shia Ismaili Muslims today concluded a three-day official visit to Syria during which he had meetings with President Bashar al-Assad and a series of discussions with Ministers on key development priorities for the country.
The Aga Khan’s discussions with President Assad touched on a range of issues but focused on specific areas in which institutions of the Aga Khan Development Network (AKDN) could expand its activities.
“Our very fruitful discussions,” said the Aga Khan, “will now enable us to concentrate resources where the AKDN’s experience can address priority needs identified in co-operation with the Syrian Government.” “These include,” he said, “specific areas of cultural and economic concern, education policy and institutional support in the healthcare sector and the challenges faced by rural populations.”
In his meetings with President Assad, Prime Minister Naji Al-Otri, Speaker of the Parliament Mahmoud Abrash as well as Ministers of Culture and Tourism, Education, Health, the Aga Khan reviewed both the initiatives launched by the Network since the signing of a Framework Development Agreement with the Syrian Government in November 2001, and the directions of future activity in each domain. The Network’s agencies have launched a series of programmes in the Governorates of Aleppo, Hama, Lattakia and Tartous. These have included partnership with the Ministry of Education in Early Childhood Development, the training of senior inspectors, the installation of computer laboratories in schools, medical equipment grants to hospitals, collaboration with the Ministry of Health on nursing education and the Healthy Villages Programme, scholarships for medical specialists, a water management and rural development programme, conservation, restoration and urban planning at three historic sites and microfinance programmes in four governorates.
Building on a successful series of interventions in the built environment through restoration and rehabilitation at the Citadels of Aleppo, Masyaf and Salah al Din, the Network will begin to explore long-term development initiatives looking at the economic potential of cultural assets in both old cities and rural environments around historic structures. Tourism Minister Saad alah Aga Al-Qala’ah expressed interest in how the AKDN’s positive experiences of area development in historic cities such as Cairo and Zanzibar could benefit Damascus and Aleppo. The Minister and the Aga Khan also discussed the relevance of the Aga Khan Trust for Culture’s Music Initiative to Syria’s efforts to revitalise the heritage of the Silk Route.
With Minister of Culture Mahmoud Assayed, the Aga Khan reviewed the multifaceted conservation and restoration initiatives at the three Citadels. They also discussed the Network’s experience of broadening cultural education endeavours covering the plurality of Islamic civilisations and the diversity of their cultural expressions in areas ranging from architecture to music. Having completed significant restoration on sections of the Ayyubid Palace on the Citadel of Aleppo the Aga Khan Trust for Culture (AKTC) is continuing work on other parts of the monument and preparing an urban study to extend work into the Old City.
Major restoration has also been completed at the Citadel of Masyaf and the Trust is engaged in urban planning in the historic centre of the city having already upgraded and rehabilitated the Souq al Saghir. Restoration of the mosque and minaret of the Ayyubid complex inside the Citadel of Salah al Din were complemented by stabilisation of the entire palace complex and studies regarding the visitor’s centre prepared. AKTC has also worked in cooperation with the Ministry of Culture and the Directorate General of Antiquities and Museums on training and capacity-building at each of the project sites.
Not-for-profit microfinance programmes launched by the Network are currently underway in the Governorates of Aleppo, Hama, Lattakia and Tartous to provide loans for a range of income-generation projects (small enterprises, agriculture, service, transport, etc.) and housing improvement in historic cities. Seminars to improve water use, and agricultural techniques, and to diversify the economic base, supplement a pilot water management programme launched by the Network in the Governorate of Hama.
Educational initiatives discussed with Education Minister Ali Sa’ad included private education, teacher training, and support to English Language learning. The Network will now begin the process of identifying sites for the establishment of one or more academic centres of excellence that will be part of an international network recently launched by the Aga Khan Education Services.
Recognising the sound beginning on which the AKDN and Ministry of Health had begun to work together, the Aga Khan and Minister of Health Iyyad Al Chatty agreed to advance the scope of activities. Following the visit to the Aga Khan University’s School of Nursing in Karachi, Pakistan by a team led by Syria’s Director of Nursing, the Ministry and the AKDN launched a programme in 2003 to improve the quality of nursing education and clinical care in Syria. The AKDN is partnering with the Ministry’s Healthy Villages Programme to improve the quality of basic social services for rural communities and improve opportunities for economic development. AKDN support has also extended to the establishment of a National Centre for Demographic Studies and International Health Day.
During his stay in Damascus, the Aga Khan also met with the Governor of Damascus with whom he went on a short walking tour of a section of the Old City. The Aga Khan also held discussions with Sheikh Ahmed Hassoun, the Mufti of Aleppo, on matters of mutual interest in the areas of culture and education.
The AKDN is a group of private, non-denominational development agencies whose mandates range from the fields of health and education to architecture, rural development and the promotion of private-sector enterprise. Its agencies and institutions, working together, seek to empower communities and individuals, often in disadvantaged circumstances, to improve living conditions and opportunities, in regions of the Middle East, Africa and Asia. Active in over 20 countries in Europe, Asia, Africa and North America, the Network’s underlying impulse is the ethic of compassion for the vulnerable in society and its agencies and institutions work for the common good of all citizens, regardless of origin, gender or religion.