The Secret of Keeping Ancient Cities Alive

January 24, 2008

Adli Qudsi originally left the ancient Syrian city of Aleppo in 1960 to study architecture in the United States. On his return in 1975 he noted that the departure of wealthy residents for the suburbs was leaving the old city to crumble around the poorer residents who were left behind. But since then Old Aleppo has been transformed thanks to Qudsi’s vision of a revitalised city. This Associate Laureate of the 1998 Rolex Awards now hopes that Aleppo will prove “a fruitful example” to other cities whose historic quarters are at risk from decay and developers.

Working with people’s needs
Syria’s Adli Qudsi is an architect for whom people are as important as structures. As the quiet achiever behind the remarkable revival of the Old City of Aleppo, he believes that working closely with residents to find what works for them has been the vital element in successfully setting the scales between conservation and development in an ancient city.

From his quiet, even melodic, discourse on Aleppo come two key propositions for old cities everywhere. Museums, he notes, are nice places to visit but you should not condemn people to live in them. And turning towns into tourist treadmills puts at risk the identity that attracted the tourists in the first place.

The Aleppo Qudsi recalled from his youth in the 1940s and 50s was a maze of stone-paved alleys linking centres of vibrant life and commerce. More than 10,000 centuries-old courtyard houses characteristic of the city’s old styles of architecture were the natural focus of a close community life.

Modern threats
Motor vehicles, spacious suburban lots and ambitious, but insensitive, post-war planning schemes put this whole social, economic and physical fabric under threat of extinction in just a few decades. As the living amenity and infrastructure of the old city declined, better-off residents left for the suburbs, being replaced by poorer inhabitants less able to maintain their homes.

“Aleppo, new and old, is a pile of stones and that helped keep it in shape for all these years,” he says. “It was that and the nature of the people living inside it, the balance of the middle class and rich and poor, that kept it alive and kept it restored. When infrastructure [mainly plumbing and wiring] was installed at the beginning of the 20th century, it was a positive thing at the time. Later, when it started falling apart with nobody to maintain it, it became a disaster.”

Laboriously lifting the stones and repairing, upgrading and relaying the pipes and the wires does not have the romantic appeal of archaeology and monument restoration. But, Qudsi explains, the mammoth task is more than 80 per cent done and “in a year or two it will be completed”. The full benefits will emerge over a much longer period.

Reviving an old city
“If only the poor continue to live in the old city, it will be damaged no matter what else we do,” says Qudsi. “The first aim of the project was to slow down the exodus from the old city. We have slowed it down. We don’t know yet if it has stopped, but I think we might be very close.

“Very few of the rich will come back to live here, but they are coming back as investors. And, now that many middle-class people see how attractive the environment is becoming in the old city, they are staying rather than leaving. The infrastructure is improved, the public space outside is improved and they are nearer to a lot of the attractions.”

As for the houses themselves, major progress has been made. “Of the 2,000 or so houses that badly needed help, around 850 have been restored by owners and residents through the use of the small loans with the support of the City and the German government,” Qudsi says. “Another 500 were restored by owners with technical help only from the City. More loans are upcoming.

“A few thousand more of the houses that are in fairly acceptable condition are getting a lot more maintenance from their owners and residents. They are encouraged by the overall improvements of the infrastructure, public space, and the relative improvement of real-estate prices.”

Advances in archaeology
And there have been exciting archaeological discoveries. Much more of the historical walls, sections of which date back to the Ayyubid era of the 12th century, emerged than were expected during the rehabilitation of the ancient citadel’s perimeter, and plans had to be redrawn accordingly.

In his other capacity, as local representative of the Aga Khan Trust for Culture and Development, Qudsi has been directing an eight-year rehabilitation effort within the citadel funded by the trust. He is also closely involved in the efforts to build a shelter within the citadel to protect and exhibit the unearthed Temple of the Storm God which dates back to the third millennium BC. Until this discovery was made, it was as much presumed as proved that the tell, or hill, on key routes between ancient civilizations in Anatolia and Mesopotamia and south to Egypt would have attracted significant occupation at the very dawn of civilisation.

The citadel, with its dominant stones and mortar dating back to medieval times and the dynasty of the legendary, Crusader-repelling Salah Al Din (Saladin) can now be much better appreciated from the Old City.

The damage from vehicles
Qudsi and his team have also been more successful than they had dared hope in taming the motor vehicle, which has caused so much damage to the ancient city over the past decades. “I was hoping for a small section to be closed to traffic, just in front of the entrance to the citadel,” he says. “And now we have expanded that section, and, soon, when we execute the plan for the rest of the perimeter, the traffic will be completely stopped. When it comes back it will only be to service areas — no through traffic at all.

“This was like a dream in the past, but now we sit outside cafes in front of the citadel and in the other areas we have completed. Those addicted to the use of the automobile are already learning to park some distance away and use their feet instead. It is exciting!”

Learning and expanding
Most tellingly, however, when Qudsi is asked what he would do differently with the benefit of hindsight, he nominates involving the residents even more — not just in the plans, but also in their implementation. “We got some amazing ideas from the residents,” he explains. “I hope what we developed in the old city will spread throughout the whole city and to all activities involving planning.”

And as it comes to fruition, Adli Qudsi’s vision of a restored ancient city of Aleppo is helping to inspire others. “Old Damascus [like Aleppo, Syria’s capital is one of the world’s oldest inhabited cities] has benefited from the experience,” he explains. “They have created a similar apparatus for the Old City. There is an open line of communication between the administrations of the two old cities. So Damascus will get a similar project involving the German government, the Aga Khan Trust for Culture and other international organisations. We have also had a good line of communication with the Old City of Tunis.”

Phil Dickie

Learn more about Adli Qudsi

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