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Modern Needs Clash With Ancient World of Damascus : Architecture: Ruins of temples and mosques share teeming Old City neighborhoods with glitzy shops, boxy buildings.

July 01, 1990|MARTIN MARRIS | ASSOCIATED PRESS

DAMASCUS, Syria — A boxy apartment-office building on concrete stilts surmounts ruins of the 2,000-year-old Roman Temple of Jupiter, dramatizing the clash of old and new in this teeming, ancient city.

A modern, marble-clad temple of commerce with jewelry shops and clothing boutiques is next door, opposite the ancient Islamic Medressah, or School of Nur ed-Din.

"It's a bad integration of the old and the new," said Nazih Kawakibi, a professor of architecture at Damascus University who serves on several restoration committees. "They could have done it much better."

Like many cities in the Middle East, Damascus is bulging at the seams, trying to provide housing and services to a population estimated at 2 million.

Damascus is considered one of the world's oldest continuously inhabited cities. The Arameans, nomads from the Arabian peninsula, settled here in 1200 B.C., eventually building a city that became an important commercial center.

Greeks, Romans, Byzantines, Arabs and Ottomans have occupied Damascus. A treasure trove of monuments reflect the cultural tides that have swept over the city.

Some ancient sites, like the famed Ummayyad Mosque, were venerated by all the occupiers.

The mosque site originally was a temple to Haddad, the Aramean god of thunder and lightning.

It later became the Roman Temple of Jupiter. The Byzantines built a cathedral there, but the Arabs transformed it into the mosque, named for the Islamic dynasty.

Only limited resources are available to preserve the ancient sites.

Kawakibi pointed to the Medressah, just on the edge of a straight, European-style avenue cut through the city by French colonizers in the 1930s.

"They stopped here; they didn't go further, thanks be to God," said the architect, who has devoted his life to preserving Old Damascus.

A 14th-Century tomb of the Mamelukes has been rented to a cloth merchant, who destroyed the original lintel and cut a door through an ancient wall to allow access to his shop.

"Unless we propose a solution to blend those monuments with the commercial life of the Old City of Damascus, this is the way it all will go," Kawakibi said.

"These buildings shouldn't function as commercial buildings, but as museums or cultural centers. They're all registered as historical monuments, but the law hasn't been able to prevent them from being transgressed."

In one old mosque, the antique wooden minbar, or preacher's stand, was ripped out and left in the entrance, to be replaced by a concrete one.

An architectural gem, the 11th-Century Nur ed-Din hospital, is sandwiched between a modern shop selling shwarma, thinly sliced meat wrapped in Arabic bread, and a jewelry store. It was restored in the late 1970s.

"Parasitic buildings accumulated around it, but they're now just part of the ambience," said Kawakibi, who was instrumental in the renovation.

Only one of the original stone-lattice windows, carved in intricate geometric designs, had survived. Master craftsmen copied it faithfully.

A few painted Koranic inscriptions remained on the domed ceilings. Instead of repainting them, restorers gently penciled in missing portions of the holy book's text.

In a display case are ancient herbal medicines, including one called "aphrodisiac radish, diuretic, activates the functions of the genital glands."

The hospital and dozens of other old buildings are tranquil havens in a bustling, noisy city, as are the 11th-Century baths, reached through a small door in the midst of the bazaar.

The baths saw hard times, even becoming a soap factory at one point.

Now, men swaddled in towels sip at glasses of boiling-hot tea after a searing bath and massage. They read their newspapers beneath a dome painted with complicated flowery designs.

Renovation is not always popular.

"When you're trying to renovate these buildings, there's a lot of protest because they don't understand what is meant by renovation," Kawakibi said. "They think you mean destroying the old buildings and putting up new ones."

At the Masjid al-Madrassah al-Umariyah mosque and school complex, which dates from the time of the First Crusade in the 11th Century, dozens of squatters who built concrete huts on the grounds are being evicted.

In deciding how to proceed, restorers rely on old drawings, their knowledge of the architectural practices of the time and photographs from the 19th and early 20th centuries.

In the 1960s, the government and experts drew up a master plan for the city, which included providing modern services and preserving the Old City. It has become hopelessly outdated.

Even a devoted restorationist like Kawakibi acknowledges that "attention should be paid to modern problems more than old ones. We need infrastructure, telephones, transportation."

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