Begun in 1996, this survey of late Ottoman buildings in Damascus is being carried out under the auspices of the Damascus Branch of the Orient Department of the German Archaeological Institute.
Damascus, the capital of Syria, is situated in the eastern foothills of the Antilebanon mountain range.
Declared a world heritage site in 1979 by the UNESCO, Damascus is one of few cities in the Islamic East that retain a significant amounts historic building substance. This applies even to residential areas. In view of the current changes in social structures, however, the continued preservation of these areas which reflect the historic development over centuries is by no means certain - especially so in extramural areas. In view of this threat, the project currently centres on documenting and mapping the historic buildings of Damascus. This survey focuses on public and private buildings of the 18th and 19th centuries, which form the major part of historic buildings in Damascus. Developments in the 16th and 17th centuries are also being recorded as part of the survey, which combines fieldwork with the analysis of written sources such as Ottoman annual reports from the province of Syria or contemporary reports. In the summarizing analysis these building activities are being interpreted as a direct result, and thus indicator, of contemporary socio-political developments.
There are three main aspects to the documentation of the historic building phases. The first of these, the study of the Ottoman urban centre around the Marga-square, has been completed. 113 recorded building measures leading to the creation of a new Ottoman city centre have been studied with regard not only to their precise form and function, but also the urban context. The second aspect of this project is the Bazaar (Souq) of Damascus, which is the subject of large scale restructuring in the later 19th century. Generous passageways, fundamentally different from their predecessors in form and structure, are driven through its narrow alleys. More than 70 buildings related to trade have been studied, of which more than half were originate from around the turn of the century, often preserving their layout and design to the current day. Residential properties form the third aspect of this study - at the same time they provide the true wealth of the city. There are several thousands of historic properties in Damascus. The majority of these date back to the 18th and 19th centuries. Most of the elaborately decorated townhouses of the 18th century were converted around the end of the 19th century. These conversions were strongly influenced by a new Ottoman cultural understanding. This is to be investigated at the hand of the style of building and decorating found in these houses.
The survey is being carried out in cooperation with the Syrian Directorate General of Antiquities, the Damascus City Council and the Institut Français des Etudes Arabs à Damas. The Department of Oriental Languages and Cultures of the University of Utrecht is to become a further cooperation partner in the near future.