Behind the walls

Homes In the Old City of Damascus, once-abandoned properties are being renovated to reflect their former opulence.

18th century, Damascus, Syria --- "Beit" is the Arab term for house. These houses usually have a plain exterior but are highly decorated and lavish on the inside. This room in a "beit" has a fountain in its center and is decorated in Turkish rococo style.  Arthur Thévenart/CORBIS

REF al07damascus 07/07/08
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I am standing in the sunny basalt and marble courtyard of a house in Old Damascus, listening to the ­muezzin of the Umayyad Mosque a few hundred metres away. Around me, painters are experimenting with antique pigments, mixing paint to match the eighteenth century colours they have just discovered under a false ceiling during the restoration of the house. The house I am visiting belongs to British travel writer Diana Darke, one of several foreigners to have bought houses in Old Damascus in recent years. Damascus's walled city is perhaps one of the best-preserved old cities in the Middle East or even the world. Its walls and seven gates have contained the city and prevented encroachment from the new city around it, protecting the labyrinth of cobbled streets, ancient workshops, and the Muslim, Christian and Jewish quarters located within them. Behind high walls along long, quiet lanes nestle literally thousands of traditional Damascene courtyard houses, each one a mini palace complete with fountain, cascading jasmine bushes, one or more citrus trees and gallery of bedrooms upstairs. The simple monochrome façade of the houses belies the paradise within, usually accessible down a discreet passage which makes them very private, and therefore perfect for conversions to boutique hotels. An estimated fifty boutique hotels are set to open in the Old City this year alone, each with a maximum capacity of six to eight rooms, and some with several courtyards knocked together. Boutique hotels, by their very nature private and discreet, tend to be well absorbed into quiet neighbourhoods as the "low impact" individual tourists they ­accommodate do not bring with them large coaches or groups.

Darke bought her four-bedroom 18th century house as a near-ruin for 9.5 million Syrian Pounds Dh695,000 in 2005. She is spending approximately Dh366,000 on renovating it, and installing a kitchen and proper bathrooms. Since she is based in Britain, she plans to keep the downstairs rooms for the use of her family and friends when they visit, and to rent out the top floor as a separate apartment. Why did she choose Damascus to buy her house? "Because I could! If they were going to let a foreigner buy a piece of a Unesco heritage site, then I would. It feels like my contribution to restoring Old Damascus."

"I wouldn't have dreamt of buying anywhere else," she adds. "There is a very distinctive atmosphere in this city, with its layer upon layer of history. The minute you say 'museum' you think of dead things, but I love the way one strolls past relics of Byzantine and Roman buildings." Darke first came to Syria in 1978 when she was a student of Arabic in Lebanon. Restoring her house using traditional methods led her to embark upon an MA in Islamic Art and Architecture at the School of Oriental and African Studies (SOAS) in London, and she hopes to turn this degree into further study into the neighbourhood where her house is.

"The people are so dignified and welcoming and there is no sense of 'what is this foreigner doing?' When I stayed here on my own for several weeks two summers ago I felt totally safe." However, it is the paperwork that can seem daunting. "If I didn't speak Arabic I don't think I could have done it. You wouldn't believe the Ottoman levels of bureaucracy involved". Darke's house is now estimated to be worth double what she paid for it three years ago. The prices of ­materials are all doubling so buying a house and doing it up is becoming more expensive by the month.

Another British writer, Brigid Keenan, was the first non-Arab to buy a house in Damascus, in 1994. Married to a diplomat who was posted to Syria, Keenan decided to write a book about Damascus's houses, entitled Hidden Treasures of the Old City. The book's publication marked a watershed in Damascus's recent history and awakened an interest in the city's heritage. When Keenan went further and bought a house with some money she had been left by a relative she had never met, she changed the way the city was perceived.

"I had a considerable impact ­because no one could understand why on earth a foreigner would buy in the Old City", Keenan explains. "But I did for a specific reason: because I felt that I had been sent by God to save the Old City. I wanted to show that you could do it up in a Western way and that it could be adapted to a western way of living, so that living in an old house need not be about lying around on the floor on cushions. One could actually live normally in one. So it was not so much buying a house for pleasure but a mission." Keenan bought her house for Dh220,000 in 1998 and sold it almost immediately when her husband was posted to Kazakhstan.

Everywhere you look in Damascus these days, there is construction going on. This year, Damascus is Unesco's Capital of Arabic Culture, and road works and major overhauling of the souks undertaken last year are still underway. However, there is not a crane in sight; old materials are being used, and workmen often use traditional methods to restore buildings. Work often has to come to a halt when yet another archaeological treasure (a Roman theatre here, some 17th century sewage system there) is discovered and the appropriate antiquities people have to be called in. As a resident of the Old City myself, it feels as though the area is at last getting the proper attention it deserves after a few chaotic years of crude conversions of old houses to tacky restaurants. The conversion of houses to hotels continues, but with greater sensitivity to the buildings and their surroundings.

However, with this renewed interest in the Old City comes an unexplained "freezing" of permits for foreigners to buy property in it. A Presidential decree was passed in late 2007 dealing with the purchasing of property in the Old City but it is still not clear what it states. The general consensus seems to be that there is a desire to stem the flow of foreigners within the walls in order to preserve the fabric of society inside. Anyone wishing to buy can start looking and set the whole process in motion at his or her own risk, but although they will eventually receive the title deeds, the house will not belong to them one hundred per cent as they will not have the "green card" required for that. Despite that, house prices and rents have carried on rising in response to demand as more young diplomatic families or families on other missions move in. At the top end of the rental market, a house can be rented for Dh10,280 per month while houses of 250 square metres have been selling this year for between Dh734,000 and Dh1,101,000.

Before the new ruling was introduced, almost twenty houses were bought by non-Syrians. Very few of these houses are inhabited by the owners, and are seen perhaps as more of an investment than as a home. One particularly grand palace belongs to Noura Jumblatt, wife of the Lebanese Druze leader; relations between Lebanon and Syria have meant that she has visited it once and not since. Another house belongs to Shaikha Hussa of Kuwait who visits occasionally and lends the house to friends. An Oxford student who spent last year learning Arabic in Damascus ended her year by buying a house as an investment, and she now rents it out to other students.

A source familiar with the Old City market, who did not wish to be named, says "All the good houses have gone. The only ones that are left are huge, too big to live in comfortably or there are too many families living in them to pay off and rehouse." One of Syria's most famous and successful exports of recent years has been the television series Bab al Harra, a fez-and-moustache soap opera set in Old Damascus in the early twentieth century, which is watched all over the Arab world. Ironically, Syrians who buy old houses are not buying to live in them themselves, a lifestyle which they recognise as being charming, but regard as being backward and very cold in winter, with the added inconvenience of not being able to park cars outside. Instead, they are hoping that foreigners, the very people who are not allowed to buy them, will rent them.