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In Syria, delicate preservation work is pushing against profit-driven speed.

Damascus is rediscovering its architectural gems, but hasty restoration puts history at risk.

By Frederick DeknatelContributor / August 31, 2009

Beit Nizam is one of three elaborate 18th- and early19th-century homes – palaces, really – being renovated by the Aga Khan Development Network into a luxury hotel in Damascus, Syria.

Photos by Matjaz Kacicnik/Aga Khan Development Network

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Damascus, Syria

It claims to be the world's oldest capital city, outlived only by Aleppo, Syria; and Jericho, on the West Bank. The proof is there, in Mesopotamian texts that mention Damascus and in a deep urban foundation of streets, houses, and sewers from every civilization, piled on top of one another.

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The fairly straight street that cuts across Damascus's Old City was once a colonnaded Roman road: the Via Recta or "Street Called Straight" from the Bible. After the Muslims conquered Syria, then ruled by the Byzantines, Damascus became the capital of the first great Islamic empire. At its peak in the 8th century, the Umayyad dynasty spread from North Africa across Asia, its center at the sparkling Great (Umayyad) Mosque, a former pagan temple, then a church, that claims to house the head of John the Baptist.

But it is the city's more recent history that is reshaping contemporary Damascus. As Syria slowly opens its socialist economy to tourism and development, scores of traditional Arab houses from the 17th to 19th centuries have been restored and reopened as boutique hotels and restaurants in the capital's UNESCO-protected Old City.

Three late-Ottoman era houses south of Straight Street – Beit Nizam, Beit Sibai, and Beit Kuwatli – that were once the residences of Damascene notables and later, European consuls, are at the center of an increasingly frenetic pace of development often motivated more by profit than good preservation practice. The Aga Khan Development Network (AKDN), which promotes historic preservation and development projects throughout the Muslim world, has invested $20 million to restore and reopen the three houses as a boutique hotel.

The scheme is far better funded and staffed than other restorations in the Old City, which – along with Aleppo – has the highest concentration of preserved, traditional Arab residential architecture in the Middle East. The AKDN aims to set standards in preservation practice, expand the shrinking number of traditionally skilled craftsmen and carpenters, and produce what it calls "a model for cultural and tourist development."

"We think of the revitalization of cultural assets in order to use them as a catalyst for development," says Ali Esmail, CEO of Aga Khan Cultural Services in Syria. "And we want others to copy what we are doing."

Whether or not private investors will follow AKDN's model is another question. Investments have boomed in the Old City and throughout Damascus in the last decade. Yet many developers use cheap, damaging materials like concrete and cement plaster instead of traditional wood and mud brick in order to speed up conversion work and maximize returns.

Concrete and cement cannot breathe the way wood and mud brick do in the hot Syrian summer. Nor do they trap heat as effectively during damp winters.

Today, such commercial and inattentive restorations threaten the area's unique architectural heritage.

"We should keep considering Old Damascus as a living city," says Naim Zabida, "not as a place only for visitors." Mr. Zabida is a Syrian architect with the government's Municipal Administration Modernisation, a group funded by the European Union that oversees urban planning and preservation in the Old City.