Breathing new life into the legacy of past civilisations calls for a creativity, imagination, tolerance, understanding, and wisdom well beyond the ordinary. The Aga Khan Historic Cities Programme (AKHCP), established in 1992, implements conservation, urban revitalization and area development projects in historically significant sites of the Islamic world undertaking the restoration and rehabilitation of historic structures and public spaces in ways that spur social, economic and cultural development. Its projects seek to mobilize local potential and resources in order to ensure their eventual self-sustainability through operational income, human resource development and institutional management capabilities. Through this integrated approach, the Programme seeks to demonstrate that strengthening cultural identity can go hand in hand with socio-economic progress.
Going beyond mere restoration of monuments, the Programme engages in activities related to adaptive re-use, contextual urban planning and the improvement of housing, infrastructure and public spaces. It carries out related socio-economic development initiatives directed at upgrading local living conditions and improving quality of life.
Investments in single project locations or regions are coordinated with other Aga Khan Development Network programmes so that they reinforce each other as they grow together into a critical mass for positive change. In all project locations, community participation and training of local professionals are essential components.
Considered one of the oldest continuously inhabited cities, Damascus displays in its urban fabric the remains of the successive civilizations inhabiting its site, the latter being, before contemporary times, the Ottomans, who have profoundly marked the city during their four hundred years of presence. Among the most significant palaces constructed during the classical Ottoman period in Damascus are Bait Sibai and Bait Nizam. They are typical Syrian courtyard residences, the result of intensive reconstruction works after the earthquake of 1759 and refurbished several times according to the fashion of the time. Instead, Bait Quwatli, built in 1868, contemporary to the arrival of telegraph communication and rail transport, shows Western influence adapted to the local taste and construction methods.
The involvement of the Aga Khan Trust for Culture (AKTC) in Damascus commenced in the last quarter of 2008 following the signature of project framework agreements in August 2008. AKTC and the Tourism Promotion Services of the Aga Khan Fund for Economic Development (AKFED) embarked on the development of two hotels of distinct nature: one converting the Aleppo municipal Serai dating from the early twentieth century; the other in the Old City of Damascus reusing three historical palaces – Bait Sibai, Nizam and Quwatli – that were carefully restored prior to conversion into a boutique hotel.
The properties, owned in the past by prominent Damascene families, had become government owned in 1974 and since then, in spite of temporary use as film sets or for receptions and high-profile events, had deteriorated to the point of collapse. Although major restoration was carried out by the authorities on Bait Sibai and Bait Nizam in the 1980s and on Bait Quwatli in the early 2000s, lack of use and maintenance led to rapid damage. When AKTC initiated architectural surveys and condition assessments, the analysis revealed that much of the damage was related to lack of use and maintenance. The buildings had also been subject to a large number of recent alterations.
The approach to the conservation intervention is based upon criteria set forth in the international standards of monuments conservation published by the International Council of Monuments and Sites (ICOMOS). The conservation will be guided by a materials-based approach, resulting in varying degrees of intervention which respond to the range of damage suffered. The rigorous conservation process will combine the application of modern scientific techniques and traditional crafts and materials. The removal of unsympathetic additions and the introduction of new infrastructural services will allow the complex to accommodate its modern use as a hotel facility while preserving the authenticity in the exquisite architecture. The historic evolution of the site will be captured by respecting the various significant periods of the complex in the conservation work.
In functional terms, the large culturally-sensitive halls, located mainly on the ground floor around vast courtyards, are used for public functions, while the first-floor spaces were converted into high-standard guest rooms. To minimize the impact of modern hotel services in the existing buildings, a large portion of back-of-house, technical services and guest rooms were accommodated in two new buildings designed on adjacent plots in substitution of two obsolete concrete buildings: an elementary school and a fire brigade.
The Syrian authorities view this project as an opportunity to set high standards in the country for adaptive reuse initiatives in sensitive buildings, a booming trend in Syria that poses quality challenges. Thus, emphasis is given to project methodology and process, calling for a large variety of specialists, both Syrian and international, and an important component of training and capacity building of local professionals and craftsmen.