Adli Qudsi still remembers the scent of jasmine growing in the courtyard of the house where he grew up in Aleppo’s Old City. Even today, the aroma that permeated the rooms that led off the central courtyard of his childhood home triggers for him memories of a childhood made idyllic by an environment that was about to confront enormous challenges.
"I was born in 1940, but it could have been 1740," Qudsi recalls. "Of course there were cars around and there was electricity, but mostly it was another time, another world. In those narrow streets, families laughed together, people visited each other at night; neighbours knocked on the doors of neighbours and came in, children played in everybody’s house and out in the streets. If a child got lost, someone would grab you by the hand and ask who you were and take you to your house, because they knew almost everyone."
Razed for Asphalt
On schooldays Qudsi wandered to his primary school through the twisting labyrinth of stone-paved streets, until he was 12, when a new reality intruded on his world. Huge swathes were being cut through the Old City to build wide avenues for cars and trucks, and now the young Adli was forced to walk across a wide gash where ancient family homes had been razed to make way for asphalt.
It was the beginning of a momentous change in Aleppo and other similar cities in the region. But, Qudsi says today, no one was to blame for the destruction. "The Old City was becoming more difficult to live in, and the middle class and the rich were moving to the suburbs. They were tired of living in courtyard houses, which were a burden to keep up, and they wanted a Western style of living in brand-new apartments where all the rooms were connected and you could look out of the window onto the street. "No one was thinking about what impact this would have on social and cultural values or that courtyard houses could be adapted to modern living."
After high school, Qudsi travelled to the United States to train and work as an architect. When he returned to Aleppo in 1975, he saw the city through "the eyes of a tourist". And he did not like what he saw. The city had adopted a master plan drawn up by a French architect, and was pushing wide avenues even deeper into the Old City. Along the edge of the new streets, new five-storey buildings plunged neighbouring one- and two-storey courtyard houses into the shadows.
After 15 years in the U.S. — during which he had immersed himself in anti-Vietnam war politics — Qudsi was not willing to sit back and watch the continuing destruction of the place where he had spent his cherished childhood. So he turned his well honed political skills to work on Syria’s political establishment, lobbying to stop the construction of new streets.
"It wasn’t easy," Qudsi remembers — not because people were fervently committed to ruining the Old City, but rather because the master plan had taken on a momentum of its own and people were reluctant to change it.
"I pleaded with them not to destroy our culture," he says. "This is the largest historical site of its kind in the world. There is nowhere else with 10,000 courtyard houses, many with amazing features on the inside, which for centuries have hosted a style of life that hardly exists anywhere else. I urged them to look at what the Spanish have done with our Arab culture which they are now proud to consider as part of their own. The old cities of Granada and Córdoba have been made into heaven, and old Aleppo is bigger than both of them put together."
He finally found allies in the government Antiquities Department, and together they convinced officials in the capital, Damascus, to declare the Old City a national monument. City officials remained opposed, and the struggle continued until Qudsi persuaded UNESCO to intervene. Its recommendations helped end the dispute, and the Old City, covering almost 400 hectares, was designated a World Heritage Site in 1986.
By the late 1980s, the destruction had been brought to a halt. Yet Qudsi soon realised that halting the bulldozers was only half the battle. With the Old City’s infrastructure falling apart, the exodus to the suburbs was accelerating. Qudsi understood that the social and economic links that had helped the Old City constantly renew itself over the course of centuries had been broken when many of the wealthier families had migrated to the new parts of Aleppo.
To keep the Old City alive, new patterns of cooperation had to be devised. Otherwise, all he had achieved was to delay the inevitable. So Qudsi drew up a plan for the city authorities to work with the residents of the Old City to upgrade the infrastructure, especially the crumbling water and sewer lines under the ancient streets, and to rehabilitate the houses that needed it.
City officials liked Qudsi’s proposed plan, and asked him to assist in finding partners who would help fund its implementation. So Qudsi called friends in Germany who encouraged the German government to take an interest in the rehabilitation plan, while he convinced officials at the Arab Fund for Economic and Social Development to help out.
With enthusiastic help from the German Agency for Technical Cooperation (GTZ) and from the Arab Fund, the City of Aleppo initiated the Project for the Rehabilitation of Old Aleppo. Soon afterwards planners were drawing up detailed maps and workers digging up streets. One corner of the Old City was designated a pilot project. A fund made loans to low-income families who needed help rehabilitating their homes. City officials encouraged investment in the Old City from rich families and businesses.
Winning a Rolex Award for Enterprise in 1998, says Qudsi, "helped give the project international exposure. It helped us spread the word about what we were doing here in Aleppo."
But success can also produce unexpected problems. "People saw the economic advantage in improving the Old City, and they started running to get space while it’s still cheap. We had to move ahead quickly in some areas in order to stop the uncontrolled spread of tourist businesses and make sure that the residential character of the various neighbourhoods remained protected," Qudsi says. Hotels and restaurants are wanted, but in a limited and controlled fashion.
Some businesses are not wanted, so the city is gently pushing out enterprises that harm the environment or use large houses as warehouses. Small business loans, with funding from the Aga Khan Fund for Economic Development, are already being offered to businesses that can blend harmoniously into the fabric of the Old City. A combined City of Aleppo-GTZ fund will start giving similar loans soon.
Qudsi explains that when the five-storey buildings constructed in recent decades within the Old City are demolished, new construction or rehabilitation will be limited to two storeys.
The Aga Khan Trust for Culture, with Adli Qudsi as its representative in Syria, has lately joined the rehabilitation efforts. They are working with the Old City Directorate to upgrade the all-important area around the Citadel of Aleppo. In cooperation with GTZ, the trust is creating traffic patterns to minimise the impact of vehicular traffic on the Old City.
A Living City
Rania Agel, a young architect who supervises the project’s loan funds, reports that 90 per cent of loan recipients over the past decade are still living in their houses. For her, that’s a sign they are forging "a new Old City, a live one, not a dead one".
According to Ammar Ghazal, Aleppo’s director for Old City rehabilitation, surveys show the exodus from the Old City has slowed to the point where it may be turning around. Whereas the area was once home to 170,000 people, the population dropped to about 100,000 by the end of the 20th century. Qudsi will be happy if the population reaches 110,000.
"We’ve reactivated the Old City, and people are coming back," says Ghazal. "Within 10 to 20 years, this will be considered the best place to live in the whole city."
Confidence that the environment of the Old City is no longer under threat has produced "a new feeling that you can safely invest [there]", according to Anette Gangler, a professor of city planning at the University of Stuttgart who helped convince the German government to participate in the project and now serves as a consultant to the GTZ. "Aleppo is a very good example of what to do with an historic area, because there’s an integrated planning process that brings together infrastructure, rehabilitation, traffic management with participatory planning that listens to the residents and what they want. It’s been difficult and a lot of work, but Aleppo is becoming an example for a lot of other historic cities in this part of the world," she says.
Gangler gives much of the credit to Qudsi. "Without him, nothing would have been done, because he pushed all the time, pushed people here, people in Germany. He never stopped pushing. Many people have lent their expertise to the project, but without Adli it would have been impossible. He has the personality to bring people here and share his contagious excitement, and then they get excited as well."
Qudsi, who is now assisting with a programme to rethink the architecture of public schools in Syria, is still passionate about the Old City.
"The city has turned around completely to support rehabilitation," he says. "It’s now spending more money on the Old City than its share of the population, more money than the Germans and the Arab Fund put together. We’ve created new momentum, a new routine. Every mayor, every committee that comes along is convinced that this is really a valuable spot, culturally, socially and economically."
But it is not cheap. To date, only 50 kilometres of street infrastructure have been upgraded, and more than 250km remain. Ghazal says the project needs $US18 million a year for 40 years.
"We’re beginning to create a new system for the Old City to renew itself," Qudsi says. "And that costs money. But we need the system to become sustainable in the long run. We can’t always depend on outside funding. Yet this is a developing country, and as long as most of the people in the Old City are poor, we hope to have funding from outside the country. Its sustainability in the long run is related to the economy of the whole country. You can’t isolate the Old City from the economy of Aleppo or the rest of the country. As the country develops, a system will emerge, perhaps because the government decides that the Old City has a historical and cultural value for the entire country and will thus assist people living here."
Qudsi remains committed to preserving the Old City without destroying it, without turning it into a sterile museum of the past or a sanitised tourist attraction.
"My hope is that the Old City will remain mainly a residential space, and thus provide an example for other cities in the world of how people can live in the inner city without it becoming a dead space, especially at night when everyone goes into their houses. We want the Old City here to remain alive so that this particular way of life in courtyard houses, where people live in close architectural and environmental proximity to each other, will serve as an example of how to improve styles of living in other places where the character of residential areas tends to keep people separate."
"We’ve got to preserve this place because it’s unique," Qudsi says. "Old cities and their way of life are becoming more and more abandoned almost everywhere else in the Islamic and Arab world. But here the Old City is still alive."
Published in 2004