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Saturday, 1 July, 2000, 04:31 GMT 05:31 UK
Breathing life into old Damascus
A trendy nightspot in the Damascus' old city
A trendy nightspot in Damascus' old city
By Barbara Plett in Damascus

Damascus claims to be the oldest continuously inhabited city in the world.

However, its historical treasures are falling apart and in desperate need of renovation.



There are laws to protect the antiquities but not enough money to fix them.

Archaeologists chip away at the earth floor of the citadel guarding old Damascus.

It is one of the most obvious signs of the city's colourful past.

Crusader age


Archaeologists dig up the citadel's earth floor
Archaeologists dig up the citadel's earth floor
Most of what you see today was built about 700 years ago when Syria fought off the crusaders.

Excavations are uncovering layers of history pressed into the ground, and historians want to see what is there before they begin to restore the fortress.

Renovations have already started here at the Aqad House, the oldest domestic dwelling in Damascus.


Aqad House: Being restored to ancient splendour
Aqad House: Being restored to ancient splendour
It belonged to a notable Syrian family, and it is a good example of the features that distinguish these remarkable homes.

They have delicately crafted ceilings and a central courtyard decorated with mosaic tiles.

Ottoman outpost

Damascus still has a large number of Ottoman-era houses, but many have been neglected by their owners, who moved out seeking a more modern life.



If you don't start now to do much more, then ... the half of what you see now will be gone

Stephan Weber, Archaeologist
Stephan Weber is a German Archaeologist and expert on the old town.

"If you don't start now to do much more, then at least in 20, 30, 40 years, the half of what you see now will be gone; there are wonderful houses still from they were abandoned in the 50s, 60s, 70s, 80s and now they're slowly collapsing, " he says

There are laws to protect these buildings.

The Syrians have also started to create a computer data base to aid researchers and renovators.


Archaeology database: Ancient times meet the computer age
Archaeology database: Ancient times meet the computer age
The problem is lack of money. The Aqad House is being paid for by the Danes, who want to use it as a cultural and archaeological institute.

Jens Danborg is the site manager. He says that the important thing is to find a new function for the old buildings.

"I mean if you just restore a building and lock the door and say now we've restored this, it does not make much sense," he explains.

"You have to find a use for it. If the use could be by someone who had the financial side with him, that would be an advantage of course."

Serving up new food


Jabri House, once a derelict building, is now a fashionable restaurant
Jabri House, once a derelict building, is now a restaurant
The most successful new function is selling food and drink: trendy new restaurants are leading the revival of the old city.

The courtyard of the Jabri House is full of people smoking water pipes and eating traditional Syrian food.

15 years ago it was a derelict building inhabited by squatters who set up shops in the ground floor.

The current owner, Ra'ed Jabri kicked them out, but did not have the money to restore the family house.

"I tried to make anything to keep this house in safety so I don't have money," he says.



So I get the idea to bring some chairs, some tables to give coffee and tea, and at the end of the year what money I have I complete the maintenance

Ra'ed Jabri, owner of Jabri House
"So I get the idea to bring some chairs, some tables to give coffee and tea, and at the end of the year what money I have I complete the maintenance."

Ra'ed is still renovating bit by bit, using traditional materials.

The walls are made of stones, and the floors of wooden poles packed with adobe bricks and plastered with clay and straw.

It is the kind of construction that needs to be constantly maintained.


An ancient inn is now a trendy Damascus nightspot
An ancient inn is now a fashionable Damascus nighspot
Stephan Weber said the only way to really save the old town is for people to move back.

Marmar is the place to be for drinks and dancing. It used to be an inn where caravans spent the night.

Clients may not pay much attention to the hand carved wood and delicate inlays, but finding a new function for the building did save it.

Bringing new life to the old city is clearly one of the best ways of preserving it.

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