Restoring a UNESCO World Heritage Site in Syria

The GTZ is an international cooperation enterprise for sustainable development. The organization aims not only to preserve the Ancient City of Aleppo, but also to give it a future. Youssef Hijazi interviewed project director Meinolf Spiekermann.

Street in Aleppo

​​Mr. Spiekermann, what kind of condition was the Ancient City in at the beginning of this project?

Meinolf Spiekermann: Most residences in Aleppo are traditional houses with an inner courtyard. They were built for a specific way of life: for large families, and extended families comprising several generations. They were a mirror of the Arab culture of living.

In the 1930s this lifestyle gradually began to change – in step with modern times. Small families increasingly moved to smaller apartments. The grand old houses with their inner courtyards lost their appeal. The more wealthy residents moved away, causing the properties to decrease in value.

Those left behind living in the old city center are less well-to-do, and destitute families from the countryside have also come to the city to live.

The primarily poor residents have been unable to put up the amount of money needed to maintain their houses. They have long been faced with the prospect of losing their homes. The buildings are at risk of complete ruin; that is one aspect that must be emphasized.

The other is that for a long time, at least until the mid-1970s, the city government has taken the wrong approach to modernization, completely neglecting the Ancient City. The infrastructure was left to deteriorate, water and sewer pipelines decayed, and water penetrated into the houses' foundations. The buildings sustained substantial damage and were on their way to complete ruin.

The Ancient City was regarded as backward, and it became fashionable to move elsewhere. This led to a change in the population structure. What role did the city planners play in these developments?

Spiekermann: The city planners supported the tearing down of entire city districts until well into the 1970s, in order to modernize them completely. Here, modernization meant: out with the old buildings – in with the new. New construction was understood to mean carving out wide avenues through the ancient districts and erecting high-rises along them.

Fortunately, the city put a stop to this master plan in 1979. People realized that they were destroying much more than just the houses – namely, an entire identity, the face of this city. At first, only conservation measures were undertaken.

Was this conservation able to save the Ancient City?

Spiekermann: No. Conservation alone would not have been enough to save this city. A city is a system that interacts with the outside world. We find all kinds of processes there: economic, social, or, for example, cultural. If one were to simply preserve cities as they were at a particular moment in time, then the life of the city would sooner or later be strangled.

Even an historical city has to continue to develop with time. That is the basic idea behind applying to UNESCO to name an ancient city as a World Heritage Site. This is how our German-Syrian project came about in 1993.

What were the first steps to be taken?

Spiekermann: The project's first priority was the physical necessity of restoration; at the same time, we developed a building charter and began to renovate facades. Our aim was to first show what was possible, and at the same time to learn from our experiences.

By now we have restored about 70% of the water supply and sewer system. That is quite a bit considering the some 300 km of narrow streets and alleyways needing reconstruction.

Today, most people here once again have regular access to drinking water. The destruction caused by water seepage has been almost completely eliminated. The owners or renters of the houses have been granted small credits to assist them in paying for the necessary maintenance work.

The project is called "Restoration and Development." This refers not only to the buildings themselves, but also to human resources and economic, cultural, and social concerns. Would you say today that you have also been able to realize some success in these areas?

photo: GTZ
Windows before being restored through the GTZ project

​​Spiekermann: The basic idea is that this historical legacy can only be saved if it is not merely preserved, but also restored in such a way that the living conditions here are suitable for today's needs.

We are trying to upgrade the social infrastructure. We have found out from people living in the various quarters that the women there are mainly interested in kindergartens and health stations. We have initiated many of these facilities in conjunction with the health and education office.

We cannot provide complete coverage for the whole area, but we can certainly get the ball rolling. We are now in the process of developing a long-term plan together with the authorities in charge, so that these kinds of solutions can be set up throughout the entire city.

We are also doing cultural work to improve the area's image. For decades now the Ancient City has been viewed negatively, and that has to change. The number of restaurants and hotels now located in the Ancient City shows how much the economy of the district has improved.

But there is still work to be done to make the area more attractive for businesses. We are trying both to cultivate an active settlement policy and to support the businesses already located here.

You have been working together directly with the residents. That is not exactly the way things are usually done in Syria. The people here tend to mistrust the authorities. What has been your experience working with people here?

Spiekermann: At the very beginning it was difficult. Both sides have learned something in the process. At first there was a great deal of resistance against this undertaking. Some people did not understand the background behind the project and said that the Germans were coming here to set up brothels. But after we had been working together for some time, the residents developed a great deal of unquestioned trust in this project.

They realized that their wishes were no longer being heard only in rare cases now, but all of the time. This went for all small-scale planning, from the layout of public spaces, or measures to cut down on traffic, to infrastructure planning. The plans were discussed with the residents and businesspeople, and we took their needs into consideration.

How do you account for this trust?

Spiekermann: I think it was possible to gain this amount of trust mostly because the project was one of very long duration. It was not a fly-by-night affair.

One thing was that for a period of over ten years we systematically renewed the infrastructure. People could see the results. It is difficult to set processes in motion. But once they have developed some momentum, they reinforce themselves. We are now in exactly that kind of phase.

Has there been a change in the population structure now that the Ancient City has been given renewed value?

photo: GTZ
After restoration

​​Spiekermann: There is not yet any lively buying and selling going on here. An upward trend can be discerned, but the absolute figures are still low. This is primarily attributable to the Arab inheritance laws.

There is no legally effective way to divide up inherited property. If a father has ten sons and one piece of property that he passes down to them, that one piece of land will be split up ten ways; and when the sons have their own sons, it continues on ad infinitum. ... This is an enormous obstacle to trade.

However, this is a problem throughout the Arab world, which this project alone cannot solve. It is up to the state. Our contribution is to draft a detailed analysis of the problem and to make suggestions for possible solutions.

When will the project be finished?

Spiekermann: The German funding will end in 2007. The restoration and development project will of course continue. We anticipate that it will take 30 to 40 years before the cycle of renewal has made its way through all of the city's buildings and infrastructure.

This ancient city, this historical centre with its architectural and socio-cultural texture, will only have a future if it is given a strong foundation on which to build. It is not a question of conservation and setting up an Oriental Disneyland, but of continued development and breathing new life into the city.

Can the project in Aleppo be viewed as a model for others to emulate? What about other cities in Syria?

Spiekermann: The project has certainly functioned as something of a catalyzer in Syria. The Syrian government has advised all cities to work with this kind of integrated project approach.

But it is not enough to simply hand out advice. The appeal of the project is readily apparent, but it is not easy to implement this kind of undertaking. It requires learning and practice. Aleppo had ten years to learn how to do this, not only in theory, but in actual day-to-day application.

At present, the experiences gained in the Ancient City are being applied to the city as a whole. Next spring, we will put on a symposium to explain how this integrated approach can be replicated in other cities.

We will invite the mayors of the major Syrian cities, representatives of the relevant state authorities and ministries, the donor communities – insofar as they are represented in Syria -, the EU, the Japanese development groups, the UNDP, the Aga Khan Foundation, and others to come to the table so that we can discuss with them how one might repeat the approach that has been successful in Aleppo.

Interview: Youssef Hijazi

© 2004

Translation from German: Jennifer Taylor-Gaida

GTZ Project "Restoring the Ancient City of Aleppo"
Website GTZ