Outcry at Hotel Plans for Capital's Historic Centre

Residents of old town complain project is latest in stream of developments that are ruining the area’s character.

Outcry at Hotel Plans for Capital's Historic Centre

Residents of old town complain project is latest in stream of developments that are ruining the area’s character.

Tuesday, 12 May, 2009
As tourism takes off in Damascus, a project to turn a building next to the ancient Omayyad mosque in the capital’s old town into a hotel has provoked a flurry of protests from locals.



Dozens of clerics and activists keen on preserving the historical character of the city centre have sent a series of petitions to the ministry of religious endowment opposing the development.



The residence in question – a two-storey house with ten rooms – also lies next to the mausoleum of Salah Eddine al-Ayoubi, an Arab hero who fought during the Crusades.



In August 2008, the tourism ministry gave permission for the house to be transformed into a hotel on condition that no alcohol would be served in it and that the “sanctity” of the nearby mosque would be respected.



For several months now, the private property has been undergoing renovations.



But opponents of the plan say that the house shares a garden with the mosque and mausoleum, and argue that its close proximity to these sites makes it unsuitable for conversion into a hotel.



“It hurts our religious feelings to have a hotel, where tourists can stay, drink, and behave immorally just a few metres from the Omayyad mosque,” said an owner of a nearby shop, speaking under condition of anonymity.



With investment in hotels, restaurants and tourist attractions in the historic downtown area of Damascus at an all-time high, many complain that the authorities are not doing enough to preserve the area’s cultural and historical character.



According to some media reports, there are now more than 300 restaurants in the old town, reflecting the growth of tourism in the area.



“During the last three years, the old town of Damascus has suffered from the increase in hotels and restaurants spreading like cancer,” said Waed al-Mhana, a journalist who campaigns for the preservation of endangered historical sites.



"Unfortunately, [those] officials who are supposed to protect historical places are the ones ordering their destruction,” he said.



Buildings in the old town – a collection of houses, mosques, churches and souks bound by ancient walls – are protected by a law which exists to conserve archeological sites.



Any construction work in the old town, which has been designated a world heritage site by the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organisation, UNESCO, requires a special license to ensure the historic character of the buildings is preserved.



But critics say that as developers usually bribe officials to authorise their projects, this part of the city is not being protected properly. They argue that the rundown infrastructure of the old town can’t sustain increasing numbers of restaurants and hotels.



“All the [developments] in the old town are ruining its historical [character], changing authentic designs, and violating the laws which exist to protect [it],” said Mhana.



“Do we really need more hotels and restaurants in the old city? Is the [sole purpose] of old city to receive tourists.”



While civil society groups have tried in vain to halt what they say are the authorities’ ruinous plans for the old town.



During the past two years, the authorities have demolish some old markets to widen a thoroughfare through the centre, prompting the area’s inhabitants to stage sit-ins in front of the president’s residence.



In 2006, an order to destroy another old market, Souk al-Atik, led to clashes between residents and officials.



Mhana said at the time he published an article in which he criticising the demolition. As a result, he was sentenced last year to two months in prison and ordered to pay a fine of around 13,000 US dollars after being convicted of insulting a high-ranking official.



Mhana’s sentence was suspended pending the outcome of an appeal he launched against the court’s decision. The latest hearing in the appeal took place last week.



Meanwhile, clerics at the Omayyad mosque have called on the authorities to stop permitting restaurants and coffee shops to open in the area, because they “play loud music and allow dancing”.



But despite of widespread protests at the hotel conversion in the mosque’s grounds, the project appears to be going ahead.



Director of Tourism in Damascus Faisal Najati said, “The hotel [conversion] is not located in grounds of the Omayyad mosque, but near the mosque."



Bassam Barsik of the tourism ministry says he wasn’t familiar with the hotel project. But he told IWPR that there was “a master plan” for tourism in the old town, insisting that people are not allowed to build such developments wherever they like.



People who wish to convert a private property into a hotel must meet a number of conditions, and also gain the permission of their neighbours, he added.



Moreover, Barsik said he knew nothing about officials receiving bribes in order to give permission for developments. “I don’t have this information,” he said.



Nonetheless, residents say they want more done to preserve the old town before it’s too late.



“[Developers] are destroying the memory of the city,” said a member of the opposition, who lives in the city centre. “Now new generations use the names of restaurants rather than those of [historical] monuments as points of reference.”
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