Measuring value: Damascene houses (part I)

By Rania Kataf

During the Ottoman period, Damascus was considered the second capital from which the Ottomans ruled, after Istanbul. Its elevated status is the reason why the city flourished with miraculous new buildings – from houses to khans[1] and mosques. Syrian craftsmen were famous for their great taste and technique, especially in creating interiors and furniture for these buildings. These houses combined the beauty of the Orient as well as western styles (like Baroque and Rococo[2]), which the Ottomans introduced to Damascus during that period. Today, the well-preserved houses number only 200 – 300[3].

Since the conflict in 2011 many development and reconstruction projects aimed at conserving and preserving Damascene houses have stopped. Most of these projects started at the beginning of 1990s when the Umayyad Mosque was undergoing renovation. During that period Old Damascus became the focus of UNESCO and many other heritage-oriented projects, such as those funded by the Agha Khan Foundation. As a result of currency inflation, it has become very difficult for families that still own these homes to restore and care for these centuries-old buildings.

Selling these houses and renting them to outsiders has directly affected their current condition. In some cases, due to lack of money, the houses (which were previously single-family homes) have been sub-divided into many smaller units. In other cases, the houses have been converted into museums, restaurants, hotels, or nightclubs. These buildings are losing their heritage and historical value as a result of the demographic changes taking place inside the old city of Damascus where most newcomers prefer to settle. These houses used to be symbols of hospitality, status and wealth – but are now rented out as makeshift shelters.

Historical background

For centuries Damascene houses have reflected the social status and wealth of the people of the city; whether Muslims, Christians, or Jews. Throughout history Damascus has been a city of trade and merchandise, but during the period of Ottoman domination more merchants developed businesses overseas. This became especially apparent after the industrial revolution in Europe, which boomed during the 18th and up until mid-19th century.

The wealth of the merchants during that period was reflected through their residences. The larger the wealth, the more art and treasures were installed into the halls, rooms and outdoor areas of these spaces. Much of the artistic influence and interior designs were introduced to these houses by people who met in the city along well-known travel routes. In one of the most important historical Damascene houses in Sarouja, belonging to the Basha Al Yousif family, the marble which covers the whole exterior and staircase of the building’s courtyard was customised and ordered from Venice, Italy. The beautiful Ajami[4] art was combined with the French Baroque and Rococo interiors to create a fine ornamental, harmonious Damascene style found nowhere but inside these houses. Hassan Al Dahabee, the first official tour guide in Damascus (working since the 1960s), says of Damascene houses:

“We live in houses we don’t know the true value of. Nothing can ever truly describe the spirit enclosed in every angle of these houses.”

Most Damascene houses originally belonged to established locals and noble families, such as the Nizam, Quwatli, Lisbona and Istanbuli, as well as many others who came and settled in Damascus, building houses inside and outside the city walls during the Ottoman period. The estimated dates of these buildings are based on several aspects, such as their style. Damascene houses are most famous for their large spaces, and divisions: a ‘juwani’, the inner courtyard; and a ‘barani’, the secondary courtyard, renamed by the Ottomans as ‘haramlek’ and ‘salamlek[5]. These divisions were directly influenced by Islamic culture, and/or the high-class social status of the owners of these houses, who could afford to build and decorate such large spaces. 

Another factor to be considered are the artworks enclosed inside the reception hall and rooms. These artworks were made by artisans in their workshops, and installed inside the houses prior to their owners moving in. Usually, these reception rooms include the date when the room was installed and the owner’s name – either carved or calligraphically hand-painted. Here, we are provided with a direct date for when these houses were built, bought, renovated or redesigned.

Figure 1: The carved date 1216 Hijra / 1801 AD and name of the owner who ordered the making of this hall, early 19th century, from the Al Muradi family. The house was later sold to Saeed Quwatli, and has been known as the Quwatli Damascene house ever since. 

Since the beginning of the 20th century many historic Damascene houses have faced major transformations that have affected the function of the houses and their rooms. The two main factors that caused these transformations were: the increase in population and the expansion of the city to beyond the popular areas of the 19th century; Old Damascus and its surroundings, Qanawat and Sarouja. Many families decided to move to modern apartments, which were considered fashionable and “more European”. Houses inside the city walls were divided to suit the needs of the remaining owners or family members who could not afford to move out. Most of the large halls were transformed into warehouses. At that time they were seen as outmoded and very difficult and expensive to maintain, therefore not much attention was given to preserve or protect them.

As more and more people moved outside Old Damascus and its surroundings, many businesses moved in to inhabit these large spaces and turn them into workshops or mini- manufacturing companies. The rents for these Damascene homes dropped low and long-term (some contracts were signed for as long as fifty years!). The result was a catastrophic decline in the condition of Damascene built heritage because, ironically, by Syrian law, these people have the right to treat and use these spaces in any way that they wished… for long-term renters are considered partial owners.

The third factor that affects the wellbeing of these houses and the people who decide to actually stay in them is the law that was re-passed by the government and Department of Antiquities in the early 1990s. This law prevents settlers from carrying out any form of renovation, whatever the condition or situation of the historical building, unless it is under the supervision and support of the government. This was contained in Article 22 of Syria’s Antiquities’ Law of 1963, which also points out “Antiquities Authorities might contribute part of the cost of repairing historical buildings owned by individuals, while individuals pay the rest.”

In cases where the building is about to collapse owners may be responsible for the entire cost of repair, and “The money owed by the owners of the building becomes a debt that would be collected from them under the public money collection law.”[6] For many owners, this law is useless because of their inability to pay part of/any debt owed to the government. The condition has become worse in recent years as a result of the inflation in 2011, unemployment, and the changing priorities of owners.

Historical building issues are restricted to the Maktab Anbar’s Office in Old Damascus, a Damascene house built in 1867 by a Jewish merchant, Yusef Anbar, but later confiscated by the Ottoman government because he could not pay his debt. Today Maktab Anbar is a branch of the Governorate Office of Damascus. Their offices own and maintain the documents and manuscripts relating to Damascene houses and other historical buildings in the area. Unfortunately, their work has gradually declined since the beginning of the Syrian conflict, mainly because of financial issues.

Figure 2: A painting of the outside courtyard of a Jewish Damascene house that once belong to Raphael Farhi, with rich ablaq walls and delicate design. Painting by Fredric Leighton, London. Photo Source: <>

Figure 3: A photo dating back to August 1954 of George Asfar seated in a Ajami, hand-painted by a Damascene craftsman. Photo Source: The Shangri La Historical Archives, Doris Duke Foundation for Islamic Art, Honolulu, Hawaii. <>

The Antiquities Law

Damascene houses fall under the description of Chapter Two, Article 13, of the Antiquities Law passed in Decree #222 of October 25, 1963, and reinforced in the year 2000. As ‘Immovable Antiquities’, they fit under “historical buildings and old city quarters that should be preserved and maintained for their original artistic qualities or significance due to age or association with important historical memorable events”. In Article 18: “Unregistered buildings not owned by the state continue to be run by their owners or proprietors, but they do not have the right to use them except for the purpose for which they were built. Antiquities authorities might allow them to be used for humanitarian or cultural purposes.”[7] As a result, more people have been forced to leave these houses, primarily because of their incapacity to protect them as historically valuable sites but also because, after 1963, it was against the law to ‘re-purpose’ these buildings or rent them to make money. In reality, these laws take more than a year or two to enact, according to Lawyer Moutaz Al Beak:

In the old day, before the Antiquities’ law was passed in Syria, owners used to rent houses using Unlimited Contracts or grant them to whoever needed them – whether for business or housing purposes. Back then nothing mattered. It wasn’t an issue to protect these houses. They were not seen as antiquities, and even the artworks inside these houses were not considered pieces carrying historical and aesthetic value. Even when the 1963 law was passed, not many people changed their perspective towards these houses. So, for years, this law did not actually run. As time passed, original owners lost ownership of these houses. Settlers acted as the new owners and were even able to sell and re-rent these buildings. It was not until 2015 that original owners, with documents that proved their ownership, had the right (by law) to actually sell or buy back these houses – which were not theirs anymore. This issue had a huge impact on the value of these houses over the years. The unintended mistake of our great grandparents left these houses hanging between several owners who care less about preserving what their ancestors literally gave up, intentionally.”

Personal statement made by Moutaz Al Beak at court of justice on rent law number (20) of 2015, Damascus, November 2017

Personal statement made to me by Lawyer Moutaz Al Beak at the Court of Justice, Damascus, November 2017 

A story of two homes

            Two houses from present-day Damascus can serve as examples of the current situation. The first example is Beit Al Quwatli, facing the holy Umayyad Mosque which used to belong to the family of the President of Syria mid last century, Shukri Al Quwatli. The house was also used by the British Consulate during mid-19th century, and was visited by the son of Queen Victoria in 1862. The Syrian government confiscated the Quwatli residence in the early 1990s and it has been abandoned ever since. As a result, the house is in bad condition today but it is being renovated to be used as a cultural center for the nearby historical library. Unfortunately, after the building got confiscated, people started using the large rooms in the house as storage spaces.

Figure 4: The reception room at Saeed Quwatli’s Damascene house. Photo by Rania Kataf

Engineer Essam Khaled, the general manager of the SRH company that has been renovating the Quwatli since 2016, gave his opinion on why a Damascene house like the Quwatli has value. His company has renovated many historical sites in Old Damascus in association with the DGAM (Department of Antiquities) – and one of the most important sites he’s worked on was the Al Zahir Library, estimated to be one of the oldest libraries in history. Khaled explains: 

“We were very lucky the reception hall was mostly made out of stone relief, as well as different types of inlays and plaster layers that helped save it under all the harsh conditions it faced since the house was closed… especially when the ceiling cracked and was partially destroyed. We lost the handpainted drawings on the ceiling, but a lot of the pieces are still in place. This reception room holds high historical value. The fact that it once served as the reception room of two royal families of Damascus – one being the Quwatli’s, the family of Syria’s president during mid last century. In order to protect the historical value of such building, one has to revive it by refunctioning it into a useful building. A house this big, and of such beauty, can be made into a cultural center to serve the people of the area, and tourists in the future. Benefit creates value. You need to be very careful in making such decisions, what value would such a house keep if it stays a house in 2017? 2020?”

Personal statement given to me by Engineer Essam Khalid at the Quwatli House, Old Damascus, October 2017.

The second house is Beit Al Shirazi, which has belonged to the Al Jawahri Shirazi family for over a century since the Shirazi family’s grandfather moved to Syria from Iran sometime in the mid-1860s. The house, nearby the Quwatli’s, is believed to also be one of the oldest buildings still standing inside the old city. Like the Quwatli’s, it too combines both Mamluk and Ottoman influence. Unfortunately, the interior of the house has not been renovated since the 1970s and is in urgent need of repair, especially inside the main reception hall. Here there are three tazars[8] with some of the oldest hand-painted Ajami in Damascus, and an inscribed date of 1178 Hijri / 1764 – 5 AD.

Haydara Jawahri Al Shirazi, one of the current owners of the famous Shirazi Damascene house, describes its value by relating an incident that took place almost ten years ago when a representative from the Metropolitan Museum of New York visited their home for the first time:

“When he entered the reception hall, he was astonished. Especially when Anke Scharrahs, the German Ajami art conservation specialist who joined him, said that this was one of the most beautiful reception halls that she had ever seen in Damascus. He immediately asked, “Would you sell it to the museum?” Of course, without hesitation, our response was no. “Why?” Simply because the value of this house comes from the uniqueness and individuality of this reception hall. Without it, this house would be worth nothing. Yes, this hall needs renovation, but that does not mean we have to sell it.”

Personal statement given to the author by Haydara Jawahri Al Shirazi at their Shirazi House, Old Damascus, November 2017.

Currently, the houses of Old Damascus are under threat because the current settlers, mostly new-comers, may not be aware of the importance of preserving these houses, which are considered an important part of the Damascene cultural heritage. People who rent these houses are attracted to their location in addition to the low rental costs. A room may range from 20,000 – 30,000 Syrian pounds, the equivalent of $40 – $60 a month. With an average monthly income of $80 per citizen (average set by the government) these houses are the most adequate solution for shelter… whether or not they are in good condition. 

Furthermore, in times of crisis, heritage becomes of minor importance in comparison to survival, and in most cases the new comers of Old Damascus are refugees from surrounding war zones. In the past seven years, houses inside Damascus that have been put up for rental have all been taken. Today, it is almost impossible to find a room for rent in the old city. According to one contractor, who has been working in Old Damascus for over 30 years (he prefers to remain anonymous):

“99% of the houses put up for rent are full, no matter the condition … There is not one room for another year or two. You also have cases where people have returned to their grandparents’ houses, which they inherited and were fortunate to not have sold yet, because they had no other place to go after losing their homes outside Damascus. Many people sold their houses in the 90s. Today, only 2% of the houses of Old Damascus are put up for sale. Again, the reason is that these houses are actually full of inhabitants.”

Personal Statement given to me by an anonymous contractor, Old Damascus, November 2017.

More attention needs to be given to proving the extent to which the protection of cultural heritage is parallel to the protection of the people surrounded by this cultural heritage. The recent crisis has resulted in both the government and the people neglecting this issue. This can be measured by understanding the emotional attachment that current settlers and locals have towards what remains of their cultural heritage after a time of crisis.

Most of these centuries-old buildings still include miraculous works of art, both outside and inside their halls. In 1924 the German archeologist Carl Watzinger and his partner Karl Wulzinger describe the hand-painted wall panels and ceilings made by elite Syrian craftsmen as “unimaginable masterpieces, which arise from deepest Oriental feeling and long tradition”[9]. Today, the value of these houses in the eye of current settlers is questionable. A re-measurement of value could accommodate any gain or loss of title and status. Will the current settlers, local citizens, consider themselves responsible for protecting these houses?

Figure 5: One of the tazars in the reception room in the Shirazi Damascene house, Old Damascus. Photo by Rania Kataf

About the author: Rania Kataf is a Damascus-based researcher in Syrian cultural heritage. Since 2016 she has been involved in several projects for the safeguarding and documentation of her country’s architectural and oral history. In 2017 she completed the postgraduate certificate programme on art crime and cultural heritage protection with the Association for Research into Crimes Against Art, Italy. She is now completing her Masters in World Heritage Studies online at the Brandenburg University of Technology.

Source: This text is an authorised reprint of the Working paper Hidden Stories of Damascene Jews. The research was conducted for the project Der Gang der Geschichte(n) von Minor-Projektkontor für Bildung und Forschung and financed by The Federal Agency for Civic Education and the Federal Foreign Office.

Disclaimer: this article is intended for educational purposes, and does not purport to provide legal advice. The views and opinions expressed are those of the author.


[1] An inn built inside a town, usually it would be smaller and was known in Persian as a khan (خان) (from Middle Persian (xān, “house.” In the Middle-East the term “khan” covers both meanings, of roadside inn as well as of inner-town inn.

[2] ((/rəˈkoʊkoʊ/ or /roʊkəˈkoʊ/), less commonly roccoco, or “Late Baroque”, is an early to late 18th-century French artistic movement and style, affecting many aspects of the arts including painting, sculpture, architecture, interior design, decoration, literature, music, and theatre. It developed in the early 18th century in Paris, France as a reaction against the grandeur, symmetry, and strict regulations of the previous Baroque architectural style, especially of the Palace of Versailles.

[3] Scharrahs. 2013: 3

[4] Techniques of painted wood paneling in the art and craft of Ajami, has been popularly practiced in the 17th to the late of 18th century especially during the Ottoman period. Ajami is used to describe the technique of painted wooden wall panel as well as the decorated interior as a whole. 6 Personal comment made to me by Hassan Al Dahabi, Damascus, November 2017. 7 “Harem”: pronounce: [haˈɾem] From the Arabic word  حرم  

[5] Literally meaning “sacred place”. Traditionally, used to refer the women’s quarter in a household, the area is considered a sacred area where women can be at ease and kept safe. The ground floor comprising the main living areas is called Al Salamlek.

[6] General Directorate of Antiquities and Museums. 2000:  6

[7] General Directorate of Antiquities and Museums. 2000: 7

[8] Raised seating area of a room.

[9] Scharrahs. 2013: X