Old Damascus – Restored or …? Beit Rumman as an Example

Beit Rumman - One of the nicer new Boutique Hotels next to Bab Touma

Beit Rumman - One of the nicer new Boutique Hotels next to Bab Touma

Beit Rumman, the boutique hotel in old Damascus pictured above, gets wonderful write ups, and typifies the handful of new hotels that have opened in the old city last year. The renovation process took years to complete. A crew of skilled artisans from Maaloula polished every stone and chiseled new ones to replace those that had been lost. The central fountain and mosaics were restored with great care, new plumbing, electricity and carved woodwork was put in. Maria Rumman and Ghimar Deeb, the owners, spent every weekend trolling the souq for old antiques to adorn the six luxurious rooms and piano bar and sauna in the basement. They oversaw every aspect of the restoration. hiring an art historian and a super architect to return the house to its 19th century glory. Newly carved wood ceilings were installed in each room and elaborately painted according to original Ottoman styles and patterns. It is hard to imagine the amount of work and love that goes into restoring one of these hotels. Maria Rumman is the head of the International Organization of Migration office in Damascus. She helps resettle Iraqis once the UNHCR has cleared their details, she oversaw the Iraqi elections among refugees in Syria. Her husband Ghimar is the head of the UNDP’s office of Good Governance in Damascus. He is a lawyer who got his master’s degree at the University of Iowa as a Fulbright student after graduating from Damascus U. For the past four years, they have poured their hearts into restoring Beit Rumman. Don’t be surprised if you see them in the piano bar with their beautiful daughter, Meso, having a drink after work and welcoming guests.

Old Damascus struggles to cope in the new Syria

DAMASCUS, Syria (AP) – Scenes from the old, walled city of Damascus: A carpet dealer skilled at multilingual bargaining is cajoling a tourist into his showroom. A rhythmic tap-tap-tap resonates from a doorway as an artisan hammers silver strips into a richly decorated brass tray. A Syrian woman does the day’s shopping, visiting one stall for meat, another for olives, a third for flat bread.

The charm of the ancient part of the Syrian capital has always been the easygoing harmony with which tourists and Damascenes share the narrow alleys and covered markets. But now this crowded district – at the center of what’s believed to be the world’s oldest continuously inhabited city – is in danger of losing this endearing character.

Aggressive investors flush with cash have pushed property prices so high that homeowners increasingly are selling longtime family properties and moving away. Others are fleeing the pollution and congestion generated by dozens of new trendy restaurants and boutique hotels catering to wealthy visitors and Damascus’ expanding hip and rich crowd.

The threat to the old quarter – by one estimate, its population already has dropped by about half from some 60,000 in about 15 years – is a byproduct of Syria’s disorderly shift from socialism to a free-market economy, which began in the early 1990s and accelerated after President Bashar Assad took office in 2000.

The ideological shift created a virtual free-for-all climate for ambitious businessmen linked to the Syrian political elite, even as it deepened the potentially dangerous division between the city’s rich and poor.

Now, the debate on how much latitude to give private enterprise is gathering steam as authorities try to balance revitalizing the 316-acre old city with preservationist goals. Already, some 50 hotels and 120 restaurants and cafes have been licensed, and among the many up and running are some shoddy imitations of traditional Arab architecture.

“This city is being turned into an amusement park,” complained Hikmat Shatta, a French-educated architect, describing the changes overtaking the neighborhood where he grew up and still lives.

“In some parts, I walk with my eyes fixed on the ground,” Shatta said. “I am ashamed to look up and see what is happening. We are moving from the authentic to the bizarre and ridiculous.”

Shatta’s two-story home dates to the 19th century, and it’s such old Arab houses that are the primary victims of the entrepreneurial onslaught. These are spacious dwellings whose splendor – richly tiled floors and intricately inlaid wooden ceilings – is revealed only as a visitor steps through the entryway, typically an unpretentious iron door set into plain brick walls.

In the maze of alleys, cobblestone streets, Turkish baths, coffeehouses and historical sites that form the old city, the prospect of most residents disappearing is especially troubling because the area once exemplified Syria’s religious and ethnic harmony. Most of the Jewish inhabitants are gone, but the Muslims and Christians who remain live in peace, their places of worship sometimes just steps apart.

The human diversity is reflected in the historic sites. The Omayyad Mosque, built in the 8th century, is on a site that earlier held a temple dedicated to the Roman god Jupiter and a Christian church. Today the mosque has shrines housing what are said to be the heads of both John the Baptist and Hussein, the grandson of Prophet Muhammad.

Nearby is the tomb of Saladin, the 12th century Muslim warrior who fought the Christian crusaders. The old city also is home to storied Straight Street where, as the Bible recounts, St. Paul regained his sight and was baptized.

The area, believed to have been continuously inhabited from as early as 5,000 B.C., also has hundreds of small, vibrant businesses trading in everything from oriental spices and gold jewelry to brass trays, Persian rugs and Damascene furniture with mother-of-pearl and woods of different hues inlaid into geometric designs.

The old city was long shielded from development because Syria’s radical politics isolated the country, but now it is attracting European tourists, and this poses complex changes, says Nazir Awad of the state’s Antiquities Authority. He says authorities must simultaneously try to curb pollution, protect existing homes, attract new residents, and revitalize the area without changing its character.

“It is not easy, for example, to turn the old city into a no-traffic zone to reduce pollution levels, but we are curbing industrial activity and looking to move some of it out,” he said at his downtown office. “We also need investment, but of the kind that protects the area and creates jobs. The old city cannot remain strictly residential.”

Not everyone opposes the developers’ invasion. Some longtime residents say the area was slowly dying, with many inhabitants leaving for modern neighborhoods to escape the high cost of maintaining old homes built of mud bricks and plaster.

As a result, poor migrants from rural Syria moved in, lured by spacious homes and low rents, and the area went downhill. Some old-timers say that until the old city attracted investors’ attention in the mid-1990s, many of its streets were deserted once stores closed shortly after nightfall.

“What we have now is the better of two evils,” said Samer Antoine Kozah, an art dealer who lives in an eight-room house that has been in his family for about 150 years.

“Yes, the old city is threatened, but let us be realistic – it was dying. The restaurants and hotels have changed my life and disturbed me, but I thank their owners for doing business here,” said the 51-year-old Kozah, sitting in his gallery before a large photograph he took of the old city at sunset.

Not far away, architect Hakam Roukbi was overseeing the final stages of a two-year, multimillion dollar project to restore a large Arab-style house once owned by a prominent Jewish family. He chuckled politely when a visitor asked whether the house would be turned into a museum.

The Farhi family home, he said, would be a hotel of 22 opulent rooms and suites catering to VIP guests of the government. Roukbi, the point man for a group of wealthy investors, suggested that the hotel’s guests would be people who appreciate the strict attention to detail in the restoration.

“We spent six months just clearing up the rubble from the house,” he said at his onsite office as workers sandpapered walls nearby. “And we did all the work with the same material used when the house was first built.”

Comments (8)

Leila Abu-Saba said:

I had a terrific time in October 2008 staying in the christian quarter for three days. We were at Dar al Yasmin, just a few steps from Beit Rumman but more secluded, off that busy street.

The place was JUMPING, a party until late at night. Almost too much for me frankly, but when we wandered on side streets (alleys) we saw families sitting on the sidewalks in the cool of the evening, in the doorways of their houses, greeting passersby. Much more like my memories of city and village life in the 60s and 70s.

I felt so at home in the quarter that I greeted some gentleman one morning in *his* doorway, using my best Lebanese village ARabic and manners, and he invited us in for coffee. (We declined but he was very genteel).

I can understand that the locals don’t want the place to turn into another tourist trap nightmare. 20 years ago I stayed in the Left Bank for two weeks, and noticed how the locals were outnumbered on the weekend and seemed to melt away, much as they did in Greenwich Village of the time. But during the week local people took over the cafes and shops. What are you going to do? Tourism does indeed “ruin” places but on the other hand, they could be abandoned and then what would you have?

Saida wishes it could have the success of Bab Touma and Damascus’ old city. Its souk is also cleaned up, wood doors and shutters refurbished, waterfront cleared for a big wide corniche, maps and signs installed throughout so you never have to be lost. 14 years ago my father and I tried to visit the Al Bahri mosque and were chased away for being non-muslims; this trip I sat in a cafe built right against it, drinking tea amongst a crowd of hijab-wearing, shisha-smoking elderly ladies. Extraordinary.

February 6th, 2009, 6:20 am


Fahad said:

love me some old Damascus houses <3.

February 6th, 2009, 8:31 am


sarah said:

There are so many already? I lived there like almost two years ago, and this just started. Hope it’s not gonna become like the old city restaurant craze, with loads of mediocre places all serving the same stuff and trying to be oh so oriental…

February 6th, 2009, 3:22 pm


Alex said:

I love the artstic photography on the site of Bietrumman


And the place too of course. Very nicely done.

February 6th, 2009, 8:37 pm


Leila Abu-Saba said:

When I wrote “the place was jumping” I meant the quarter, not the hotel Dar al-Yasmin. Dar al-Yasmin was blessedly quiet, and a good hundred meters away from the main street. The quarter was jumping, very busy and crowded with people going to restaurants and hanging out. I even saw young skateboarders. There was a large and raucous wedding at the church just near Beit Rumman, with brass band blaring. If you are sensitive to noise then you want to stay someplace quieter.

February 7th, 2009, 10:11 am


why-discuss said:

..with loads of mediocre places all serving the same stuff and trying to be oh so oriental…
Unfortunately that is the case. Most of these new ’boutique’ hotels look the same “restored old house” with old furniture (I have visited a lot). They are becoming a bit boring. I wish they would add some interesting architectural modern elements to make them different. Also they are expensive and I doubt lots of travellers would want to spend some much money to sit in a jasmine courtyard.

February 7th, 2009, 5:13 pm


Beit Rumman said:

why discuss:

Beit Rumman would welcome any visitor to the old city with a guarantee of giving you (and all who may visit) a rate with a non-profitable amount, this is if you prove to write something promotional about Syria and its old cities. This is an open offer to whoever would plan to do so! It would also be of great support if you do not generalize. I am sure you did not have the chance to stay at all boutique hotels in Syria, so you did not have the chance to better judge. Welcome anytime!

Try to also check our reviews and articles posted by the Financial Times, The National, FW magazine…etc This will help you know that this place is a non-traditional type of guesthouses.

Just give it a try!

February 7th, 2009, 5:27 pm


jad said:

Isn’t the ‘oh so oriental’ the catch for Syria and Damascus? as the ‘oh so European’ or ‘oh so Asian’. I agree that they over due it sometimes but hey, that what people likes.
something else, Damascus Boutique hotels have limited number of rooms to use and if you put all Damascus boutique hotels together you wont get more than 100 rooms altogether. (please correct me if the number I came with is wrong)
From what I know the municipality stopped giving any license for restaurant in the old town.
The whole re-use of old houses into restaurant/bars/boutique hotels has it’s pros and cons nevertheless everything we do to our old cities (Damascus/Aleppo) should be planned to get better results.

February 7th, 2009, 6:55 pm


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