Urban development of Damascus…facts and schemes 

Four Seasons Hotel in Damascus' city center (Sputnik)

Four Seasons Hotel in Damascus' city center (Sputnik)


The government of the Syrian regime attempts to implement its new or renewed regulations in the light of development schemes regardless of what the political situation may bring on in the area.

The latest government regulations regarding new development plans, is its announcement of the implementation date of the controversial “Law No. 10” on 9 November, in parts of al-Qaboun, Jobar, and Barzeh of the western districts of Damascus, the Syrian capital.

However, the question is, could the regime’s government force its development schemes on foreign companies that are coming to Syria for the reconstruction phase, or will the plans remain words on paper in the offices of Damascus and other provinces?!

In the same context, the project “Greater Damascus” is considered one of the biggest schemes the government was promoting between the years 2007 -2010 and is supposed to enter the implementation phase any time soon.

The project of “Greater Damascus.”

In mid-January 2007, the Ministry of Local Administration and Environment announced an agreement with Japan International Cooperation Agency (JICA). The agreement aimed to choose and study areas in detail within the “Greater Damascus” project. This scheme would be the blueprint for Syria’s Urban planning for sustainable development.

The Syrian General Organization of Radio and TV reported on 12 January 2007 that some of the areas included in the agreement were al-Qanawat, as a historic district and al-Qaboun neighborhood as an expansion for Damascus city.

The individual study of areas included in the agreement was later known as the “Greater Damascus” project, which refers to the residential areas around the Syrian capital. These areas constitute a geographical and economic unity with the capital’s neighborhoods; however, they are administratively independent.

The rural-to-urban migration or from other cities to Damascus has led to the emergence of new districts in the vicinity of Damascus.

Moreover, the movement of original Damascenes towards the suburbs due to the high cost of construction and housing caused the expansion of these districts.

Some of Damascus’ districts are viewed as cities or towns that were built in the 20th century to accommodate the growing number of populations in Damascus; however, the expansion became at the expense of Basateen al-Ghouta.

The most prominent of these districts, regardless of their administrative divisions, are Yarmouk Camp, Ashrafiyat Sahnaya, Jaramana, and Qudsaya, in addition to some areas in Eastern and Western Ghouta such as Douma, Arbin, Zamalka, Harasta, and Muadamiyat al-Sham.

These districts suffered heavy bombardment during the battles and war in Syria, which caused massive destruction that prompted its residents to flee to Damascus or other areas inside and outside of Syria.

On 12 January 2007, Masaki Kunieda, the ambassador of Japan to Syria, in a workshop to deliver the final plan of the urban development process, said that the main project of Damascus Urban Development is ready and expected to be discussed by the intended ministries and institutions to enter the implementation phase.

An engineer who is well informed of the developmental study and works in one of the companies performing it spoke to Enab Baladi on the condition of anonymity for security reasons. The engineer said the project that the government keeps hinting at aims to link Damascus with other areas, preserve the green spaces in the area, in addition, to find a solution to re-activate the Barada River or divert its water to a different stream.

The development study also aims to regulate the impoverished and illegally built residential settlements “Ashwaiyaat” according to the words of the engineering source, which were confirmed by the head of JICA company and reported by the Syrian General Organization of Radio and TV.

The project’s goal is to develop social and economic strategies as well as future expectations for Damascus. It limits the population of Damascus to three million persons and decreases the demographic pressure on the capital directing it towards the new districts.

The source told Enab Baladi that JICA’s development study of Damascus was a continuation of a series of studies conducted by both Japanese engineering companies, BACIO limited company, the international REX company, and another German company.

However, a Lebanese engineering company (the source refused to be named) finally implemented the study. The Lebanese company benefited from the previous Japanese and German studies in the making of its research regarding the extended development schemes for Damascus. It also collaborated with international experts to finish the project from all technical, environmental, or constructional aspects.

al-Darwishiyeh neighborhood in Damascus (maaber.50megs)

al-Darwishiyeh neighborhood in Damascus (maaber.50megs)

 Why was the project never implemented?

In an interview with Enab Baladi regarding the project of “Greater Damascus,” the economist Younes al-Karim said that the project which the regime started talking about is not schemes, but merely forward-looking studies.

According to al-Karim, these future studies aim to distribute the population density by establishing a new administrative city outside Damascus.

Moreover, the objective of the studies is to improve the services in Old Damascus, which will guarantee a more significant economic and touristic investments in the area.

Al-Karim mentioned that the project was not completed for several reasons; the first reason is that there are no real plans on the grounds but rather a group of prospective studies for the situation in the area.

The second reason is that even if the schemes were realistic, the lack of financial assets would eventually stop the project or obstruct its application in the future or in the present time.

Furthermore, al-Karim added that the third reason hindering the execution of the development schemes before the Syrian revolution was the difficulty that the Syrian regime’s government faced in the evacuation of informal settlements areas and the refusal of its inhabitants to leave.

In his blog, “the Rational and Guided Municipal Forum,” engineer, Hussam Safadi, a city planning expert in Rif Dimashq and a partner in al-Safadi Company for Industry and Trade wrote, the study prepared by Damascus province in cooperation with some experts was dedicated to the aristocratic Damascus segment.

He elaborated that they did not take into consideration the participatory approach that the “tenth five-year plan” called for, pointing out that “the future study ” is unrealistic and unconvincing,” and it is merely a work of art which can be only drawn and colored.”

Safadi shed light on four points the development study neglected in his research entitled “the expansion of the Damascus city between the dreams of a strategic vision and the tragedy of the adjacent countryside with facts of the Japanese study.” The first point is the absence of any strategic study of informal settlements, which occupied only 40 percent of the Damascus expansion plan.

The second point of Safadi’s research is related to water availability and its sufficiency to the capital. In contrast, the third point focused on the study’s strategy, which failed to consider the boundaries of the Damascus development area and its neighboring districts. It also was unable to notice how the development area will influence these districts.

He added the strategy neglected the most pressing problems of administrative divisions between provinces of Damascus and Rural Damascus.

The strategy did not provide any vision of the development scheme of the future capital’s boundaries or the mutual relation between Damascus and the neighboring areas planning programs.

Safadi believes the province of Damascus neglected the project, unlike the Rural Damascus Province.

The source informed about the study told Enab Baladi that the new project faced many problems, such as the Syrian government’s lack of funding, the political conditions, and the Syrian war. The implementation phase of the new development scheme was to start at the end of 2010; however, the linking between the project and other plans such as “Homs Dream Project” put the government in the face with vast amounts of financial costs that the state budget cannot handle.

Will development plans be imposed in the reconstruction stage?

Today and after nearly eight years of talks on the “Greater Damascus’ project, the Syrian government will try to impose its vision on all aspects in the next phase. Amid the rush of political decisions and international alliances on the Syrian crisis, the question is, will the Syrian government impose its development plans on the companies included in the reconstruction phase?

Regarding what the regime imposes on future projects, the economic analyst Younes al-Karim clarified that reconstruction and development plans are two different concepts. According to al-Karim, reconstruction is providing services and maintaining infrastructure in their minimum as the first stage of stability. In contrast, development projects can only be carried out after the country has balance.

Al-Karim thinks that the Syrian regime will not force its plans on the reconstruction companies, for the first aim of any future project is pure economically driven without considering the arrangements laid down previously.

Moreover, companies are looking for profits; therefore, they will not disagree with the regime’s imposed plans.

However, in case of any disagreement over old schemes, this will be in the benefit of the local investors with close ties to the Syrian regime; they are willing to make deals regardless of the nature of the procedures.

Abdulsalam Salamah, a Syrian economist who lectures at the Turkish Gaziantep University, believes that reconstruction is a political matter, as the countries that will pay billions of dollars will not be satisfied with ready plans, whether in terms of rehabilitation of infrastructure or developmental projects.

Dr. Salamah told Enab Baladi that the reconstruction process is not about previous development plans or technical aspects but rather an issue of “a sovereign matter with political agenda” noting that everything below that will be within the framework of understandings between the countries involved in the Syrian crisis.

According to Dr. Salamah, the Syrian regime wanted to accomplish two goals at once, to control land by confiscating property, and population by surrounding itself by supporters while imposing a prior plan, by implementing several decisions, which delivers a message to others that the regime remains in power.

Al-Karim confirmed Dr. Salamah’s words by saying that the Syrian regime cannot confiscate the properties of people during the development stage; nevertheless, the war conditions provided the government with more mobility to control the areas regulated in the reconstruction stage.

According to the economic analyst, the Syrian regime government is seeking to “legalize” the investment environment in the region through “Law No. 10” and other laws, thus guarding the new investments against any potential problems with the actual owners.

Three urban development schemes Damascus has gone through

From 1860 until the beginning of the twenty-first century, Damascus experienced numerous demographic expansion and changes.

The city’s land space and administrative divisions went through several periods before entering the new millennium.

Damascus’ space and its extension after 1880

Damascus extended to the west and north after the year 1880. The new al-Marjeh Square became the center of the city surrounded by buildings and official facilities, including the Municipality, the Palace of Justice, the police station, the new Saraya, the Post, and Telegraph Center.  In addition to modern hotels such as the Victoria Grand Hotel, and the al-Abed building, there was a group of restaurants, cafes, cabarets, and shops.

“Electric tram” was opened in 1907, which started operating from the new al-Marjeh Square to various areas in Damascus.

Today the only buildings left are the Saraya (the Ministry of Interior) and the al-Abed building and the police department.

Some of the famous buildings that were built before 1918 were the Hejaz Railway Station, which was designed by a German engineer and supervised by the Spanish engineer, Fernando Darande. Also, al-Ghurabaa (the Strangers) Hospital, and the building of the Teachers’ House (Dar al-Mualemeen), which later became the Faculty of Law and is now the Ministry of Tourism. Besides, the Great Hamidiyah Barracks, which is currently the Faculty of Law building, The English and French Hospital in al-Qasaa neighborhood, the Italian Hospital in al-Salihiya – Arnous, and the Military Hospital.

Damascus Development plan during the French occupation

The Municipality of Damascus province continued its development plans during the first years of the French rule, just as it used to do in the previous eras.

Mohammad Afandi Bashir led the plans as he was an assistant to French engineers Aubrey and Lucien Webert, who were both appointed by the French authorities in 1922.

Lucien Webert was responsible for implementing the plan to modernize and beautify the city’s infrastructure; however, this plan was stalled due to the outbreak of the Great Syrian Revolution in 1925.

Henry de Jouvenel, the new French High Commissioner in the region, approved a new urban development study for Damascus city in 1926. The Syrian government also approved the study, which gave priority to the reconstruction of damaged neighborhoods such as al-Hariqa that was known then as Sidi Amoud neighborhood.

The development study included development and reconstruction plans for Baghdad Street, the broadening of the Straight Street (Midhat Pasha Souq), and allocating of Governor Nuri Pasha’s house in al-Afif neighborhood as an official residence of the French governor in Damascus. Later, it became the home of the French ambassador.

Damascus’s urban development expanded in 1929. The Municipality issued a decision to establish a substantive office to study the city’s plans and its execution by the Municipality. In 1934, French engineer Claud Duraford finished organizing the land registry system and handed the Topographic charts of Damascus city to the specialists to be the base of their development studies.

Damascus Municipality seconded the French engineer, Michelle Eckochard, who used to work at the Damascus antiquities department to which he proposed his final project in 1936. The department accepted the project in the following year, 1937.

Eckochard’s study depended on previous works of some historians, experts, and information provided by governmental facilities in Damascus.

Moreover, the early thirties is considered the turning point of the new architectural system of Damascus in conformity with the previous architecture of the Ottomans.

The new system adopted new and modern bases that take into consideration the future expansion of the city and its architectural and residential organization in the long-term.

Damascus urban planning in mid-forties until the sixties

Damascus witnessed an urban expansion in the mid-forties, the city expanded to the west; hence, Britain Street was built, known today as Abu Rummaneh neighborhood. The buildings of Abu Rummaneh had a new architectural style applied in Damascus at that period and was called “the modern Damascus architectural style.”

The early fifties saw the expansion of Damascus to the north of the new Tahrir Square that built-in 1952 at the end of Baghdad Street.

The city also expanded to the east in parallel with the al-Qassaa neighborhood and built Aleppo Street.

Furthermore, the mid-fifties and the period after it witnessed the building of al-Qusour Street, which goes west to the end of Aleppo Street.

Al-Qusour Street,(Qusour) in Arabic means palaces, was called by this name, due to its beautiful buildings and surrounding gardens.

Finally, the last development plan of Damascus city was offered in 1968. The proposal came as a complement to the 1937 urban project of the French engineers.


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