Damascus-Istanbul: Longing for past not subject to borders

The common architecture of the Ottoman era constitutes a line of nostalgia for the past between Damascus and Istanbul (Edited by Enab Baladi)

The common architecture of the Ottoman era constitutes a line of nostalgia for the past between Damascus and Istanbul (Edited by Enab Baladi)


Enab Baladi – Yamen Moghrabi

O Sham (Damascus), my wounds have no cure

So wipe away the sadness and fatigue from my forehead

Return me to the walls of my school. and

Return the ink, chalk, and books.”

Between narrow and overlapping alleys and walls bearing witness to thousands of tales, whispers, stories, and daily, political, and social events of the people of Damascus lived the poet of the previous verses, the late Nizar Qabbani, who wrote several poems in love with his city, and the city was linked to his poetry, and even when he flirted with the Andalusian city of Granada, he wrote:

“The streets of Granada at noon, fields of black pearls

From my seat, I see my homeland in big eyes

I see the minarets of Damascus depicted on each hair plait.”

Qabbani was lucky to be able to express his love or longing for his city and his home, while many Syrians living in Istanbul or Gaziantep in Turkey, or in Beirut or Jordan, did not have the chance to express their nostalgia for old cities from which they were forced to leave, under security, economic, or livelihood pressures.

On the other hand, the similarity of cities creates a feeling, albeit a small one, of belonging to the new cities.

In 1516, Sultan Selim I entered Damascus, and the cities of Damascus, Aleppo, and other Syrian cities continued as Ottoman provinces until the collapse of the latter in 1918.

After the end of World War I, and during more than 400 years of Ottoman presence, hundreds of neighborhoods were established, and the architecture was similar between Syrian cities and their Turkish counterparts today, such as Istanbul and Gaziantep.

Neighborhood architecture triggers nostalgia

Since the Syrian regime followed the security solution in the face of the demonstrators’ demands for the departure of Bashar al-Assad from power in Syria, millions of Syrians have left for neighboring countries, many of them to Turkey.

At least 3,337,585 Syrian refugees reside in Turkey today under temporary protection documents (Kimlik), and the majority of them live in Istanbul, which includes 529,285 people, according to the latest statistics of the Turkish Presidency of Migration Management (PMM).

In Istanbul, there is an archaeological area known as the Fatih, which includes Sultanahmet Mosque with the Hagia Sophia next to it, the Fatih Mosque where Sultan Mehmed the Conqueror was buried, the old city wall, the Hırka-ı Şerif Mosque, which includes relics dating back to the Prophet of Islam Muhammad bin Abdullah, the Egyptian market and the Eminönü area, which is also close to the Sulaymaniyah area, where the most famous architect of the Ottoman Empire, Mimar Sinan, was buried.

The Egyptian market is a long, interwoven market with multiple intersections, very similar to the archaeological markets in Damascus, such as the Hamidiya bazaar next to the Damascus Citadel in the center of the city, near the Sulaymaniyah Hospice, which is very similar to the area of the same name in Istanbul.

Visiting these areas and the great similarity between Syrian cities and their Turkish counterparts creates a state of nostalgia for some Syrians’ original cities. It is a longing that social researcher Aisha Abdul-Malik explains as resulting from human nature in which belonging and loyalty occupy a large space.

Abdul-Malik told Enab Baladi that human nature contains a set of affiliations and loyalties, and belonging comes first, followed by loyalty to anything that passes in life and leaves a memory with the routine that societies experience, especially with regard to urbanization and cities, which creates a kind of belonging.

As for loyalty to memory, it comes through a person preserving his memories, whether spatial or old things in homes, such as bedrooms or other things.

With the Syrians leaving their country forced and under pressure, the matter turned into a kind of loyalty to areas similar to their cities, especially if the person lived in similar areas in his childhood in a state of stability and security, the researcher added.

Belonging and middle class

When any Syrian walks through archaeological areas in Beirut, Istanbul, or other cities architecturally similar to his Syrian city, he may feel a sense of belonging, especially since the economic conditions are similar between these cities in terms of social and economic classes.

In addition to the ancient and archaeological sites in these cities, there are many neighborhoods in Istanbul that are similar to neighborhoods in Syrian cities, even though they are modern neighborhoods, and this is due to economic and cultural factors as well.

Social researcher Safwan Moushli told Enab Baladi that the middle class usually has similar ideas and a similar work style as well, especially if there are common cultural, religious, and social factors.

Moushli added that the presence of these classes in similar circumstances creates a kind of nostalgia on the one hand when they are located in close urban areas, which later creates a kind of emotional belonging to these places.

A study conducted by the Syrian Dialogue Center in 2021 indicated that the experience of Syrians seeking refuge in Turkey was easier compared to other countries due to the presence of a general rapprochement between the Syrian and Turkish peoples in a number of cultural and religious aspects, including religious holidays, the view on family, marriage, and social relations, customs, traditions and art style.

According to Abdul-Malik, the feeling of belonging appears as an attempt to satisfy the emotion, so when a person finds himself in front of an urban landscape similar to places he has known in his life, he feels a temporary euphoria and happiness that takes him back to the days he longs for.

She added that there is a segment that fears change, and this change involves trying to get closer and live in places that are more similar to the original place, and in this case the person feels that he is protecting himself from the changes that he was forced to make, and is preserving some of the stability or the old life that he loved or settled in for a long time.

According to a master’s thesis issued by the Faculty of Architecture at the University of Damascus by engineer Amani Khalil al-Rahhal in 2015, the Selimiye Hospice is the first architectural work in Damascus that was carried out during the reign of Sultan Selim I in the Salhiya locality, and he ordered its construction in the year 1518.

According to the thesis, the hospice is the first Ottoman building in Syria, and many of them were established in Damascus and Aleppo during the Ottoman presence.



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