Behind closed doors

Khan As'ad Pasha Al-Azem and its fascinating story

25 SEPTEMBER 2014,
Khan As'ad Pasha Al-Azem, ceiling © Marwa Al-Sabouni
Khan As'ad Pasha Al-Azem, ceiling © Marwa Al-Sabouni

An old standing oak, her arms wide open; storms, fires, axes all may try to break her but her head somehow manages to still hold up. Just as many other great monuments in Syria Khan As'ad Pasha Al-Azem had witnessed great deal of ordeals; Damascus earthquake in year 1757 cost it two of its brick domes, the battles during the French occupation of Syria also left their marks on it, yet the saddest one of all is when it fell victim of human greed during the process of its restoration in 1986.

This building, arguably the finest and most ambitious piece of architecture in the Old City, had been built in 1752 under the patronage of As'ad Pasha al-Azem the governor of Damascus under the Ottoman rule. With its 27,000 sq. ft., it had served as a guesthouse for travelling merchants with their loaded caravans and animals; that's why it was built in the heart of the trade center "Al-Buzuriyah Souq" surrounded by key monuments many of them still there till today.

Through a monumental portal decorated with carved honey-comb "muqarnas" access leads from the souk, where two staircases flank both sides of the entrance passage. Following the typical Ottoman Khan layout with 2 floors of total 80 vaulted lodging rooms and storages for goods, all-encompassing, the main vast space of the courtyard covered with beautiful arrangement of eight small domes around a larger circular aperture above central marble pool; today has been surmounted with a ninth dome. The moduled domes are supported on four colossal piers that splay into elegant arches with magnificent touches of continuity, the walls made of rubble core, embedded in thick lime mortar, dressed in alternating courses of black basalt and white limestone.

Although a rigid symmetry is maintained through the whole design including openings and detailing, nonetheless no sense of bore is ever present. The architecture of the space created with this bee-like appearance, the play of light and shadow cast from the hanged domes, the stretching of the whole space and continuity with absolutely no abrupt moves to the eye of the beholder, it creates freely and easily a peaceful experience for the visitor. Despite the fact that this type of architecture is classified as the old Islamic architecture, the one can easily be recognize a contemporary look in this place; it expresses a timeless organization of space. Also, with absolutely no decorated surfaces, the design manages to leave no void for the eye to go to.

The ownership of this edifice has changed hands more than once since its original one. It has been used as a storage space by a large number of shop owners. Then, in the early eighties, the Syrian Department of Museums and Antiquities decided to intervene; this included the reconstruction of certain structural members, for example the domes and the four central stone piers of the courtyard, which have been replaced with consolidated ones. With the plan to convert it into an Art and craft center which would allow as much visitors as possible, it would fit in with the thick urban fabric of the old city, and it would not be very difficult to achieve having in mind the requirements of infra-structure in the old building.

However, the lighted process of reconstruction has evolved into a story with a very dark side. It was mentioned in the report "Technical Review Summary 1986" submitted by the professor Okan Ustunkok; that the Syrian Ministry of Tourism "has stepped in with a prime Ministerial decree for taking over the use of the building with a view, converting it to a first class hotel." This all has happened when the reconstruction works were far from complete. The aforementioned ministry had entrusted the completion of the works to the Military Housing Establishment which works under the Ministry of Defense, without any communication to the Department of Museums and Antiquities and with further steps such as locking up and denying access to the Khan.

Today, the Khan is tagged on paper as the Natural History Museum of Damascus; but not in reality. The director of the Khan declares that the work on this project "has been stopped for "unknown reasons"… and the Khan is being deployed for artistic and cultural "events" only".

Sadly, the aesthetic value of this monument, the dazzling continuity is constantly marred by visible electric wiring, badly finished plaster patches, and other insulting finishing touches. The most heartbreaking thing that this door, which had been opened to all people from all over the globe in the 18th century, offering vibrant life to the city and smiling at newcomers, is closed down due to unfortunate set of human qualities. After the reconstruction the building has won the Aga Khan award for architecture, yet it's fairly unknown to so many Syrians. It only took the original builders 14 months to deliver such a masterpiece, however, reconstruction is a different story. This part of Damascus has an architectural fortune, other countries would definitely dream of; but we are just dreaming of an equal fortune of responsibility.