Syria in the Eighties

This collection contains a series of photographs and plans from Syria during the 1980s made by Dr. Stefano Bianca, architectural historian, urban designer, and the first Director of the Aga Khan Historic Cities Programme. These documents are part of this collection donated to the Aga Khan Trust for Culture in 2015.


Since 1966, Dr. Stefano Bianca has studied architecture and urban form of the Muslim World as a researcher and writer and has directed a number of major planning, urban design, and conservation projects, and research. Since 1992 and until 2006, he has been the Director of the Historic Cities Programme of the Aga Khan Trust for Culture in Geneva and was in charge of the strategy and the implementation of the Programme with activities covering conservation of historic buildings, urban rehabilitation improvement of public open spaces, community-based socio-economic development, and local institution-building.


“Syria in the Eighties” offers an overview of Dr. Bianca’s photographic documentation with a first part dedicated to Aleppo and a second part to Damascus. This Special Collection needs to be pointed out because of the importance of its photographs and plans, as well as its relevance as a historical, social, and architectural testimony, made more critical by the destructions caused by the conflict since 2011.  


Dr. Stefano Bianca’s first visits to Aleppo happened in the context of the Bab al-Faraj Project. Under the auspices of UNESCO, he assessed the proposed redevelopment project and prepared successively two planning reports submitted in 1981 and 1983, as well as he took part in the subsequent urban design infill project developed on behalf of the Municipality in 1984/85. 


The Bab al-Faraj Project “reflects a significant change of attitude towards conservation during a critical phase of the city’s development. It marks the end of crude redevelopment policies, which used to imply the total demolition of historic districts, only to replace them with poor replicas of the Modern Movement architecture. Local architectural circles concerned citizens and politicians alike were involved in this process, which reflects the growth of a city-wide and even national concerns”[1].


Also in Aleppo, the recording of the Bab al-Qinasrine district was done in the context of a research project on 1979-1981 on traditional Islamic housing typologies which would compare typical features of different cultural and geographic regions, in order to establish both the variety of regional layouts and the unity in terms of basic urban living patterns. A similar research campaign was carried out in Fes in the Boukhrareb area. A number of traditional courtyard houses in the Bab al-Qinasrine district were documented in greater depth to illustrate local housing typologies.


In the same period, 1981, Dr. Bianca took some photographs of Beit Ghazale in the district of Djdeideh and of the Great Mosque and the Suqs.


More recently, in 1992, Dr. Bianca took a number of pictures of the “Old Saray” in Aleppo were taken to support a proposal of rehabilitation of this Important historic complex on the Eastern foot of the Citadel, which had been abandoned after the construction of the “New Saray” In the 1930s, which moved the seat of the Administration to the south of the Citadel.


The series of photographs of Damascus was taken in 1986 when Dr. Stefano Bianca was asked by UNESCO to review the situation of the two historic suburbs of Suq Saruja and Midan district, that stood adjacent to the protected Damascus Walled City but were exposed to heavy redevelopment pressures and the imminent destruction of several sites.


Suq Saruja was the first area to be built outside the walls during the 13th century. As the space available inside the Walled City was already very limited, many Mamluk and Ottoman officials wanted to have their new palaces built and they chose to expand in new areas outside the walls close to Salyhieah, the northwest suburb to Damascus within the walls, in the direction of Qasioun mountain. Many large palaces, mosques, and public baths were built in Suq Saruja, giving it the name of “little Istanbul”. In the 1960s, as a response to new Damascus development needs, the governorate built Al-Thawrah street to connect the north part to the south part of the new city, dividing the Suq Saruja area into two parts, allowing the real-estate developers to modify significant parts of Suq Saruja.  


On the other hand, the Midan quarter was established to accommodate the commercial activities of the annual pilgrimage caravan heading south to Mecca and the commercial relations with the Horan. The famous historical mosques and madrasas hosted many of the most important figures of the history of Damascus.     


In 1979 the UNESCO listed the Old City of Damascus as a World heritage. At that time, the local authorities had defined the World Heritage as only the Walled City, excluding and neglecting all the historical areas outside the city wall.


Since then, a significant number of destructions of the historical areas outside the city took place. Many local voices urged the authorities to stop demolitions. Dr. Bianca’s initial mission in 1986 at the request of UNESCO was instrumental in exposing heavy redevelopment pressures and the imminent destruction of several sites in Suq Saruja and Midan quarters. In 2004, the authorities finally included the historical areas outside the Walled City as buffer zones city in an effort of protecting and preserving what could still be saved of the Old Damascene heritage.


Curated by Christophe Bouleau and Lobna Montasser

Aga Khan Trust for Culture



[1] Bianca, Stefano. Urban Form in the Arab World: Past and Present. London and New York: Thames and Hudson, 2000., Case Study IV-Aleppo, page 323

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