The souks, locally named “al-Mdineh souk” are located at the heart of the Old City of Aleppo between the “Citadel of Aleppo'' and the ”Antakya Gate”, forming the largest covered historic market in the world, with an approximate length of 14 kilometers of alleys, on a surface area of 16 hectares. In its long and narrow alleys, the souk contains around 6’000 shops and 15 caravanserais, as well as coffee houses, public baths, medieval public toilets and mosques, including the “Great Ommayad Mosque”.
“Al-Mdineh Souks” possesses a unique heritage value as recognized in the UNESCO World Heritage listing in 1986, stating as a criterion “The old city of Aleppo reflects the rich and diverse cultures of its successive occupants. Many periods of history have left their influence in the architectural fabric of the city”. On the other hand, the use value of a continuously occupied social and commercial area is reflected in the statement of authenticity “The historic and traditional handicraft and commercial activities continue as a vital component of the city sustaining its traditional urban life”.
In 2005, the World Heritage Centre of UNESCO produced the Vienna Memorandum, which aimed to be a key statement for an integrated approach linking contemporary architecture, sustainable urban development and landscape integrity based on existing historic patterns, building stock and context.
It was based on a phased series of actions starting with initial surveys to provide the baselines for rehabilitation. Social challenges were multiple as the souk was empty of its economic activities and it was essential to assess ownership, previous use and rights. Engineering challenges were of various types ranging from re-establishing the integrity of partially damaged roofs and vaults to full reconstruction of the parts that had been destroyed. The rehabilitation/reconstruction had also the objective to improve the level of infrastructure and services that used to be present before the conflict and to encourage shop owners and clients to resume commercial activities. Due to the size of the souks and the level of damages, the principles of a pilot project on a local zone of the souk had been agreed with local and national authorities. The advantages of developing a prototype zone were to establish working methods and set objectives and standards that can be replicated by other entities in other parts of the souk. Based on those criteria, the “Souk al-Saqatiyya” had been identified because it required rehabilitation (not reconstruction) and is also centrally land well accessible from logistical perspectives.
The selected “Souk al-Saqatiyya” is an alley dating back from the Mamluk and Ottoman period including a total of 53 shops. The alley is covered with vaults and four of domes in key locations.
1. Pre-Construction Phase
• Survey of existing conditions
The survey was performed using a 3D scanning method to present the existing conditions of the building envelope and its interior with maximal accuracy. The resulting survey drawings formed the baseline for designs. Existing water and sanitation infrastructure, and low and high voltage electrical systems were surveyed in addition to the architecture. Damage assessment followed existing conditions surveys and determined structural priorities.
• Socio-economic survey
Surveys of ownership and previous activities were required to inform on the precise ownership and lease situation and to assess previous retail activities and the future expectations of business holders.
• Scope of work and cost estimation.
2. Construction Phase
The “Souk” contains 26 shops in its eastern section, and 53 shops in its western section. Toward north and south it connects to other souks. It is included in the foundation of the Khan al-Gumruk, which was built in 1574 by the “Hanzade Mehmed Ibrahim Pasha” as part of a larger commercial complex including “al-Qaysariyya” and two other souks. It takes on the typical characteristics of the “khan” type with its courtyard, commercial first level and residential second level. The entrance to the “khan” is located in the middle of the exterior northern wall and is marked by a double height dome with “muqarnas” corners. The courtyard contains a prayer space with a domed roof. The lower story has shops along the exterior northern wall and around the perimeter of the interior courtyard. The second floor has larger rooms and housing units for traveling merchants.
Several criteria were taken in consideration for the choice of the Pilot Project in the souk:
The architectural value of the souk, composed of a covering of crossed vaults, stone arches and domes from bricks, and of the lateral facades from stone-masonry, was an important criterion for the selection of this souk.
The specific location of the souk, on the main spine of Al-Mdineh, located between the “Citadel of Aleppo” and the “Antakya Gate”, was also a major matter, for the choice of the “Souk Al-Saqatiyya”.
As a relatively well-preserved structure, presenting no major damage or destruction, a non-common condition in the souks, no extra time was needed for architectural or archaeological research.
The functions of the shops included selling nuts, meat, vegetables, candy and oriental pastries and shoes, and provided a daily service to the city.
The execution and all necessary interventions, as a well-preserved structure, was done in a relatively short period; seven and half months, which was an essential element for the success of the pilot project.
At the end of the project, the Aga Khan Trust for Culture in Syria, developed a “Specifications Booklet”, to be an important reference for any future rehabilitation projects within the “Souks”. Those specifications are now used by other relevant agencies to implement similar works in the Old City.
In any case, Souk al-Saqatiyya has gained a new symbolic value being the first project accomplished within the post-war recovery process of Aleppo and this will always be a point to be remembered in future scholarly literature. In general, the inauguration of the project was received positively by the public who considered it a first step in the recovery of the central commercial zone and the Old City.
The project has proved that despite all constraints, it is possible to successfully conduct medium-sized and low-budget projects in the short-term phase once the coordination among all concerned stakeholders is fully efficient.
Finally, and to ensure sustainable outcomes, the initiatives that were followed in this project and proved to be effective should be adopted.
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