Historic preservation, discourses of modernity, and lived experiences in the Old City of Damascus, Syria

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2006-05

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This dissertation explores the ways in which the historic preservation of the Old City of Damascus affects the social use of space. By critically examining the discourses of tradition and modernity surrounding the renovation of the courtyard houses and the gentrification of the neighborhoods, I investigate the ways in which social actors such as residents and investors are actively engaged in negotiating and redefining what it means to be “modern” in contemporary Syria. I define these social actors in terms of “locals” and “cosmopolitans” based on the various ways they have of relating to the Old City; locals as community and cosmopolitans as heritage site. I approach the changes in the Old City within the broader issues of globalization and examine how the fast pace of change brought about by global flows and exchanges transforms historic cities and old neighborhoods in the name of modernization. Amidst these changes residents negotiate a sense of place and connectedness. I argue the transformations in the Old City of Damascus currently taking place reflect changes that have occurred during the Ottoman and colonial period. I illustrate how history and memory take on different meanings for locals and cosmopolitans. Tabaqāt (layers) emerges from my work as the analytical framework when exploring the history, social actors, historic preservation, as well as discourses surrounding the Old City. Any understanding of the current situation in Damascus would be incomplete without historical contextualization; contemporary globalization, in turn, has to be understood within this context. In this work I reposition the Old City within the context of its history, geography, and the social actors. I illustrate how historically the Old City has emerged as a distinct urban space, geographically and conceptually, in present day Damascus. The Old City is becoming a site of multilayered discourses— tabaqāt —of local experience. This includes a discussion of how modernization and preservation are interconnected processes and discourses readily apparent in this postcolonial, urban space. Furthermore, people’s spatial practices and lived experiences both inform and transform their own interpretations of what it means to be “modern” and Syrian.

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