On the morning of July 16, a fire ravaged a section of the historic Sarouja district in Damascus. The fire occurred during a heatwave that affected most of Syria and caused several other blazes, including a wildfire on Mount Mazzeh the day before. The Sarouja fire, however, resulted in widespread destruction to several historic Damascene homes that were used as residences or small industrial workshops for leather, shoes and manufacturing materials, which contributed to the rapid spread of the flames.
Among the damaged properties was a home dating back to the 19th century that once housed the last Hajj Amir (commander of the annual Hajj pilgrimage) of the Ottoman Sultanate era, AbdulRahman Pasha Al-Youssef, who was killed in 1920. The fire also affected the house of Khalid Al-Azm, a Damascene politician and the last head of a democratically elected government before the Baath Party’s military coup in 1963. Azm’s house, which dates back to the 18th century, was partly used as a museum.
The Sarouja neighbourhood dates back to the Mamlouk era and is named after Mamlouk prince SaremEddin Sarouja, who died in 1342. The neighbourhood was built northwest of the capital’s Old City, outside its historic walls. It became a destination for Mamlouk princes, who built palaces, schools, mosques, and baths in the area. In the Ottoman era, the district housed senior employees of the Sultanate in Damascus, causing it to expand in the style of Ottoman architecture, earning it the nickname “Little Istanbul.” After the French Mandate 1946 ended, the neighbourhood became popular among the Damascene elite.
With the Baath Party’s political takeover in 1963, Sarouja began to be marginalised for ideological reasons, as it was a bourgeois area feared for its democratic leanings. The Baath Party did not hesitate to dispossess the elite residents of the district of their property, pushing many residents to leave the area and altering the socio-urban fabric. Concurrent with the wave of nationalisation and agrarian reform at the time, the Master Plan for Damascus, known as the plan by French architect Michel Écochard, was issued in 1968. This plan leaned more towards the modern planning and organisation of the contemporary city of the time rather than preserving the district’s old historical fabric.
In the 1970s and 1980s, under the Écochard plan and its amendments, the Damascus governorate appropriated large parts of Sarouja to construct public utilities such as streets and traffic junctions and prepare sites for building government and commercial institutions. In the late 1970s, the governorate cut through Al-Thawra Street, dividing the neighbourhood between east and west, and confiscated the necessary land and multi-storey buildings on either side of the thoroughfare. This expropriation took place without compensation or with significant delays in paying the affected parties. Some historic houses in the district were demolished, and modern facilities and towers were built in their place, including the General Directorate of Cadastral Affairs building and the Souk Al-Khaja. The governorate also granted land in Al-Bahsa area to the west to merchants to construct commercial buildings and hotels.
The Écochard plan also envisioned the construction of a major traffic and commercial axis within Saruja called King Faisal Street, but it has not yet been implemented. This axis aims to create a traffic throughway from the centre of Damascus to its east, running along the northern wall of the Old City. However, implementing the road means confiscating a large part of Sarouja and removing the southern part of the neighbourhood to connect Al-Thawra Street with Bab Touma Square. This road plan was discussed several times before 2011, and the idea has been modified multiple times to become both a traffic and tourist throughway zoned as a tourism area. Despite this, the project was obstructed due to pressure from local residents, intellectuals, and archaeologists.
Amid the popular rejection of the road construction plan, the Damascus governorate has resorted since the 1980s to prevent the issuance of restoration permits throughout the district, considering any restoration work without a licence to be a form of unlicensed construction that must be removed immediately. As a result, the district began to suffer from severe neglect, containing historic ruins in desperate need of restoration. According to The Syria Report sources, the Damascus governorate often uses this method when faced with criticism of an expropriation decision.
This has led to the collapse of more than one building in the neighbourhood, as happened in February 2019 when a house fell due to rain. In 2007, one person was killed when the dilapidated roof of his house, for which the governorate refused to grant a restoration licence, collapsed on him.
Since 2011, the district has experienced even worse neglect, especially as some residents were not far removed from the protests opposing the regime. As a result, the governorate intensified its crackdown on unlicensed construction and provided the bare minimum of services. Sarouja saw a complete absence of safety and civil defence measures and lacked a proper fire brigade as the old district’s narrow streets could not properly fit full-size fire trucks.
Like all parts of Damascus, Sarouja has been experiencing recurring fires in the recent heat waves, often aided by the proliferation of informal electricity networks. Additionally, the harsh electricity rationing programs, which reach up to five hours of power cuts vs one hour of connection, impose additional electrical loads on power transformers due to the excessive power demand in the brief supply period.
Alongside the hot weather and poor maintenance, some transformers explode, causing fires to break out and spread. Despite the neighbourhood residents’ demands for improved services and the refurbishment of the electricity networks, they have always been met with negligence by the government and officials. This may not be a direct, intentional act against Sarouja, as much as simply corruption and laxity in the Damascus governorate, lack of funding, poor planning and a decline in efficiency.
And aside from the property expropriations, some of the burned buildings are classified as historical, meaning that the owners of these properties are prohibited from disposing of or restoring them. This has turned these buildings into a dispute between the state and the original aggrieved owners, with many cases pending in the courts since decades ago. The prohibition has also led to problems among the heirs of these properties and disputes between old tenants refusing to vacate them.
A source from the Damascus governorate told The Syria Report that the property situation in the Sarouja neighbourhood, like many areas of historic Damascus, is a large cluster of unsolvable legal issues accumulated over decades. While the source suggested that the fire was most likely unintentional, its results may benefit more than one party. The Damascus governorate is keen on resolving the built-up issues and proceeding with the execution of expropriations and establishing commercial and tourist projects. Some property owners also benefit from the burning of the buildings as it removes their historical status, allowing them to construct new buildings in their place.