In October 2022, the Ministry of Tourism warned occupants of traditional handicrafts workshops and stores in Al-Suleimaniyeh Hospice area in Damascus that they must vacate their businesses before the end of 2022 to allow for restoration work on the hospice. The ministry also cancelled investment contracts for store occupants in the local souk, a sign that the evictions are final.
The historic hospice
Al-Suleimaniyeh Hospice was founded in the 16th century during the reign of Ottoman Sultan Suleiman Al-Qanuni, with construction supervised by Mimar Sinan, a chief Ottoman architect. In the Ottoman Islamic tradition, a hospice was a resting place to provide food and shelter to pilgrims travelling to Mecca during Hajj, and to the poor during the rest of the year.
Al-Suleimaniyeh Hospice consists of two main architectural complexes: the first contains a mosque and the hospice grounds, and the second Al-Sulaymaniyah School and a surrounding souk. The school building held the Military Museum until 2011. The souk, meanwhile, has been home to the traditional handicrafts market since the 1970s, containing around 40 traditional Damascene craft shops, such as glass and seashell workers and makers of traditional Damascene textiles like the aghabani fabric. The market also hosts the Damascus Sheikhs of Alkar, the most prominent craftspeople of their trades, such as those involved in copper engraving, Damascene swords, oud instruments, damask cloth, ceramics, stained glass and traditional aqal headbands.
There was a project in 2010 to restore the hospice with the help of the Turkish government, but it halted due to the onset of the revolution in 2011. The Syria Trust for Development, an NGO run by Syrian President Bashar al-Assad’s wife Asma al-Assad, presented a study in 2020 proposing a multi-stage process to restore the hospice. However, the trust did not reveal many details about the project, amid rumours about a for-profit investment scheme targeting business people and leaving out the traditional craftspeople of the hospice.
Structurally, the hospice has no cracks that threaten collapse. However, it does need partial restoration work that would not require evacuating the craft workers, the head of the Traditional Professions Division of the Union of Syrian Chambers of Tourism told the state-run Tishreen newspaper in March 2020. He is also among the craftspeople working in Al-Suleimaniyeh Hospice. In another recent statement from October 28, 2022, he suggested that the Ministry of Tourism temporarily move the traditional handicrafts souk to another location until the completion of restoration work. The ministry did not respond to his suggestion.
The stores inside the traditional handicrafts market are endowment properties. Before 2000, those stores were leased under the supervision of various Ministry of Endowments directorates. Tenants pay gifts to these directorates alongside a merely symbolic annual rent. Though the leases have fixed terms, they are subject to implicit renewal. The provisions for lease contracts in Syria’s Civil Code apply to these properties, on the condition that they be registered by the Ministry of Endowments and its subdirectories.
However, in 2000, supervision of the souk was inexplicably transferred from the Ministry of Endowments to the Ministry of Tourism, which replaced the old lease contracts for the shops with investment contracts that were to be renewed annually.
Then in October 2022, the Ministry of Tourism terminated these investment contracts with the shop occupants and warned them to vacate the properties within two months. In official statements that same month, the tourism minister said that, according to the investment contracts, the ministry has the right to end the contracts in the traditional handicrafts market at any time and may retake the vacated shops within the given deadline.
Meanwhile, the deputy tourism minister stated that the investment contracts may not be automatically renewed if one of the parties does not notify the other of their desire to renew it within one month before the stated end of the contract period. He added that the Ministry of Tourism also may vacate the shops for purposes of the public interest before the end of the contract period without the shopkeepers having the right to claim damages. According to him, the shop investors must vacate the shops immediately, within the deadline given by the ministry. Those who refuse to vacate must bear the costs of vacating their stores through administrative means so long as all obligations they incur through these contracts are collected according to the principles of collection of public assets.