Since a ceasefire took effect late last year, some life has returned to Syria’s third-largest city. But two-thirds of its urban fabric is destroyed, including much of its historic center, and Baba Amr, on the edge of town, lies in ruins. “Homs is the only city in the whole of blood-soaked Syria that has had its market and center destroyed and completely shut down,” Marwa al-Sabouni writes in The Battle for Home: The Vision of a Young Architect in Syria. Sabouni, a native Homsi, has stayed in her city throughout the war. The architecture studio that she shared with her husband was in the Old City; like the rest of the area, it is ruined. “The undoing of the urban fabric has advanced hand in hand with the undoing of the moral fabric,” she writes. “And that is what is written in frightful scars on the face of Old Homs.”
In Homs, as throughout Syria, people “have lost their homes and their cities, sometimes destroying them with their own hands, sometimes helplessly watching them disappear beneath the rubble.” The Battle for Home is Sabouni’s elegy to her devastated town, a memoir about survival, and a kind of manifesto, stressing the importance of architecture and urbanism for our understanding of the deeper roots of Syria’s conflict and the seeds of civil war.
Why talk about architecture when so many people are losing their lives? Sabouni contends that Syria’s built environment helped create the conditions for a popular uprising-turned-civil war. She isn’t suggesting that architecture or urban planning were the main causes of the conflict, but she makes a convincing case that they reflected the Assad regime’s corruption and increasingly sectarian agenda. How else to explain the fact that so many Sunnis were relegated to slum-like neighborhoods? In this light, Syria’s ravaged cities themselves — how they were planned and governed before the war — offer a lesson and a warning. Her hope is that better, fairer urban development, policy, and architecture can aid eventual reconciliation. Architecture, as Sabouni puts it, “offers a mirror to a community, and in that mirror we can see what is wrong and also find hints as to how to put it right.”
Homs clearly reflects what was wrong with prewar Syria. Under Hafez al-Assad until 2000 and then under his son, the city was neglected and mocked, the butt of many Syrian jokes. Hafez consolidated his power in the 1970s by reaching outside his Alawite clique to ally with the Sunni economic elite of Damascus and Aleppo; his rise came at Homs’s expense. Governmental land appropriations, the razing of historic areas like much of Old Homs, and urban development that excluded certain people — and, by extension, certain classes and sects — reflected the policy of the Assad regime, alienating and stoking resentment among a large section of the mostly Sunni population.
Consider the Homs district of Baba Amr, whose name, Sabouni says, has during the war “become a metonym for either unprecedented courage or high treason, depending upon whose side you are on.” Before the conflict, its poor, mostly Sunni residents lived like many other Middle Easterners, in unplanned urban areas likened to slums in India or Brazil, but better described as unregulated, tightly packed neighborhoods where the state was somehow both absent and omnipresent — absent because there was little official regulation or oversight, omnipresent because services as basic as a water line or electricity, let alone a building permit, were available only through bribing a venal local official or neighborhood strongman.
Under Hafez’s and Bashar’s rule, people moved into Baba Amr both from the surrounding countryside and from the city of Homs itself. But the Homs elite still regarded Baba Amr’s residents, be they doctors or craftsmen, as “peasants.” The epithet implied “Sunni,” reflecting the growing tensions between the city and the mainly Sunni countryside. Like many Syrian cities, Sunni-majority Homs was also long home to intermingled Alawite and Christian communities. But a “sectarian urbanism,” as Sabouni puts it, was emerging.
Some of this was a product of urban plans that the government inherited from the French, who ruled Syria as a colonial power after World War I. They imposed Cartesian street grids on many of Syria’s still-walled city centers and created “modern” neighborhoods whose existence was meant to signal the backwardness and disorder of historic ones. These urban plans were continually revived, then stalled, then revived again under the Assads. Hafez also mimicked the French in more brutal ways. In 1925, the French bombed Damascus for two days straight to put down an anticolonial revolt, leveling an entire section of its Old City. In 1982, Hafez’s army razed the historic heart of the city of Hama, home to a Muslim Brotherhood–led insurgency. The elder Assad also ordered the area outside Damascus’s splendid Umayyad Mosque in the center of the Old City to be cleared and leveled, in order to create a plaza that would allow troops easy access for crowd control after Friday sermons and protests. The French colonial authorities would have approved.
At first, urban policy under Bashar was less invasive. In 2009, with city populations booming, his government relaxed construction regulations in teeming, unplanned neighborhoods like Baba Amr, in the name of “upgrading” them — that is, if the right officials were paid off. “Tacit approval was granted to those areas to build ‘unofficially’,” Sabouni explains. “This was made possible by pervasive corruption, which spread the word while turning a blind eye to any consequences.” Two years later, when the civil war erupted, the roofs of those mid-rise concrete buildings — with parapets of rebar opening the possibility for the addition of another floor — became gun posts for rebels fighting off government troops. Then they were flattened by the regime. Sabouni’s book includes her own sketches of these “monstrous stacks of crumbled concrete.”
Sabouni believes “the disaster of Baba Amr could have been avoided by a fairer form of urbanization” before the war, if its residents had been “granted ‘payback’ through architecture.” Instead, Baba Amr got urban neglect. And things don’t look any better for nascent reconstruction efforts. The government released an imposing plan for a new Baba Amr that resembled knockoff Le Corbusier: huge, forbidding apartment towers and vast plazas that wouldn’t look out of place in the oil-rich Gulf. Sabouni entered her own design for Baba Amr into a United Nations competition. She called the proposal “tree units,” reenvisioning the density of Syria’s historic urban fabric in stacked and cantilevered form. It looks a little like Moshe Safdie’s Habitat 67 in Montreal; the government rejected it.
The government’s Baba Amr reconstruction scheme also represents the grim evolution in its urban policy after the civil war began. Rather than condone, for a price, semi-legal construction in poor, predominantly Sunni neighborhoods, authorities expropriated the land and started bulldozing — but only in areas seen as sympathetic to rebels. A presidential decree in 2012, known only as “No. 66,” forbid any new construction in many of these so-called informal areas, with a special eye toward the rebellious suburbs of Damascus. It included targeted demolitions of “illegal” buildings, billed by the regime as slum clearance and urban renewal. As a Wall Street Journal reporter put it, “the strategy appears designed to cripple and disperse the rebels through the destruction and encirclement of communities where they operate.”
Many of these neglected and impoverished Sunni suburbs of Damascus were disposed to rise up against the regime for the same reasons as Baba Amr. It is not lost on Sabouni, and, in all likelihood, on other Homsis and Damascenes, that Christian enclaves damaged in the war — like Maaloula, a historically significant monastery town in the desert hills north of Damascus where residents still speak Aramaic, the language of Jesus — have since been protected by the regime. Maaloula’s residents have been compensated, while Sunni residents have been forbidden from returning to their devastated neighborhoods and villages, and subjected to arbitrary arrest simply for being from the wrong place. It’s the same sectarian urbanism.
“There is an inescapable correspondence between the architecture of a place and the character of the community that has settled there,” Sabouni writes. “Our architecture tells the story of who we are.” That story has changed terribly since the civil war. “Buildings do not lie to us: they tell the truth without taking sides,” she adds, and in Homs, two key landmarks speak with particular eloquence: the Ottoman-era mosque of Khalid ibn al-Walid and the Syrian Orthodox church of Saint Mary of the Holy Belt, which is reputed to be one of the world’s oldest churches, though it was rebuilt in the 19th century. Both buildings have been severely damaged in the fighting. Like Damascus, Aleppo, and other Syrian cities before the war, Homs would resound simultaneously with the ringing of church bells and the call to prayer. “The social fabric of these areas was woven according to the same principles as the architecture: mixed use, mixed origins, mixed religions.”
Mourning this loss is about more than heritage; it is about Syrians and how they identify themselves after such systematic destruction. “All our accomplishments have been erased, starting with the built ones and ending with the living ones,” Sabouni declares. “In Syria people haven’t just lost a part of their identity; they have lost most of their built history and all of their present. They are living in fragmented ruins, with only a hazy memory of their identity as citizens of a shared territory and home.” Yet she finds reasons for hope even in the ruins of Homs, firmly believing that, in any nascent rebuilding, better architecture can foster the principles of tolerance and intermingling: “In the work of healing, architecture is as important as anything else we might do.”
Of course, reconstruction is still far off, and is only being considered in areas reconquered by the regime — and on the regime’s terms. In June, Assad defiantly told Syria’s parliament that he would “liberate every inch of Syria,” reviving a line he rolled out when the uprising began. The war has again tipped in his favor, thanks to Russia’s involvement and continued backing from Iran. But even if Assad triumphs, will he have anything left? Sabouni quotes a Syrian aphorism, “One who has no old has no new.”
Frederick Deknatel is the senior editor of World Politics Review.