Two buses are parked
next to each other close to the Umayyad Mosque compound in the center
of Old Damascus. A group of female Iranian tourists clad in black
chadors disembarks from the one, while the other bus is carrying a group
of Germans, who hold bottles of water and wide hats against the summer
heat. First trip for the Germans, third for the Iranians who feel at
home and at ease.
Both groups came to spend the week in Damascus,
a new hip destination for international tourism. Everyone who recently
visited the Syrian capital probably noticed the extraordinary
development that both parts of the city – old and new – are going
through. Trendy cafes and malls are sprouting, new glitzy hotels open
their doors and the flow of tourists, both Western and Arab, has
increased significantly, up 56 percent during the first seven months of
this year. The city is opening up to the West, even if the regime is
not, and seems to be in a hurry to shed its old outfit and to try on the
new, elegant and shiny one of a popular tourist destination.
Restoration in Cairo and Beirut
Old Damascus was included on UNESCO’s World Heritage Site list in 1975,
only now has the turn come for restoration and beautification work
inside the ancient walled city, including the long deserted and
neglected Jewish Quarter. The Arab neighbors still remember the names of
families who used to live here, and there are still pieces of Hebrew
inscriptions. But the members of ancient Jewish community of Syria are
long gone, dispersed among Israel, the US and other countries, but their
houses (some of them 200 to 300 years old), synagogues and schools are
still standing. After years of poor maintenance and oblivion, the Harat
al- Yahoud, the Jewish Quarter of Damascus, is coming back to life.
One of a kind
the unmarked, plain door of the Talisman Hotel in the heart of
historical Damascus, a world of luxury and tastefulness hides.
wood, stucco ceilings, the gurgling water of the fountain in the
courtyard remind one of beautiful concubines, great caliphs and
eagle-eyed viziers. About 300 years ago a real vizier may have actually
lived or spent some time in this spectacular building, one of 24 houses
in the quarter of Damascus which belonged to the influential Jewish
Its patriarch, Rafael Farhi (often referred to as
Muallem), served as an adviser and financier to the Ottoman sultan and
enjoyed the highest degree of influence and power in Syria and beyond. A
nassi (president) of Jewish community, he used to own dozens of houses
inside the quarter, including the famous Beit Farhi, also called Beit
al-Muallem. It is just across the alley from the Talisman Hotel, now
entangled in a web of scaffolding and construction equipment. What used
to be a slum with narrow, dark streets and broken pavements is quickly
In 2008 Lucien and Joyce Gubbay, British Jews of
Syrian origin, visited Damascus and wrote that “the Jewish Quarter of
Damascus is in ruins and sparsely populated. The government plans to
turn it into an artists’ district and we visited its first studio. The
great houses with the spacious courtyards with fountains and trees are
visibly crumbling away.”
In 1994, the authorities gave the green
light to some restoration projects, and such jewels as Beit al-Mamlouka,
Beit Zaman and the Old Vine Hotel received a second life. Some were
purchased by elite Syrian and Lebanese figures, such as Noura Jumblatt,
Druse leader Walid Jumblatt’s wife. Others were turned into boutique
hotels, each with its unique style and ambience. Spending a night in one
of these hotels might cost a tourist $250 to $300.
“While in Syria, live like a Syrian,” says the logo of the Syrian Boutique Hotels organization.
website explains that SBH offers visitors a unique opportunity – to
live inside the heart of ancient Damascus in luxury and a traditional
Arab house. or Jewish, if it comes to the Talisman hotel or Beit Farhi.
is how John Wilson, a visitor to Damascus described the place in his
1847 book Land of the Bible: “On the eighth of June, we visited the
mansion of Raphael, the chief of the Farhis. We were told that in the
household lived about 60 to 70 souls. This establishment is even grander
than that we visited yesterday [Mourad’s house]. The roof and walls of
the rooms which are situated round the court like those already noticed
are gorgeous in a high degree. One of the British travelers expressed
his doubts whether those in our own royal palaces are superior to them.
visited Raphael, the nassi of the Damascus Jews, in his private room...
From his room, we went to his library which is of considerable extent.
It is sometimes used as a private synagogue.
It contains three
beautiful rolls of the law, in the richest silver case which I have yet
to see enshrining the books of Moses and a copy of the Bible about 450
years old, most splendidly illuminated and colored.
of Raphael Farhi are like a little village; and it strikes me that
notwithstanding the deference which is accorded by all their inmates to
the patriarch of the family, and the good order which is observed,
domestic comfort, in the European sense of the term, must be
considerably impeded by the number of different ages moving to and from
in the courts.”
Roukby, a French-Syrian architect, is leading the project to turn Beit
Farhi into another luxury hotel. While the construction work is in full
gear, an ambitious plan to turn some 128 other Jewish houses in the
Al-Amin quarter was recently revealed by the Syrian and foreign press.
Sources say that the funding and execution of the project is private;
however, given the political reality, it’s obvious that whoever stands
behind the project had to receive permission from the regime, which
still tightly holds all reins of government.
The website of the
Talisman Hotel says the structure used to be a Jewish house which was
restored into a hotel. Considering that not so long ago the word “Jew”
or “Jewish” uttered on the streets of Damascus would be accompanied by
uneasy looks and whispers, this sudden openness and turn to
multiculturalism is surprising. After all, not so long ago the last
Jewish inhabitants of this quarter had their phones cut off, were banned
from traveling abroad and forbidden to talk to foreigners. But visitors
to this trendy boutique hotel will never hear a word about it.
Also, they might never know how exactly the Jewish Quarter and its
houses were stolen from their legal owners. By 1950 when the Syrian
government passed a law seizing Jewish property, only 5,000 Jews were
left in the country. Since the early ’40s the community experienced
riots, anti-Jewish campaigns and laws, intimidation and terror.
Naturally, the elegant tourist brochure of the Talisman doesn’t say a
word about this black page in Syrian history.
“The house was all marble, precious stones and mirrors. I entered it maybe once or twice.
It made a great impression on me and left a remarkable memory. Of
course, not all Jewish houses looked like Beit Farhi. Usually four-five
flats shared the courtyard, where the fountain and the oven used to be.
There was not much difference between the homes of Jews and Arabs. The
only difference was the social status – there were poor, shabby houses,
middle-class dwellings and, of course, the palaces of the rich, like
Beit Farhi,” says Moshe Shemer, the head of Association of Jews from
Damascus and editor-in-chief of Mi kan v’mi sham, the monthly magazine
of Syrian Jewry in Israel.
Shemer left his native Damascus in 1946, when he was 10 years old, but
he remembers clearly the confiscation of the houses from the Jews, the
persecutions and eventually the exodus of Jews who wished to leave
“What did they do to these houses? Some, like Beit Farhi were used to
house Palestinian refugees, others ended up in hands of those close to
the regime. The Jews of Syria left their homeland empty-handed, deprived
of their rights, property and even paperwork,” says Shemer.
He believes that the world ought to know about the plight of Jewish
refugees of Arab countries who were persecuted and stripped of
citizenship and property. “Roughly one million Jews from Arab countries
were turned into refugees and lost everything they had.
The estimated value of that property is approximately $80 billion,” he says.
Shemer closely follows the latest developments in Damascus, the city of
his childhood which he hasn’t seen for 64 years. “The feeling is
terrible. I read about all these commercial projects in Jewish Quarter
of Damascus and I feel pain. It’s clear that we are not going back
there, but why shouldn’t this property be used by Israel as a tool to
solve the question of Palestinian refugees? If such and such number of
Palestinian refugees left their homes and now they claim there are four
million of them, then it’s important to remind the world of the Jewish
refugees – one million Jews had left the Arab countries, and today their
descendants comprise a good several millions as well. For years the
question of Jewish refugees was left out of public discussion in Israel.
It’s now time to put it high on the agenda,” he says.
This belief that the tragedy of the Jewish exodus from Arab countries
could be used by Israel to achieve a breakthrough in peace talks is
shared by many others.
While in Israel the news from Syria produces heated political
discussion, across the ocean not everybody automatically puts these
developments in a political context. Some are just happy that the
historic Jewish homes and Jewish heritage will not be destroyed in Syria
and other Arab countries. They prefer to concentrate on the importance
of preservation and restoration of the Jewish Quarter rather then on
political side of this issue.
Alain Farhi, a businessman who now resides in the US and a descendant of
Muallem Rafael Farhi, said that he was happy about the current
restoration of Jewish houses, as “it is important to preserve this
precious heritage for future generations.” Farhi was born in Egypt,
where his family immigrated from Damascus at the beginning of the 20th
century. He is deeply involved in genealogical research about the Farhi
family, which can be found on his website Fleur d’Orient.
Over the years the site has grown to encompass more than 80,000 related
Farhi families (including families linked by marriage) from Europe, the
Middle East and Asia – Jewish, Christian and even Muslim.
His cousin Lucien Gubbay, who serves as a chairman of trustees of the
Montefiore Endowment (UK), who visited Syria in 2008 with his wife,
Joyce, also believes that “it’s better that the buildings should remain
standing in some form rather than falling down because of decay or, like
the Bahsita Jewish Quarter of Aleppo, being simply razed to the ground.
In Aleppo they told me that [the Jewish Quarter] had been the former
red light district and that its women had been sent back to Turkey.”
Who owns what
One can be happy about the recent revival of the Jewish Quarter of
Damascus or regret the missed opportunities, yet there is also a
question of legal rights that remains unanswered. In 1950 the Syrian
government passed a law seizing Jewish property (a year earlier this
property was frozen), and only in 1994 the remaining members of the
Jewish community were allowed to leave with their assets.
However in 2007, Grand Mufti Ahmed Badruddin Hassoun called on Syrian
Jews to return to their homeland. “I spoke to a group of young Syrian
Jews from America, and I told them about the importance of coming back
to Syria,” he said. “All Jewish properties are safeguarded through a
decree issued by the late president Hafez Assad. They are being taken
care of until their owners return to the country. We therefore call on
Syria’s Jews to return to their homeland.”
Gubbay confirms that this is the official line of the Syrian government.
“I was told that the houses had been locked up by the government
awaiting the eventual return of their owners. I was at first skeptical –
but this was later confirmed by the developer of Beit Farhi, who sought
my help in an urgent attempt to trace the owner of the neighboring
house, as he wished to purchase a small part of it to incorporate into
his own development.”
In this case the Syrian-French architect Hakam Roukby had purchased the
shares of Beit Farhi from the remaining Farhi heirs, as Alain Farhi
Roukby has bought the remaining shares from the Palestinian refugee
families who were settled in the house by the regime. Farhi also said
that he has no idea if the other two houses – one known as Dahdah House
and the other one which was turned into the Talisman hotel were
purchased in this manner; however, searches lead to a Christian family
which occupied it until recently and claimed it was their property.
Currently, despite the promises of the grand mufti and some Syrian
officials “to return the houses to their legal owners upon return,” 128
houses in the Jewish Quarter of Damascus are going to be restored and
used as tourist facilities. Do these generous promises mean that if some
of the Jewish owners of the houses or their descendants would like to
go back and reclaim their property, they will be given this opportunity?
Syrian authorities weren’t available for interview, so one can only
It seems, however, that considering the vast amount of money that is
currently being poured into the projects in the Jewish Quarter, the
possibilities of that are slight to nonexistent, just as the
possibilities that some Syrian Jews will return.
The question of the legality of developing the Jewish Quarter was also
raised in the World Heritage Committee report of 2008. Ahead of vast
restoration projects planned by the Syrian government and private
entrepreneurs, the report mentioned the problematic status of Jewish
property, stipulating that “since many houses are empty, particularly in
the Jewish Quarter, the problem of defining legal tools which would
allow their reuse should be faced.”
The UNESCO spokesman’s office in Paris said that “UNESCO urges its
member states to preserve and safeguard cultural heritage, including
historical neighborhoods in cities, and to work with the communities
concerned to achieve this. However, the organization is not in a
position to comment on questions of ownership or usage of properties.”
Refuse to forget
In Israel the reactions to the Syrian news were significantly harsher.
The Ministry for Pensioners’ Affairs, which is now formally in charge of
Jewish refugees from Arab countries, said that “transforming the houses
of Jewish refugees to coffee shops and hotels is unthinkable as the
property in question is private, and should be returned to its legal
owners or paid compensation for. Unfortunately, due to the lack of
diplomatic relations between Israel and Syria, Israel can’t intervene
over Jewish property in Damascus; however, the office possesses the
tools that enable it to follow the developments inside the Syrian
Recently the ministry has begun the process of documentation of all
Jewish property left by refugees in Arab countries and Iran. Jewish
organizations welcomed this step, however many complain that they were
unable to present the necessary documentation as they were forced to
leave their homes empty-handed.
“We are aware of the difficulty, and therefore we began recording oral
evidence and recollections, diaries and newspaper clips. The process of
documentation is quite complicated and sensitive. It is difficult on the
personal level for the refugees, and on the official level due to the
lack of diplomatic relations with certain countries,” the ministry’s
press office said.