Jewish Quarter of Damascus blooms again

After years of poor maintenance and oblivion, the Harat al-Yahoud is coming back to life, but nobody is asking its former inhabitants.

Beit Farhi 311 (photo credit: Lucien Gubbay)
Beit Farhi 311
(photo credit: Lucien Gubbay)
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.
RELATED:Restoration in Cairo and BeirutAlthough 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
Behind the unmarked, plain door of the Talisman Hotel in the heart of historical Damascus, a world of luxury and tastefulness hides.
Carved 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 Farhi family.
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 becoming trendy.
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.
Its 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.
This 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.
“We 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.
“The premises 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.”
Hakam 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.
Bittersweet memories
“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 Syria.
“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 confirmed.
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 speculate.
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 capital.”
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.