The Battle for Home: An architect’s lament for Syria

Syria

A study of how urban design contributed to the chaos of war-torn Syria has been compiled by architect Marwa al-Sabouni.

The 35-year-old resident of Homs remained in her home despite the fierce fighting which destroyed her studio.in the old part of the city.

“[It is] ruined. Nothing is left, not even the walls and ceilings” she said.

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Al-Sabouni has written a book entitled The Battle for Home: The Memoir of a Syrian Architect. In it she looks at the wider issues which led to the breakdown of order.

She said: “Outside the Old City in Homs, there was more ghettoised planning, where certain groups lived on the outskirts of the expanded city, divided by religion, class, and the person’s origin—whether they were from the city or the countryside.

“It’s created small cities within the larger city, with different characters and lifestyles. This means you don’t have any sense of identity and shared place.”

There were many important buildings that lay within the old district of Homs before the war. For al-Sabouni, two in particular stood out – the Khalid Ibn al-Walid Mosque, named after the famous military commander and companion of the Prophet Muhammad, and the Church of St. Mary of the Holy Belt, thought to be the oldest church ever built.

“Both of them were important to every Homsi. It was common to hear the bells of Christian churches and the Muslim calls for prayer echoing through the streets at the same time.”

The damage sustained in the city has been overwhelming

The mosque and church are badly damaged, and 60% of the wider city—known as the “capital of the revolution” for its central role in the uprising against Syrian President Bashar al-Assad—has been destroyed.

“The undoing of the urban fabric has advanced hand in hand with the undoing of the moral fabric,” Al-Sabouni wrote in her book.

“And that is what is written in frightful scars on the face of Old Homs.”

But despite the mortars, rockets, and barrel bombs that caused the destruction of so much of the city, leaving Homs was never an option for al-Sabouni.

She said: “I’d chosen to remain in Homs, where my husband and I run an architectural practice; along with ­others who stayed I experienced the revenge, when drops of death came from a clear sky onto schoolchildren, onto market shoppers, onto homes.”

She described the reality of the conflict “One of the 18 tanks that were besieging the area used to stand just around the corner of my street and fire away. It was awful to hear the shells being fired and to wonder where they landed. I tried to ­comfort my son by counting the five shots of a tank salvo (‘Four to go, three to go…’) and drawing a map to show how far away we were from the target. These were desperate techniques I used to adjust to the idea that the terror all around us would in fact spare no one.”

While others left, she sought to discover even more about her city, writing a memoir that weaves together an eyewitness account of the war with a broader argument about how bad urbanisation was part of its cause.

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