Saturday, April 20, 2024
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Saturday, April 20, 2024

Asma Assad selling Syria’s antiquities to the highest bidder

Once again Asma Assad, the wife of the head of the ruling regime in Syria Bashar Assad, puts her hand on the cultural heritage in Damascus resulting in a new victim of vicious schemes to increase the regime’s profits at the expense of Syria’s citizens.

The Sulaymaniyah Takkiya in Damascus, Syria; Credit: Saad Fansa

Al-Takkiya Al-Sulaymaniyah is an integrated mosque complex located in the heart of Damascus on the banks of the Barada River. It is one of the most important Ottoman monuments designed by the most famous Ottoman architect, Mimar Sinan, in 1559.

This archaeological site includes a large mosque, a military museum, a market designated as a heritage exhibition site for Syrian handicrafts, and a school for religious sciences. Its area is 11 square meters, and the most prominent characteristic of this complex is its slender minarets and its many domes. The ancient complex is a destination for Damascenes. It carries with it memories of the social life that is part of their heritage. As for the traditional handicrafts that are sold in the Sulaymaniyah market shops, they embody one of the most important features of Syrian tourism.

However, the Assad government began to obliterate this legacy when it decided to evict the craftspeople and merchants who have been running their showrooms in the Al-Takkiya Al-Sulaymaniyah market, many of whom possess skills that have been passed down through their families from generation to generation for hundreds of years. Citing the pretext of restoring the place, the Tourism Directorate issued a warning to the owners of the handicrafts market stalls and workshops in Damascus of the need to evacuate them without providing them with the assurance that they will be allowed to return after the restoration is complete, or even an alternative place to continue doing business until then. The majority of these craftsmen have been operating their businesses in the ancient marketplace for decades and hold official lease contracts with the regime, which later turned the lease contracts into tourism investment contracts in order to arbitrarily raise their fees.

there is no guarantee that we will return to the market. This is a clear message that they are planning something

An owner of a craft workshop in Al-Takkiya Al-Sulaymaniyah market

Abu Murad (a pseudonym for fear of being pursued by Syrian security forces), who owns a craft workshop in the market, told a friend of Syriawise that the situation is “very tragic, as the Ministry of Tourism did not provide us with an alternative place, and there is no guarantee that we will return to the market. This is a clear message that they are planning something.”

The closure of the market means more than just the shutting of market stalls and a halt to the work of the professional craftsmen that supply them. It also signals the disappearance and impending death of the most important place that serves to preserve the unique craftmanship and cultural creativity of the Syrian heritage, while at the same time providing a livelihood for the families of those who make it possible.

“The estimated percentage of the number of stores in the market is approximately between 40-45, and approximately 300 families live from the income of this market.” Muhammad, an old craftsman from the ancient marketplace said.

One of Al-Takkiya Al-Sulaymaniyah shops; Credit: Social media

During the reign of Hafez Assad, there was no governmental support and empowerment for these professions and crafts which contributed to the extinction of many of them, despite their cultural and historical importance to Syrian civilization. As for the era of his son Bashar, many artifacts were bought at low prices by members of the ruling family, their relatives, and favored friends in order to be marketed in Europe and other countries at exorbitant prices, thus lining the pockets of those who took advantage of the foreign market’s desire to acquire artifacts made in Syria.

For a long time, Al-Takkiya Al-Sulaymaniyah had been administratively affiliated with the Syrian Ministry of Islamic Endowments, even until 2007, when a decision to restore it was issued by this ministry in cooperation with the Turkish government. While it has always been within the administrative duties of the ministry to announce any intention to restore this historic site in the past, why is it that the Ministry of Tourism came to announce the site’s current restoration efforts when it is outside of its administrative authority?

Al-Takkiya Al-Sulaymaniyah; Credit: Syrian Ministry of Tourism

To answer this question regarding the rapid evacuation under the pretext of a restoration project, documents have revealed that the entity responsible for the change is the Syria Trust for Development, a non-governmental, non-profit organization owned by Asma Assad. By implementing this (fictitious) procedure, the administration of Al-Takkiya Al-Sulaymaniyah would be subject to the Ministry of Tourism, instead of the Ministry of Islamic Endowments, in order to legally justify its hand under the pretext of preserving and employing Syria’s cultural heritage as a positive force in its social development and revitalization of its societies.

monuments are currently being restored in Syria according to the dictates of Persian architecture, and this is a fact that cannot be denied based on comparisons with the original blueprints of the Umayyad Mosque in Aleppo which is also being restored under the direction of Iranians

Saad Fansa

Saad Fansa, Syrian historian and researcher of antiquities and heritage, told Syriawise that “Syria Trust for Development has placed its hand on the most important place that they can benefit from commercially.”

“Now the funding for the restoration is Iranian and the experts for the restoration of Al-Takkiya Al-Sulaymaniyah are Iranian. And this is a dangerous matter because monuments are currently being restored in Syria according to the dictates of Persian architecture, and this is a fact that cannot be denied based on comparisons with the original blueprints of the Umayyad Mosque in Aleppo which is also being restored under the direction of Iranians.

“This Assad regime sells everything of value in Syria, and this is a very dangerous matter as well in the matter of antiquities.

“The issue of antiquities in Syria, as the whole world knows, was slowly destroyed during the years of the two Assad regimes, and it was systematically destroyed during the Syrian crisis, with the silence of international organizations on what was going on and UNESCO is on the top of the list.

“The largest and most important elements already reside outside of Syria due to smuggling, theft, and looting,” Fansa concluded his statement to Syriawise.

A Syrian attorney also familiar with the situation stated on social media that the Syrian antiquities file “has become subject to Russian tutelage after contracting with the Russian Hermitage Museum to carry out antiquities’ restoration work in Syria, following the expulsion of all other foreign missions from the country. Antiquities restoration projects are being carried out with the support of the UNESCO for which the Syria Trust for Development serves as an arbitrator.” In other words, Asma Assad’s organization is the one “that prepares the projects and sets their budgets at dozens of times more than their actual cost.”

This legal source did not rule out that “the project is a prelude to handing over the place to Iranian companies” just as they previously handed over the file for the reconstruction of cities and real estate development to Iranians.

it is an expression of a systematic policy followed by the criminal Assad regime which continues its disregard for everything that pertains to this homeland, Syria

Farhan Matar

Farhan Matar, a Syrian writer, journalist, and refugee living in France said to Syriawise: “What has happened to Al-Takkiya Al-Sulaymaniyah Hospice, now and previously, is not just coincidence, nor the result of individual mistakes committed by corrupt officials or greedy merchants. Rather it is an expression of a systematic policy followed by the criminal Assad regime which continues its disregard for everything that pertains to this homeland, Syria.”

“Assad does not care about any heritage, history, or civilization of this country,” he added.

Asma Assad; Credit: Abaca

The name of Asma Assad appears with every change that takes place in the Syrian capital, whether in the field of new telecommunications companies, the changing of educational curricula, etc. Likewise, Asma Assad is behind the project of restoring and modernizing Al-Takkiya Al-Sulaymaniyah which in reality provides her with another opportunity to reap a new harvest at the expense of more than 300 Syrian families previously supported by this marketplace.

In 2015, the Syria Trust for Development entered Al-Takkiya Al-Sulaymaniyah with a project to acquire six shops called “Ubbaha.” In 2019, in cooperation with the regime’s Ministry of Tourism and UNESCO, the launch of the Heritage Incubator project was announced. Through its involvement in this project, the Syria Trust for Development was able to acquire a larger number of Al-Takkiya Al-Sulaymaniyah shops.

Today, several media reports speak of Asma Assad’s intention to establish an even larger project within Al-Takkiya Al-Sulaymaniyah. Indeed, she absolutely refused to renew the contracts of the craftsmen whose shops were transferred to the Dummar Central Incubator for Craft Arts, thus enabling Asma Assad’s organization to establish its own project in the complex while at the same time eliminating its competition.

And no one can predict what the next harvest will be… or when.

Yasser Ashkar
Yasser Ashkar
Former instructor at Istanbul University. Ashkar is a Founding Member of the Association of Syrian Refugees, Human Rights Activist and Journalist. He currently lives in Michigan, USA.

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