I recently visited the Roofed Souk (al-Souk al-Maqbi–in colloquial dialect “the domed souk”) in Homs for the first time in years. I entered through surroundings of destruction and ruins, driven by nostalgia for days when we had to walk one behind the other because of the crowds. We were now one week before Eid al-Fitr, and there were no more than two hundred people at the peak hour, in addition to a few open shops waiting for customers who may or may not come!
Before the war, this market, like others in Syrian cities large and small, was a hub for commercial activities in the city, where people exchanged various goods and commodities, and craftsmen, stallholders, and customers from the villages and countryside of Homs gathered. The market buzzed with stallholders calling out about their merchandise, quality, and prices, which suited various social classes. Here you could find various clothes and textiles, sewing supplies, old rugs, furs, various threads and ropes, shoes, clogs, socks, bags, stationery, decorative materials, make-up, gold, silver, oriental and copper goods, groceries, sweets, candy, fish, and meat. In al-A’tareen Souk (perfumers’ souk), a single shop contained more than five thousand types of herbs, plants, spices, oils, and perfumes. There were also workshops for jewelry, blacksmithing, whitening copper, dyeing fabrics, upholstery, and Arab sewing.
Many of the crafts that once filled these markets, such as squeezing molasses and tanning leather, have become extinct, and new ones have replaced them. According to the Directorate of Ruins and Museums in Homs, the number of shops before 2011 was 890 oriental, local, and heritage shops located in thirteen souks: al-Nouri, al-Hisbeh, al-Bazabashi[i], al-Mansoojat, al-Sagha, al-Qaisarieh near al-Qaisarieh Inn[ii], al-Ibi, al-Ma’sarah[iii], al-Ma’radh (al-A’tareen), al-Arab–the mediator between the nomads and the urbans, al-Faru, al-Nahhaseen, al-Khayyateen, and al-Najjareen. These souks, which go back to the Ayyubid and Mamluk eras, still preserve their heritage and architectural characteristics. Other parts go back to the Ottoman occupation period.
The architecture of these souks, just like their counterparts in Damascus and Aleppo, is Islamic, as they are mostly covered with cylindrical roofs, huge rock domes: the shops are built of rocks with semi-circled rock frontages and crowned columns, decorated in the old style with geometric shapes. Huge windows sit on the top with arches for ventilation and lighting. A big dome emerges where two souks meet to crown the road junction, while basalt stones cover the floor.
Basalt stones, which characterize old buildings in Homs, were used because of their abundance in the area of al-Wa’ir, west of Homs, but you can find some souks with roofs made of limestone and hemp, some shaped as domes with air vents. An ironclad wooden shutter with a small door that goes back to 1300 AD characterizes the entrance of al-Qaisarieh souk. Then comes a roofed vestibule that leads to a stone staircase, which in turn leads up to the top floor of twenty-seven shops. Twenty columns made of white stones supporting wooden roofs surround the shops. You can see the ruins of a stone mill inside one of the shops.
The war overran these ancient markets in 2012, subjecting them to destruction and fires. Restoration and rehabilitation work over an area of forty-two thousand square kilometers began three years ago with coordination between Homs Governorate and the United Nations Development Program (UNDP), under the supervision of the General Directorate of Ruins and Museums. The restoration project will replace the damaged metal coverings with similar new ones in the style of the thirties’ period. The restoration includes fixing structural damage, replacing missing stones, and rebuilding some destroyed shops according to specifications set by the Directorate of Ruins and Museums and schemes for this project. The reconstruction will use the same old stones, after they have been sorted out and the rubble removed. There will be new roller shutters, uniform signs, and metal nets for windows and shops. The project will also restore the infrastructure and repair the stone floors.
Restoration will take place in four stages: the first and second ended in 2017 and the third began in 2018. The number of shops restored as part of the third stage reached 750 shops as of March, according to UNDP Representative in Homs Tareq Safar’s statement to the official Teshreen newspaper. However, Safar complained that the “lack of return on the part of shop owners after the restoration of their shops is causing embarrassment for us in front of visiting delegations and some donors,” calling on shop owners to remove the remaining rubble in their shops, so it can be moved away from the sight of the organization’s delegations, who are asking why the shops have not opened yet. This may cause donor countries to reconsider future assistance.
Financial Constraints and Burdens:
The restoration project is over ninety percent complete, according to official statements, but the revival in the market has not reached twenty percent in comparison to what it was prior to 2011. This is due to the sectarian division in Homs’s neighborhoods because of the checkpoints, the battles that erupted, the retreat of inhabitants to their neighborhoods, and the creation of micro-markets that thrived separately in each neighborhood and later expanded after the war ended. However, these markets still lack crafts like whitening copper, oriental work, ropes, cloaks, and traditional clothing, which the old souk provided.
Merchants in the Roofed Souk suffer from high rents. The shop owners have to re-raise the columns and the roof so that they can be included in the restoration works, as the program is restricted to the shop fronts. In addition, the program has imposed a uniform interior cladding on them. All of this, along with accumulated taxes from previous years, costs the shop owners great sums of money.
Restoration works were supposed to include nearby markets in Abi al-Alaa al-Ma’ari Street, al-Na’ora Souk, Abo al-Ouf Street, Bab Hood, Vegetable Souk, and al-Jindi Souk in parallel with the old souk, so that they can be all connected[iv]. Because most of Homs’s neighborhoods are empty, the souk area has become more isolated. Although government institutions have started working, the neighborhoods of Bayyadha, Khaldieh, Wadi al-Sayeh, Bab Hood, al-Qosoor, al-Qarabis, and Joret al-Shayyah (the northern part of the city) are still semi-empty. One-third of the displaced people have returned to the neighborhoods of al-Warsheh, Bab Hood, al-Hamidieh, and Bostan al-Diwan.
Many of the shop owners believe that returning to their homes and shops would be exhausting and very expensive. In addition, there is a lack of security inside the souk at night and delays in installing electricity meters. Some people prefer to open a “cart” in front of their shop until the souk starts to pick up again, so they can prove their presence.
Antoine al-Akhras, a jeweler, suggested closing infringing shops in residential areas, so that merchants will be compelled to go back. Abo Abdo, a soap and olive oil wholesale merchant who worked in the family shop he inherited from his father for more than forty years, has now switched to selling olive oil on the sidewalks after his shop burned down and he lost his goods because it is less expensive and more profitable, as he does not have the money for the restoration, cladding, and buying new products.
Abd al-Baqi al-Tarsheh, the owner of a clothing shop, believes that al-Na’ora Souk should be restored because it links al-Dablan market and the Roofed Souk. “We need financial and moral support so we can return,” he said. Morhaf Slaibi, the owner of a jewelry shop, cannot buy new equipment. Talhat al-Salqini says, “We did not get any financial support. We restored the shops at our own expense.”
A fifty-year-old lady, who frequently visits the souks, thinks that all the shops need to come back, including those selling textiles, jewelry, and tailors’ supplies, because “those who go to the souk want to find everything in one place. We need diversity,” she says. Another lady, who works as a tailor, has to go back and forth between the distant souks in the neighborhoods looking for her supplies, which she used to find all in one street in the Roofed Souk.
All attempts by the government to show that normal life has indeed returned to Homs are for media purposes only. The return of government institutions in the city center is not enough, as it is surrounded by destruction. It also seems that corrupt bureaucracy is not the only reason for not providing true incentives for the return of inhabitants and souks. Apparently, the government has no intentions in this regard, and it shows little or no concern for this matter.
The Roofed Souk still reserves its own corner in the collective memory of the inhabitants of Homs and its countryside. It has always been, and will remain, capable of encompassing all sectors of society. Its return is an indicator for the return of normal civil life. So, will the dream come true?
[This article was originally published in Arabic at Salon Syria here.]
[i] Known as the ladies’ souk or the souk for second-hand clothing.
[ii]Residents of Homs pronounce it as “Qaisawieh.”
[iii]Named after the craft of squeezing molasses in old times.
[iv]The infrastructure and sidewalks are currently being restored in al-Na’oua Souk, Abo al-Ouf street, and Bab Hood.