People walk through the entrance of the ancient Hamidiyeh market in the old city of Damascus. Image Credit: AP

Beirut: For the past two years, Iranian real estate developers and private citizens have been silently buying houses throughout the old city of Damascus. This is a known “secret” among all Syrian property owners and real estate agents in Syria. Privately, everybody complains about Iran’s investment scheme but nobody dares object in public, not out of fear but rather, financial need. All of the lucrative deals are signed off in foreign currency — a life jacket for residents of the Old City who are plagued by devaluation of their local currency after five years of war.

Most of the deals are signed directly with Syrian owners and some with Abdullah Azzam, an Iranian cleric who frequents Damascus to purchase property on behalf of low-profile Iranian investors.

According to Syrian law, only locally licensed NGOs and foreign companies operating in Syria can own land and real estate inside Syria, in addition, of course, to foreign embassies. Foreign nationals, with the exception of Palestinian Syrians, cannot buy homes in Syria.

Iranian investors are forced to make the deals through Syrian intermediaries, or through the Iranian Embassy itself, which is located far away in the posh Mezzeh neighbourhood of modern Damascus. Others are done via Iranian nationals who have lived and worked in Syria for years and carry dual passports.

Not a single one of the homes purchased by Iranians has been transformed into anything provocative or high profile. They are just buying homes and “keeping a low profile” until the guns go silent in Syria, making use of their comically low prices in the global real estate market and clearly, waiting for a time when Damascus will boom and they will become very profitable investments.

Unlike other real estate developers, who purchase homes and land in upper-end parts of war-torn cities — making use of their crashing prices in times of turmoil — the Iranians in Damascus are focused on two neighbourhoods only, Sayyida Zeinab and Sayyida Ruqayya. Both are highly important for Shiite history, being shrines for family members of the Prophet’s nuclear family. Iranian investors have not bought a single home in residential districts like Mezzeh or Abu Rummaneh, the favourite venue of the city’s moneyed elite.

Sayyida Zeinab, located in the southern suburb of Damascus, is a neighbourhood surrounding the tomb and mosque of the Prophet’s granddaughter Zeinab, the daughter of Fatima Al Zahrah and Ali Ibn Abi Taleb, the fourth caliph and son-in-law of the Prophet The mosque, constructed in 1990, is famed for its gold-leafed dome and the giant mirrors on its walls and roof, with good doors.

The homes surrounding Sayyida Zeinab are relatively new, constructed from the 1960s onwards. An average 100-square metre apartment costs anywhere between 40 million SP (Dh264,240) to 75 million SP (Dh499,120), depending on the condition of the building.

The prices are much higher in Sayyida Ruqayya, located behind the Grand Umayyad Mosque of Damascus — the jewel of the crown of the Old City.

The Amara neighbourhood, being thousands of years old, is riddled with magnificent Damascene palaces, some reaching up to 30 rooms, with high lemon trees, spacious courtyards, and water fountains made out of stone. The price of these mansions starts at $150,000 (Dh550,500) and can reach up to $600,000 (Dh2.20 million). Some are 2,000 square metres, like the mansion of Algerian freedom fighter Emir Abdelkader El Djezairi who lived in Damascus in the 19th century, a stone’s throw from Sayyida Ruqayya now owned by the Algerian Embassy in Syria.

One real estate owner in the nearby ancient Hamidieh Market told Gulf News: “Our job is to sell homes — this is what we do for a living — regardless of who the customer is. If the Iranians come here to revamp Sayyida Zeinab, they are welcome so long as they are paying money. If the Saudis won and came here to revamp the sites surrounding the Grand Umayyad (Mosque), they too are welcome.”