The Hamraoui neighbourhood is replete with 18th century mansions with large courtyards and decorated windows. Image Credit: Courtesy: Mahmoud Nouelati

Damascus: In a controversial move, the governorate of Damascus has just transferred ownership of an entire chunk of an ancient neighbourhood in the Old City to “Dimashq Al Cham Holding,” the investment branch of the Damascus Governorate.

Both the governorate and the holding company are run by Bisher Sabban, the longest serving governor in the city’s history since 2006.

This move has raised eyebrows, amidst high speculation about the fate and future of unsolicited or confiscated land and real estate throughout Syria, both in war-torn areas and those unaffected by the present conflict, like Damascus proper.

The company, “Dimashq Al Cham” has a start-up capital of 60 billion SP and aims at “managing” the municipality’s numerous real estate properties while transforming them into economically profitable projects.

This week, the firm overtook the Al Hamraoui neighbourhood surrounding the Great Umayyad Mosque, which was seized from its private owners during the short-lived United Arab Republic of 1958-1961.

Back then, homeowners in Old Damascus were stripped of their ownership under the socialist policies of Egyptian President Jamal Abdul Nasser, who also nationalised factories, banks, and land.

After the union dissolved the Syrian government took over control.

Since then most homeowners have died or lost hope of regaining their claim to their homes.

Situated in the cobbled alleys of the Old City, Al Hamroaui consists of 56 shops and 74 homes, mostly spacious 18th century mansions with large courtyards, decorated ceilings, gushing water fountains and high lemon trees.

Most are either closed or collapsing from old age and neglect, since preservation of historic homes was not a top priority for the government fighting an uprising for the past seven years.

Some have been transformed into shabby bureaucratic offices administratively linked to different branches of government, abused and neglected by their tenants.

“My grandfather used to own a school in Hamraoui” Khalid Ramadan, a 56-year old civil engineer, told Gulf News.

“It was built under the Ottomans. We were promised compensation under Nasser but have not received a penny for what they took from us. My grandfather died in 1982, waiting for the compensation. Now, it has been over 50 years and they are transferring the property ownership yet again. We didn’t get anything the first time and expect nothing this time as well,” he said.

The latest decision has struck a raw nerve in Damascus, coming just weeks after Law 10 was passed, aimed at re-organising and re-defining private and public real estate in Syria, especially in war-effected areas.

The law, which is yet to go into effect, gives owners a 30-day grace period to prove that they own a plot of land or home, by providing property documents either by showing up in person or through relatives up to the fourth degree.

Those who fail to do so suffer the confiscation of their property and either its transfer into government hands, or sale at public auction.

The problem with this is that thousands of Syrians are unable to enter the country to prove their right to land and real estate, either because they are “wanted” by the security services or dodging the forced military draft in the Syrian Army.

“I have a lot of land in Douma, inherited from my father” said Hasan Bazerbachi, a landowner from Damascus now living in Jordan.

Speaking to Gulf News, he added: “The registration papers are inside Douma. Who is going to go in? They are not allowing us in, saying that they are still cleaning it and removing mines! I don’t know if the papers have survived (government bombing earlier this year) or have been looted, and I don’t even know if the house is standing, and if it is, who is now living in it. How will I be able to prove that I own it? I cannot enter Syria, because I am wanted for service in the army. I have no relative able of proving my right to the land. If I don’t show up after the law goes into effect, I will lose my land!”

Technically the new law is confusing and ambiguous, lawmakers say, because its jurisdiction applies to all of Syria and not just to war-effected areas.

Law #10 can apply to illegal neighbourhoods that were erected in a wild and un-organised manner prior to the year 2011, and which have which have been demolished by the present conflict, like Hajar Al Aswad, for example, 4 km south of central Damascus (which was re-taken by government troops on May 21 2018).

It can also apply to both destroyed cities like Daraya and Harasta neighbourhoods and areas unscratched by the violence, like the Hamraoui neighbourhood.

Faisal Serour of the Executive Office at the Damascus Governorate denies any ill-intention regarding the surroundings of the Umayyad.

He tells Gulf News that the financial revenue generated from the new homes and shops will be used to provide better services to the people such as new waste management facilities.

Iran and the pro-Iran Lebanese Shiite Hezbollah group—chief allies of the Syrian government—have long been accused of snatching up properties around the Ummayad Mosque given its proximity to the Sayyida Ruqayya Shrine of the youngest daughters of Imam Ali from his wife, Fatima Al Zahra, daughter of the Prophet Mohammad (PBUH).

The shrine is sacred to Shiite Muslims and since 2012, has been under the guard of Hezbollah, deep within the Old City of Damascus.

The opposition has accused Iranian and Lebanese Shiites of buying property around the shrine, in the vicinity of the Umayyad—like the Hamraou neighbourhood—to solidify their presence around the Shiite places of worship.

By law, foreigners cannot own property in Syria, but foreign companies can and should Iranian and Lebanese companies register to take part in the reconstruction process, they would be entitled to own land in Damascus.

Transferring the ownership of land around the Umayyad Mosque is “dangerous” says Ahmad Mansour, a member of the board at the Friends of Damascus Association, an NGO focused on protect-ing the Old City.

Speaking to Gulf News, Mansour—a lawyer—added: “This law threatens Damascene culture and identity—both of which we are immensely proud. In 1976, Old Damascus was registered as a World Heritage Site at UNESCO and with the Council of Antiquities in Syria. Meaning, nobody can tear down its buildings, build new ones, or create new roads with it. That is illegal. Nobody is entitled to change the identity of Damascus, or transfer its historic neighbourhoods into commercial projects, in disregard of their cultural and historic value.”