The Jewish Quarter of Damascus is being spruced up - a transformation made possible, ironically, by the exodus of its orginal inhabitants, The Globe and Mail's Patrick Martin remarks in his blog:
Of all the areas in Damascus undergoing change, the Old City is going through the most, and of all the areas inside the walls of the Old City, the old Jewish Quarter is undergoing the biggest transformation.
Once home to about 3500* Jews, the community now numbers fewer than 40. Many of the old homes now house Muslim or Christian families (the quarter stretches between the traditional Christian sector around the Church of St. Paul and the more populous Muslim area around the Umayyad Mosque). Many other of the Jewish homes remain vacant, their doors and windows boarded up or otherwise secured. One house still displays its Hebrew-inscribed lintel over the front door.
Most of the Jewish community left the country in the 1990s* after then president Hafez al-Assad made it easier for them to emigrate and take their wealth with them. (Until then, it was possible to leave, but only with substantial limits placed on how much money or valuables they could take along.) Most of the community turned up in the United States, mostly in Brooklyn, New York. Some went on to live in Israel..
The Quarter’s former Jewish school, built only a few years before the departures, now has an Arab owner and it sits mostly empty, people say.
Around the corner from the school is the most dramatic change. The building that once housed the community’s principal synagogue is being beautifully renovated as Beit Farhi, named for the Jewish financier (and adviser to the Ottoman sultan) who lived in it almost two hundred years ago. Overall, the 25,000 sq ft of the original mansion will become a boutique hotel.
Across the narrow road from Beit Farhi is the Talsiman, a gem of a hotel built four years ago from the renovation of two other spacious Jewish homes. Its 17 rooms look out onto a spacious central courtyard.
Everywhere you look in the Jewish Quarter, construction is underway: galleries, restaurants, as well as more small hotels, are being built. In another decade, the Jewish Quarter will be a destination of its own — made possible, ironically, by the exodus of its original inhabitants.
*In 1947 there were about 30,000 Jews, but the vast majority left after rioting. Only a few thousand hostage Jews were living in Syria by the 1990s. These were eventually allowed to leave, but not to Israel.