On March 15, a short clip surfaced of protestors near Souq Hamidiyeh in Damascus calling for a free Syria. According to young Syrian activists, this was to be the beginning of the Syrian revolution. While al-Jazeera reported that there were “dozens” of demonstrators, the Syrian privately-owned newspaper al-Watan reported that there were 30 “instigators” whose numbers were inflated by the large on-looking crowds. An American eyewitness and journalist wrote a revealing account of the day, noting that the protestors were attempting to reach Marjeh Square, only to be thwarted and then arrested by an outrageous security presence.
The Syrian media, which normally withholds opinions on local political events not involving designated political figures, launched a full-scale attack on the demonstrators using supposed comments from shopkeepers in Marjeh. According to al-Watan, one shopkeeper said, “We talked with the group [of demonstrators]. . .and one of them heaped insults at us and at the symbols of our nation, and one of them began to attack a shopkeeper . . . this is when the neighborhood intervened and told them to leave.” The article then cites foreign instigation and an Israeli text message campaign that helped spur the protests.
On March 16, in an entirely separate gathering, the 21 families of political prisoners convened for a sit-in in Marjeh Square near the Interior Ministry. The security presence was again overwhelming, with security forces swiping phones and snatching up demonstrators. This time, al-Watan acknowledged the sit-in, but claimed that those “with no relation to political prisoners” appeared and agitated, compelling security forces to intervene. Currently, the total number of reported arrests from both days is 34, with some activists being released.
Since the two initial days of dissent in Damascus accounts, protests have spread to other cities, including Homs and Deraa, where the killing of several demonstrators and mourners has highlighted the extent to which Syrian security forces will use violence to clear the streets. See here for some videos of protestors stripping their cities of the ubiquitous Asad cult of personality.
Despite protests in other locations in Damascus, mostly in the “suburbs,” the first protests on March 15 and 16 took place in the heart of Damascus in Marjeh Square. As the focal point of a sit-in and demonstration, Marjeh Square briefly gave a sense of place to any would-be uprising at the urban core of Damascus. In looking to Marjeh Square as a public space intimately intertwined with Syria’s modern history, we can perhaps glean the urban context of how a city’s spaces of revolt are formed and then transformed over time.**UPDATE: On March 25, a sizable demonstration took place in Marjeh Square. Video below.**
Marjeh Square sits at a key location in Damascus. It is blocks away from the walls of the Old City and Souq Hamidiyeh, with the Interior Ministry adjacent – but not facing – the square. Businesses such as hotels, sandwich stands, and mobile phone dealers currently look onto the square, but not long ago Marjeh had a seedier reputation as a red-light district. To this day, the occasional sign or peddler advertises “relaxation” (istiraHa) to passers-by and restaurants tucked on the upper floors of buildings offer liquor by the bottle to mostly male patrons.
In its current incarnation, the square is a hodgepodge of structures from different eras. The incomplete, but functional, silver-domed Yalbugha mosque (officially named the Mosque of the Martyr Basil al-Asad) sits on the site of a former Mamluk mosque of the same name constructed in the 13th century. The original Yalbugha mosque was destroyed in 1975, two years after Hafez al-Asad came to power, with visions of a grander plan for Marjeh that has yet to be realized.
Over the course of four decades, two Gulf-based companies were contracted separately to complete construction on both the Yalbugha mosque and an accompanying business center in Marjeh. The companies were paid millions of lira at a yearly rate, but after decades they only had concrete shells to show for their progress. By 2010, the Syrian Ministry of Awqaf had dismissed both companies and started a hunt for investors anew. At this time, the mosque is near completion, but the mosque business center remains a symbol of corruption and waste to many Syrians, with several rumors and stories circulating about what it was intended to be.
The other structures surrounding Marjeh demonstrate an overlap between the much criticized Soviet-style high-rises of the 70s and 80s, which add height to the Damascus skyline, and the more ornate structures dating from the French colonial period. The layers of Marjeh’s architectural past are in part a result of its spatial placement and conception outside the walls of the Old City, where it was conceived and constructed as an Ottoman administration center between 1895 and 1914. Yet until 1878, the Barada River used to flow where Marjeh now sits, that is, until Midhat Pasha paved over a part of the river during his time as governor of Damascus under the reign of Sultan Abdul Hamid II. The new Marjeh developed into a telegraph and tramway hub, with the bronze column in the center of the square erected by Hamid as a commemoration of the Middle East’s first telegraphic link.
The wide streets branching from Marjeh were first mapped out under the French Mandate from 1922 to 1944 when Marjeh transformed into a cultural center for the Syrian urban elite and French colonial officials. When cinemas came to Syria in the 1920s, Marjeh was home to several of them, including the Victory (Nasr) theater which was burned down in 1928 an hour before it was to screen a film for its first women’s matinee.[i] The cinemas of Marjeh have been defunct for some time, but along a side street where the Bureau of Immigration and Passports is situated, an older cinema sits abandoned except for a single vendor in its lobby who peddles the necessary stamps and papers for the neighboring bureau. While Marjeh is no longer viewed as an entertainment center by most, Damascus’s newest theater “Cinema City” has just opened blocks away near the Victoria Bridge.
Under French colonial rule, Marjeh represented the spatial confluence of some of the most prominent colonial landmarks of authority and leisure, making it the nucleus of Syrian revolt against various forms of French power. Whether it was Syrian religious figures protesting mix-gendered cinemas or future nationalist protests, the fabric of the square seemed engrained in politics, but also violent tragedy. Like in Ottoman times, the French also used Marjeh for public executions against Syrian revolutionaries. During the Syrian revolts of the 1920s, Marjeh was the site of numerous French executions, including the execution by gunfire of 16 Syrians whose bodies were publicly displayed in the square for the rest of the day.[ii] Public executions took place in Marjeh into the 20th century, with perhaps the most well-known execution being that of the Israeli spy Eli Cohen in 1965.
Marjeh Square as a public space gives rise to a complex Syrian history that embodies a legacy of both revolutionary heroism and crushing defeat. While the theatrics of vocal and public dissent are just now creeping back to Marjeh and other locations, the future of any Syrian uprising or revolt remains to be seen. Though some Syrians are calling for a revolution or drastic change, many are actively speaking out against it, saying that revolution is tantamount to “chaos.” This divisive spirit prompts one to wonder what, if any, effect the revolutionary ghosts of Marjeh will have on future generations of Syrians and if Marjeh’s tumultuous past was just a prologue to decades of what some call “stability.” Whether there is silence or revolt, Marjeh continues to be a space in waiting.
[i] Elizabeth Thompson, Colonial Citizens: Republican Rights, Paternal Privilege, and Gender in French Syria and Lebanon (New York: Columbia University Press, 2000), 205.
[ii] Michael Provence, The Great Syrian Revolt and the Rise of Arab Nationalism (Austin: The University of Texas), 102.