A Different World

Dr Mahmoud Zin Alabadin


Dr Mahmoud Zin Alabadin presented on his work at the V&A as part of its ‘Culture in Crisis: Architecture Responds’ programme and contribution to the June 2023 London Festival of Architecture (LFA).

Like many architects, Mahmoud Zin Alabadin has a visceral response to architectural heritage and traditional buildings. Before writing, he must visit, feel, photograph, and sketch them. He understands these interrelated parts of a process as one that allows him to be in dialogue with his physical surroundings, an intangible conversation we all have daily. 

Zin Alabadin’s passions are rooted in an endless appreciation and documentation of historical architectural styles across the Middle East. Since the nineties, he has published nine books, each filled with his own drawings and photographs covering his myriad interests: Ottoman architectural styles in Damascus and Saudi Arabia, traditional and modern building styles in Abu Dhabi, Islamic houses – buildings marked and shaped by elements of Persian, Umayyad, Abbasid, Ayyubid, Ottoman architectural styles, civilisations stacked upon each other, like so many buildings in his beloved birth town of Aleppo, where he had planned to teach architecture before the war upended a young architect’s plans. 

In 2012, he left Syria for Turkey. He can never forget how friends and colleagues in Turkey reached out to him during the war and invited him back to Yıldız Technical University in Turkey, where he had lived and studied during the nineties. “It was not in my mind that one day I would return to teach at the university I had graduated from. But this is life. You cannot say whether it is an advantage or disadvantage.”

He lectures at Yıldız in the History of Architecture Department and directs, with the help of his students, a massive database project called Aleppo, Yesterday Today and Tomorrow. Teaching is fulfilling and there is pleasure in working alongside some of his senior professors, architects such as Nuran Kara Pilehvarian, who taught him as an undergraduate.

Aleppo, Yesterday Today and Tomorrow has documented the complicated journey toward reconstruction in Aleppo, raising questions about preserving and conserving some of Aleppo’s most iconic buildings. “Aleppo is starting to be rebuilt, but there needs to be a clear strategy. It needs time, will and knowledge. There are many problems; there is not enough expert manpower or engineers. There are financial problems. There are questions about the quality of the reconstruction. Now, I am working on restoration and architectural renovation with my students. I have given many lectures in Turkish cities about destruction and renovation.”

“Cara has supported me and helped with so much. Last year I conducted a project funded by Cara with my colleague Adnan Almohamad, about the destruction of Aleppo buildings. We made five case studies of historical buildings and asked questions about the restoration and what sort of quality control there was.” Some reconstruction projects were done perfectly; others didn’t meet international standards. Certain important considerations may never cross your mind if you are not an engineer, an architect, a restoration expert, like when clearing rubble from streets. Apparently, when inexperienced teams of volunteers did what seemed necessary, there was no thought that ornamental stones might go missing. Some were lost, and some may have been stolen, but they are all now lost. In the Architecture of Happiness, Alain de Botton quotes Epictetus, who is said to have demanded of a heartbroken friend whose house had burnt to the ground, “If you really understand what governs the universe, how can you yearn for bits of stone and pretty rock?” In Aleppo, it seems possible to do both.

With any project, Zinalbadin discusses it first with his students. He relies on the importance of dialogue and discussion to bolster their confidence in their architectural ideas. He created a strong relationship with his students at Aleppo University and continues to do so at Yildiz Technical University in Istanbul. Sometimes, as an exercise in creation and imagination, he might take his students to workshops at the covered bazaar in Istanbul. It reminds him of the al-Saqtiyeh souk in his birth town of Aleppo before its destruction in 2015. He admits that a sort of solace can be found there. “When I am missing Aleppo, I feel as if I am missing my mother. You know, you are looking for your mother everywhere, sensing her scent. I can catch this smell when I am in a market. I can remember my childhood, and my parents, both of whom died. In Syria, I grew up in a traditional house with a courtyard, and I could see the fountain from my bedroom window… When I was little, I could also see the Citadel from my window. Aleppo Citadel is the most important building to me. It is strong, high, and in the city centre; you can feel and recognise it anywhere. It feels protective. Inside the Citadel are historical buildings, a mosque and a hammam, it’s a city within a city. We were a big family. I was the youngest, and my relationship with my mother and father was very strong. I could do anything; I was lucky. They were always supportive. Seriously, I had a special relationship with my parents, and I am missing them.”

The souk in old Aleppo was eventually reconstructed perfectly, but sadly, the place never regained its spirit because so many people – customers and traders – had gone. It made Zin Alabadin see concretely how a place is more than about sustainability or aesthetic pleasure, or cost or replication but that somehow, when places become invested with soul, there is harmony and they become places of collective memories. “Our collective memories are very important. All of us are living in our memories, looking for our friends, our homes, our neighbours even. In Syria, we have a strong relationship with our neighbours. Now we are living in a different world. The new generation has started to grow up outside of Syria. They are born in Istanbul or Germany and don’t have feelings or memories for the city. I have some workshops with Syrian Students. We went together to the covered bazaar, and I asked how can we connect to our past, the smells? Remember Aleppo, when you are entering this market, what do you feel? Then they write, and it is very profound.” 

In 1978, the German filmmaker Georgia Friedrich shot some footage of Aleppo. She captured the souq, the Citadel, and the Gate of Antioch. What is so special is the way she captures people in her frame. They live, play, work and grow up with these ancient monuments in the background, silent guardians, witnesses to their lives. It is painful and revelatory to watch. 

Zin Alabadin was nearing the end of a four-week Cara-facilitated visit to the UK, hosted by The Courtauld Institute, when the earthquakes struck southern Turkey and northern Syria. As of February 2023, over 50,000 people had been reported dead or missing. Millions are without homes or food. UNESCO has gone to Aleppo, a world heritage site that has been on the World Heritage in Danger List since 2013, to record newly damaged buildings There are reports that parts of the Citadel have again been damaged. He also discovered that two of his students had died, one visiting family in Antakya. He knows others in border cities who have also suffered. His family remains in Aleppo. It is extremely gracious of him agree to this interview in the circumstances.

In just five short weeks in the UK, Zin Alabadin says, he had begun to feel himself again, that he has found the UK welcoming and beautiful. His time at The Courtauld has allowed him to delve into their important resources, as well as those of The British Library and the V&A Museum, amongst others. His Courtauld hosts, Prof. Alixe Bovey and Dr Lucy Bradnock, arranged for him to give a public lecture on his work, with another given at the University of Dundee, both followed by fascinating exchanges on the destruction and reconstruction of Aleppo’s architectural heritage. He packed in as much as he could whilst in the UK, even managing to visit his Cara English tutor in Brighton, and was delighted, following his lecture at The Courtauld, to be invited by the V&A to present on his work as part of its ‘Culture in Crisis: Architecture Responds’ London Festival of Architecture 2023 programme in June 2023. His return will again be supported by Cara.

It is part of life to live happily with nostalgia and sadness. “Sometimes, some songs, smells and memories can carry you to a different world. This is why I am always trying to be busy. Because if I have free time, I will be sad. I try to be busy and write, create, prepare, and organise something to do with the students, so I don’t have time to remember.” He smiles sadly “that’s what I am doing here in the UK. I don’t want to think about yesterday. Tomorrow will be better than today.”