The smell of fresh paint

Marjah Square, Damascus, Library of Congress digital reproduction The queen, it is said, thinks the whole world smells of fresh paint. She’s not the only member of royalty to face this misconception. According to a marvellous book I’m reviewing at the moment, Kaiser Wilhelm II and his wife Augusta experienced the same thing when they travelled to Damascus:

The potential of the town planning committee was clearly seen during the visit by the German imperial couple in 1898, when all the main bazaars and streets were renovated by the city council. Sarkîs wrote in 1898 that more than 5,000 façades and shops had been newly whitewashed or repainted and a total length of 10 to 12 miles of road had been repaired.

A job like this required serious organization (and expenditure)—it demonstrates the rapid development of Damascus city council’s capacity and ambitions in the late nineteenth century, when Damascus was an important provincial capital of the Ottoman empire. It was around the same time that a new city centre took full form, outside the walls of the old city, to the west of the citadel: Marjah Square, pictured above, site of the governor’s residence, a new barracks, and the hub of the tram network. The picture’s from a bit later, though, some time between 1920 and 1933: the book, Stefan Weber’s Damascus: Ottoman modernity and urban transformation, 1808–1908, is packed with gorgeous illustrations, but many of them are from private collections, including a lovely one of soldiers on parade in another square during the imperial couple’s stay (Fig. 92, p. I.138). I got this one from the Library of Congress—click the image for the source.

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