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REVIEW - Damascus By Gérard Degeorge Flammarion, 2004. 320pp. £50

At the back of this book is a map of Damascus identifying its principal monuments: more than 180 of them, from eight periods of the city's development - Umayyad (661-750 AD) to Ottoman (1512-1924).

One quickly notices too the plans that are included: clearly drawn, coloured, instantly legible, and often revealing deft adaptation to irregular sites in Damascus' labyrinthine centre.

In Waterstones this book will doubtless sit with other coffee-table candidates but it has much more substance than them. Gérard Degeorge gives a solid historical account of a city always at a cultural crossroads, a prey to invasion, and traces the impact that its geography had on its buildings - Chinese floral motifs on the ceramic tiles of the 15th-century tomb of Khalil al-Tawirzi for instance.

With so much ground to cover there's little scope for extended architectural analysis but the many illustrations (which are used with restraint) are informative - details of intricate decoration in plaster, mosaic, wood and stone; buildings explored inside and out and set in their urban context;

and occasional old engravings.

The last chapter brings a catalogue of conservationist complaints. Though Damascus has been a UNESCO World Heritage Site since 1975, 'in spite of their best efforts the degradation of the old town and its monuments continues', says Degeorge. Given the current political situation in Syria, and Foreign Office advice to travellers, we are unlikely to be able to find out for ourselves for some while.

This is a splendid substitute.

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