Souk Al-Hamidiyah in the Syrian capital Damascus is probably one of the locations that displays the most varied and interesting authentic Arabic street typography. The beautiful main souk, one of the most famous ones in the middle east, is an active commercial and industrial city in the heart of Damascus, and is a three kilometers street surrounded by two stories commercial shops of very different specialties.
The historical and authentic aspect that the souk managed to retain, is expressed to a big extent typographically in the Arabic shop signs that align on both sides of the street. The variety of these typographic signs reflect the same diversity the shops present. Many of them are classic calligraphic titles that are created manually, in different styles ranging from Kufi to Thuluth script, with some of them showing exceptional calligraphic craftsmanship (and even signed by the artist’s name). Other signs are hand painted shop names based on commonly used Arabic font, yet still holding a lot of local charm. Many other shop signs are more modern in terms of production technique, and in choice of lighting and material. Yet they still often rely on interesting lettering choices or calligraphic rendering.
Beyond the actual treatment of the Arabic words on the sign, the entire “layout” of some of these, particularly when they become crowded in supportive text describing the store, turn into charming local design pieces. Seen in context, the combination of the typographic street signs with the displayed goods the stores sell, often hanged just below the sign, turns every store front into a fascinating composition of type and images. Colorful mannequins, shiny abbayas, sexy lingerie or wedding dresses all combine with the beautiful typography and ornaments of shop names, as well as selling lines, to create very charming environmental graphics.
Souk Al-Hamidiyah extends to many other different specialized surrounding souks, such as the gold souk, the wedding souk, the spices souk, the cotton souk, and many others. All of them creating a maze in the heart of old Damascus, and presenting more samples of beautiful street typography. However, one can’t but notice two main disappointing aspects: The renovated streets loose a lot of the traditional charm and look rather generic (also typographically speaking). On the other hand, the signage system created and implemented to help you navigate through the rather complicated map of the old city is rather not efficient. The concept behind it has potential: it plans your route into several paths you can choose and follow in order to experience a specific aspect of the city: The old Damascus highlights route; The classical route; The short visit route; The hand craft route and the traditional souks route. The design and execution of this system is unfortunately far from being functional. The placement of the very small signs is often hidden next to the rather loud graphic surrounding. The color coding as well as the arabesque iconography used as a main element in the design are hard to remember or function properly within a wayfinding context.
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