Syria’s cultural heritage digitised as foundation for rebuilding in the future

How can culture be preserved in times of war? The exhibition Cultural Landscape Syria – Preservation and Archiving in Times of War invites visitors on a virtual journey of discovery through the cultural landscape of Syria, with objects, films, photos and interactive screens. At the same time, it provides insights into the work of the Syrian Heritage Archive Project, and thus, into the practice of cultural preservation.

Syria is an important cultural landscape

Syria produced some of the fundamental achievements of civilisation, such as the development of urban life and the alphabet. Unique historical and archaeological monuments bear witness to the country’s rich history, spanning thousands of years from the civilisations of the ancient Near East, to Greek and Roman antiquity, and on through the Byzantine-Christian and Islamic eras.

At the same time, the greater region’s geographical location between the Mediterranean, the Anatolian-Iranian highlands and the Persian Gulf made it a hub for long-distance trade. The character of the cultural heritage of Syria was strongly shaped by the mobility of people and goods, and the diversity that this brought with it.

The Syrian Heritage Archive Project

This rich cultural landscape has always fascinated travellers and researchers alike. Today, their reports, photos, plans and maps are a valuable basis for the reconstruction of monuments and sites destroyed by war. Since 2013, the Syrian Heritage Archive Project has been collecting them in a digital archive and making them accessible to posterity.

This work has led to the creation of the most comprehensive archive on Syrian culture outside of the country. Parts of the archive are now being presented to the public for the first time.

Presenting some of these documents, along with films and interactive screens, the exhibition will be “a virtual voyage of discovery” through the ancient cities of Damascus and Aleppo, the oasis city of Palmyra, Raqqa and the so-called Dead Cities from early Christian times. a group of around 700 abandoned settlements in the north west. These places have been severely affected in very different ways by the events of the war that erupted in Syria in 2011.

The crusader fortress Krak des Chevaliers has already been repaired. Only the ancient city of Damascus and the Salah el-Din castle have so far been spared major damage.

The Syrian Heritage Initiative

The work of the Syrian Heritage Archive Project inspired the Museum für Islamische Kunst to undertake follow-up projects, with a focus on Aleppo, the oldest continuously inhabited city in the world. The “Aleppo Built Heritage Documentation Project” documents in detail the destruction of important historical buildings in the ancient city. “Crossroads Aleppo: Our City, Common Cultural Heritage, Our Memory” involves the inhabitants of Aleppo and develops background material on Aleppo’s historical buildings. The “Interactive Heritage Map of Syria” collects oral traditions and memories from and about Syria. Together, these projects make up the Syrian Heritage Initiative, which is presented in the exhibition in a new form as an internet archive.

The project assembled the largest repository of information on Syrian heritage outside the country—more than 200,000 photographs, as well as archaeological reports, maps, plans, drawings and oral testimonies. The crowdsourced material comes from researchers such as Alafandi and private and public historic archives, as well as Syrian residents and refugees.

Ultimately, the Syrian Heritage Archive Project seeks to “provide a foundation for rebuilding in the future”, says project leader Stefan Weber. “We are not a reconstruction team. We can only provide the documentation. We were lucky that lots of Syrians came to Germany and worked with us.”

The exhibition is open until 26 May in Berlin.

(via Pergamonmuseum)