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Abu Dhabi, UAEFriday 19 April 2019

Cultural casualties of war: The people digitally safeguarding Syria’s rich history

We take a closer look at an exhibition in Berlin that captures imperilled heritage sites in a time of peace

The Umayyad Mosque as it looked in 2007. It is now a cultural casualty of war in Syria, with much of it reduced to rubble. Courtesy Issam Hajjar
The Umayyad Mosque as it looked in 2007. It is now a cultural casualty of war in Syria, with much of it reduced to rubble. Courtesy Issam Hajjar

Two pictures, each one showing a different Aleppo mosque. Both are special, more than mere topographical details or standard places of worship. Both are landmarks, ornate architectural wonders. The first photograph, taken in 2010, is of Al Khusrawiyya Mosque, the first Ottoman mosque in the city, most likely designed by Sinan, the most celebrated of all Ottoman architects. The other picture, taken one year later, features the older, eighth-century Umayyad Mosque.

That was then. Today, those mosques are two of many cultural casualties of the conflict in Syria. Large sections of the latter mosque have been reduced to rubble, and during ­particularly heavy fighting in April 2013, the building’s famous 11th-century minaret collapsed. The former mosque is completely unsalvageable: an explosion in 2014 left nothing but a huge crater.

Archiving Syria's cultural heritage

These pictures and many more form part of a new exhibition in Berlin’s renowned Pergamon Museum. The material on display – photographs, maps, plans, drawings and reports – is a sample from the vast collection amassed by the Syrian Heritage Archive Project, a venture set up in 2013 by the Museum of Islamic Art in Berlin and the German Archaeological Institute to digitally safeguard Syria’s rich cultural past.

Of course, human misery comes first. But we, as experts for cultural heritage, also have to take care about the country’s cultural wealth.

Stefan Weber, director of the Museum of Islamic Art

Stefan Weber, the director of the Museum of Islamic Art, is quick to stress the main priority in responding to the war in Syria. “Of course, human misery comes first,” he says. “But we, as experts for cultural heritage, also have to take care about the country’s cultural wealth.”

The project’s documented archive of Syrian cultural heritage – the most comprehensive outside the country – provides a valuable record of damage from the war. It could also prove useful for those involved in post-conflict reconstruction work.

Weber believes that cultural heritage is a crucial “linking element” in the process of nation-building. “As an example, the destroyed minaret of the Umayyad Mosque had formerly not really been appreciated in its full significance,” he says. “Now it has become a symbol of reconstruction for the globally displaced community of Aleppo.”

Inside the exhibition

The exhibition at the Pergamon, The Cultural Landscape of Syria: Preservation and Archiving in Times of War, takes visitors on an edifying tour through the country’s main cities. Each section is composed primarily of pictures, some fairly recent, some stretching back to the early 20th century. Accompanying notes in English, German and Arabic give potted histories and accounts of the damage caused by fighting.

The Tigris is presented in all its glory as a photograph on display at the Pergamon Museum in Berlin. Courtesy Syrian Heritage Archive Project   
The Tigris is presented in all its glory as a photograph on display at the Pergamon Museum in Berlin. Courtesy Syrian Heritage Archive Project   

In the section on Damascus, we see city walls and city gates, a governor’s palace in a new guise and a Mamluk-era bathhouse that is still in use. Other sections reveal cities less well preserved. In the Raqqa section, pictures of past architectural glories hang alongside scenes of city centre destruction that resulted from efforts to flush ISIS out of their stronghold. The caption that goes with a photo of an immaculately preserved floor mosaic from an early Byzantine monastery explains that it was stolen during the war, a theft that was most probably commissioned.

Over in the Aleppo section, we are reminded of its status as the oldest continuously inhabited city of the world. With this in mind, we then view snapshots of bustling everyday life juxtaposed with images of tragic destruction and desolation. The section on Palmyra comprises a miniature gallery of beauty, but our wonderment at this Unesco World Heritage site turns quickly to anger and despair after learning which ancient arches, temples and towers were targeted in devastating demolition jobs.

The 13th-century Sultaniyya Mosque Complex in Aleppo. Courtesy Syrian Heritage Archive Project
The 13th-century Sultaniyya Mosque Complex in Aleppo. Courtesy Syrian Heritage Archive Project

A section on the so-called Dead Cities – the ruins of more than 700 abandoned settlements in the north-west of Syria – gives a fascinating glimpse of off-the-beaten track treasures and a rare insight into rural life in late antiquity. Some photos depict shrewd improvisation: in one, a small boy collects rainwater from a sarcophagus; in another, a family uses an underground tomb as a bomb shelter.

The harsh reality of war

A final note here leaves us with a sobering parting thought: 37 villages in this part of the country are on the World Heritage in Danger list, and continued fighting in the area means that little is known about their current state.

Elsewhere in the exhibition we find slides, brochures, travel diaries, stone fragments, architectural designs, and documentation of archaeological excavations. Two works of art also deserve to be mentioned. Adorning one wall is a two-metre-by-eight-metre calligraphy painting entitled Syria – the Garden of ­History, by the Homs-born artist Khaled Al Saai.

Streams of swirling, diverging Arabic characters in various fonts and modes of lyricism flow over a collage of photographs of Damascus, Aleppo and Palmyra. And in another room, a running documentary by a Syrian filmmaker who is now working in Berlin, Hazem Al Hamwi, presents daily life in his native land, with an emphasis on old customs and traditions threatened by the march of modernisation and onslaught of war.

Sharing personal stories

Amid the photographs, artefacts and creative highlights is a stand-out section devoted to oral testimonies. Landscape of Memories contains an interactive heritage map and folder filled with personal recollections about Syrian culture from Syrians of all ages and all walks of life. “This project explicitly focuses on the participatory cooperation of Syrians worldwide,” says Weber. “It asks what is important for you and which memories have been inscribed in your town?”

The responses are varied. Mohammed Sobeih ruminates on the stone mosaics that decorate buildings in the Dead Cities, the brief revival of the craft before the war, and a recurring motif featuring two peacocks which he was surprised to see in a friend’s house in Berlin. Issam Hajjar includes an amazingly un-Photoshopped picture of blazing red sumac shrubs and describes the “problem solving” uses of their leaves and fruits. Alaa Al Kasir remembers childhood legends and scare stories surrounding the castle in Salamiyya, while Rami Al Afandi sheds light on the “a’jami” technique of decorative painting.

Most of these remembrances are informative, and one or two are touching. It is a pity there aren’t more of them, and for that matter, more photographs of the profiled cities. But although this is a relatively compact exhibition it still manages to pack a lot in. We come away from it not only with a better understanding of which cultural marvels survive in Syria and which have been damaged or lost, but also with a stronger impression of how this ravaged country used to look and how it may look again in a more peaceful future.

The Cultural Landscape of Syria: Preservation and Archiving in Times of War is on show at the Pergamon Museum, Berlin until May 26. For more information, visit www.smb.museum

Updated: March 25, 2019 12:08 PM

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