Media reports and our perceptions are being dominated by images of the barbaric destruction of the cultural heritage in Syria and Iraq by the so‑called Islamic State. The pictures of the destruction of the temples in Palmyra, deliberately bombed to gain media coverage, are overwhelming. However, the destruction of Syrian towns and cities, as well as of large sections of the cultural heritage, day in day out since 2011, is being almost completely forgotten, as is the question of how Syria can be built up again after the crisis is over to provide people with decent living conditions and a cultural environment. It is therefore imperative that reconstruction in Syria focuses on repair work in the towns and cities as well as on saving ancient sites.
Background: Research and data collection
Since 2012 the German Archaeological Institute (DAI) has been pursuing a broader approach encompassing capacity building, the preservation of artistic and craft traditions, and the development of international networks for cultural preservation. One of our initiatives is the Syrian Heritage Archive Project, run in cooperation with the Museum of Islamic Art and with funding from the Federal Foreign Office, which is making a systematic digital record of the huge range of information collected over more than a hundred years on Syria’s cultural heritage. The aim is to make the information available to Syrian colleagues as a basis for the reconstruction of their country’s cultural heritage and, in addition, to be able to identify with certainty stolen objects being illegally traded.
The German Archaeological Institute, one of the world’s largest archaeological research institutions, is guided by real, factual priorities, not symbolic ones. The desire to harness competences and create synergies gave rise to the idea of the project “Stunde Null”: A Future after the Crisis. The project was launched in cooperation with partners from the Archaeological Heritage Network, the Directorate-General for Culture and Communication at the Federal Foreign Office and the Deutsche Gesellschaft für Internationale Zusammenarbeit (GIZ). The special funding for “flight and migration” provided by the Federal Foreign Office with support from the German Bundestag will go towards implementing the project over the next few years.
The current challenge
The temples of Palmyra are important elements of Syria’s cultural heritage. But reconstruction in Syria also needs to focus on other sites and cultural preservation measures, too. Speed is of the essence if Syrian towns and cities, their ancient monuments and historic centres, are to be saved and preserved. So it is not just a matter of deciding what to do with the temples of Palmyra, but also of deciding, for instance, what to do with the Aleppo bazaar, a UNESCO World Heritage Site, which was destroyed back in 2012. Should the basic structure of Aleppo’s old town be retained and partially rebuilt, or should it be replaced by a planned new town? Syrian experts are working with German colleagues to come up with and subsequently implement sensible planning processes.
The focus of the “Stunde Null” project is to provide further training for Syrian architects, archaeologists, conservationists, building researchers, urban planners and, above all, craftsmen. Much of this training is being provided in those of Syria’s neighbouring countries which have taken in refugees. In addition, scholarships are available for university graduates for Master’s courses in heritage conservation at Helwan University in Cairo and the German Jordanian University in Amman. Further, local workers are being given professional training on the site of works to preserve important monuments in Lebanon, Jordan, Iraq and Turkey, enabling them to become skilled workers. The project includes humanitarian assistance: it creates jobs and opens up prospects through training – not in abstract modules, but in concrete planning and implementation, in projects to reconstruct and thus preserve important monuments in the region.
“Stunde Null” is the first project to be carried out within the Archaeological Heritage Network, a network established to preserve cultural heritage. Both the network and the project receive Federal Foreign Office funding.