Syria is one of the world’s important cultural landscapes. Its great density of monuments and the often exceptional state of conservation of many of its ruins have been under acute threat since the outbreak of civil war. Many sites have already suffered severe damage. The Syrian Heritage Archive Project (SHAP), conducted by the German Archaeological Institute and the Museum of Islamic Art, seeks to preserve research data on Syrian cultural objects in the long term and creates scope for future work in the area of cultural preservation. The Federal Foreign Office is supporting this project within the framework of its Cultural Preservation Programme.
The humanitarian disaster caused by the civil war in Syria often drowns out the fact that the country is one of the world’s most impressive cultural landscapes in terms of the number and historical significance of its monuments. This region was no less than the birthplace of pivotal innovations of humanity such as agriculture and urbanisation. High cultures shaped the country over the course of millennia. The destruction of archaeological and historical monuments as tangible evidence of this legacy therefore not only represents a serious loss for Syria and the Middle East, but also affects the international community as a whole.
Owing to current developments in the country, the existence of this outstanding long-term archive, much of which has yet to be fully researched, is severely threatened. The trail of destruction in Syria’s old towns, as well as systematic illicit excavations at important archaeological sites, testify to a dynamic that has the potential to result in the irretrievable loss of the country’s most important historical witnesses.
Decades of research in Syria
The German Archaeological Institute and the Museum of Islamic Art have decades of research experience in Syria. They administrate extensive databases for many of Syria’s most significant archaeological and historical sites, as well as historical photographs from the period prior to the First World War and important private material that belonged to researchers. The project is working to establish a digital register of Syrian cultural objects by creating a digital catalogue of these archives. It seeks to safeguard these important archives of knowledge on Syria’s archaeological sites and historical monuments in the long term and to use this wealth of information to support the preservation of culture. Since 2013, work has been under way in five project phases so far to integrate extensive analogue data of both institutions into the research environment of the German Archaeological Institute (iDAI.welt) and to administrate it in detail and prepare it for future use in the field of cultural preservation (e.g. damage mapping and reconstruction planning).
The objective is to achieve as comprehensive a collection of data as possible.
Around 125,000 datasets have been digitised and classified in detail so far. The interfaces of the IT systems used facilitate international networks with other, similar projects seeking to document Syrian cultural heritage, an aim pursued from the outset, in order to establish as comprehensive a collection of data as possible and to provide firm foundations for monitoring activities and measures to protect cultural objects. The work done by SHAP is part of a wider network to preserve culture in today’s crisis regions known as Die Stunde Null: A Future after the Crisis, which focuses on basic and further training in the arena of cultural heritage.