The devastating consequences of a nearly six-year war have affected every physical and symbolical corner of Syria. What was once at the heart of one of the oldest and most prosperous civilisations in humanity, is now, sadly, a divided nation, whose foundations are as frail as those of the majestic heritage sites that have recently been target of attacks at the mercy (or the lack thereof) of ruthless extremists. Estimates suggest that more than five million Syrians have left their homeland, seeking refuge around the world and in neighbour countries. It’s not a secret that the response to this humanitarian crisis has been shockingly polarising, causing further division between societies around the world.
On top of the tragic human consequences of the Syrian civil war, the country’s infrastructure has been torn down to rubble. Syria’s tangible cultural heritage, if not destroyed, has been severely damaged; this includes all six World Heritage sites in the country, amongst them, the Great Mosque of Aleppo, Krak des Chevaliers, and most recently, Palmyra.
In the face of this, the World Monuments Fund (WMF) announced the launch of a £500,000 scheme, with the aim of training Syrian refugees around the Zaatari camp, Jordan, in traditional stone masonry. The ultimate purpose of this: to rebuild damaged and destroyed heritage sites upon the restoration of peace in Syria. The programme intends to initially recruit 34 trainees who moving forward can train others. Further to this, organised by the Petra National Trust, the training programme (starting this August), intends to recruit Jordanian students, in an effort to relief some of the pressures put on communities by the outstanding number of Syrian refugees in the town of Mafraq (Jordan) and its vicinity.
However, as reported by The Art Newspaper, thanks to the political unrest in the region at the moment, it is still too early to know when the WMF will be able to start their work in Syria, and even less, how long it might be able to run for.
Given the uncertainty and vulnerability of the project due to incontrolable variables (mainly those concerning local and regional politics), is this WMF initiative actually worth the energy and funds invested into it?
The preservation of tangible cultural heritage, as explained by UNESCO, is important, amongst other reasons, thanks to the capacity of preserved objects to “validate memories”, by means of giving humans a literal way of “touching the past”. Moreover, the organisation also sheds light on the constant chemical transformation that heritage, regardless of its preservation, is exposed to, which inevitably has an incidence on the physical state of the same, as well as the value placed upon it by each generation (whether the latter increases or falls is not specified – perhaps because there isn’t a set of rules or patterns to determine it).
Intervening by means of reconstruction, then, places an interesting dilemma with regards to the very purpose of heritage. If it intends to contextualise humanity with its past, wouldn’t rebuilding Syria’s (and for that matter, every other) harmed heritage sites, imply a symbolic negation of the very history that they are meant to tell? If the purpose of heritage is to provide an experience beyond the five senses, whereby unvarnished connections with the past are established, doesn’t reconstruction result to some extent in some form of (self-) deceit? – after all we wouldn’t be having a true connection with our past, but with the illusion of it.
It is, nonetheless, rather indolent to think of the value, however symbolic it might be, of rebuilding heritage sites for the sake of themselves. The human factor involved in the WMF proposed project plays a key role in its worth and eventual success. As a consequence of the steep number of Syrian nationals needing refuge, and the logistic issues that come with the need for immediate aid, tensions have risen around the world, with (most noticeably wealthy Western) states worryingly having opposing stances towards welcoming refugees. This has ultimately resulted in a passive game of words of encouragement from most leaders (with the odd exception or two) towards the Syrian people.
Though the international community has set basic aid in place, long-term strategies to help with the adaptation and social integration of refugees in host countries have been put to a side, which could potentially be an exacerbating factor to the continuous disputes (particularly in Turkey, Lebanon and Jordan, Syria’s neighbours, the countries to welcome in the largest number of Syrian refugees) between local and refugee communities over resources, basic needs and services. In this respect, the discussed scheme and training programme could set a valuable precedent where, in the strive towards the same objective, host communities could be encouraged to see in refugees potential collaborators and vice versa, thus humanising each other, and taking a step forward, moving from mere tolerance to empathy.
Further to this, heritage reconstruction, in its ambiguous state of acknowledging/negating history, can also represent a powerful form of soft power. Indeed, by rejecting the barbarous consequences of the war that have affected the sites, and acknowledging “better (pre-war) times”, the sites themselves can act as symbols of rebellion against violent phenomena and of endurance in spite of this. As such, they bear a strong political statement, that can also be communicated through history for generations to follow.
Having been raised in a country with worryingly short memory and of high impunity rates, I’m one to think that history happens to be told and not wiped with clean cloths and impeccable façades. However, without a doubt, societies’ sense of humanity is in much more need of rebuilding than any site to have ever existed. Reconstructing heritage sites in Syria, instead of playing aloof to the place of violent conflict in this country within history, can bear a compelling message of rejection – not one of forgetfulness. In fact, through the reconstruction of harmed heritage sites, host and refugee communities are being encouraged to work together towards a common cause, and by this they are setting an example of solidarity, fraternity, and resilience for this and future generations to see. Undoubtedly, then, every effort and every penny gone towards this project have the potential of being worth a million times their current value.
Full article: Shaw, A. (2017). Syrian Refugees to be Trained to Rebuild Palmyra and other heritage sites. [Online]. Accessed 21 June, 2017.