Cultural heritage in north Syria: Initiatives to preserve memory

Random sabotage of the archaeological site of Banqoussa in the Wastani Mountain in the northern countryside of Idlib - 13 January 2021 (Enab Baladi/Yousef Ghuraibi)

Random sabotage of the archaeological site of Banqoussa in the Wastani Mountain in the northern countryside of Idlib - 13 January 2021 (Enab Baladi/Yousef Ghuraibi)


Sectarian and regional divisions have increased during the past 11 years due to the humanitarian crises and military operations that covered most of the Syrian regions.

Within this state of societal disintegration, cultural heritage is an element that must be taken into account and taken primarily in the process of building the Syrian State that is desired in its multiple transitional stages, most notably the reintegration of society.

There are initiatives in the northern Syrian regions by civil organizations interested in studying this sector, which has many factors that can unite the Syrians because it forms their collective memory, which can be relied upon to end the armed conflict.

Syria’s global efforts

On 16 May, an initiative led by three Syrian teams specialized in the protection of heritage and antiquities won the competition award presented by the international Our World Heritage initiative, with the aim of supporting the efforts of these teams and building the capacities of Syrians to preserve heritage through digital documentation and combating the illegal trade in antiquities.

The teams contributing to the project are the Heritage Protection Initiative team in The Day After (TDA) organization, a team from the K/ARC project for the protection and documentation of world cultural heritage, and the Artive team that specializes in protecting antiquities.

This encouragement award includes providing technical support to the teams, as well as inviting representatives of participating teams to attend a 3D imaging training course.

The teams documented a number of important landmarks and buildings in northwestern Syria, specifically the Dead Cities area, and produced 3D models of these documented buildings.

The importance of this initiative lies in the use of modern documentation techniques in the field of antiquities within Syria, the training of the country’s specialists in their use, and raising the awareness of the local population of the importance of archaeological sites, in addition to the fact that productive outputs and models can be used in large areas.

The Heritage Protection Initiative team of The Day After organization consists of several former heritage and antiquities professionals in Syria who are engineers and archaeologists working in various areas of archaeological excavations, restoration, and documentation.

Violations of “Dead Cities”

The Heritage Protection Initiative team has completed several projects over the past years and is concentrated in areas of northwest Syria.

During its activities, the team members observed and documented the sabotage of Syrian monuments, especially in the north of Syria, where in the past years, Idlib’s archaeological sites suffered several violations. They were bombarded with various types of weapons by Syrian regime forces and Russian aircraft, according to what the coordinator of the team, Khaled Hiatlih, told Enab Baladi.

Hiatlih explained that more than 400 archaeological sites are registered in the region by previous government decisions, as well as 40 archaeological villages registered on the World Heritage List. These archaeological sites date back to different periods of time, from prehistoric times through the ancient East, the classical period, and even the late Islamic period.

During the period of the armed conflict, archaeological areas and human heritage sites were subjected to numerous violations, the first of which is represented by the bombing of warplanes and barrel bombs, from which not even museums were spared, according to Hiatlih, most notably the Maarrat al-Numan Museum, Idlib Museum, and the Dead Cities sites. In addition to this, the modern urban sprawl on archaeological sites is also a threat to ruins in the northwestern region.

Hiatlih pointed out that any expected increase in the population density in the northern Syrian regions in the coming period may lead to many residents resorting to archaeological sites to take them as residential places in light of the high rents of houses, or they are expected to start building new houses using their stones.

The Dead Cities (or forgotten cities) are Syrian archaeological cities and villages located within the administrative borders of the governorates of Aleppo and Idlib, and they are the sites and villages that extend into the mountains of the limestone bloc and its valleys in northwestern Syria.

This area extends from Cyrus (Nabi Hori) in the north to Apamea in the south and from Aleppo in the east to Jabal al-Zawiya and the Orontes Valley in the west. 

The Dead Cities site includes the world’s largest number of archaeological locations and villages with 800 sites, some of which are inhabited and some are not.   

To confront the danger of urban sprawl toward archaeological sites, the competent authorities of the Syrian Salvation Government (SSG) operating in the region are seeking to find appropriate solutions for the residents of these sites, according to a previous interview with Enab Baladi with the Director of the Public Relations Department at the Ministry of Development and Humanitarian Affairs in the SSG, Mohammad Abdul Salam Ghazal.

Risk of the disappearance of inherited traditions

Archaeological sites and materials or inherited customs become important for the study of the history of a particular region, and their preservation indicates an implicit recognition of the importance of the past and the clues that tell stories from certain time periods so that generations can know the proper way to communicate with the past.

However, as a result of the military operations, the lack of security stability, and the displacement movements in Syria, millions of people left their homes in their original areas, as most of them were residing either in their own owned houses or in the large family home, and as a result of the loss of these homes and family disintegration due to displacement, a group of inherited social customs no longer exist in many families.

As a result of this situation, children became not aware of several practices within the intangible cultural heritage that could have strengthened their ties with family members in a specific area and strengthened their affiliation to their areas of origin, and their collective identity, which is reflected on their performance in all aspects of life, according to Hiatlih, who manages many of the archaeological projects in Syria since 2011.

Among those practices that Hiatlih mentioned is hand embroidery, which is the art of decorating using stitches on cloth or similar materials using a sewing needle and thread.

In 2017, Syria ratified the Convention for the Safeguarding of the Intangible Cultural Heritage, and the Ministry of Culture, in cooperation with the Syria Trust for Development, established the cultural project that manages matters of this heritage through the Unit for the Development and Support of the National Cultural Heritage.

The Unit listed 100 elements of the intangible cultural heritage as a living stock. This project belongs to the Syria Trust for Development, supervised by Asma al-Assad, the wife of the head of the Syrian regime, Bashar al-Assad.

However, these international commitments have not been reflected on the ground, as the intangible cultural heritage has not received prominent government attention from the Syrian regime, according to a report by ESCWA.


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