Several years of war in Syria have led to a catastrophe with hundreds of thousands of victims and millions of refugees. Syria’s rich cultural heritage has been affected in varying intensities of damage and destruction.
The supra-regional importance of the cultural landscape in Syria is reflected, among others, by the six UNESCO World Heritage Sites: the historical centers of Aleppo, Bosra and Damascus, the ruins of Palmyra, the Forgotten Cities, and the castles Krak des Chevaliers and Qalʿat Salah ad-Din. Twelve further sites are nominated to be inscribed on the World Heritage List, including the Bronze Age town Ugarit, the Norias of Hama, and the remains of the Abbasid town Raqqa-Rafiqa. These unique sites are exposed to severe dangers, just as much as the entire cultural landscape in Syria.
This cultural landscape also includes manifold immaterial cultural heritage with ancient traditions in handicrafts, a rich musical heritage and an atmosphere of tolerance and harmonious coexistence of multiethnic and multi-religious forms. All of these are threatened with obliteration or oblivion.
Until now, a general register for Syrian cultural heritage has been lacking. Several Syrian and international initiatives are working together on a compilation of the abundant research data collected over the past decades within the framework of archaeological and art-historical projects, with the content made accessible for research via a national Syrian Heritage register.
In 2013, the Museum of Islamic Art (National Museums in Berlin) and the German Archaeological Institute (DAI) started the “Project for the Establishment of a Digital Heritage Register for Syria”/“Projekt zur Erstellung digitaler Kulturgüterregister für Syrien”. This original name was soon replaced by a shorter English version: “Syrian Heritage Archive Project”, commonly abbreviated as SyrHer or SHAP. From the very beginning, the project was funded by the Cultural Preservation Program maintained by the German Foreign Office.
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A detailed documentation of Syria’s cultural heritage provides a basis for recording damage and destruction from the war and for possible future reconstruction measures. The awareness of a common cultural heritage may become an important component for national reconciliation processes in the future.
Within the frame of the Syrian Heritage Archive Project information and photographs documenting the destruction of buildings, especially monuments of special historical interest, are systematically collected. This data is compiled in a database with the aim of topographic reconnaissance, mapping, and interpretation for future restoration measures, developed in cooperation with Syrian and international initiatives.
Illicit excavations have caused irreversible damage all over the country. The sites that are often of special archaeological significance, such as the Hellenistic-Roman Apamea on the banks of the river Orontes, are systematically pillaged in search for ancient objects. As a result, looters destroy stratigraphical sequences, which are essential for reconstructing the life of past societies. These cultural reservoirs of knowledge are lost forever, and the retrieved objects are sold on the international art market at high prices.