As of September, five out of six UNESCO world heritage sites in Syria had been damaged by war. A report published by the American Association for the Advancement of Science, in partnership with Syrian and U.S. organizations, documented the damage to sites like the ancient city of Aleppo and the ruins of Palmyra.
Restoring and repairing those sites could be a way to foster reconciliation, says Waseem al-Bahri, a Syrian engineer and part of the Heritage For Peace initiative. “People need to rebuild trust … for that to happen, they must have shared memories together,” he said. “We want to protect the heritage that unites all Syrians.” The group was founded in March 2013 as an all-volunteer non-profit organization, based in Europe. A Syrian PhD student, Esper Sabrene, teamed up with René Tetchgril, a Dutch archaeology professor, to begin documenting the damage to Syrian heritage sites. From there, the group’s work expanded to become a peace-building initiative across Syrian civil society.
Al-Bahri spoke to Syria Deeply about the program and about how maintaining Syrian heritage can help heal a war-torn society.
Syria Deeply: What is your mission? How does it work?
Al-Bahri: Heritage for Peace has many missions. The first is to increase awareness about the situation of monuments and our heritage in Syria, and to train concerned people in the protection methods and the monuments documentation procedure.
Every month we issue two summaries, about the damage these sites have suffered, and the estimation of the damage to them. Our team members are specialists in construction, heritage, monuments and history.
We gather information from social networks and media coverage, through volunteer efforts. This year we had two [special] projects; the first was to document the collections of the Aleppo Museum. It was funded by Frost Foundation, an organization in Britain. The second project involved training a team of concerned citizens to protect monuments and assess damages in archaeological areas. This project was funded by the Dutch government. Trainees were provided with cameras and devices to help them assess the damage.
The first project was conducted with the cooperation of the regime while the other was with the opposition. Our aim is to protect the Syrian heritage and we will cooperate with any party interested in helping us do that.
Syria Deeply: Which site was the most disastrous that you came across?
Al-Bahri: The news that disturbed me the most was the destruction of the minaret of al-Umayyad mosque in Aleppo. The Umayyad mosque was exposed to shelling many times and there were clashes in the mosque’s yard. The minaret was destroyed in 2013 … it is one of the most important landmarks in Aleppo, and one of the [greatest] Syrian landmarks. It is a symbol in itself, not to mention its historical and architectural importance.
This news was shocking to me. But unfortunately every day we hear [more] bad news like it.
Syria Deeply: What’s the importance of what you do, and what are the aims you seek to achieve through this project?
Al-Bahri: We facilitate researchers’ work by collecting the information they need. We’re also working on protecting the heritage now so that it becomes a fulcrum for peace building in Syria after the war. The name of our organization is “Heritage For Peace,” and so our highest goal is peace.
During the Bosnian war, there was an Ottoman bridge in the city of Mostar. The Mostar bridge was destroyed during the civil war. The reconstruction of the bridge [hastened] the civil peace process and helped bring peace between the fighting groups. Studies showed that the common heritage [helped foster] the settlements and compatibility between communities in the postwar phase.
Syria Deeply: Do Syrians inside Syria see the importance of your work, the same way those outside the country see it?
Al-Bahri: UNESCO identified the cultural heritage of any group as the spirit of the people. When the history and the heritage of a certain society is erased, its identity is erased as well. It’s not more important than protecting human life, but it’s almost as important.
There are differences between Syrians inside and outside of Syria, in how they see what’s happening to Syrian heritage. I did my masters’ thesis on the destruction in Aleppo city and I did many interviews with Syrians both inside and outside Syria. Syrians living outside Syria showed more interest in protecting the heritage and the historical sites than the people inside. The reason is obvious: those who live under the circumstances of war have different priorities … providing food, shelter and preserving their lives. Heritage and history are surely not their top priority. With the miserable living conditions in some areas, many people felt forced to sell antiquities to provide food. There are also those who traded antiquities for weapons. The situation is sad for all parties.
Syria Deeply: What is the message you want to convey to people through Heritage for Peace?
Al-Bahri: The Syrian heritage and history is one of the things that we Syrians take pride in. Syria is a fertile land, historically, and on it there have been some of the oldest human civilizations. It’s our duty to protect this heritage and this priceless history to guarantee its survival for our kids and our grandkids after them.