08.05.2016 - UNESCO Office in Beirut

Emergency Safeguarding of the Syrian Cultural Heritage: International and Syrian experts meet in Beirut to discuss inventories and archives

Participants gather for a group photo after the meeting in UNESCO Office in Beirut © UNESCO Beirut 2016

The safeguarding of inventories and archives related to Syria’s archaeological sites, historic cities, monuments and cultural objects is a crucial task in today’s crisis situation. Digitizing and preserving these inventories is essential not only to conserve built, movable and intangible cultural heritage, but also to provide reference documentation for rehabilitation and restoration activities in a post-conflict period and for the fight against illicit trafficking of cultural property.

Within the framework of its Emergency Safeguarding of the Syrian Cultural Heritage project, funded by the European Union and supported by the Flemish Government and the Government of Austria, UNESCO is working to foster partnerships between Syrian and international institutions and experts in order to improve the state of conservation of available inventories and archival material, some of which are kept in precarious conditions.

For that purpose, a one-day meeting was organized at UNESCO Office in Beirut on Friday 6 May 2016 to ensure the identification, location, digitization and safe storage of Syrian inventories and archival collections of cultural heritage.

During the meeting, representatives from scientific institutes, states agencies, non-profit organizations, religious centres and private groups presented their collections and spoke about their needs to improve their current state of conservation.

“We are trying to come back on the right track,” said Reinhard Foertsch, scientific director of the German Archaeological Institute. Foertsch explained that preserving data related to Syrian heritage is an urgent activity that should have started much earlier.

“Many activities are underway and many groups are doing more or less the same things to digitize and conserve manuscripts and documents. These different groups don’t necessarily know about each other,” he said, stressing the importance of the meeting to help create partnerships and provide Syrian projects with international expertise and trainings in digital research, data curation and conservation.

With the Museum of Islamic Art in Berlin, the German Archaeological Institute has established the Syrian Heritage Archive Project (SyrHer) in order to contribute to the creation of a Syrian cultural heritage register. In collaboration with UNESCO and the Syrian Directorate General of Antiquities and Museums (DGAM), the project is currently digitizing and providing safe storage for research data on Syria.

“We want to build for a long term process of preserving our Syrian heritage. The sustainability of our project in preserving heritage depends on support and partnerships from Syrian institutions,” said Issam Ballouz from the Syrian Heritage Archive Project. “Our aim is to start agreeing with our Syrian partners on a methodology of work”.

“What we are doing is for the good of the whole Syria. It is not politicized and springs from our emotional attachment to Syria,” he said. “Representatives of Syrian institutions present here will be able after this meeting to communicate to decision makers in Syria the right picture of what we do in order to move forward with our project”.

In order to assist with the digitization process of inventories and archival collections, UNESCO has put at the disposal of participants two types of specialized scanners and will be providing technical assistance to interested groups at a later stage as part of a digitizing campaign.

“If we don’t undertake documentation efforts now, it would be very difficult to rehabilitate our sites later in an effective and scientific manner,” said Kheireddin Rifaei, head of the central heritage committee at the Syrian Syndicate of Engineers. Rifaei added that benevolent heritage committees spread all over Syria work as independent monitoring groups to alleviate the damages affecting heritage and to protect some sites from further destruction.

“We have been working in the field for over 25 years. We are in a unique position to document the state of archaeological ruins and other heritage sites,” said Rifaei adding that committees could benefit from collaborations with UNESCO and other international institutions.

“We are open to partnerships with non-profit organizations from all over the world,” said Sharon Smith, from the Agha Khan Documentation Center at Massachusetts Institute of Technology. She added that the Agha Khan Foundation has a long tradition of working with visual culture from Syria and stresses the need of increasing collaboration to preserve heritage at this critical moment of Syrian history.

“We provide visual documents to international audiences in their context so that they make sense and can be used for pedagogical purposes”, she said.

At the conclusion of the meeting, participants agreed to assess the needs of their collections with respect to the state of conservation and digitization of their manuscripts and documents. Based on the analysis of this data, UNESCO, in coordination with other organizations, will design a plan of action according to a timeline of urgency and will detail the assistance to be provided to collection owners from instruments to trainings, storage and housing materials.

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