30.09.2016 - UNESCO Office in Beirut

Syrian Experts trained to safeguard their manuscripts and archives

For a week, UNESCO and the German Archaeological Institute (DAI) trained Syrian experts on the best practices for safeguarding and digitizing their manuscripts, historic documents and archives.

What could happen if one of the oldest civil society groups documenting the Aleppo’s cultural heritage for over ninety years was attacked?

This eventuality has been deeply preoccupying for the volunteers of Aleppo’s Adeyat for Heritage and Antiquities, an independent association founded in 1924. The group’s locale in Aleppo contains thousands of items including photos, sound and video recordings as well as writings and manuscripts.

“Every time there is a bomb that goes out, I wait a little bit; then, I run to the association’s main office to check whether it has been affected or not,” said Mohamad Khawatmi, an expert in manuscripts and a board member of the Adeyat. “We needed to save the precious material we have,” he added.

In an effort to save their collection from being damaged or lost, the group, which includes 16 branches all over Syria, has scanned, over the period of five years, photos representing heritage sites in Aleppo and various other events linked to cultural heritage. These digital photos have been then saved on three different hard drives and stored in different locations. Work is currently ongoing to digitize the rest of the collection.

Khawatmi was one of twenty-six participants in a training organized by UNESCO Beirut Office on the safeguarding and digitization of historic documents and archives in Syria. The workshop was carried out in partnership with the German Archaeological Institute (DAI) in the framework of the Emergency Safeguarding of the Syrian Cultural Heritage project funded by the European Union and supported by the Flemish Government and the Government of Austria.

From Monday 26 to Friday 30 October 2016 , participants, including staff members from several Syrian ministries, municipalities, NGOs and members of syndicates and the civil society, gathered in UNESCO Office in Beirut where they were trained on the use of modern techniques for the digitalization of their archives, and provided with appropriate workflows, equipment and software.

“The safeguarding of archives concerning the archaeological sites, historic cities and monuments is essential to preserve Syria’s cultural and historical memory,” said the workshop’s trainer Reinhard Foertsch, the IT director at the DAI. “This will provide reference documentation to the teams which will be involved in rehabilitation works after the conflict,” he said, adding that he tried to adapt general concepts to the current Syrian situation so that today’s data is useful tomorrow.

One of the main aims of the workshop was to create a standard, accessible and simple guide in Arabic for Syrian experts to be able to use tools for the preservation and digitization of archives effectively. Based on guidelines for digitization existing currently in German, the guide will take into consideration the specificities of the current Syrian conflict. In addition to the theoretical sessions, hands-on exercises were carried out with the support of the Syrian Heritage Archive Project and the University of Balamand in Lebanon.

“The idea is to produce a document that is actionable in the circumstances of the Syrian crisis,” said Foertsch adding that a first draft will be produced by the end of 2016.

Another focus was teaching participants to generate effective metadata for photographs without having to type in too much text.

For Hala Aslan, president of the Heritage Committee at the Syndicate of Engineers in Lattakia, it was very important to learn how to see a document or a photo as a “raw” product that needs to be kept as it is without any embellishments.

“Proper documentation is a very essential first step for restoration works,” said Aslan who gives trainings to engineers working on the restoration of historic buildings.

Rama Daher, chief of the International Relation section at Damascus city council, is currently working on the restoration of Maaloula, a town near Damascus known for its ancient churches.

“I learned new ways for storing and archiving documents that will guide us in our work,” said Daher. She added that she was helping with the documentation of the icons in Maaloula. “Some of the icons that were destroyed were unfortunately never documented. This makes their restoration difficult. We need to make sure we document everything in the city for any works in the future,” she said.

Reem Khanji, president of the Heritage Committee at the Syndicate of Engineers in Aleppo, is pioneering the project of creating a database for all the historic buildings of the city. With a group of engineers, she is collecting information and photos about every significant monument or structure to centralize them in one electronic database.

“There are many contradictions in the information we collect and receive,” she said adding that their work consists in verifying information to create reference documents to be used by officials, experts and researchers.

Another challenge is documenting the current situation of some of the monuments.

“The security situation makes it impossible to verify the state of some buildings,” she said. “We depend on pictures circulating online and on google earth photos. They are not always reliable but this is the best we can have in such times.”

Many participants concurred that documenting in times of conflict can be filled with obstacles, like the shortage in electricity.

The workshop addressed some of the many challenges faced by Syrian experts including the handling of analogue material, the best ways to store data, the prevention of a digital “disaster” or loss of material, as well as the recovery of digital material methods.

Foertsch likened digital data, if preserved properly, to a 5-million-year-old fish capable of preserving its genetic makeup indefinitely. He explained about technologies used for a secure storage of data such as RAID machines which reduce the likelihood of losing data by relying on a large number of hard drives storing data simultaneously.

Many Syrian digitizing experts rely heavily on hard drives, which could easily break down and are therefore not a safe way to preserve digital data, according to Foertsch. They expressed the need for acquiring advanced technology for the storage of their data.

The workshop also included a visit to Jafet Library at the American University of Beirut to showcase the library’s special collections and archives section to the workshop’s participants.

Following the visit, Amina Al-Hassan, the director of the manuscripts section at Damascus’ National Library, said that the training helped in improving her knowledge of how best to organize and digitize the 19,000 manuscripts of the library’s collection.

“I was impressed by their movable cases and metallic racks for organizing and storing archives,” she said.

This workshop comes as a response to discussions carried out during a meeting on Improving Inventories of Syrian Cultural Heritage held at UNESCO Beirut Office in May. It will be followed by a digitizing campaign launched by UNESCO for the preservation of Syrian archives. UNESCO will lend the specialized scanners to owners of collections that are most at risk.

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