The exhibition “Zerstörung syrischen Kulturerbes” (Destruction of Syrian Cultural Heritage) opened April 29, 2015 at the town hall in Stuttgart. The exhibition, with more than 50 black and white photos from Kathleen Göbel, Prof. Mamoun Abdelkarim and Internet resources, has been organized by the non-profit association “Freunde der Altstadt von Aleppo e.V.” (Friends of the Old City of Aleppo). The exhibition documents the destruction of Aleppo and Homs, in which centuries-old cultural heritage, reflecting a time in which different ethnic and religious groups have coexisted, seems to have been irretrievably lost.In his highly readable book The Monuments of Syria: a Guide, Ross Burns (2009) described the country as “an open land without doors” rather than a “fortress land” which has transmitted rather than blocked. It absorbed the first ethnic waves to the south; passed on the great themes and ideas moving between east and west; and provided a balance between the religious currents that have swept the region. Syria has been, according to Burns, “the classic buffer, though not in the sense of having little coherence of its own and thus perpetually at the mercy of others”.
However, in light of current events, Burns’ words need to be revisited.
Since 2011, Syria has transmitted refugees; absorbed diverse troops serving diverse agendas; passed on ideological conflicts moving between east and west; and created a ruthless religious, ethnic and sectarian violence. The “classical buffer” Burns once described has become today a field for proxy war(s), waiting for the “others” to achieve concrete action(s) to reach a ceasefire and to stop the bloodshed.
Away from the complexity of the geopolitical discourses, the Syrian war is not only a military action; it involves civilians, cities and heritage.
The fighting troops have caused, deliberately or unintentionally, unconscionable damage to cultural heritage. Shelling, shooting, installation of heavy machinery in significant historical and archaeological sites, looting and illegal excavations all caused irreparable damage. Despite the efforts of the governmental bodies and many initiatives worldwide, all calling to save Syrian heritage, the damage is shocking.
Add the vast historical evidence lost via smuggled artifacts and the historical continuity broken by this destruction and you realize how great the loss it. Seeing the horror and atrocities in the photos, coming every day from Syria, one remains speechless.
Daily life in the Syrian cities amid conflict and the destruction of cultural heritage has been recorded through documentary photography. Although typically covered by professional photojournalists, activists and volunteers on site have been using interactive platforms and social media to mobilize the world around the devastation and outrages going on in Syria.
Documentary photographs, which have followed the damage and destruction of architectural sites and monuments over the four years of conflict in Syria, have heightened awareness, captured international attention, and mobilized people around the world to act on cultural heritage and human rights issues. These photographs have been taken in courageous acts, by professionals or activists who aimed not at presenting creativity, personal vision or talent, but rather the bitter reality they witnessed. Without being able to say a single word, the photos coming from Syria are saying much, and perhaps “enough”.
I just wonder, even if these photos could talk, if they could truly convey the horror of the destruction they’ve recorded.
Zeina Elcheikh, Syrian architect and planer, holds a M.Sc.in Integrated Urbanism from Stuttgart University. She worked with German International Cooperation and the French Institute for the Near East in Syria, and the UNESCO office in Egypt. Zeina is currently a PhD student at the Institute for History of Architecture, Stuttgart University. She is also a member of AiP’s Advisory Board.