ASOR Undertakes Humanitarian Heritage Work in Idlib Governorate
Work Has Begun with Half of the Funding Secured—$5,000 in Matching Funds Sought
Idlib Governorate has been particularly hard-hit over the last six years of the Syrian conflict, and the region and its people are in dire need of humanitarian assistance. Basic humanitarian assistance in the form of food, housing, and medical supplies is of course critical, but humanitarian assistance in the form of cultural heritage support is also needed as part of collective relief efforts. Such cultural aid not only demonstrates the concern and compassion of the international community towards the Syrian people and their collective cultural identity, but also provides much-needed jobs and income to people whose former livelihoods have become unsuitable during this conflict.
Aerial bombardment campaigns by both Syrian regime and Russian forces have devastated dozens of towns and villages throughout the province. Most recently, the town of Khan Sheikhoun was targeted in a chemical weapons attack that killed 92 people, including civilians and 30 children. ASOR Cultural Heritage Initiatives has also gathered information on 116 cultural heritage sites in Idlib Governorate that have been damaged as a direct result of instability and ongoing fighting in the area. As the conflict continues local Syrians have fought to protect and preserve the countries multitudes of heritage sites.
The Al Ma'ara Museum (aka Murad Pasha Caravansary) is comprised of four sections with cross beamed ceilings connected by arched hallways to service facilities. A mosque and a restaurant are found in the center, and a marketplace, a bathhouse, a bakery, grains storage area, and a water station that supplies the whole facility are on the west side. The caravansary was converted into a museum to preserve and display the historically significant collections of mosaics from dead cities.
The museum sustained heavy damage after being targeted with airstrikes in June 2015 and May 2016. The heaviest damage was in the bathhouse area of the caravansary and in what is known as the ‘fourth wing’ on the west side of the site. Site monitors from the Heritage Preservation Center, in conjunction with The Day After - Heritage Protection Initiative (TDA-HPI), conducted a physical assessment of the site and documented structural damage. Site monitors noted that the right/east wall of the hallway leading to the lavatories (modern era) had deviated by 32cm. Severe damage due to weather erosion and heavy snow fall was also noted. As a result of the site visit, the Heritage Preservation Center and TDA-HPI recommended that urgent repairs take place.
Damage to the Al Ma'ara Museum
The Al Ma'ara Museum has been repeatedly damaged during the almost six-year long conflict. On March 1, 2014 DGAM released a report on the site. According to the report, opposition forces were using the site as a military settlement. That occupation caused minor damage to the site. In August 2014, the Smithsonian Newsroom published a photograph showing gunfire damage to a 6th century CE mosaic located in the museum.
On June 16, 2015 ASOR CHI sources reported that a Syrian regime helicopter dropped a barrel bomb onto the museum on the evening of June 15, 2015, causing massive destruction. The damage included collapsed domes, ceilings, and walls.
Then on May 9, 2016 ASOR CHI sources again reported that Syrian regime airstrikes had struck the museum for a second time. This second strike caused severe damage, particularly in the bathhouse area. Mosaics covered in previous preservation efforts were covered in rubble. The exterior of the northwestern wall, which separated the Khan from the bathhouse, collapsed into the narrow corridor.
Upcoming Rebuilding Efforts
Due to the most recent airstrikes on the site in May 2016, the right/east wall of the fourth wing on the west side of the caravansary bathhouse deviated by 32cm. In an emergency effort to prevent further damage, the wall was temporarily reinforced with beams. The stones damaged on the wall were numbered for future reconstruction. With the first grant of $5,000, restoration work is set to begin in May 2017.
Previous Safeguarding Preservation Efforts
In March 2016, efforts were undertaken to protect the thousands of square meters of mosaics located at the Murad Pasha Caravansary. On March 1, 2016 volunteers began to remove debris from the wings of the museum; volunteers used a trained eye to sort between debris and antiquities. Archaeologists from the Syrian Heritage Center aided in the collecting of pieces of pottery left in the debris. The pottery was later moved to the second wing of the museum for preservation. Mosaics damaged by the airstrike were moved to the first wing and sandbagged for protection. Column capitals were also relocated into the wings of the museum. The rest of the antiquities on display in the museum halls were moved inside the wings of the site.
The mosque and takia, located within the caravansary, were thoroughly cleaned, the religious books located within sorted and stored. In addition, the roof, courtyards, takia, and the rest of the caravansary were swept in anticipation for the next phase of work.
Protecting Cultural Heritage for Syria
Unfortunately, as long as this conflict in Syria continues, cultural heritage will be under threat. It may feel like a hopeless situation, but there are organizations like ASOR Cultural Heritage Initiatives that are working hard to document cultural heritage damage and help Syrians and Iraqis to protect and preserve their heritage. The loss of these cultural sites is a symptom of the humanitarian crisis. This conflict is not only displacing and endangering populations, but, through the loss of cultural heritage, it is taking away an important part of their identity from before the war as well as their connection with the generations that have long gone.
Any transition process that aims to bring Syrians together and assist them in working towards ending the bloodshed and rebuilding their shattered country, needs to identify where common denominators exist between the opposing sides and provide mechanisms that will help them work towards consensus. With that in mind, ASOR and TDA-HDI believe that cultural heritage has a critical role in enhancing this Syrian identity and helping steer Syria on its path towards post conflict stabilization and reconciliation.
Once the current violence ends, the people of Syria will need to find ways to reconnect with the symbols that once united them across religious and political lines. The importance of this cultural heritage is nowhere more demonstrable than when it comes to the issue of national identity and what makes a Syrian a Syrian. Syria has a resilient sense of identity based on the concept of a shared citizenship around a common history and supported by a long and rich cultural heritage. The country’s ancient past as represented in this rich cultural heritage will be key to this. Protecting and preserving Syria’s history and heritage therefore is about safeguarding its future too.
What is a Caravansary?
A caravansary (caravanserai) is a site at which caravans would have lodged during their journeys. The caravansaries or inns were generally rectangular in form with an open courtyard central to the inn. Lodgings surrounded the open courtyard where animals, including between 300 and 400 camels, were housed; camels, as load-bearing animals, were critical to traveling caravans. Such sites were critical for trade routes that crisscrossed Asia, North Africa, and parts of Europe and were widely utilized along the former Silk Road, and ancient Royal Road. Caravansarys were often located on the outskirts of towns and villages.
Donate to our Efforts
ASOR in partnership with TDA-HPI is currently raising funds for emergency mitigation efforts to occur at the Khan As'ad Pacha (ca. 1753), a museum complex located near the Al Ma'ara Museum. Ongoing aerial bombardment over the course of the Syrian conflict has heavily damaged the the site. TDA-HPI plans to develop an emergency intervention study to assess the damage. Using that study, and similar methodology featured in rehabilitation efforts at Al Ma'ara Museum, TDA-HPI hopes to restore the Khan As'ad Pacha. You can help support these efforts by clicking on the 'Donate Here' button seen below. Your generous contribution will help to restore this historic site for future generations of Syrians.
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