Cultural heritage under threat

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In the summer of 2015, Islamic State provoked global outrage when it blew up and destroyed the ancient city of Palmyra. The destruction of this ancient desert citadel made many people realise once again how vulnerable cultural heritage can be.

Numerous monuments in Syria were built by the Mamluks, a dynasty of Turkish origin that reigned from Egypt over a large part of the Middle East. Many of these monuments were destroyed during the civil war, but fortunately many more have been left intact. ‘We have over 10,000 archaeological sites in Syria, and these have suffered heavily under Islamic State,’ says Syrian researcher Dr Ghazwan Yaghi. He has always been passionate about history and cultural heritage, the heritage of his homeland in particular. In Syria, he worked at, among others, the Historical Museum, and also worked with Unesco on the restoration of centuries-old buildings.

Fleeing the war

But everything changed in 2011, when the first uprisings and battles of the civil war began. Within a year Ghazwan’s house had been flattened, and his wife Lamis and children had been forced to flee to another city. He remained in Damascus to do what he could, but by 2014 things had become impossible and he had to give up his work. ‘It became too dangerous. Damascus was under continual bombardment and there was no electricity. Many of my colleagues were killed and it was getting worse by the day.’

He fled with Lamis and his children to the Netherlands at the end of 2014, and they ended up in Houten. In the years that followed, they learnt Dutch, and Ghazwan gave lectures on the culture and archaeology of Syria before and after 2011. In 2017, he set up the Arabic Dutch Culture House in Houten [in Dutch].

A new start

Then at the beginning of 2018 he saw that NWO was offering grants for refugee academics. He applied for and was awarded one. He has been working at the University since March 2019. From Leiden, he is studying six buildings that are still standing in Damascus. ‘I don’t just look at the windows, doors and other features, but always ask myself what the story is behind these buildings.’ He analyses how the Mamluks used architecture as a demonstration and justification of their power in medieval Damascus. He is doing so with the aid of photographic material.

Help needed to complete the project

‘The NWO grant has given me an excellent opportunity to return to the discipline in which I have worked for over 20 years, a discipline in which much still needs to be done. As we have seen in recent years, the violent convulsions in the region are an acute threat to the cultural heritage. It is of paramount importance that we record, document and analyse what the past has left behind before it is destroyed.’

The NWO grant has made it possible for him to make a new start, but a year is not enough time to complete the project. New data is needed. To be able to complete the project, Ghazwan needs to do fieldwork in cities with important Mamluk architectural heritage – Tripoli (Lebanon), Cairo and Alexandria (Egypt) in particular – to gather data and develop a comparative perspective on the locations in Damascus.

Rediscovered book

He would also really like to publish an English translation of his book that was presumed lost. ‘Before the war in Syria, I had started an important publication about homes in the Mamluk period, which was going to be published in Damascus in 2014. This didn’t happen because of the war in Syria.’ A few months later, disaster struck: the original paper copies of the book were burnt together with the rest of Ghazwan’s library and his entire house when fighting broke out in Damascus.

Once he and his family were in the Netherlands, however, Ghazwan discovered that a complete electronic version of the book had survived because it had been uploaded to the cloud. After he received his NWO grant, he contacted Brill Publishers in the hope of breathing new life into the book. In September, the definitive Arabic version was sent to the publishers.

Given the book’s important academic content, he was encouraged to have it translated so that these new insights could be shared with non-Arabic speakers too. Professor Gabrielle van den Berg emphasises the importance of this translation: ‘His output is amazing, but it is almost all in Arabic. That’s a hugely important academic language, but it makes it difficult to gain a foothold in Europe.’

Despite the enthusiasm for an English translation of the book, this has not yet been realised because of the high cost of such a translation.

Help Dr Ghazwan Yaghi complete these projects Can you help Ghazwan record and analyse cultural heritage before it disappears? And make a groundbreaking book about the cultural heritage of the Mamluks available to a wider audience?