What happens to a city when all its inhabitants flee? What happens to the stories and memories of the people related to that place? How does this loss of memory effect future generations? The Syrian archaeologist Hasan Ali grew up and worked in Tadmur/Palmyra before he fled 2015 to Turkey. Here he realized that they have left not only their hometown, they actually had lost their cultural memory, especially related to the last 100 years. So, he started to collect the histories of the former Palmyrenes in diaspora in the framework of the Stewards of Cultural Heritage Project. The European dimension of the Stewards of Cultural Heritage project goes beyond the mere preservation of the common cultural heritage: its actors are Syrian architects, archaeologists and conservators like Hasan Ali who had to flee from the civil war and thus are part of an enormous humanitarian crisis, which is drastically effecting the Near East and Europe. The results that the project has achieved so far in the fields of training in cultural preservation and the mediation of Syria's cultural heritage can be used for the benefit of Syrian refugees in Turkey and Europe.
When the sun sets in Tadmur (the Syrian name for Palmyra) the boys used to gather to play football just outside of the ruined city wall of Palmyra, one of the UNESCO World Heritage Sites in Syria. Hasan Ali was once one of them. He grew up in the Oasis of Palmyra, used to visit the Afqa spring, and wandered through the ancient ruins and palm gardens of the town. Later he studied archaeology to work at the local museum.
The road Palmyra took through history was always a bumpy one. At the crossroads of caravan routes located at one of the few rich springs in the region, Palmyra was a natural place to come into focus of various empires and interest groups. However, the events in the recent Syrian conflict added a new dimension to what the inhabitants of Palmyra had noted down in their memories. Throughout the history of Palmyra, there were periods of decline and abandonment. However, in most cases a few people stayed or just left for a very short period to return soon after.
In 2015, the inhabitants of the town faced a very different threat; they not only saw the ISIS invasion with the inhuman treatment and punishment culminating also with the destruction of the museum and some major monuments, but also the bombardment of the city’s neighbourhoods by the governmental troops in the attempt to regain control over the town. In this situation, facing death at any rate, the only chance to survive was to flee.
Hasan Ali is one of the many Palmyrenes that have fled to Turkey then. In 2017, he became one of the Stewards of Cultural Heritage, an initiative by the German Archaeological Institute – Istanbul Department as part of the "Stunde Null – A Future for the Time after the Crisis"-project under the umbrella of the Archaeological Heritage Network (ArchHerNet) with support by the German Federal Foreign Office, and the Gerda Henkel Foundation.
The Stewards of Cultural Heritage (SoCH) project has been conceived to help safeguard Syrian cultural heritage through capacity building of Syrian heritage specialists who are residing in Turkey. Within the framework of the SoCH project, Hasan Ali expressed the urgent need to reconnect the Palmyrene community in the Turkish diaspora to safeguard the knowledge about the recent history of the town. He believes that the local community, which used to live in Palmyra and which unfortunately no longer exists as almost all of them left the city, was a continuation of the ancient civilizations of Palmyra. He says, “We drank the same water that our ancestors were drinking thousands of years ago from the Afqa spring; we practiced agriculture in the same oasis as our ancestors and we speak a specific local dialect still comprising words from ancient Palmyrene. The archaeological ruins played also an important role in our daily lives; we passed through them to go to our fields in the oasis; many of us worked at the site and our grandfathers were actually living in the houses built in the ancient town within the Bel Temple.”
This is why he thinks that without the (displaced) local population there is a significant interruption of the continued traditions and heritage in Palmyra. This “heritage gap” is actually the focus of his current research work at the German Archaeological Institute in Istanbul with the support by the Gerda Henkel Foundation. His attempt is to document an important aspect of Palmyrene heritage, which are the memories of the 20th and 21th century events. By documenting these stories and reconnecting them to the place where they come from - at least virtually - he wants to give the former inhabitants of Palmyra/ Tadmur a voice. In other words, remembering the stories about a place is keeping the memories of a place alive.
The return of the ‘original’ population to the city to ensure the preservation of Palmyra/Tadmur’s heritage for future generations seems to be for the near future an unrealistic scenario. It is still the best and only way in Hasan’s opinion, to ensure a sound transfer of knowledge – in particular of intangible heritage – from elders to grandchildren. However, he is fully aware that this is a dream right now. Therefore, and to fill the gap created by the current displacement of the city’s population, he started to record and analyse the refugees’ memories of Palmyra/Tadmur, to be able to share their narratives with their children and the world until they may safely return to their home city - Palmyra.
In Hasan Ali’s own words: “I remember in the summer of 2015, everyone in Palmyra, including myself, spent a long night sitting with our families in our houses. Then the first of the airstrikes came and bombs were around us. We asked ourselves if we are still alive or if we have moved on to another world already? When the next military airstrike came, we knew that we are still in this life and had to run. We fled as far as needed to survive. Now we Palmyrenes- are displaced and resettled in diaspora. However, we did not forget for a single moment that we are from Palmyra. We are still Palmyrenes by heart. We look forward to returning to Palmyra when the war ends. To do so, we need to remember; and to remember we have to record our history now.”
The story of the city of Palmyra we know is the story of the monuments in it. This is the way the world public also learned about Palmyra when it became the target of deliberate destruction campaigns by extremists’ groups (ISIS), mainly between 2015 and 2017. Due to the occupation of the city by ISIS and the ongoing armed conflicts in Syria, a large number of the local population has left the city to settle initially in other cities in Syria or finally became refugees in neighbouring countries such as Turkey or even in Europe. The ancient city of Palmyra has seen a lot of scholarly and public interest, prior to and during the conflict. In contrast, the modern city of Palmyra/Tadmur received less attention, not only in comparison to the archaeological site, but also to other cities in Syria. As described above the memories of Palmyra and other Syrian cities are now widely dispersed throughout Europe. The stories resemble the memories the inner-European refugees told after World War II. On the one hand these Palmyrene stories are about fleeing, re-locations, suffering, and loss; on the other hand they are also stories about childhood memories, family festivities, and the perception of archaeological research teams, as well as farming in the oasis, and daily life activities. Recording these memories and narratives and re-contextualizing them, is part of Hasan Ali’s research project as a Steward of Cultural Heritage. The European dimension of the Syrian cultural heritage is beyond doubt: Since the Neolithic, developments in the history of humanity that originated in the Near East have had a formative effect on Europe. Against this background, Syrian cultural heritage is also European cultural heritage. However, the European dimension of the Stewards of Cultural Heritage project goes beyond the mere preservation of the common cultural heritage: its actors are Syrian architects, archaeologists and conservators who had to flee from the civil war and thus are part of an enormous humanitarian crisis, which is drastically effecting the Near East and Europe. The results that the project has achieved so far in the fields of training in cultural preservation and the mediation of Syria's cultural heritage can be used for the benefit of Syrian refugees in Turkey and Europe.
The Stewards of Cultural Heritage (SoCH) project has been aimed at Syrian architects and archaeologists residing in Turkey after having to leave their home country. The first project phase has been a 24-months scholarship program (October 2016–September 2018), funded by the German Federal Foreign Office and the Gerda Henkel Foundation. The program was initiated to give five Syrian heritage specialists, residing in Turkey, the opportunity of building the theoretical and practical skills needed to actively participate in conservation and/or revitalization projects that would take place in the post-conflict period in Syria. Within the framework of the program, the five specialists carried out their own projects and continued their academic education in Turkey while attending a number of workshops and a summer field project organized by the German Archaeological Institute –Istanbul Department. In the second project phase (SoCH 2), the five experts from the first phase of the project have been passing on the knowledge and skills gained to other Syrians (professionals and non-professionals) in Turkey and elsewhere. This phase of the project, which was again funded by the German Federal Foreign Office and the Gerda Henkel Foundation, had started in January 2019. It had three main axes: capacity building, awareness raising and networking, culminating in the photo exhibition “Bir Mekân, Bir Hikâye” (A Place and a Story) organised in cooperation with the Kadir Has University and the Rezan Has Museum in Istanbul. It was held in the KHas Gallery of the Kadir Has University between September, 18 and October, 26 2019. In 2019 the project received a European Heritage Award/Europa Nostra Award and Grand Prix. In 2020 a third phase (SoCH3) has started to train not only Syrians, but also Turks in documentation techniques, analytical skills in regard to conservation challenges and in basic heritage conservation theory to reach a better understanding of the shared regional history and heritage. Finally, the project aims to strengthen the role of common cultural heritage in shaping a post-war identity in Syria and among Syrian migrants in Europe, which is an essential factor for stability in Syria and successful integration in guest-countries. The success of this approach is reflected in the joint conception and implementation of workshops and summer schools by Syrians, Turks and Germans, in which the preservation of cultural heritage is no longer understood and practiced as a national task as well as a multilateral one with a significant European impact.