The Art of Replication: Fighting to Save Syria’s Heritage

The Za’atari refugee camp in Jordan currently houses over seventy-nine thousand Syrian refugees who have fled their homeland. Over the past year, it has also become home to a few small-scale models of Syrian heritage sites and monuments that have been demolished by ISIS.

Community leader Ahmad Hariri, from the city Dara’a, brought together artists such as Mahmoud Hariri (no relation to Ahmad). Mahmoud Hariri is both an art teacher and painter. When he first arrived at Za’atari, he assumed he would be there only for a few weeks but once he realized he could be there for years, he needed a way to keep busy.

The group of artists in front of their artwork. Photo: UNHCR/Christopher Herwig

The group of artists in front of their artwork.
Photo: UNHCR/Christopher Herwig

Since the war drags on, it is essential that these artists get a chance to practice their skills. The group uses whatever materials they can find – Palmyra was recreated using clay and wooden kebab skewers. They also use rocks and discarded pieces of wood. To date, the group has also recreated the Umayyad Mosque of Damascus, the Citadel of Aleppo, and Norias of Hama (a waterwheel built over 750 years ago). They model their work off of photographs, paintings, and illustrations. These miniatures are all intricately detailed and the largest model is only the size of a small table.

Mahmoud Hariri, 25, was an art teacher and painter back in Syria before coming to Za’atari in 2013 to escape the violence. “When I first arrived I didn’t think I would continue my work as I only expected to be here for a week or two. But when I realised it would be years, I knew I had to start again or lose my skills.” He built his model of Palmyra using clay and wooden kebab skewers. He only found out last month that the site had fallen under the control of ISIS. “We haven’t had electricity in the camp recently, so I hadn’t seen the news. I’m very worried about what might happen. This site represents our history and culture, not just for Syrians but all of humanity. If it is destroyed it can never be rebuilt.”

Mahmoud Hariri, 25, was an art teacher and painter back in Syria before coming to Za’atari in 2013 to escape the violence. Photo: UNHCR/Christopher Herwig

Besides helping artists living in the camp put their skills to use, these models are important to other refugees in the camp. To the older generation, they serve as a connection to places that they no longer have access to and as a reminder of their culture. For the younger generation, especially those who have few memories of their homeland, these models help pass along historical knowledge of Syria.
“It seems to touch a nerve with people. It speaks to their experience, the fact that they can’t go home and see the sites for themselves,” Dunmore, a UN refugee agency worker, tells Linda Poon writing for CityLab. “Obviously they can’t do anything about what’s happening in Syria and to the actual sites, but there was a real sense that they are really helping to preserve the site, if not physically then [at least] the memory of them.”
These artists want to make sure their history is not forgotten, despite ISIS systematically destroying it. In other parts of the world, agencies like UNESCO and ventures like the Institute of Digital Archaeology (IDA) also want to make sure that this history is not forgotten. The Institute of Digital Archaeology is working on replicating the 15m-high arch from Palmyra’s Temple of Bel (also known as the Temple of Baal).

Photo: Guy Sibila

Photo: Guy Sibila

The city of Palmyra consists of a broad mix of cultural influences: Near Eastern, Hellenistic, and Roman. Located north-east of Damascus, before ISIS’s destruction, these influences were especially apparent in its architectural ruins. The city was originally called Tadmor , located on a trade route, and became prosperous under the Hellenistic Seleucids. Once it was annexed to Rome, it assumed the name Palmyra and received patronage from several Roman emperors, further increasing its affluence. The Temple of Bel was a great manifestation of the ancient city’s diverse past. It was dedicated to a triad: the Semitic god Bel (Baal), as well as the moon god Aglibol and the sun god Yarhibol. This site would later become home to a Christian church and an Islamic mosque. Although this temple was dedicated in 32 C.E., the completion took much longer; the building process continued throughout the first and second centuries. On the one hand, the cult area used a bent-access approach, which is typical of temples in the Near East. On the other, the temple’s elevation used the Corinthian order and the architectural elements that adorn the frieze course reflect Hellenistic and Roman influence. A monumental arch was placed at the entrance to this temple.

Photo: Sandra Auger/Reuters

Photo: Sandra Auger/Reuters

After ISIS’s destruction, satellite images taken from September have shown the great arch, although damaged,  is what still stands today. This is what will be replicated by the Institute of Digital Archaeology. The IDA is a joint venture between Harvard University, the University of Oxford, and Dubai’s Museum of the Future. It promotes the use of digital imaging and 3D printing in archaeology, epigraphy, art history, and museum conservation to create accessible digital archives in order to foster interdisciplinary collaboration. In general, it supports researchers by allowing them to study objects located far away and to uncover hidden inscriptions and invisible paint lines in order to share their discoveries with a wide audience. With the use of technology the institute also hopes to preserve culture despite ISIS’s attempts to obliterate it. This 3D replica of the arch is one way of pushing back at this war on material culture.
The arch replica will be displayed in two cities: London and New York. In London, the replica will be placed in Trafalgar Square, standing next to the National Gallery and Nelson’s Column. In New York it will be placed in Times Square. The installations will be created off-site (the IDA is based in both Oxford, UK and Cambridge, Mass.) and then assembled on-site. They will be set up in time for UNESCO Heritage Week in April and stand as a symbol of resistance against the human destruction of shared culture.

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