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Opinion

Heritage beyond monuments: how Syrian artisans adapted to conflict

Published on 22 April 2021

Sofya Shahab

Research Officer

The theme for last Sunday’s International Day for Monuments and Sites was ‘Complex Pasts: Diverse Futures’, which sought to emphasise the importance of inclusion and diversity within heritage narratives. This is especially important for religious minority communities who may be dispossessed of their heritage through frameworks that privilege national narratives, or whose heritage may be overlooked, left to fall into disrepair or targeted for destruction. In this blog, Sofya Shahab discusses how, by focusing on the fluidity of heritage and the way it can be adapted, it is possible to explore the ways in which heritage can become a source of resilience for communities.

Syrian refugee woodcraft workshop in Amman, Jordan
Syrian refugee “Mahmoud” (not his real name) woodcraft workshop in Amman, Jordan. Credit: Sofya Shahab.

Ongoing conflict in Syria has resulted in the destruction of cities, towns, villages, and homes, as well as archaeological heritage scattered throughout the urban and rural landscapes. For three Syrian artisans that I met during my doctoral research and who had been displaced from Damascus to Amman in Jordan, the shape of both their city and their crafts had been reconfigured through the forced migration of entire communities, and the loss of tangible and intangible heritage, all of which had contributed to the diversity of Damascus.

Damascus is thought to have been founded in about 9000 B.C. and vies with Aleppo as being one of the world’s oldest, continuously inhabited cities. While Damascus has not experienced the same levels of physical destruction as other ancient cities and sites in Syria, such as Aleppo and Palmyra, the mass displacement of 6.7 million people within the country and the 6.6 million refugees who have left since 2011 has severely affected the demographics and population of the city . So that while the buildings and structures that demarcate Damascus may remain the same, the city has been transformed as a result of those who have been forced to leave and how those who remained now live within it.

Artisanal crafts (including wood carving, mother of pearl inlay and wood mosaic) form part of the heritage of Damascus both as a mode of intangible practice and through material outputs. These crafts were used in the structure of the buildings, furnishings, and homewares and gave raise to an aesthetic of Old Damascus venerated by tourists and within popular Syrian culture such as TV shows. However, among the artisans I visited, displacement meant that their heritage practices and products had evolved due to the changes in their spatial environments. This was because of the exposure to new markets and tastes which caused them to experiment with different designs and materials, as well as new technologies and tools for making.

Additionally, the displacement of artisans from their communities of practice in Damascus, where they would work in collaboration with their neighbours to create their products, had resulted in a change to some of the modes of production, whereby craft production became a more individualistic form of work. In periods of intense flux and the rapid flows of people that occur during conflict, the connection between the artisans, their spatial environment, and their artistic outputs changes. However, change, rupture and movement do not always equate to loss or destruction, as the ability to practice connect to heritage practices – even if they have been reconfigured through displacement – can help create a sense of stability and it is through these events that new formations emerge.

While the UNESCO Convention for the Safeguarding of the Intangible Cultural Heritage recognizes that intangible heritage adapts to the present, it fails to adequately address the role that place and materials play in enabling the continuation of intangible practices. As a result, conceptions of authenticity and tradition may come into conflict with processes of evolution and change occurring through displacement that see artisans employing different materials, tools, techniques and designs in the production of their work, as they negotiate changing markets.

For the artisans I met with there was a desire for Damascus as it had been, but also a recognition that the Damascus they had known was no more. The artisans and their crafts had been significantly altered by their experiences and practice in Jordan. Similar to Syrian musicians displaced to Istanbul, there was therefore a shift in how the artisans responded to and conceived of each of these places as they sought to “navigate new socio-economic, political, moral and affective terrains”. In this way, their craft became both a mode of comfort and remembrance that contributed to economic and emotional resilience in a context of conflict and uncertainty.

In recognising the ways these heritage spaces have been subject to change we can therefore begin to open-up new ways of thinking about destruction and preservation, especially within conflict affected contexts.

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