With regard to density and the historical importance of its heritage sites, Syria’s cultural landscape belongs to the world’s most exceptional regions. Many of mankind’s fundamental achievements, such as the earliest evolution of agriculture or that of urban societies can be traced back to this area. As Syria today looks back on a human occupation through archaeological and historical sites dating from about one million years ago right up to the Ottoman Period, it harbours one of the world’s most comprehensive and long-lasting cultural heritage records.
This unique legacy, which in large parts yet remains to be explored by scholarly research, has now come under massive threat resulting from the recent developments in the country. The destruction of historic city centres and the widespread looting at major archaeological sites reveal the dynamics of this process, which may lead to the irreversible loss of the county’s chief historic and cultural properties.
Even though this catastrophe hardly attracts the attention of daily news coverage, it nevertheless forms an essential part of the current situation in the country which the bystander at best resigns to take note of. For current and future assessments of the monument inventory, a systematic archiving and evaluation of the existing documentation of the individual findings and find categories will therefore be of fundamental consequence.
Over the last decades, long-term research projects carried out in cooperation between foreign missions and the Syrian Directorate General of Antiquities and Museums (DGAMS) have led to the development of extensive databases now available for many of Syria’s most important archaeological and historic sites. In addition, the archives of the DAI also cover historical image data from before and during World War I, which, still free of modern buildings, are often more impressive than later recordings. This data collection is also complemented by significant private scientific estates.
Because digital data processing in archaeology by and large only began towards the end of the 1990’s, today much of that data is only accessible in analogue form. A comprehensive digitisation of the older databases is therefore essential for their prospective utilisation as well as their operative integration into larger database projects. It is the basis for assessments of the state of the cultural heritage in Syria, especially with regard to the mapping of war-related destructions.
The German Archaeological Institute and the Museum of Islamic Art in Berlin, which both hold very large data bases established from long-lasting research in Syria therefore decided to launch a joint project in November 2013 to implement a digital cultural heritage list for Syria, the so-called “Syrian Heritage Archive Project”, with the aim to digitise their archives. The project is generously funded by the Federal Foreign Office of Germany as part of the cultural preservation program.
Sighting, digitisation and archiving of the research data are being carried out by two Syrian and German teams in Berlin. The material is entered into the iDAI.world and thereby structured and standardized. Various system components are used: iDAI.objects/Arachne, the image database of the DAI, iDAI.gazetteer, the archaeological location database, and the DAI Geoserver for plans and map material. In addition, records of the respective sites with relevant bibliographical citations (monographs and journals) from the library database iDAI.bibliography/Zenon are linked. These resources allow for a thematic analysis and/or an application in the field of cultural preservation (e.g. damage mapping).
Until now, about 120,000 files were digitized, out of which around two thirds are already basically categorized. The descriptive information on the individual data sets were partially already broadened and, depending on the amount of time spent, can be expanded to the smallest detail.
International cooperations with similar projects are ensured via interfaces of this IT-architecture. This network was intended from the start in order to build up a long-term documentation and most comprehensive data-collection of Syrian cultural heritage. A transfer of data processed in the project will contribute to the establishment of a National Heritage List in Syria and help to provide a basis for monitoring activities and measures for the protection of cultural assets.
The project is part of a broader network for cultural preservation called“Stunde Null – A Future for the Time after the Crisis“
, which concentrates especially on training activities in the heritage field.