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Sections of Aleppo in Syria lie in ruins after conflict.

Reconstructing heritage after war: what we learned from asking 1,600 Syrians about rebuilding Aleppo

War brings not just unimaginable human suffering, but also the destruction of significant heritage sites.

Israel’s bombardment of Gaza reportedly wrecked the once-majestic Great Omari Mosque late last year. A Russian attack reportedly did significant damage to the Church of the Holy Mother of God in Ukraine. Recent wars in places like Iraq, Afghanistan and Syria have also destroyed other important heritage sites.

We were interested by how locals in conflict zones felt heritage sites should be rebuilt after wars end, and who should do it.

To find out more, we surveyed 1,600 residents in the Syrian city of Aleppo about heritage restoration projects in their city. Aleppo saw untold amounts of human and heritage devastation during a conflict that spanned the years 2012–16.

Our research, published in the International Journal of Heritage Studies, identified four key themes:

  • locals don’t want heritage reconstruction to be privileged over security

  • they want local religious sites rebuilt as much as significant non-religious sites

  • they want heritage sites transformed into more useful structures for the community

  • and they want control and agency over the future of their own heritage.

Our findings aren’t only important for Syria. They also hold important clues about how we might approach heritage restoration projects in other post-conflict sites.

Foreign-led restoration efforts

Aleppo was among the most dangerous frontlines in the Syrian war. Rebels and Islamists battled Syrian armed forces for control of the city.

UNESCO has estimated that 60% of the Old City of Aleppo was severely damaged, and about 30% completely destroyed.

After the war concluded, the international community launched various initiatives to protect and reconstruct the heritage of Aleppo.

One prominent example is UNESCO’s ambitious Emergency Safeguarding of Syrian Cultural Heritage program, largely funded by the European Union.

The Aga Khan Trust for Culture (a group that works to preserve and revitalise cultural assets) and the United Nations Development Programme also led programs seeking to restore historic markets across the Old City, in an effort to stimulate economic activity.

Other projects have been funded by Western governments. The US State Department, the British Council and the German Foreign Office have all funded various heritage restoration efforts in Syria.

Key allies of the Syrian government, such as Russia, have also sought to reconstruct heritage sites across Aleppo. Iran, too, has said it’s willing to be involved in such projects in future.

However, little was known about how the people of Aleppo felt about these foreign-led heritage restoration efforts.

For our study, we collaborated with scholars from Arab Research and Analytics Associates, a group specialising in public opinion research in the Middle East and North Africa.

A person rides a motorbike through the rubble of Aleppo's Old City.
Some projects have sought to restore sections of Aleppo’s Old City. AP Photo/Hassan Ammar

Is heritage a priority?

We asked respondents:

If you had to choose just three, what do you think are the most urgent priorities for the future of Syria?

The top answers were:

  • safety and security (60%)

  • electricity, water and other services (56%)

  • unemployment and poverty services (35%), and

  • a political solution (33%).

Less than one-third (31%) of respondents listed “heritage protection and reconstruction” in their top three urgent priorities for the future of Syria.

Should heritage sites be reconstructed?

We asked survey respondents whether they agreed with the statement:

Heritage sites that were damaged or destroyed during recent conflicts should be restored or reconstructed.

The overwhelming majority (98%) of respondents agreed, while just 2% disagreed.

We also asked:

What would you prefer to see happen to the heritage sites that have been damaged or destroyed during the recent conflicts?

Only 1% of those surveyed wanted to see damaged heritage sites left in ruins.

Of the remainder, the majority (57%) preferred the reconstruction focus less on restoring the historical authenticity of the site and more on transforming it into a more modern facility.

We also asked:

If you had to choose just one, who would you most like to see being entrusted with any restoration or reconstruction work at heritage sites?

By far the largest level of support was for the Syrian government (31%) and ordinary Syrians (20%).

Following at some distance were relatively low levels of support for global agencies. This included UNESCO (13%) or Western governments such as the US, UK or Europe (4%).

The lowest level of support was for regime allies like Russia (2%) or Iran (1%) to spearhead heritage reconstruction projects in Aleppo.

This journalism image provided by Aleppo Media Center AMC which has been authenticated based on its contents and other AP reporting, shows the damaged famed 12th century Umayyad mosque without the minaret, background right corner, which was destroyed by the shelling, in the northern city of Aleppo, Syria, Wednesday April 24, 2013
This image, which has been authenticated by AP, shows the famed 12th century Umayyad mosque in Aleppo, which was damaged by shelling. AP Photo/Aleppo Media Center, AMC

Implications for international actors

Overall, these findings show very few respondents placed heritage reconstruction among the most urgent priorities facing Syria. However, heritage restoration also had broad support from Aleppo citizens.

International actors currently engaged in heritage projects in Aleppo must make every effort to work closely with key partners and communities. This will help ensure their endeavours are better embedded within broader security, developmental and infrastructure investment.

The fact so many survey respondents preferred damaged structures be transformed into new, useful and more modern facilities was also significant.

This highlights a tension between groups like UNESCO, which tend to prioritise preserving the so-called “authenticity” of heritage sites, and the needs of a populace left with little public infrastructure.

Our findings also highlight that if ongoing efforts to reconstruct Aleppo’s heritage are to be embraced by locals, foreign actors will need to foster an authentic grassroots process. This means Syrians should take ultimate responsibility for the reconstruction of their heritage.

Taken together, our findings have important implications for the future of heritage sites in places like Ukraine and Gaza. If peace soon returns to either area, there will undoubtedly be an influx of (mostly) well-intentioned foreign actors who want to reconstruct heritage sites.

However, engaging with the local population is key. We must ask whether locals see restoration as a priority, what form they want it to take, and the extent to which they support foreign-led heritage interventions.

This is perhaps the only way such efforts can have a meaningful long-term impact.

Correction: This article has been amended to reflect the fact it was Arab Research and Analytics Associates, not Arab Barometer, that worked with the researchers on this study.

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