VSFS Intern Spotlight: Syrian Cultural Heritage Inventory

By Christina Fossa, Boston University

Smithsonian Cultural Rescue Initiative Virtual Student Federal Service Intern, 2017

I am currently an intern for the Virtual Student Federal Services internship program for the academic year of 2017-2018. This internship, so far, has allowed me to contribute by working on the Syrian Cultural Heritage Inventory. I have been assigned a section of this inventory to go through to delete duplicate entries and check the accuracy of the cultural sites that are listed already, which include cultural repositories, archaeological sites, historic sites, and religious sites. Although I am still in the early stages of this internship, the most prominent piece of information I have learned so far is that the importance of these cultural heritage sites in Syria is not based on whether or not they are ancient, but is based instead on whether they are culturally significant to contemporary people living in Syria today. These tangible sites reflect a deeper intangible heritage.

While working on this internship I have found that the majority of the sites in my assigned section hold local, historic, or Islamic significances. This is in contrast to the media attention that is often given to primarily Western and ancient sites, such as Palmyra or Roman sites that are located in Syria. While Roman and other sites with Western cultural ties are important to protect, they hold a very different type of significance and do not impact the daily lives of Syrians in the way that many Islamic, and especially religious sites do. Mosques, churches, and graveyards that date to more recent historic times will be of a much greater significance to some Syrians than the archaeology mounds or ancient sites since they make up a crucial part of their cultural identity.

One site listed in my assigned section of the Syrian Cultural Heritage Inventory that I want to highlight is Mari – Tell Hariri (ماري – تل الحريري). This site is different from mosques and other religious sites both in its cultural significance and in the type of destruction that it has faced during armed conflict, compared to the destruction and damage that is inflicted upon many mosques and other religious sites. The University of Pennsylvania and the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS) in partnership with the University of Pennsylvania Museum of Archaeology and Anthropology’s Penn Cultural Heritage Center (PennCHC), and the Smithsonian Institution reported that many of the mosques, madrasas, and historic buildings in Aleppo in particular had been damaged or destroyed (The Penn Museum, 2014). This type of destruction is different from the destruction that is inflicted upon archaeological sites. Mari – Tell Hariri, is a Bronze Age archaeological site that was founded around 2900 B.C. This site has experienced destruction through widespread looting in recent years (UNESCO, n.d.). This looting poses a problem because it takes cultural objects from underground out of their archaeological context, which means that the history of these objects and the history of the ancient people who occupied the site will never be as well-understood.


Figure 1: Mari – Tell Hariri Satellite Image from 2011, prior to looting. Image ©DigitalGlobe | U.S. Department of State, NextView License | Analysis AAAS.


- Tell Hariri Satellite Image from November 2014, with evidence of looting. Image ©DigitalGlobe | U.S. Department of State, NextView License | Analysis AAAS.

– Tell Hariri Satellite Image from November 2014, with evidence of looting.
Image ©DigitalGlobe | U.S. Department of State, NextView License | Analysis AAAS.

Mari – Tell Hariri is a UNESCO site and receives more attention than most mosques and historic sites in Syria, but many mosques, on the other hand, hold a local significance and are not well-known outside of Syria. These locally important sites are often neglected in heritage issues, or there is an increased emphasis on protecting either ancient sites, or sites that have cultural ties to the West. This project offers a glimpse into the wide array of cultural sites in Syria that hold local significances. It is my hope that through this project I will be able to better understand the significance of why certain sites are destroyed in armed conflict, how they are destroyed, and what this means for contemporary people living in Syria today whose identity and heritage are intertwined with these cultural sites.



The Penn Museum. (2014). AAAS Satellite Image Analysis—Five of Six Syrian World Heritage Sites “Exhibit Significant Damage”. Retrieved from https://www.penn.museum/information/press-room/press-releases-research/691-syrian-heritage-sites-exhibit-significant-damage

UNESCO. (n.d.). Mari (Tell Hariri). Retrieved from http://en.unesco.org/syrian-observatory/news/mari-tell-hariri

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