Syria’s cultural heritage online, a case for open access

Logo Open Access WeekFrom October 22 to 28 the yearly Open Access Week will be held. Around the world there are initiatives to create open access in various forms. Institutions can choose for degrees of openness for their digital collections. The debate about open access to major scholarly journals is very important for the future of science and its presence in society. In some cases open access is most helpful in tracing, monitoring and preserving cultural heritage. For Syria this is even absolutely vital. In this post I would like to look at some projects aiming to preserve Syria’s cultural heritage. The war in Syria has taken the lives of too many people. Invaluable objects from its long history have been destroyed, and the same fate threatens today.

Syria’s cultural heritage

The Blues Shield logo

The UNESCO has created the Observatory of Syrian Cultural Heritage. Its name sounds like The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights. This UNESCO observatory looks at buildings, movable heritage and intangible heritage, and it launches initiatives for their protection. You can find also information about the actions of UNESCO partners such as ICOM. The ICOM is home to the Observatory on Illicit Traffic in Cultural Goods and the Intangible Cultural Heritage & Museums Project, and ICOM has created other portals as well. ICOM works together with The Blue Shield, an organization which helps the coordination for saving and protecting cultural heritage in emergency situations. The UNESCO lists also other initiatives which aim specifically at Syria, some of the well-known, for example The Aleppo Project and the Damascus History Foundation. I could not help noticing Scanning for Syria, an international project led by Leiden University for scanning archaeological objects at Tell Sabi Abyad in the field and creating virtual reconstructions. You can find publications resulting from the excavations in open access in the Leiden University scholarly repository.

An important resource for finding such initiatives for Syria is the Syriac Reference Portal, but today I could not reach this website. Luckily I bookmarked a number of websites. The Syrian Heritage Archive Project has been created by the Museum für Islamische Kunst in Berlin and the Deutsches Archäologisches Institut. Some of the results can be seen in the iDAi Gazetteer, an interactive map system which is connected with other georeferenced resources. The information for objects in Syria can be approached in several ways, in particular using iDAI objects.

Logo Syri-Ac

The Open Access Week mentions at its website many groups and events, but the very word Syria is sadly missing. It makes me more eager to proceed here to initiatives which offer more substantial contributions for Syria. Syri-Ac is a portal to resources for the Syrian language, literature and culture. There is a generous links section and a scholarly bibliography. Among the valuable sections the overview of digitized Syriac manuscripts stands out. You can use a sortable or a faceted version. The sortable version shows concise descriptions of the contents, and you can perform keyword searches. The faceted version allows you to filter quickly for languages, holding institutions, authors and genres.

The E-ktobe: manuscrits syriaques catalogue created at the IRHT/CNRS (Paris-Orleans) gives currently detailed descriptions of a restricted number of Syriac manuscripts. No doubt this resource will grow in strength. One of the largest online collections with Syriac manuscripts with manuscripts actually held in Syria is presented in the Virtual Hill Monastic Museum and Library, better known under its acronym vHMML. You can view manuscripts after registration. No registration is needed for the palaeographical introduction to Syriac scripts in the online School of the HMML. A perhaps unexpected number of digitized manuscripts and fragments containing items in Syriac can be found at the portal of the International Dunhuang Project, but thanks to Syri-Ac you are alerted to nearly 650 fragments. The Dunhuang project deals mainly with Tibetan texts and manuscripts found in the Chinese town Dunhuang.

Epigraphy is a scholarly field with a tradition for researching a part of Syria’s cultural heritage. Searchable Greek Inscriptions has an overview of online resources for Greater Syria and the East. In particular but not exclusively Palmyra is mentioned among the resources. The Università Ca’ Foscari in Venice has created The Ebla Digital Archives for royal inscriptions from the third millennium BCE found in Ebla/Tell Mardikh. The closeness of Syria to ancient and modern empires comes into view at the Hethitologie Portal Mainz which deals with cuneiform inscription found in modern Turkey and northern Syria. The Khalili Research Centre of Oxford University is responsible for OCIANA, the Online Corpus of the Inscriptions of Ancient Northern Arabia, an area which covered at least a part of southern Syria.

One of the general resources for Latin inscriptions is the Photographic Database within the Epigraphic Database Heidelberg. You can also search for images of inscriptions at the EAGLE portal. With the EAGLE mobile app you can take photos of inscriptions in situ and compare them with the database.

Finding more

Starts screen Monuments of Syria, Ross Burns

This post could be much longer, but maybe it is important to realize projects can easily be overlooked. Initiatives do not come from just one country. Some countries have institutes in the Middle East which watch developments in Syria carefully, others follow the Middle East since decades both on location and from the outside. The American School of Oriental Research (ASOR) in Alexandria, Virginia, has created the platform ASOR-Syrian Heritage with reports on damage inflicted to cultural heritage. The ASOR has a digital archive for its rich history in archaeological excavations. The University of Wisconsin, Milwaukee, has an extensive digital collection with photographs from the library of the American Geographical Society and also the Wisconsin Palmyrean Aramaic Inscription Project. Damage to archaeological sites in Syria is discussed in particular by the Association for the Protection of Syrian Archaeology. Monuments of Syria preserves literally images of the situation in 2011 and gives links to a number of resources. These are just a few of the websites you, too, can find using the ever-active Ancient World Online blog maintained by Charles Jones. Access to Mideast and Islamic Resources is an online journal which helps you to find just what it promises

Just as we cannot take open access as granted, we cannot afford to think every project concerning Syria can be traced easily. Online maps such as the one concerning the civil war in Syria or a similar map at Edmaps are ready at hand, but you need to search for other resources. It is a lucky situation the results of research in the filed of Classical Antiquity can almost always be found in open access. In Europe many people can benefit from an autumn holiday week. For those who like to sit behind a computer screen or surf with a tablet there is every chance to discover next week lots of resources in open access about a country which goes through a dark period in its long history. For me it would suffice if this post invites you to find out more yourself.

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