A methodology for documenting preservation issues affecting cultural heritage in Syria and Iraq

LeeAnn Barnes Gordon, Bijan Rouhani, Allison Cuneo, and Susan Penacho


Armed conflict in Syria and Iraq has resulted in a humanitarian crisis with hundreds of thousands of casualties, millions of refugees, and nearly twice as many millions of internally displaced persons. As violence and extremism continue to escalate, so too, has the destruction of cultural property, another dimension of the humanitarian crisis. Following the first few years of the war in Syria, international responses for heritage protection increased rapidly, including the formation of the Cultural Heritage Initiatives (CHI) project in August 2014. CHI is a cooperative agreement between the US Department of State and the American Schools of Oriental Research (ASOR) to implement cultural property protection by documenting damage, promoting global awareness, and planning emergency and post-war responses. This paper discusses the development of CHI’s methodology for documenting preservation issues affecting cultural heritage in Syria and Iraq. Since the onset of the war, thousands of cultural properties have been damaged through combat-related incidents, theft, and intentional destruction. The CHI project has developed a remote condition assessment methodology with aims to better understand the types and patterns of threats and damage, which will inform future safeguarding and post-conflict restoration efforts. The CHI condition assessment process is closely linked to other activities of the project, including the development of a digital inventory and map of heritage sites using Arches heritage management software and the archiving of information about cultural heritage from major news outlets, online media, satellite imagery, and in-country sources.

To integrate the assessments with CHI’s digital inventory, the methodology was initially based on the Arches Condition Assessment module, designed primarily to record the physical condition of a property and threats and/or disturbances. Terminology and evaluation scales were adapted in part from the MEGA Jordan Guidelines (the underlying schema used in Arches) and other sources, with the addition of terms more specific to armed conflict and a unique category for Military Activities. A Condition Issues section was developed in order to track the effects of damage and the components of a property that may be affected. Later additions include a section designed to rate the priority for an on-the-ground assessment in the post-conflict period. CHI has engaged heritage experts to test and provide feedback on the methodology, which has been used to make revisions and improvements. One of the biggest challenges has been to design a system that is flexible and can provide meaningful data despite the inability for assessors to observe the cultural properties firsthand. Differing from traditional condition assessments, this lack of primary observations has led to an increased emphasis on recording sources of information and an awareness of the reliability of the data used to complete an assessment. However, initial results of assessments of properties within the UNESCO World Heritage Site of Ancient Aleppo indicate that the process provides useful data, and it is anticipated that broad trends in the heritage situation will emerge and priorities for preservation efforts will be identified as larger areas are assessed.