There wasn’t much the world could do by the time videos surfaced of Islamic State militants destroying the ancient Syrian city of Palmyra. In the midst of the Middle East conflicts, several temples have been shelled, historical monuments ravaged, and entire cities bulldozed. The destruction has been especially devastating for the millions of refugees who not only face an uncertain future but have also had their rich cultural heritage violently stripped away from them.
But for at least one group of Syrian artists at the Za’atari refugee camp in Jordan, such history isn’t completely lost. The original sites may have already been destroyed or are at the mercy of militants, but they are now being recreated in miniature form.
Mahmoud Hariri, who was an art teacher and painter in Syria before fleeing to Za’atari in 2013, has made a replica of the fallen Palmyra using just clay and wooden kebab skewers. To him, Palmyra represents “all of humanity,” he told UN Refugee Acency (UNHCR) in an interview.
“This is a way for them not to forget,” he said. “As artists, we have an important role to play. A lot of what we know about ancient civilizations or prehistoric people is preserved through their art—Egyptian hieroglyphs or cave paintings.”
Unlike recent efforts seeking to preserve the legacy or Palmyra with the help of 3-D technology, these artists only have access to what they can find at Za’atari—rocks, small carving knives, discarded wood. The result aren’t any less stunning.
The group, who were brought together by community leader Ahmad Hariri (no relation to Mahmoud) roughly a year ago, has “rebuilt” iconic landmarks like the Umayyad Mosque, the Citadel of Aleppo, and the Deir ez-Zor bridge. They’re currently on display around the camps and in the Jordan capital of Amman.
The hope was to not only help older generations remember their culture, but also to educate children who never got the chance to learn about them. “There are lots of kids living here who have never seen Syria or who have no memory of it,” he told the agency. “They know more about Jordan than about their own country.”
Each piece is no bigger than the size of a table, yet even in their miniature form, the models have made a big impact on the other refugees. Their reactions, says Charlie Dunmore, a UNHCR worker who interviewed the artists, have been bittersweet. After all, some of these sites go back thousands of years, and have long been considered historical treasures, adds photographer Christopher Herwig, who captured the artists in action.
“A lot of Syrians were quite emotional; they wear their hearts on their sleeves,” Dunmore tells CityLab. “It seems to touch a nerve with people. It speaks to their experience, the fact that they can't go home and see the sites for themselves.”
As for the artists themselves, Dunmore says the project brought a sense of hope and purpose. “Obviously they can't do anything about what's happening in Syria and to the actual sites, but there was a real sense that they are really helping to preserve the site, if not physically then [at least] the memory of them.”