DECOLONISING HERITAGE IN SYRIA: REVOLUTION AND BOSRA AL-SHAM – by Sina Zekavat
As the Syrian regime, Russian air force and Iranian backed ground forces intensify their military offensive against opposition-held areas with the full connivance of the United States , the scale of civilian death and forced displacement is escalating. The situation is only expected to intensify with the fall of Aleppo to regime hands. The intensification of the military offensive serves a secondary purpose for the invaders: the marginalization of other, less violent stories of liberation. Reclamation and autonomy in territories across Syria where revolutionary self-determination is still present, active and hopeful against all odds. These are the stories that the forces of the status quo are so terribly afraid of.
One such story is that of Bosra al-Sham, a town in southern Syria with a world-famous Roman archaeological site.
Bosra al-Sham Roman amphitheater and the surrounding urban fabric. Source: Theatrum
Bosra is located near the city of Deraa, where the first protests of March 2011 erupted after the arrest and torture of a group of youth who wrote anti-government graffiti on their school walls. Once the capital of the Roman province of Arabia and also a stopover on caravan routes to Mecca, Bosra is listed as a UNESCO World Heritage Site. The area has been inhabited since the 14th century BC and bears traces from Nabataean, Roman, Byzantine and Umayyad periods, holding significant importance in early Islamic history.
The city’s archaeological complex contains one of the oldest standing mosques in the world, the Al-Omari Mosque, as well as one of the most well preserved Roman amphitheaters in the Middle East.
For decades Bosra al-Sham was under the control of the Assad regime and was considered one of its most important strongholds in southeastern Deraa. In order to hold the site, the regime, which had previously used it to stage festivals celebrating their idea of ‘local heritage’, had no qualms about dropping barrel bombs on ruins that also hosted the houses of local families.
On March 2015, after a five-day-long battle between Assad’s army (supported by its foreign allies) and the Free Syrian Army (FSA) and Jabhat Al-Nusra, the town fell out of Assad’s control and joined the fragile but resilient archipelago of liberated geographies in Syria. Shortly after this decisive battle, the FSA released an important public statement, distancing themselves from Jabhat al-Nusra on the basis of its hardline ideologies and ties with Al-Qaeda. The statement went further and criticized the media’s misrepresentation of the achievements in southern Syria, calling it “a state of frustration”.
Since the town’s liberation, an extensive restoration project has taken place in the archaeological site. In a video report, local council member Mahmoud al-Eissa announced that “the opposition’s Antiquities Department in Bosra al-Sham began supervising the site’s restoration in coordination with the local council.” He further explained that “the project, which involves local organizations, civilians and Free Syrian Army soldiers, was aimed at cleaning and restoring the town’s historic landmarks. Some of the historical sites, including the historic castle, sustained damage after they were taken as military bases by regime forces.”
A scene from the video release by Bosra al-Sham’s local council showing residents cleaning the steps of the ancient amphitheater as part of the restoration process.
The resulting transformation of the heritage site’s function, as well as its new horizontal management system, has opened the door to an entirely new socio-cultural and political dynamic that goes far beyond the narrow framework of typical eurocentric, professionalized and neoliberal preservation approaches. Tourism is no longer the sole activity dictating the meaning of heritage. The people living and working around the site are now its main users and patrons. Popular assemblies have been using the space for a diverse range of cultural and political events reflecting their new situation.
Before the uprising however, Bosra al-Sham, like all other state managed heritage sites such as Palmyra, were mere instruments of nation-building propaganda and the tourism industry. As Frederick Deknatel writes:
“Five years ago, in what seems like a different Syria, the Assad government wasn’t bombing architectural treasures into ruins; it was helping to preserve them amid a tourism boom centered in Damascus and Aleppo…During the preservation boom, tourists were attracted by the conversions of restored Ottoman-era courtyard houses into boutique hotels and restaurants, undertaken by private developers and international agencies. The effort garnered upbeat international press, and Assad presented himself to the world as the custodian of Syrian heritage and history.”
But today, due to the revolution’s new and evolving socio-political and cultural aesthetics, the meaning and perception of heritage is being radically redefined by the people. One can even argue that the Roman amphitheater is actually regaining its forgotten meaning and significance as a space of assembly for the ordinary citizen. The amphitheater is once again facilitating what it used to facilitate during its heydays, namely, notions of collective identity formation, participatory social spectacle and politicized popular assemblies.
In the following paragraphs I focus on two events that have been fundamental to the site’s transformation and arguably, its decolonization.
RALLY IN THE RUINS
An amateur video that was live streamed on Facebook on October 1st documents a rally/celebration at the center of the Roman amphitheater. The video captures a group of people standing in circle and singing anti-war slogans and revolutionary songs, accompanied by an audience of fellow protesters standing on the steps of the ancient amphitheater. As the camera rotates, we see more details of the transformed Roman amphitheater. In the area right above the stage, exactly where Assad’s image used to be, a large hanging banner says “we are being killed by Russia” in five languages. The camera rotates again and we see an exceptionally large Syrian revolution flag covering half of the amphitheater steps. The center stage and the surrounding steps merge into one as the line between the audience and the performers disappears. Perhaps this is very close to what Syrian playwright Saadallah Wannous has referred to as the “theater of politicization » as opposed to the traditional notions of the “political theater.”
Bashar al-Assad’s banner used to hang in different parts of the Roman amphitheater prior to the 2011 uprisings. Image Source: Getty
Top image: Typical representation of Bosra al-Sham Roman amphitheater as a static, objectified and museumified historic space. Image source: Flickr
Bottom Image: Representation of the historic space transformed by local community organizers. The historic space is reactivated as a site of popular assembly and political mobilization, appropriated for the purpose of a collective cause through the incorporation of political slogans, songs, flags and banners into the space which are “prohibited” by the state. Source: Facebook LiveStream
A PEOPLE’S CINEMA IN THE RUINS
Another cultural event taking place in the liberated Roman amphitheater is ‘Syria Mobile Phone film festival.’The festival’s organizers write in their statement:
“Clips via mobile cameras had an important role in Arab world protest movements. Thousands of activists and journalists have filmed special video clips that spreaded bravely outside the country and challenged dictatorships by sound and photo, so the mobile camera has become a main tool in peaceful struggle and free expressing…The festival tries to create a unique platform to encourage professional and amateurs directors in making creative films via mobile camera with low budget…Moreover, it seeks to present a free and different cinematic vision, a vision which believes that the higher accuracy image is not necessarily the most clear one.”
Once again, the traditional audience/performer relationship is altered as those who are watching these videos are the same people who have participated in the revolution themselves. In other words, the films that are being projected on the screen are a mere extension/reflection of the social change that the audience itself has helped to materialize.
Images from the ‘Syria Mobile Phone Film Festival’ screenings. Source: ‘Syria Mobile Phone film festival.’
WHOSE HERITAGE? PEOPLE’S HERITAGE!
When charged historical and institutional spaces are reclaimed and utilized for communicating new socio-political identities, a simple yet powerful message is constructed: heritage belongs to the people.
Events like the ones mentioned above are highly valuable not only because they restore the right to agency and representation but also because they challenge our Western definition of heritage as a static, permanent, non-interactable and objectified phenomenon. As citizens of late capitalist societies, we are simply incapable of imagining an archaeological site serving any purpose other than tourism. Thus, not only are our rigid and hegemonic definitions of heritage unfitting in the context of the current transformations across Syria and the rest of the Middle East, they are also highly problematic and dangerous since they easily fall into to the realm of “War on Terror” and/or White-Savior rationalities that are inherently violent, racist, islamophobic and orientalist in origin.
With an overwhelming number of pseudo-conservationists writing article after article after article about the “loss of world heritage in Syria and Iraq”, there has been very little attempt in understanding the specific new relationships between the emerging socio-political actors and heritage sites like Bosra al-Sham. Investigating the diverse ways in which heritage is being locally redefined is simply beyond imagination. ISIS as well as the Assad regime have been exploiting, bombing and erasing important cultural heritage for the purpose of their own political agendas. Our despair caused by scale of destruction inflicted on the Umayyad mosque by intensive aerial bombardment should not lead us to forget the work of Syrian revolutionaries who have been active in preserving and advancing cultural heritage in liberated areas. These local organisers are giving us a valuable lesson about how to breathe life into heritage even in times of extreme duress. If we are to go with the perspective of the armchair experts; they would tell us that protests, or any other “unauthorized” assembly in an archaeological site like Bosra al-Sham would be considered a threat to the “purity”, “authenticity” as well as the “value” of the historic space. This is because their main concern is with preserving individual stones and not with the people who live around them.
For such experts, any historic space that falls out of state’s rigid control is naturally in danger of “vandalism”, “barbarity”, “destruction” and “loss of value”. Especially if dark skinned men with beards are involved. Such orientalist perspectives fail to recognize that, due to their historical significance, spaces like Bosra al-Sham are in fact some of the most ideal and appropriate spaces for civil protest and mobilization because such spaces allow citizens to creatively put heritage into action and invoke an instant claim to notions of collective heritage, identity, belonging and memory. Additionally, utilizing such sites help protesters to challenge mainstream media’s fetish with depoliticized tragedy and ruination by insisting on the importance of narrative, cultural agency and dignity in representation.
DECOLONIZATION IN THE RUINS
In his landmark book, The Wretched of the Earth, Frantz Fanon defined decolonization as a “historical process” and as “the meeting of two forces, opposed to each other by their very nature”. Fanon was clear however that decolonization is not necessarily, or solely, a struggle towards the external, imperial and foreign domination, but it’s also a struggle with the internal, nationalist, elite and bourgeoisie forces at home. But considering the fact that the entire science of archaeology, antiquity and preservation in Syria was introduced during the French mandate as part of the colonial apparatus, we can perhaps define such acts of collective appropriation of heritage sites like Bosra al-Sham as direct attempts at the decolonization of heritage and in a broader sense, the nation’s historical narrative, from any and all hegemonic and authoritarian forces. Whether these forces are external or internal, from the past or the present.
In their groundbreaking and timely book Burning Country: Syrians in Revolution and War, authors Leila Al-Shami and Robin Yassin-Kassab write in great detail about the transformation of values that the revolution has invoked across Syria. They write how the “nation’s self image” is being reclaimed through the appropriation of symbols previously in control of the state. “It was a cultural revolution from bottom up.”
The events mentioned in this article are only a few examples of the bottom-up transformations that have been challenging authoritarian, hierarchical and centralized cultural production through the redefining of heritage in Syria as an active, never ending and contestable process. As global citizens in times of change, it is perhaps in our own self interest to echo and preserve such stories of social experimentation, liberation and self organization that are still taking place across Syria and many other awakened communities across the Middle East and the broader Global South.