As Islamist militants continue to systematically destroy some of the world’s most iconic and treasured monuments through Syria and parts of the Middle East, a group of Syrian refugees are making sure their history won’t be forgotten by recreating many of Syria’s lost monuments in miniature.
About a year ago, a community leader in Jordan’s Za’atari refugee camp named Ahmad Hariri brought together a group of Syrian artists to recreate historical sites and monuments that have been lost to the war they fled from. Using scant materials available at the refugee camp, such as discarded pieces of wood, clay and rocks, the artists are working to make sure that their history won’t disappear for good, Linda Poon reports for CityLab.
“As artists, we have an important role to play,” art teacher and painter Mahmoud Hariri (no relation to Ahmad) tells Charlie Dunmore for the UN Refugee Agency's Tracks. “A lot of what we know about ancient civilizations or prehistoric people is preserved through their art—Egyptian hieroglyphs or cave paintings.”

In addition to Mahmoud’s clay and wooden kebab skewers recreation of the ancient city of Palmyra, (parts of which were damaged beyond repair by ISIS militants in August), artists in the group have built miniaturized replicas of iconic historical sites like Damascus’ Umayyad Mosque, the Citadel of Aleppo, and water wheel called the Norias of Hama that was constructed more than 750 years ago. Working from photographs, paintings, and illustrations, the group’s models are intricately detailed down to the last brick, though the largest models are only about as big as a small table. Currently, the models are on display throughout the Za’atari camp and in Jordan’s capital, Amman, Poon writes.
“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,” Dunmore, a UN refugee agency worker, tells Poon. “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.”
For the millions of Syrian refugees worldwide, maintaining a connection to their homeland and culture is important not just for the older refugees who remember the monuments, but for the children who are growing up in refugee camps. Though the artists may not have access to all of the materials they would like, these models can help pass on historical knowledge about their country to the younger generations, some of whom Ahmad says may know more about Jordan than their homeland, Dunmore writes. At the same time, this project gives people like Mahmoud a chance to practice their skills, as the conflict back in Syria drags on.
“When I first arrived [at the Za’atari refugees camp] I didn’t think I would continue my work as I only expected to be here for a week or two,” Mahmoud tells Dunmore. “But when I realised it would be years, I knew I had to start again or lose my skills.”
Meanwhile, archaeologists around the Middle East are rushing to document endangered historical sites before they are destroyed by the fighting, using 3D-scanning technology to create detailed digital models. This coming spring, a pair of 3D-printed arches replicating the Palmyra’s Temple of Bel's own arches that escaped being fully demolished by ISIS militants will be installed in New York City and London as a gesture of defiance against the group’s destruction of heritage sites.