Islamic State Destroyed Syrian Monuments, So These Refugee Artists Built Replicas From Kebab Sticks
Once a wealthy cultural mecca that prospered as a Roman trading outpost, the ancient Syrian city of Palmyra has been reduced to rubble since Islamic State militants took control of it last May. But across the border in Jordan, the once-dazzling city has been pristinely resurrected in miniature. The scaled-down replica isn’t constructed with stone but with more makeshift materials: kebab skewers and clay.
The architectural model is one of several crafted by Syrian refugees living in the Zaatari camp as a means of preserving and remembering their heritage. The series is on display at a community center run by the Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees and its nongovernmental partner, International Relief and Development.
“I’m very worried about what is happening. This site represents our history and culture, not just for Syrians but all of humanity,” 25-year-old Syrian artist Mahmoud Hariri told UNHCR's Tracks website. “This is a way for them not to forget. As artists, we have an important role to play,” he said, pointing to Egyptian hieroglyphs and cave paintings as examples of how artists have historically passed down information about their civilizations to future generations.
A former art teacher and painter, Hariri fled war-torn Syria in 2013 and has been living in Zaatari ever since. “When I first arrived I didn’t think I would continue my work, as I only expected to be here for a week or two,” he told Tracks. “But when I realized it would be years, I knew I had to start again or lose my skills.”
Hariri is not alone in his creative pursuit. He is joined by five other artists living in Zaatari who together have been working to construct miniature models of Syrian landmarks, including the Deir ez-Zor suspension bridge, a pedestrian path over the Euphrates River that was built in 1927 and obliterated by shelling in 2013; the Umayyad Mosque, one of the world’s oldest mosques, which was damaged by fighting in the Old City of Damascus in 2013; and the Citadel of Aleppo, a medieval fortress that suffered destruction last year at the hands of the Islamic State.
More than 4 million Syrians have fled Syria since the start of the conflict in 2011, marking the largest refugee crisis in the world in nearly a quarter of a century, according to UNHCR. The majority of refugees are concentrated in Turkey, Lebanon, Jordan, Iraq, and Egypt. More than 80 percent of refugees in Jordan live below the poverty line, according to Amnesty International. Of the roughly 650,000 Syrian refugees living in Jordan, nearly 80,000 live in Zaatari, which has evolved into its own makeshift city with bustling marketplaces and a grassroots economy.
The camp is a far cry from the homes and villages many refugees left behind. For some of the kids in Zaatari who are too young to remember seeing the landmarks in person, the reproductions offer another chance to take in their history. “They know more about Jordan than about their own country,” Ahmad Hariri, one of the organizers of the exhibition of miniatures, told Tracks. “By doing this work, [the artists] feel like they are at least doing something to preserve their culture.”