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Dr. Tarek Ahmad

Dr. Tarek Ahmad

Einstein Junior Scholarship 2018 - 2020

Seit 01.07.2018
Post-doc Stipendium an der Freien Universität Berlin, gefördert von Einstein Stiftung

Post-doc Stipendium an der Heidelberg Universität, gefördert von Philipp Schwartz-Initiative (Alexander von Humboldt)

Lehrauftrag an der Damaskus Universität

Konservator an der Aga Khan Cultural Service (Damaskus-Syrien)

Mitarbeiter am Staatsmuseum in Damaskus-Syrien

Promotion mit der Arbeit „Das Heiligtum von Baitokaike (Hoson Sulaiman), Architektur und Funktionsanalysen der römischen Tempel in Syrien“ an der Universität Rom 1 La Sapienza

Studium der Archäologie, Restaurierung, an der Universität Damaskus in Syrien und an der Istituto per l’Arte e il Restauro Florence- Italien

Post-doc proposal project  

The Renaissance of Syrian identity

Study on the interpretation of Cultural Heritage


The identity of a modern country manifests itself within a complex interaction of various components of its society, of which cultural monuments are one fundamental element. Syrian self-identification is relatively modern and an overall product of the nineteenth century, formed later by imposing patriotism/nationalism, Arabism and Islamism as concepts of identity, in which cultural heritage was one of the most effective elements.

Since its earliest origins, Archaeology has been concerned with the culture and identity of the ancient past. In the Near East, political and religious interests have encouraged intense archaeological excavations, the results of which were used to reinforce and establish the identity of new nations, particularly so in the post-colonial era. Therefore, these ideological interests (nationalism or/and Islamism) have a strong implication on the interpretation of cultural heritage.

This proposed post-doc project aims to highlight the reciprocal relationship between identity and cultural material and to propose new interpretations of Syrian cultural heritage in order to contribute to the ongoing renaissance of Syrian post-conflict identity.

State of research

Scholarly views of cultural heritage changed in the first decades of the 21st century. This conceptual change led to a different understanding of cultural heritage that was now less seen as a property or object, while other components like memories became more important. Indeed, some innovative interdisciplinary university courses now focus on the relations between objects and meanings in their research programs on cultural heritage, memory and archeology (e. g. AHM Master Univ. Amsterdam http://gsh.uva.nl/content/research-masters/heritage-memory-and-archaeology-research/heritage-memory-and-archeology.html). On the other hand, some scholars have dealt with general issues of heritage in relation to memory (e. g. Anheier and Isar 2011; Benton 2010) and to identity (e. g. Viejo-Rose 2015). Recent research highlighted this relationship between cultural heritage and identity through the study of the origins of national identity in the Near East taking into account the rise of Arabism and social changes (e. g. Zachs 2005). Others have instead focused on the exploitation of cultural heritage in order to impose this Arabist identity in the Near East (e. g. Davis 2005). Despite the fact that many historical and archaeological studies have treated the topic of ‘Syrian identity’ in Antiquity (e. g. Andrade 2013; Van Gikel, Murre-van den Berg and van Lint 2005), these do not refer to the historical process in contemporary Syria.

After the cultural disasters in Iraq 2003 and in Syria since 2011, archaeological investigations in the Near East changed their focus completely. Instead of analyzing the exploitation of cultural heritage, they now attempt to answer the opposite question: how can cultural heritage help within cultural or identity conflicts? (e. g. Wollentz 2014). The Syrian conflict has transformed the revolt against a dictatorial regime into an identity conflict with religious and/or ethnic aspects. This transformation has brought to light many historical issues concerning the religious and ethnic conflicts. Thus, the need to respond to these immediate problems arises, within which its cultural heritage become victims. New research contributions to a post-conflict identity still seem to be limited to highlighting the importance of cultural heritage in enhancing Syrian identity (e. g. Al-Azm 2018). Further research still needs to deal with the positive effects of cultural heritage in the renaissance of Syrian post-conflict identity.


The proposed research project is focused on the reciprocal relationship between cultural heritage and identity. On a historical, anthropological and socio-archaeological level (e. g. Gosden 1999), it will deal with the Syrian identity that consists of different ethnic and religious communities (who are in conflict with each other) following the failure of the creation of single Arabic identity. Through the study of their (tangible and intangible; ancient and modern) cultural heritage, the project aims to recognize the variety of these communities as characteristics in the past as well as in modern times. Furthermore, the destruction of cultural heritage in Syria will be discussed in terms of the cultural conflict. The research will deal with the scholarly debate concerning the methods of the so-called “reconstruction of historical monuments” and their purpose in long-term perspective that shall lead to the development of future methods of local community engagement in the post-conflict "reconstruction" of Syrian cultural heritage.

The research project raises the following key questions: how did the ideological policies (Nationalist-Arabist and then Islamist ideology) try to impose a homogenous identity in Syria using a particular interpretation of Cultural Heritage? Are there alternative interpretations or past narratives that can be used to recognize a much more widely defined Syrian identity? How can cultural heritage be used as a source of cohesion within a society of multiple identities, and not of conflict, and without superimposing one obligatory narrative?


Cultural heritage, even relatively modern objects and monuments, will constitute the scientific material that will be interpreted within the framework of cultural identity (e. g. Friedman 1992; Meskell 2002) by means of post-processual archaeological approaches and interpretive archaeological methods (Hodder 1986). Since Syrian cultural heritage is very rich and diverse, this research will collect its major significant cultural. This data collection will be based on two main pillars: tangible and intangible cultural heritage. The first consists of the ancient and modern monuments and objects that relate directly to ethnic and religious communities like shrines, palaces, mausoleums and castles (e. g. Phoenician city of Ugarit, Roman monument of Palmyra, Islamic Aleppo and medieval citadels etc.). The second includes socio-religious traditions that characterized the rich and diverse societies of this part of the world through the centuries: languages/dialects and cultural landscape (e. g. Kurdish, Syriac and variant of Arabic etc.), traditional quotes, artisanship (textiles, mosaic, food etc.), ritual and festival events (Nowruz, Islamic and Christian religious festival etc.). The collected data will be classified in a brief catalogue on the basis of their geographical area and by multiple fields (ethnic, gender and religious), and then analyzed in a number of case studies in order to enhance the values and meanings of its interpretation as tools to promote the renaissance of Syrian identity. On the other hand, the research aims to experiment with these interpretations of cultural heritage and with different levels and means of discussion through the creation of a web site, through which Syrian cultural heritage will be promoted in terms of identity. The web site would be the starting point for several surveys in close collaboration with local communities. Collaborative ties with other projects dealing with related topics, such as those of the DAI-Berlin, and with the local archaeological services, would help to share information in online free access databases in order to make it available to local NGOs and local communities as well as to the civil society.

Expected scientific outputs

One of the important objectives of this project is to propose a new concept of the ‘reconstruction’ of damaged Cultural Heritage within the framework of the renaissance of Syrian Identity. The research would demonstrate the fluidity and changeability of identities in the past in order to counter the popular notion that groups or communities are fixed in the past as well as in the present (similar case studies e. g. Hall 2001; Welz 2015). The conservation of multifaceted Syrian Cultural Identities through the recognition of their Cultural Heritage in this project would contribute to a new collective identity that includes all sub-identities. The expected scientific outputs will be included in several papers that will provide a number of benefits to both international scientific research and local institutions. These outputs could contribute to the interdisciplinary research on cultural heritage that integrates tools, prospective and theories from other humanities like history, archaeology and sociology to advance fundamental understanding and to resolve problems of modern societies. They will propose scientific materials that would be valuable for local institutions to develop new methods of education and management of cultural heritage in order to highlight Syrian Cultural Identities.

On a practical level, the research will experiment with theoretical solutions and new interpretations of cultural heritage through a web site, which would serve as a social platform addressed to dialogue between different local communities. These expected results would contribute in the post-conflict process of social cohesion, promoting tolerance and common values of Syrian identity. An important point will also be that this website could help future politicians and networks to deal with the identity conflict in Syria

Present state of work

For a long time I have carried out research on two main fields: archaeology and restoration. I was and am working on Roman archaeology concentrating on the near eastern provinces with a special focus on Syria. I have published several scientific papers and monographs within this field, and have collaborated within several national and international excavations and projects dealing with archaeological sites and heritage in Syria. Next to this, I was more practical and focused on the conservation, restoration and then safeguarding of Syrian cultural heritage. During the Syrian conflict, I also concentrated my academic activities on the documentation of the damages done to Syrian historical sites and monuments. As UNESCO-expert and member of the association for protection of Syrian archaeology, I have close collaborative ties with scholars and institutions in Berlin such as the DAI, which has launched ambitious projects to document Syrian cultural heritage for post-conflict ‘reconstruction’. My archaeological experiences and the network of collaboration with institutes and initiatives in Berlin concerning the cultural heritage of Syria creates a suitable base for a successful research on Syrian identity.

Career development

The war in Syria has radically changed the lives of millions of Syrian people, forcing them to leave the country like me, but fortunately, I could take up my scientific activity again in Germany free of constraints. However, one of the important reasons to continue my research in Berlin is the fact that this city houses important international initiatives, which are related to Syrian cultural heritage, such as the Islamic Museum and the DAI, with which I already have collaborated. The Universities of Berlin, in particular the Freie Universität, foster academic freedom and offer unhampered research for a scholar at risk like me. Such a work environment offers me the opportunity to develop my academic career by several research publications as qualification to new academic positions.


Al-Azm, A. 2018. “The importance of cultural heritage in enhancing a Syrian national identity and the role of local non-state actors in preserving it”, in P. Newson and R. Young (eds) Post-Conflict Archaeology and Cultural Heritage: Rebuilding Knowledge, Memory and Community from War-Damaged Material Cultural. New York.

Andrade, N. J. 2013. Syrian identity in the Greco-Roman world. Greek culture in the Roman World. Cambridge Univ. Press

Anheier, H. K. and Isar, Y. R. (eds.) 2011. Heritage, memory and identity. London: Sage.

Benton, T. (ed) 2010. Understanding Heritage and Memory. Manchester University Press.

Davis, E. 2005. Memories of State: Politics, History, and Collective Identity in Modern Iraq. University of California Press.

Friedman, J. 1992. The past in the Future: History and the Politics of Identity, American Anthropologist, New Series, Vol. 94, No. 4 (Dec., 1992), pp. 837-859.

Gosden, C. 1999. Anthropology and Archaeology. A changing relationship. London and New York.

Hall, M. 2001. Social archaeology and the theatres of memory. Journal of Social Archaeology, Vol. 1, pp. 50-61.

Hodder, I. 1986. Reading the past. Current approaches to interpretation in archaeology. Cambridge University press.

Meskell, L. 2002. The Intersections of Identity and Politics in Archaeology, Annual Review of Anthropology, Vol. 31:279-301, pp. 279-294.

Van Gikel, J.J; Murre-van den Berg, H. L and van Lint, T. M (eds). 2005. Redefining Christian Identity. Cultural Interaction in the Middle East since the Rise of Islam. Leuven- Paris- Dudley.

Viejo-Rose, D. 2015. Cultural heritage and memory: understanding the ties that bind”, Cultural and History digital Journal, Vol 4, no 2.

Welz, G. 2015. European Products. Making and Unmaking Heritage in Cyprus. New York and Oxford.

Wollentz, G. 2014. The Cultural heritage as a resource in conflict resolution. An overview of the field.

Zachs, F. 2005. The Making of a Syrian Identity: Intellectuals and Merchants in Nineteenth Century Beirut. Brill.


Il complesso monumentale di Baitokaike (Hoson Sulaiman) in Siria (Oxford 2018)

Übersetzung aus dem Italienischen in die arabische Sprache

G. Bucellati, Dal profondo del tempo all’origine della comunicazione nell’antica Siria (SFE Italy 2017)

S. Ribichini, Adonis: Aspetti orientali di un mito greco (Amman 2015)


The katochoi of Zeus at Baitokaike (Hoson Sulaiman, Syria), Journal of Ancient History 6.2, 2018, 215–233

Roman sanctuaries in Kaser Naous, Tripoli-Lebanon, Zeitschrift für Orient-Archäologie 11, 2018 (im Druck)

La fontana monumentale del Santuario di Zeus a Damasco, Syria. Archéologie, art et histoire 95, 2018 (Im Druck)

Il santuario rurale della Siria-Fenicia e il suo sviluppo nel periodo Romano, Rivista di Studi Fenici 43, 2015, 7-24

Die Gründung der syrischen ländlichen Tempel im Zusammenspiel der geographischen Elemente Annales Archéologiques Arabes Syriennes 53-54 2010-2011, 69-83 (auf Arabisch)

Roman Caravanserai-Sanctuaries in Syria, proceedings of Broadening Horizon 5, 2017 (in review)

Cultural Landscape History of the hilly area of Akkar within the Homs Gab region (Lebanon-Syria), (in review)