Digital archive on display in Berlin aims to help rebuild war-torn Syria

After eight years of brutal war in Syria, the UNESCO World Heritage-listed city of Aleppo lies in ruins -- but a vast digital archive in Germany aims to keep its memory alive and help rebuild it one day.

Digital archive on display in Berlin aims to help rebuild war-torn Syria
This stock photo shows a tourist at the 400-year old 'Aleppo room' of the Museum for Islamic Art

The Syrian Heritage Archive Project documents what it can of the millennia-old history of a part of the world that saw some humanity's earliest urban centres and writing systems, but which has become a symbol of the barbarity of war.

The special exhibition, which opened last week in Berlin, features a digital treasure trove of photographs, maps and films as well as artefacts to take visitors on a virtual journey through Aleppo and other cultural marvels of Syria.

“This project aims to preserve the past and also has a vision for the future: to gather archives so that reconstruction can happen quickly,” said Stefan Weber, director of Berlin's Museum of Islamic Art, which is hosting the exhibition until May 26.

SEE ALSO: Germany says ready to contribute to Syria rebuilding

“For over 100 years, our museum has had a special connection with Syria,” said Weber, a Damascus University graduate in modern Arabic, pointing to the 17th-century Aleppo Room, a wealthy merchant's dining room that is a centre piece of the permanent exhibition.

The archive exhibition, partially funded by the German foreign ministry, is one of several such initiatives — alongside a digital map of pre-war Aleppo's Old Town created by Germany's Cottbus University, and 3-D models of key sites made by a French IT startup.

To create the mammoth archive, a German-Syrian research team painstakingly analysed and scanned images of pre- and post-war Aleppo, then catalogued and compiled them all into a vast database.

Beyond Aleppo — Syria's second largest city and traditional commercial capital — the 300,000 digitized documents also include images and data on ancient villages of northern Syria, as well as the towns of Raqa and Palmyra.

To fill in the white spaces on the huge cultural mapping project, a team of 24 Syrian and Iraqi refugees will guide their compatriots through the exhibition in order to collect any information they may be able to contribute.

Jewel of Islamic art

Germany, with its dark and painful history, has plenty of experience with urban reconstruction, rebuilding entire city centres after World War II, and again renovating decrepit ex-communist urban areas after the fall of the Berlin Wall.

Weber said he knows it will take time to see Aleppo reborn, and that “it will be up to the Syrians themselves to decide what they plan to do with their cultural heritage with what we make available to them”.

SEE ALSO: My German career: How a Syrian soap shop owner in Berlin cleaned up his act

The war, which has claimed more than 350,000 lives, has by some estimates cost the country three decades of economic development. The UN has estimated the damage at nearly €345 billion.

More than two years after President Bashar al-Assad's Russia- and Iran-backed troops fully reclaimed Aleppo from rebels forces, much of it still lies in ruins, leaving many residents in unstable and unsafe homes.

One war-damaged building collapsed on February 2nd, killing 11 people inside, among them four children.

Existing reconstruction initiatives are mainly carried out by private
individuals, while the state authorities are focusing on infrastructure.

To help wider reconstruction, “the museum already sent a file last year to UNESCO, which has transferred the elements to the Syrian authorities,” said Karin Puett, a historian with the project.

She stressed that the initiative has no “direct contacts with the authorities”, just with the researchers and scientists involved.

The dossier facilitated the launch of a major reconstruction project: Aleppo's Umayyad Mosque, one of the oldest in the world. Work to rebuild its minaret, a jewel of Islamic art destroyed in April 2013, began last August.

Information on the project is available at



Eight online events in Germany not to miss in February 2021

With tougher Covid-19 restrictions now in place in Germany, travelling and socialising have become increasingly limited. So we’ve compiled a list of fun events for you to enjoy from the comfort of your own home!

Eight online events in Germany not to miss in February 2021
The entrance to Berlin's Alte Nationalgallerie. Photo: DPA

Here are some events and ongoing activities to look out for in February.

Berlin Philharmonic returns to the 1920s, Saturday, February 13th 2021 at 6:45pm

Berliner Philharmoniker is streaming the 1920s First Symphony Opera, one of German composer Kurt Weill’s early performances. 

As described by the orchestra, this piece’s music is “captivating and triumphant”. The music was composed in 1927 and its story takes place in ancient Greece. 

Final Girls Film Festival, February 4th at 1pm to February 8th at 11:59pm

Final Girls Berlin Film Festival showcases horror cinema that’s directed, written, or produced by women and non-binary filmmakers. 

The festival is committed to creating space for female voices and visions, whether monstrous, heroic or some messy combination of the two, in the horror genre.

Berliner Festspiele, Strong Pieces Stream, Until March 

Berliner Festspiele is showing two of their top picks.

“The Misanthrope” is a Molière’s classic staged by Anne Lenk, and translated by Jürgen Gosch and Wolfgang Wiens. It’s been called a straightforward delight with an exceptional concentration of language and wit. 

And “Man appears in the Holocene” is staged by Alexander Giesches after Max Frisch’s novella about mankind’s Sisyphus-struggle against their own doom.

König Gallerie, 'Dreaming of Alligator Head' by Claudia Comte, January 21st 2021- January 12th 2022

With her digital solo exhibition Dreaming of Alligator Head, Comte creates a scenario that is impossible in reality: She plants her underwater sculpture park in the König Gallerie app. The digital visitors inside experience a fascinating underwater world without having to go on a physical journey. 

Comte also seeks to raise awareness of marine environments and ask how an artistic object can change the world. Check out the exhibition on the König Gallerie app. 

Galerie Tanja Wagner, How to be human, until February 13th 2021 

Celebrating 10 years of the opening of her contemporary art gallery, Tanja Wagner’s exhibition, How to Be Human showcases her personal favourite works of artists she has collaborated with.

It includes Grit Richter’s famous work, Das Letzte Wort, as well as other works that in Wagner’s opinion, seek to explore the question ’How to Be Human’. 

Alte Nationalgalerie Online, until further notice

The Alte Nationalgalerie was set up as a “sanctuary for art and science”. The idea for a national gallery was realised after the donation of a collection of paintings by Caspar David Friedrich to the Prussian state. 

Since Covid-19 has made it difficult to visit the otherwise very popular museum, the gallery has made its collection available online until further notice. 

Naturkundemuseum Berlin, Beats and Bones Podcast and Livestream, Mondays at 7pm, until further notice 

Berlin’s Naturkundemuseum is offering a podcast series where nature experts from the museum answer questions about the diversity of nature, evolution, the formation of the earth, climate change and insect death.

They explore questions such as “Who knows our earliest ancestors were 480 million-year-old jawless fish?” Or, ‘What is the Achilles heel of Tyrannosaurus rex’? 

Catch new episodes every Monday on Instagram, along with a live stream through the museum with experts accompanying you through the collection and exhibition. The previous episodes are available on Spotify as well as Youtube. 

Anne Frank Zentrum, All about Anne, until further notice 

The Anne Frank Zentrum's exhibition “All about Anne” is normally presented at Hackescher Markt in Berlin-Mitte. Since lockdown, the exhibition has been made available online. 

Its exhibition tells the story of Anne Frank's life and the time in which she lived. It also explains why her diary is so well-known today and shows that her thoughts are still relevant.