Tracing & Assessing Syrian Urban Heritage in Exile

Projekt: Heritage, Displacement, Architecture and Space: Tracing & Assessing Syrian Urban Heritage in Exile
Projektleitung: Ayham Dalal & Mada Saleh
Kooperationspartner: Technische Universität Berlin / Save the Children, Germany
Förderung: Gerda Henkel Stiftung


‘…urban memory seems to indicate cities as places where lives have been lived and still felt as physically manifested, shaping what is remembered beyond the discourses of architects, developers, preservationists, and planners. But it is also often strategically mobilized by those professions’ (Crinson, 2005, p. xii)

At times of war, attention towards cultural and urban heritage increases. This is due to being considered as an asset for reconciliation, reconstruction and peace building processes in post-conflict societies (UN HABITAT, 2015). Therefore, ‘heritage’ becomes an object to be protected, conserved and sometimes reconstructed. However, in the contrary to  the fixed and static international definitions of what is considered heritage and what is not (cf. UNESCO)1; cultural heritage is a concept that encapsulates the relationship between the individual, identity, urban space and its materiality. This contested relationship is not only dynamic in nature, but is also highly influenced by war, discontinuity and displacement.


Project Aims and Target


‘Architecture is itself, the memory-space of the collective’ (Crinson, 2005, p. xviii)

Tracing the city, its urban structures, architecture and space in the memories of displaced Syrians is the core target of this project. By ‘tracing’ we are not intending to produce a footprint of what is remembered; but to question, to explore and to visualize, the problematic relationship between the exiled, and what used to be their lived space and its materialization (cf. Lefebvre, 1991; Said, 2002). This investigation will consider different scales (such as regions, cities and neighborhoods), and will be implemented among Syrians from different origins, and displaced in several locations. It will also attempt to find creative ways and  mixed techniques in order to illustrate and visualize the complexity of narratives, and how  the relationship between identity, value, urban space and its materiality is shaped and negotiated. By doing that, not only the perception of urban heritage is re-assessed and traced, but also ways to connect psychosocial programs for refugees with urban heritage are explored, and recommendations for organizations working on reconstruction initiatives can be given.2




The methodology chosen for this project combines tools for qualitative and quantitative research: Quantitative research will be conducted through a questionnaire. The  questionnaire will be designed later to cover different point and levels. The outcome of this methodology will be represented as statistics illustrating urban heritage in relation to gender, age, background and current place of residence.

Qualitative research will be conducted through different tools such as in-depth interviews, mental mapping, ethnographic observations and the collection of stories and narratives. These data will then be classified, categorized and analyzed.

1 For more information check: property/unesco-database-of-national-cultural-heritage-laws/frequently-asked-questions/definition-of-the- cultural-heritage/

2 See for instance UNESCWA’s initiative: The National Agenda for the Future of Syria, or the art project series ‘Future Heritage’ in UCL and MIT.

In addition to the previous, two one-day workshops are planned to take place in Jordan and Lebanon as participatory assessment, involving refugee participants, university students, NGOs and organizations working in similar fields of expertise.

Moreover, a competition for students and professionals to visualize the urban narratives will take place around the end of first year. The winning entries will be published in the research outcomes.


Scope, Setting & Project Phases


The design of this project – its settings, scope and phases – is influenced by the routes of refugees from Syria across the Mediterranean to Europe, and its impact on hosting  countries. Therefore, countries like Jordan and Lebanon are considered highly impacted where the presence of Syrian refugees is considered influential. Other countries like Turkey, Greece and Egypt are also impacted by refugees, but are seen more as transitional sites. In these settings, Germany is seen as a country of destination, hosting an increasing number of Syrian refugees, and is thus, considered as an interesting site for our comparative analysis.

From this perspective, the proposed project is planned to take place in two phases. Each phase extends on a time-span of a year, with a specific geographical focus and different outcomes:

Phase I will take place in refugees’ first station countries Lebanon and Jordan and will be compared with Germany.

Phase II continues to countries of further transition and displacement such as Egypt, Turkey and Greece. Germany is also taken as a reference point.

This is to see how the context (i.e. location of exile and process of transition) impacts the memory and perception of cities and heritage. In all phases, the fieldwork in each country is planned to be of at least 15 days. In each fieldwork, the researchers are expected to conduct up to 30 in-depth interviews with refugees.


Expected Outcomes


As this research is expected to document the relationship between the displaced and urban space, it also provides an in-depth understanding of the meaning of heritage and how people relate to it at times of exile. The results will be represented as follows:

  • A report including statistics, analytical text and documentation of fieldwork, unfolding the complexity of urban heritage vis-à-vis
  • Visualizations: 1) Mental mapping made by the interviewees, 2) artistic visualization of the narratives exploring the relationship of the exiled individual with space, 3) maps of cities based on scientific results and building on the collective view of heritage and urban
  • Website that works as an open-data bank. The results of the research will be continuously updated on the website, and thus, accessible to the public, including researchers, students and

The extension of the fund to implement Phase II will provide in-depth information on the process. The outcomes will take a second level including a published book, a publication in a peer-reviewed journal, and a touring curated exhibition.




Crinson, M. (2005). Urban Memory: History and amnesia in the modern city. (M. Crinson, Ed.).Routledge.
Lefebvre, H. (1991). The Production of Space. Blackwell.
Said, E. (2002). Reflections on Exile. In Reflections on Exile and Other Essays (p. 656). Harvard University Press.



A romanticized landscape from Syria drawn on a caravan by refugees in Zaatari camp © Dalal 2014
Projekt timeline and geographical context © Dalal, Saleh 2017
A view of Zaatari Camp © Dalal 2015