Dr Zaki Aslan gives a lecture during the month-long workshop at Athar Centre in Sharjah. Image Credit: Arshad Ali/Gulf News

SHARJAH: In a region where bullets and bombs have reduced ancient cultural sites to rubble, a heritage centre in Sharjah on Tuesday began teaching a crisis plan to save the Arab world’s history.

The conservation of fragile artefacts and structures is often seen as a painstaking, methodical process. But at the ICCROM-ATHAR Centre in Sharjah, part of an inter-governmental organisation linked to the UN, a new course has a rather more urgent vibe.

The monthlong programme, which began on Tuesday, sees three dozen participants from across the Arab world study, prepare and then practise how to preserve cultural heritage in war zones. The centre refers to the practice as “first aid” training teams to preserve or even salvage historical sites or museums in very difficult circumstances.

During the course, participants will learn how to quickly document unsecured heritage sites in unstable areas, assess damage, and shore up walls at risk of collapse. One module will examine the correct procedures in case of a mob ransacking a museum — a scenario which took place in Cairo at the height of the 2011 revolution.

Soft skills are keenly emphasised by course instructors. The participants will learn how to negotiate access to heritage sites with security forces, and work with civilians who may live nearby.

Pressing question

A slide during an early session asks a pressing question: “Is saving priceless cultural heritage as important as saving people?”

The answer is very simple, the centre’s director, Zaki Aslan, told students on Tuesday. “Heritage is part of our human element … protecting cultural heritage has the same importance of protecting human lives.”

Around 35 participants, shortlisted from 120 applicants, have paid to take part in the one-month course. Others have come on scholarships from the centre, which is partly funded by His Highness Dr Shaikh Sultan Bin Mohammad Al Qasimi, Supreme Council Member and Ruler of Sharjah.

The participants include archaeologists, architects, engineers, museum curators, historians, and museum staff. Participants from Algeria, Morocco, Egypt, Jordan, Palestine, Syria, Oman, Sudan and Libya made it to the first session on Tuesday.

Students from some Arab states have had to resort to gruelling road trips and countless connecting flights. Perhaps unsurprisingly, the students from Yemen and Iraq are still on their way.

The centre had run courses earlier that are focused on conflict hotspots in the region. A recent programme on heritage preservation in Libya met in Tunis, while a course on Iraq convened in Istanbul.

Due to evolving conflicts, “the nature of these courses has changed. And of course, the issues at stake are also changing”, Aslan, the centre’s director, told Gulf News.

Some of the most key issues in the Arab world are the documentation of ancient sites and artefacts, their security, and stabilisation, he said.

A key theme of the course, stabilisation refers to quick fixes — or temporary restoration — that can be performed on artefacts or structures until more extensive repairs can be made.

After completing the course, the participants “will be able to go beyond their field of expertise to look at all these issues to deal with emergency situations”, said Aslan.

“We bring people together because they share one common heritage, and it is heritage that unites them,” said Aslan. But there are still difficulties. “Of course, there is always this contention.”

One participant from Syria, who originally hails from Aleppo, looks forward to the day when the ancient city can see peace.

The northern city, home to a medieval citadel and countless historical sites, is currently the focal point of the country’s five-year-long bloody civil war.

“Because of the disaster(-like) situation and the war, the damage is much bigger than can be handled by the local authorities,” said Shirin Nabo, who works as an official in the Archaeology and Antiquity office in old Damascus, the Syrian capital’s most historic district.

“The problem is how Aleppo is a living city, and you need to restore, but at the same time you need to have people back in their homes as soon as possible,” she said.

“This is a problem that requires even more research and training, so this is one of the reasons I joined.”