A 24-member Syrian cultural delegation, led by Hidar Yousef from the Directorate-General for Antiquities and Museums (DGAM), recently embarked on a significant visit to China, focusing on exploring cultural cooperation opportunities and learning about advanced preservation techniques. Their visit included the iconic Mogao Caves in Dunhuang, Gansu Province, a UNESCO World Heritage site renowned for its historical significance and intricate wall paintings.
Yousef, deeply impressed by the visit, highlighted the importance of seeing the Caves and understanding the technologies used for their preservation. The Mogao Caves, representing a rich tapestry of trans-civilizational communications since 366 AD, display influences from various cultures, including evidence of ancient connections between China and Syria. A notable discovery was a biblical Psalms written in Syriac, found during an excavation in 1986, believed to date back to the Yuan Dynasty.
Su Bomin, chief of the Dunhuang Academy, emphasized the role of Dunhuang culture in promoting mutual respect among civilizations. He noted the dissemination of Dunhuang culture could enhance global understanding of China’s commitment to multicultural exchanges and learning.
Jihad Abu Kahla, director of the Damascus Countryside Antiquities Department, also reflected on the historical ties between China and Syria, citing the ancient Silk Road and the expansion of the Mongolian empire as conduits for cultural exchange. He acknowledged China’s leading role in cultural relic protection, emphasizing the potential for learning from China’s experience, especially under the framework of the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI).
Syria, once a beacon of culture and tourism, has faced severe devastation of its historical treasures due to war. The conflict has shifted the focus of cultural practitioners from exploration to the preservation of excavated relics. Ahmad Dali, director of Damascus at the DGAM, highlighted this shift in priorities. Hala Emad, a senior official with Syria’s Planning and International Cooperation Commission, noted that prior to the war, cultural cooperation between China and Syria was vibrant but later became limited to humanitarian aid.
Yu Jiannan, Party secretary of the Central Academy of Culture and Tourism Administration, pointed out that both China and Syria face similar challenges in preserving their rich cultural heritage, emphasizing the need for exchange and cooperation in this field. This sentiment was echoed by Emad, who mentioned plans to develop a roadmap for future Sino-Syrian cooperation.
Yousef expressed a strong desire to see cooperation programs between the two countries, especially to help restore Syrian treasures affected by war. Despite facing Western sanctions that have hindered recovery efforts, Syria’s inclusion in the BRI in 2022 has opened new avenues for cooperation with China and other countries.
One key area of potential collaboration is in the digitalization of antiquities. Although Syria has started digitalizing its heritage, the techniques used are not as advanced as those in China. The digitization of the Mogao Caves, for instance, has significantly boosted global awareness of the site. The “E-Dunhuang” online portal, launched in 2017, has attracted over 20 million visitors, showcasing high-resolution replicas of the caves and murals to a worldwide audience without harming the original works.
Su of the Dunhuang Academy highlighted the increasing importance of digitalization in managing immovable heritage sites. Kahla also noted that preserving cultural relics is essential for strengthening national identity and social cohesion, especially in war-torn regions where heritage protection often takes a backseat.
The visit underscores the potential for mutual learning and cooperation in cultural preservation, reflecting a shared commitment to protecting and promoting world heritage for future generations.