By Marine de Tilly
Translated from the French by Sara Heft
Two and a half years after the liberation of the former caliphate’s capital, the Raqqa Museum is set to open its doors again soon. Here’s a look back on the history of a symbol of cohesion and hope.
At the top of the Raqqa Museum’s brand-new staircase, two agitated swallows flap about and crash into a Roman tomb dating back to 2000 BCE. “Whenever birds make an entrance, it’s always a good sign,” declares Leila Mustapha. This is the first time the current co-mayor of the city has returned to the Museum since its rehabilitation was completed. The smell of paint and fresh cement lingers, the plans are still posted out front, and in the garden, a parked piece of heavy machinery seems proud to have served. Inside, display cases and objects are not yet installed, but outside, like an immaculate totem in the midst of the grayness of the ruined city, the Museum stands triumphantly as a harbinger of reconstruction. “Before the war,” Mustapha recalls, “the Museum was a haven of calm and peace. I came here a lot, since I was studying at the university, just next door. I really liked stopping in here, looking out onto the neighborhood frenzy from the window, the antiques souks where merchants from all over the country made a racket selling and haggling over their wares. It was a space for exchange and culture—it was Raqqa.”
Traditional, tribal, and economically prosperous, predominantly Arab but devoid of communitarian, ethnic or religious tensions, Raqqa was a diverse city. In the teeming shopping streets of its center, Arabs, Kurds, Yezidis, and Armenians mingled with old sheiks and teenagers, alongside engineers and technicians working on the big dam, Turkoman upholsterers, suited Aleppine investors, Bedouins in red keffiyehs, Christians from Nineveh, and Turkish militants—in short, a great melting pot of cultures spanning Syria. “The strength and uniqueness of Raqqa lay in its diversity and the simplicity of the majority’s relationship with the minorities.”
At the heart of this bustle, as the symbol and crossroads of all of these cultures, was the Museum. Initially located in Arafat Square on the southern edge of the old city district, in 1981 it moved to a former Ottoman government facility on the occasion of the International Congress for the History of Raqqa. Intended to spotlight the city’s importance for the arts and sciences to the world, the Museum’s present building was inaugurated for this event, housing pieces previously held in the National Museum of Aleppo and the National Museum of Damascus (where an entire gallery is devoted to Raqqa), and hailing from excavations conducted throughout the Jazira region by teams from France (1950s), Syria (1970s), and Germany (1980s). The Museum also housed the offices of the General Directorate for Antiquities and Museums (GDAM) for the Raqqa Governorate Division.
From the time of its opening, Mustapha recalls, “the Museum proudly displayed the heritage it held and the stories it told.” Bearing witness to the city’s past, from prehistoric times to antiquity, the Byzantine period, the Islamic, and even modern periods, “it was a space of cohesion for all Raqqawis,” adds Zyad al Hamad, president of the Raqqa Civil Council’s Archaeological Committee. For this intellectual, born a stone’s throw from the Museum and a specialist in the archaeological sites of the city and region, “Raqqa has always been the cultural capital of Syria, and from its establishment, the Museum was its minister.” Raqqa has long been a city of contact and exchange between three worlds—nomadic herders, sedentary populations, and city-dwellers—as the capital under the Abbasid caliph Harun al-Rashid, hero of the thousand and one nights. Raqqa is “star of the fertile crescent” with its exceptional location at the meridian point of the Euphrates, halfway between its source and its mouth at Shatt al-Arab. Raqqa is situated at a strategic crossroads of the trade routes connecting Syria to Central Asia and the Mediterranean to the Persian Gulf. “There has always been a profusion of artists, writers and poets here,” al Hamad continues. “It was a hotbed for intellectuals renowned at home and abroad, like the authors Abdul-Salam Ojeili and Ibrahim Khalil, the doctor Fayez al-Fawaz or the astronomer Al-Battani, whose name adorns one of the city’s main junctions. Even the caliph’s wife Zubaidah, so fond of Baghdad, preferred Raqqa—at the time called Rafiqa. So yes, this museum was like a sanctuary for these treasures, the beating heart of knowledge, history, creation, and transmission, both tangible and intangible.”
And then came the great scourge. During the first two years of the Revolution, Raqqa remained silent. Like every other Syrian city, it dreamed of “freedom, justice, and dignity,” the first catchwords displayed on demonstrators’ banners in Deraa, where it all began in March 2011. But walled in by fear until 2013, it didn’t dare speak up. In March 2013, the Free Syrian Army and jihadist factions entered Raqqa, setting off chaos and the first lootings. Despite the GDAM’s protection efforts, a number of pieces were sent to buyers in Turkey via Tell Abyad, while others were abandoned left and right—many were found much later in the city of al-Tabqah, in particular. In January 2014, Daesh took over as the sole power present in Raqqa, which became the self-proclaimed capital of the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant. The wolves prowled the city, and even before attacking people, they stole, looted, and destroyed symbols.
Between two technical questions on the electrical system and water infrastructure (she’s an engineer by training), Mustapha commented: “Their sole aim was to obliterate all traces of civilization, so that we would forget, so that history, our history, would fall into oblivion.” During the Daesh siege, in the first museum shop, between two empty, shattered windows, meat was sold. “Under the stairwell and in the garden,” al Hamad recounts, “a household appliance merchant had fully set up shop.” Washing machines, refrigerators, and generators replaced 1000-year-old ceramics. On November 25, 2014, a bomb exploded near the Museum, damaging its southern facade, and on November 14, 2015, an air strike by a Russian bomber literally put a hole in the Museum’s roof. During the last phase of operation “Euphrates Wrath,” at the height of the fighting, Daesh placed explosives throughout the Museum and positioned its snipers on the balconies in ambush.
On October 17, 2017, after 134 days of fighting, Raqqa emerged from the jaws of the devil. The Syrian Democratic Forces secured the mine-filled museum, but even once it was cleared, it was dirty, highly damaged, and orphaned of its treasures. Broken and burnt pieces of ancient pottery were piled up like shattered dishes in a corner on the second floor. The young NGO Roya, freshly established in Tell Al Mouh thus proposed to take charge of the Museum’s cleaning from the Civil Council, already stretched thin between mine-clearing and emergency assistance to residents.
In early December 2017, an initial inventory was conducted by the Authority of Tourism and Protection of Antiquities in Al Jazira Canton: the Museum was still standing but its façade was damaged from impacts, with a great deal of destruction inside. By June 2018, it was cleaned, emptied and readied. In cooperation with partner NGOs (Impact and the European Guild) and with funding from ALIPH, the International alliance for the protection of heritage in conflict areas, major rehabilitation work kicked off in mid-September 2019. From floors to ceilings, mosaics to staircases, windows to facades, every step of the project involved weekly meetings during which expertise was shared by local actors alongside Roya and the Civil Council’s Archaeological Committee, and with the help of the Guild (Djamila Chakour, head of collections at the Institut du Monde Arabe, and Jean-Marc Lalo, an architect specialized in public and cultural spaces), covering architecture as well as preventive conservation.
At the end of February 2020, everything was completed and the Museum was ready to welcome the collections saved from the war and held by the Civil Council. “Bearing witness to the past,” al Hamad comments, “today this museum holds the promise of the future.” Mustapha concludes, “Look at our response to the Daesh soldiers! We’re here, we haven’t forgotten anything—not our past, not what they’ve done—and now everything will continue. When the display cases and antiquities are reinstalled, we’re going to have a big celebration, and the children of Raqqa will come admire the evidence of their history and their past.”
“Raqqa’s houses have no doors,” goes a popular saying extolling the hospitality of its inhabitants. Since the fighting ended, 85% of them have no walls either. But they have a museum, a heritage, a living memory that no war, no siege, and no atrocity can erase.
The Raqqa Museum restoration project, financed by ALIPH, was carried out by the French NGO La Guilde européenne du Raid and the Syrian association Roya. Work began in mid-2019 and was completed in February 2020. Located in north-eastern Syria, Raqqa—the Syrian capital of the jihadist organization Islamic State from 2014 to 2017—was particularly damaged by war and has been controlled by the Syrian Democratic Forces since 2017.
Founded in March 2017 in Geneva, in response to the recent massive destruction in recent years of cultural heritage, particularly in the Middle East and the Sahel region, ALIPH is the only global fund exclusively dedicated to the protection and rehabilitation of cultural heritage in conflict and post-conflict areas.
As shown with the Raqqa Museum project, ALIPH finances concrete projects carried out by associations, foundations, academic, cultural and heritage institutions, and international organizations. In addition to projects that focus on museums and their collections, ALIPH also supports those that target monuments and sites, documents, archives and manuscripts, and intangible heritage. These may be implemented prior to a conflict to limit the risk of destruction, during a conflict to ensure the security of heritage, or post conflict to enable populations to once again enjoy their cultural heritage. ALIPH generally selects its projects through one or two calls for projects per year. However, when urgent intervention is needed, ALIPH has a rolling Emergency Relief funding scheme. All projects are reviewed by ALIPH’s Scientific Committee and approved by its Foundation Board. Since its launch, and with the support of its eight Member States and three private donors, ALIPH has committed over USD 17 million to support 47 projects in 14 countries: Afghanistan, Côte d’Ivoire, Eritrea, Georgia, Iraq, Lebanon, Libya, Mali, Palestine, Peru, Somalia, Sudan, North East Syria, and Yemen.
ALIPH recently allocated emergency funding for cultural heritage and surrounding communities in conflict and post-conflict areas to help weather the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic. Indeed, the health crisis has forced the closure of museums, libraries and other cultural and heritage sites. In many cases, these lockdowns have brought important rehabilitation work to a stop. These sites represent important sources of employment for local operators, cultural institutions or associations, as well as experts, engineers, builders, and artisans. The initial envelope of 1 MUSD will help local operators defray their operations, health, and staff costs. Information technology acquisition and online learning programs will also be financed, in order to bridge the digital divide and build resilience for the future, as well as emergency heritage preventive protection and income generation projects.
Supporting heritage operators as they face this unprecedented health crisis, which threatens not only culture but also stability, falls squarely within ALIPH’s mission to protect heritage to build peace.
Learn more about ALIPH here: https://www.aliph-foundation.org/
Marine de Tilly is an independent reporter. She has collaborated with Le Point, Le Figaro Magazine, ELLE and GEO for fifteen years. Since 2012, she has been reporting from the Middle East (Iraq, Syria, Turkey). She is the author of two books: The Man Standing, the story of the first French Consul in Iraqi Kurdistan (Stock, 2016), and Women, life, freedom, a portrait of Leïla Mustapha, the current mayor of Raqqa (Stock, 2020), which was released just before the COVID-19 pandemic spread through the world.