Before September, the people in this picture had never picked up a chisel. Now, only a few months into World Monument Fund’s conservation stonemasonry training programme, they can carve arabesques for zakhrafa jambs, prepare rectangular billet mouldings, or work an ovolo return. Not yet perfect maybe, but still astonishing progress, made more remarkable still given this is taking place in Jordan just 12 miles from the Syrian border, and that most students are refugees who have fled from the neighbouring conflict.
When the British Government set up the Cultural Protection Fund a year ago to support people and heritage in war-torn areas of the world, we at World Monuments Fund looked at how our expertise could make the biggest impact. Three issues were at the top of our minds: first, the extraordinary monumental heritage of Iraq and Syria, which was under threat of damage by Daesh, or caught in the cross-fire of opposing armies. The ancient souk of Aleppo, the Al-Hadba’ minaret in Mosul, or countless other architectural and archaeological wonders will need urgent conservation after the dust of conflict settles.
Second, our experience in other war-torn areas is that future conservation will be severely hampered by a lack of specialist skills on the ground. This is about people: the depletion of a cadre of craftspeople and professionals because they have fled or worse, or because there is no network to train or support them. Yes, it would be entirely possible to bring in international teams to do the work, but this does nothing for the long-term when those experts leave.
Finally, there are large numbers of refugees scattered across the Middle East. The refugee camp of Zataari in Jordan, near Mafraq, is home to 80,000 people who simply were not there five years ago. There are similar numbers living in and around the town itself. These are people who are waiting, lives on hold, looking desperately to the future.
Our project puts these three issues together – imagine the centre of a Venn diagram – and provides a simple, practical, and human solution: train refugees to become the craftsmen and conservators of the future. Give them a skill – in this case, stonemasonry – that we know will be needed to help restore a nation’s heritage. This is not just about learning a new skill, but about restoring optimism and pride.
The first students walked through the door of our conservation stonemasonry training centre, opened in Mafraq in September. With the support of the British Council, which coordinates the Cultural Protection Fund, and our local partner, the Petra National Trust, we plan to train more than 35 people over the next year. Most are Syrian refugees, but some are Jordanian locals; it is important to acknowledge that all aspects of local society are impacted by the seismic changes brought about by the war. We were also interested in addressing a gender imbalance in a male-dominated craft, so we were delighted to recruit 14 women to take part in the course, and to help run it.
The initiative is not just about stonemasonry training: we want to engage the next generation in their local heritage, seeking to foster a shared appreciation of its importance and inspiring future advocates to care. Over the coming year, 200 schoolchildren will enjoy exploring some of the important archaeological and historic sites that sit on their doorstep.
We have only just started, and the initiative, a pilot, will conclude next autumn. But the early signs are encouraging. Actions speak and the weekly pictures sent from Jordan say even more. The benefits of heritage are manifold: it can help build pride, understanding, and tolerance; it can be a driver for tourism and regeneration, and a major contributor to local character, spirit of place, and quality of life. And here, in some of the most difficult circumstances imaginable, it also offers hope.
John Darlington is the Executive Director of World Monuments Fund Britain (wmf.org.uk).