"Survivor Cities: Cultural Heritage in Context and in Contest"

A video recording of this paper is available here

Abstract: Cities that have experienced war and atrocities, and survived, acquire the power to recall the horrors of the past. They symbolize violence, but also survival and resilience. They are survivor cities. Although the recent acts of cultural destruction in Syria have reverberated around the world, similar practices have a long and fraught history in the Middle East. In the past, they have been entwined with practices of colonialism, empire-building, and nationalism. They have also intersected with the mass extermination of civilian populations by their own states. These episodes still cast a long shadow, not only in the Middle East but beyond. We not only have to come to terms with the immediate implications of the destruction of heritage that we witness in our own time, but we also have to grapple with the long-term consequences of the destruction of culture and its many afterlives. Moreover, we need to understand how the experience of destruction shapes the architecture itself, and its role in the social world. When followed closely, the story of a destroyed building or neighborhood, and of its people, reveal much about the nature of survival and the centrality of architecture and cultural heritage to it. They show us at eye level the experience of art that legal notions and treaties about the human right to culture seek to enshrine in law. Post conflict design proposals for cities that have experienced atrocities and civil war need to take stock of the past, but they also have to face forward, towards future urban dwellers and citizens.

Biography: Heghnar Zeitlian Watenpaugh is Professor of Art History at the University of California, Davis. She researches the visual cultures of the Middle East, including issues of architectural preservation, museums, and cultural heritage. Her book, The Image of an Ottoman City: Imperial Architecture and Urban Experience in Aleppo in the Sixteent and Seventeenth Centuries, received the Spiro Kostof Book Award from the Society of Architectural Historians in 2006. Her scholarly publications have also won the Best Article Prize from the Syrian Studies Association, and the Ömer Lütfi Barkan Article Prize from the Ottoman and Turkish Studies Association. She was the guest editor for a special issue of the International Journal of Islamic Architecture, on “Cultural Heritage and the Arab Spring” (2016). Her new book, The Missing Pages: The Modern Life of a Medieval Manuscript, from Genocide to Justice, was published by Stanford University Press in 2019. She has served on the executive boards of the Society of Architectural Historians, the Syrian Studies Association, and the Historians of Islamic Art Association. In addition to her scholarship, her writing has appeared in the Los Angeles Times, and was featured in a BBC series about cultural heritage lost during the current conflict in Syria.

For a video of the paper, click here.
Watenpaugh, Heghnar. “Survivor Cities: Cultural Heritage in Context and in Contest.” Paper presented at "Reconstruction as Violence: The Case of Aleppo," Cambridge, Massachusetts, May 10-11, 2019.
Aga Khan Program for Islamic Architecture at MIT
reconstruction process
cultural heritage