This article originally appeared on VICE France.
In the summer of 2015, a satellite flew above the Syrian city of Palmyra, where ISIS was wreaking terror. A few hours later, in their Geneva offices, experts from the United Nations agency UNITAR (Institute for Training and Research) inspected the images captured by the satellite. They zoomed in on the south of the ancient city, a former commercial crossroads between the east and the west, where the central building of the Temple of Bel – a former World Heritage Site – should have been. The experts could only make out rubble, and the building's door, somehow still standing.
Two years later, in July of 2017, Aurélien Peyroux – a geometric engineer employed by the small French architecture company Art Graphique & Patrimoine (AGP) – was standing by the door of this temple, the biggest in Palmyra, after it had been freed from ISIS control. Its gilded limestone frame leaned precariously, threatening to collapse among the ruins. Flanked by a group of Syrian soldiers for security, and armed with a laser scanner, Peyroux watched where he stepped; it's not uncommon for ISIS to line their old strongholds with landmines.
Amid the sound of far-off explosions punctuated by gunfire, Peyroux inspected the door from all angles to figure out how to save it from certain collapse.
The Temple of Bel is just one in a long list of Syrian monuments – such as the Souk of Aleppo and the Krak des Chevaliers – that have been hit hard by the civil war. Ever since ISIS lost control of much of its territory, a handful of French people – stonecutters, engineers and specialty architects – have been traveling the country, working with Syrians to help salvage these damaged historical artefacts.
"Our job is like doing an MRI, but on a building," says AGP boss Gaël Hamon, who began his career as a stonecutter. "Thanks to the data, we can see that the Temple of Bel's door is leaning and no longer very stable, for a number of reasons," Peyroux tells me, adding that this data – without which, it would be impossible to know how to stabilise and strengthen the monuments – is then passed along to Syrian architects.
While AGP and its employees are used to operating in tough environments – Afghanistan, Somaliland, Madagascar – working in a still-active war zone comes with its own set of surprises.
"When we were surveying the Umayyad Mosque in Aleppo, my colleague noticed there was a undetonated explosive still encased in a wall," Peyroux recalls. "It's a whole different ball game from a work site in France – you have to be careful when you're scanning for super-precise images in a war zone. For example, if we were to accidentally scan a Russian tank passing by, that might cause some problems."
François Braud is currently training Syrians in stone-cutting. Since he first arrived in the country two years ago, he has had to adapt to some peculiar work conditions. "On my first trip to Aleppo in 2017, the bombings were happening on a regular basis," he explains. "Things were blowing up a few hundred meters from me, as armed guys were running after each other in the Ancient City. But Syrians have experienced much worse. It's inspiring to see how they try to carry on with their lives."
The Souk of Aleppo, a jumble of covered markets in the Ancient City, had welcomed merchants and traders since the 14th century, until the war destroyed many of its stalls. AGP was called to the scene in 2017 to scan part of it. Afterwards, Braud started his training sessions so as many locals as possible could have the tools needed to revive the souks while still respecting its architectural heritage.
"The Ancient City isn't an empty historical site," says Ali Esmaiel, the Syria representative of the Aga Khan Trust for Culture, which has sent AGP and Braud on various restoration missions. "The souk plays a key role in Aleppo's economic activity. Reviving it is part of a bigger plan to restore the Ancient City, with the people of Aleppo at its heart."
Rehabilitating historic monuments like the souk isn't just a matter of reconstructing the past; it's also a matter of preparing for the future – as long as it keeps to the region's traditions.
"You might compare the current situation in Aleppo to the one in Beirut after the war," Braud adds. "In Beirut, the restoration caused more damage than the conflict itself – even to historic buildings. Now we're kind of seeing the same thing in Aleppo."
In fact, the Syrian government is threatening to confiscate the goods of shop owners who haven't returned to the city. The government has also been paying people to repaint the walls, but the quality of the work often isn't great. Braud explains that AGP won't intervene to stop work that's being done, regardless of the damage, but they take photos for their records and offer to come back later to advise.
The goal, they say, is in no way to stop Syrians from taking the lead in restoring their own artefacts – rather, it's to give them the best possible tools to decide for themselves how to go about it. "This country will be rebuilt for those who live in it," says a French architect who asked to remain anonymous, but has lived in Syria since the 1980s and is a consultant for the Aga Khan Trust. It's with this architect that Braud is pursuing his initiative to train as many locals as possible in stone-cutting – a project of particular importance in Aleppo, a city constructed of 80 percent cut stone and located directly atop a limestone base.
Aside from the souks, Braud and the architect are also implementing measures to restore Aleppo's citadel, where work is already underway, led by some of the Syrian architects working with Braud.
However, there still remains a lack of coordination between the various people involved. Unsurprisingly, restoring Syria's cultural history has become a political issue. "It's still a war zone with multiple stakeholders, each trying to turn things to their own advantage," says Braud. "Politically, it's complicated, and since a solution hasn't been found in Syria, it's going to stay complicated."
This stance is shared by the Aga Khan Trust, which views the restoration as not merely an individual or national challenge, but also an international necessity, since a number of the monuments concerned are classified as World Heritage Sites.
"These monuments have seen plenty of political regimes come and go," Gaël Hamon tells me. "For us, it’s the monuments and the culture they carry that's important. These monuments need us – and whatever happens, we'll keep working for them."