Preserving the historical heritage
Questions to Dr Michael Hanssler
Dr Hanssler, in autumn of 2015 the Gerda Henkel Foundation decided on a new, temporary funding priority that supports scientists from crisis countries who are at risk in, or who have fled, their home countries. What were the reasons for this?
The decision to establish this funding priority was taken against the background of the massive destruction of cultural assets in the Middle East and the movements of refugees within the region and to Europe. An "emergency aid programme for Syria" was added in spring 2016. The aim of both initiatives is to offer individual scientists the opportunity to continue their scientific work in exile. In addition, archaeological and historical projects are to be initiated in Syria and neighbouring countries, by involving local actors.
How many scientists and scholars have you supported since then? In which countries?
To date, the foundation has approved funds for 44 projects in the context of this funding priority. These are individual fellowships with which researchers – especially from Iraq, Yemen, Syria and Turkey – can continue their academic work in Germany and other European countries. In addition, the Gerda Henkel Foundation supports projects that are located in Syria and the neighbouring countries and are primarily aimed at preserving endangered historical cultural heritage.
Can you give examples of what this support looks like?
One of the first funding measures was "Mare Nostrum", a combination of several sub-projects in Jordan. The project takes account of the fact that Jordan has welcomed a large number of Syrian and Palestinian refugees, who live both in huge camps and in towns and communities. The idea behind "Mare Nostrum" is to involve Jordanian and Syrian scientists, craftsmen and workers from Palestinian and Syrian refugee camps, alongside Jordanian and Syrian students from Amman universities and the local population, in joint projects. In concrete terms, the project involves a cultural centre in the north Jordanian community of Umm al-Jimal, where a Jordanian and a Syrian scientist teach refugee children from Syria and Jordanian children of the same age together.
Could you learn from the scientists how this affects their lives and their future?
Despite the extremely difficult political situation, there have been successes: a Syrian archaeologist, an expert on the history of his country and on Aleppo, was initially able to carry out a research project here in Germany with an individual scholarship from the Gerda Henkel Foundation. He will now contribute his expertise to a major research project aimed at providing information on the archaeological heritage of the city of Aleppo and its environs. Another successful example is a Jordanian teacher working at the cultural centre in Umm al-Jimal – he is aiming to complete a doctorate.
At the end of January 2018, Federal President Steinmeier visited two projects in Jordan funded by the Gerda Henkel Foundation. Has this given you new impetus?
During the trip, we had the opportunity to meet with stakeholders from the country who were very important for our future projects in the region: for example, I learned from the Jordanian Minister for Planning and International Cooperation that the country probably spends up to 16 percent of its gross domestic product on infrastructure and aid measures for people affected by migration and escape. Imagine this magnitude just once here – these are figures that illustrate Jordan's incredible performance as a host country. We were particularly pleased that the Federal President and his wife also included two of the Gerda Henkel Foundation’s projects in their visit programme.
Another case is the cooperation between the Jordanian Department of Antiquities and the German Protestant Institute for Classical Studies of the Holy Land. At the centre is the Archaeological Museum of Jordan at the Citadel in Amman, whose objects are fully documented. The project is designed as a pilot study; following this model, works in other museums in Jordan should follow.
In the second project, Jordanian, French and German partners in the city of Gerasa/Jerash are jointly exploring a Roman thermal spa, the so-called East Baths. In 2016 and 2017, archaeologists very successfully carried out excavation campaigns there and discovered, among other things, an Aphrodite statue measuring a good two metres, and many other well-preserved torsos – in total, well over 100 marble fragments. Syrian and Palestinian skilled workers from nearby refugee camps were also involved in the excavations.
Will there be an opportunity for people in Germany to learn more about the results of this work?
The foundation commissioned a video production team to document the objects of the Archaeological Museum on the Citadel Hill in Amman. Interested viewers can download it from the L.I.S.A. Science Portal of the Gerda Henkel Foundation. In addition, the German Protestant Institute for Classical Studies of the Holy Land provides detailed information about the project on its own homepage. With regard to the archaeological work in Gerasa/Jerash, the results of the first excavation campaign and further information about the research project are available in an online publication. This is the start of a new publication format called EDIT. Digital Publication of the Gerda Henkel Foundation.
What are your plans now? How will you continue your work?
We will further strengthen our "Patrimonies" funding priority, which takes into account projects that focus on the preservation of historical cultural heritage, primarily in crisis regions. Initiatives of refugee and endangered researchers will continue to have their place here. It is very important to us that most of the funds made available are effective in the target regions. Starting this year, the foundation will for the first time also support social and humanitarian measures as part of supplementary projects.
Your work in the "Patrimonies" funding priority has been running for almost four years now – are there experiences you would like to share with other foundations?
Since the Gerda Henkel Foundation has no branch offices, local project partners are of crucial importance to us. In order to ensure that local conditions are taken into account, and that the needs of the funding partners are the focus, we pay very close attention to the fact that partners from the target countries are either applicants themselves or are closely involved in the respective work as cooperation partners. We would be extremely pleased to have the opportunity to exchange experiences with colleagues from other German foundations or to enter into concrete cooperation with them – such as we already maintain with foundations from Great Britain, the Netherlands and the USA.