Paris, Aleppo connected by intangible cultural heritage

Paris, Aleppo connected by intangible cultural heritage

The souq in Aleppo before it was destroyed in the war. (File/Shutterstock)

Inspired by global reactions to the recent fire at Notre-Dame Cathedral in Paris, this four-part column offers some thoughts on how people behave when their cultural heritage is damaged by catastrophe. In the previous, and first, installment I put some emphasis on material culture, by which I meant items or objects in which a substantial number of people agree to store great value. This value may or may not have an economic nature (large or small), but it is certainly of great significance. The fact that such value is agreed upon and understood on a very basic level is what makes it “cultural.”

We typically think of rituals, group habits, social norms and a host of behaviors and customs that human groups do together as culture without too much questioning. Indeed, these are the kinds of things cultural anthropologists study. These objects of study may be things we hold, touch, use, throw away, fix, develop, bury, buy, sell, gift, store, exchange or pass on to one another, whether in our lifetimes or from generation to generation. These cultural objects may have a very local significance, such as family photos. Or they may have collective significance, such as historical buildings and monuments. Because we store a lot of value in these things, we also invest a lot of meaning in them, and so they become of emotional, personal significance to us. When catastrophe strikes and a house fire deprives a family of photographs, the loss is localized as the family deals with it privately. But, when the fire takes hold of a globally cherished historic monument, such as Notre-Dame de Paris or the souq in the Ancient City of Aleppo, the loss and its aftermath are no longer limited to the country or people on whose territory the monument sits; rather they affect individuals around the world.

In the wake of such catastrophes, the loss is also not confined to material objects in the form of destroyed items. Loss usually affects meaningful aspects of our daily lives and habits, especially those that we associate directly with the damaged objects. In the case of Notre-Dame, the most distraught mourners interviewed on television seemed to be those who considered it their place of worship. One tearful woman expressed a sense of homelessness and personal loss as she told the person behind the camera that she prayed regularly at Paris’ most famous cathedral. It was her house of worship; the place where she found inner peace. In Aleppo, many merchants lost their and their families’ livelihoods with the destruction of the old city’s marketplace. But, over and above commercial activity, old Aleppo is also a place of great religious significance. Its meandering streets hide many places of worship, and those are home not only to the city’s religious ritual practices, but also to its musical traditions, which are among Aleppo’s most cherished yet fragile forms of cultural heritage.

The monuments of Paris and Aleppo, the respective cities’ histories, and the settings in which their musical traditions grew are all intricately connected

Tala Jarjour

According to UNESCO, religious practices and rituals are intangible cultural heritage. Unlike tangible heritage, which consists of objects such as buildings and monuments, intangible cultural heritage comprises cultural practices that include traditions and living forms of expression that people pass on to future generations. As UNESCO seeks to identify and safeguard cultural heritage around the globe, its website stresses that “the importance of intangible cultural heritage is not the cultural manifestation itself but rather the wealth of knowledge and skills that is transmitted through it from one generation to the next.” In this sense, the Notre-Dame Cathedral in Paris and much of the Ancient City of Aleppo are home not only to buildings that are UNESCO world heritage sites, but also to important intangible cultural heritage that concerns France and Syria, as well as Europe, followers of multiple religions in the Middle East, and the entire world.

Paris is historically the capital of an imperial power whose global reach over a number of centuries made the beautiful city of wealth and style particularly attractive around the world. Its medieval gem of a structure — the cathedral — is exceptionally meaningful, even to people who have never visited it. For its part, Aleppo was home to prolific religious centers of knowledge for centuries of its long history. Religious and interreligious accounts that are significant for the history of Judaism, Christianity and Islam abound in historical narratives of Aleppo’s social, economic, strategic and political past. Since early modernity, many a European country pursued a foothold in the city and an invitation to its selective social circles. Aleppo’s mercantile success over the years is but a witness to the city’s social and political agility under changing powers. Thus the monuments of Paris and Aleppo, the respective cities’ histories, and the settings in which their musical traditions grew are all intricately connected.

When it comes to cultural heritage, and to what people hold to be dear and valuable, the material and the intangible are essentially inseparable. Similarly, the famous buildings of Paris and Aleppo are in many ways entangled with the musical traditions in which they were developed and maintained. The next two parts of this column will offer a glimpse into the musical schools of Notre-Dame and Aleppo in the hope of shedding light on their significance as human cultural heritage.

  • Tala Jarjour is author of “Sense and Sadness: Syriac Chant in Aleppo” (OUP, 2018). She is currently Visiting Research Fellow at King’s College London and Associate Fellow of Pierson College at Yale.
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