The Directorate of Popular Heritage (DPH) within the Ministry of Culture is the main national body charged with the safeguarding of intangible cultural heritage; among other duties, it is responsible for preparing nomination files for the Representative List and Urgent Safeguarding List of the UNESCO Convention, nominating best practices, requesting assistance when needed and planning and implementing safeguarding measures for elements inscribed on the Representative List. Several other Directorates within the Ministry also have relevant responsibilities, namely the Directorate of Antiquities and Museums (responsible for places whose existence is essential to the continued practice of intangible cultural heritage elements); the Directorate of Theatres and Music (organizes an annual traditional performing arts festival and has a traditional dancing troupe); the Directorate of the Revival and Promotion of Arab Heritage (documents and preserves Arab manuscripts of historical, literary and scientific value and promoting the Arabic language); the Directorate of Copyright (e.g. develops a law that safeguards popular heritage (folklore) expressions); the Directorate of Cultural Affairs (implements international cultural cooperation programmes); the Directorate of Arab Music Institutes (teaches traditional musical instruments); and the Directorate of Fine Arts (responsible for calligraphy and ceramics). The Ministry established a Ministerial Heritage Committee to implement the 2003 Convention, which created intangible cultural heritage Sub-committees in all 14 Syrian Governorates. These Committees include representatives of non-governmental organizations and local associations, and are affiliated with the local Directorates of Culture. They hold the tasks of supervising, collecting, registering and documenting popular heritage.
In addition to the Ministry of Culture, several other ministries also have relevant responsibilities, such as the Ministry of Tourism (markets and promotes traditional handicrafts, renovates historic buildings and organizes festivals); the Ministry of Agriculture (e.g. safeguards traditional silkworm cultivation, provides microcredit loans to rural women for traditional handicraft businesses etc.); the Ministry of Waqf (e.g. preserves religious buildings); the Ministry of Economy and Trade (holds traditional craft expositions and subsidizes the attendance of craftspeople); and the Ministry of Higher Education (organizes scientific forums and conferences and issues publications). The Women’s Union performs educational and promotional activities related to crafts and traditional foodways.
The main training activities for the safeguarding of intangible cultural heritage are heritage seminars and workshops, which have been run by the Ministry of Culture since 2010 in different Governorates to help Ministries and institutions identify the importance of intangible cultural heritage and of its collection, recording and documentation. The Ministry of Culture is also preparing courses for community organizations and professional syndicates on the importance of the documentation and safeguarding of popular heritage, while some current documentation projects aim to develop capacities within communities for documenting and utilizing their heritage resources.
With regard to the documentation of intangible cultural heritage, the Ministry of Culture is currently working on establishing a National Centre for the Documentation of Intangible Cultural Heritage, under the responsibility of the DPH. Since 2008, the latter has operated a library of academic and documentation resources that will constitute the core holdings of the National Centre. The DPH has also worked with the Public Board of Radio and Television of the Ministry of Information to make available historic broadcast materials that deal with many aspects of oral heritage, music and other components of Syrian intangible cultural heritage. Intangible cultural heritage documentation work is also being undertaken by various Ministries and voluntarily by individual researchers; the regional Popular Heritage Committees are key actors in the collection of intangible cultural heritage. The Rawafed Project of the Syria Trust for Development develops community capacities to undertake cultural mapping and culturally-informed socio-economic planning processes, and the Tarim Centre for Architecture and Heritage, as a national facilitator of the Memory of the Arab World Programme, is concerned particularly with the digital documentation of Arab heritage.
No formal inventory of intangible cultural heritage in the Syrian Arab Republic has been completed yet in the spirit of the 2003 Convention. The Ministry started preparing for an inventory by sending out a circular letter in 2008, followed by an update in 2010, through its Directorate of Popular Heritage to the Directors of Culture in all Syrian Governorates, with a national work plan for collecting, registering and documenting national popular cultural heritage. The letter called upon these Directors to define intangible cultural heritage elements in their Governorates, provide references to publications concerning popular heritage, interview elder tradition holders and document popular songs, music and dances. The Ministry of Culture is conducting a field study in the Badia area of the inhabitants of the desert and their customs, traditions, dress, social life and trends of travel and settlement. The Directorate of Popular Heritage has proposed a project to inventory performing arts in the region of Aleppo and create a database within Phase III of the Mediterranean Living Heritage (MedLiHer) Project. The latter is a multi-country project co-funded by the European Union through Euromed Heritage and implemented jointly by UNESCO and the Maison des Cultures du Monde in France.
In the field of traditional medicine, the Ministry of Agriculture completed a list in 2009 of 261 natural plants with local medical uses in Syria and the locations where they exist, in order to register them internationally and safeguard them. This could be considered the basis of a more detailed inventory to follow, further detailing traditional practices in the field of traditional medicine.
Measures to disseminate intangible cultural heritage and raise awareness include several seminars, conferences and other meetings on different aspects of intangible cultural heritage and its safeguarding held by government bodies throughout Syria, as well as a website of the Directorate of Popular Heritage that includes information on intangible cultural heritage. The Directorate of Theatres and Music maintains a traditional dancing troupe. There are also several folk music and dance groups in Syrian cities, e.g. the Heritage Band in Raqqa, Beit Al-Funoun (Aleppo) and the Women’s Oriental Band. The Friends of Damascus Society, which has more than 1300 members, holds folklore parties and book fairs for books related to Damascus, and hosts lectures on folklore. Radio and television programmes have also been developed to promote Syrian intangible cultural heritage, including ones on oral heritage, performing arts, customs and traditions (including rural and urban ones) and traditional crafts in different cities including Islamic arts.
With regard to education, the Ministry of Education promotes intangible cultural heritage among children and youth (7-18 years) through school curricula. In formal education (1st to 9th grades), intangible cultural heritage is addressed in various subjects. In Vocational Secondary Schools, more specialized subjects are taught (e.g. brocade making, wood carving, mosaic and shell inlay work). The Organization of Al-Ba’th Pioneers also offers training to teachers on methods of working with children in relation to culture, including training on traditional storytelling, and holds national-level contests for children in traditional music and crafts. There are a variety of courses available outside the school and higher education system for members of the public. These are offered both by government bodies and non-governmental organizations, and some of these are provided within the communities and groups concerned. For example, in the Ministry of Culture, the Technical Institute of Applied Arts teaches ceramics and Arabic calligraphy and the Directorate of Arab Music Institutes (Ministry of Culture) runs institutes in Damascus and five other cities that teach traditional musical instruments and Arab and oriental musical genres.
International cooperation often takes the form of bilateral cooperative agreements. These comprise the following agreements: with Belarus in 2006 and 2010; with Tunisia in 2007 and 2010; with Poland in 2011; with Russia in 2011; with Turkey in 2011; and with Yemen in 2011. The main subjects addressed in these agreements are: information exchange on festivals and other events, exchanging folklore groups for folklore festivals, fostering exchanges in the field of folkloric dancing, scientific exchanges, studying issues related to safeguarding cultural heritage, the popular arts and safeguarding and documenting popular heritage. Regionally, Syria has actively participated in workshops and training programmes delivered through the Mediterranean Living Heritage (MedLiHer) project, including several regional workshops on implementing the 2003 Convention. Syria has also been an active participant in ALECSO’s meetings to draft the Arab Convention for Safeguarding Popular Heritage and the Agreement for Protecting Copyright. It has also become involved in the Folklore Thesaurus Project and the Memory of the Arab World Programme, which includes documenting and presenting Arab Heritage using technology.
Syrian Arab Republic has one multinational element on the Representative List, namely Falconry, a living human heritage (2010) with the United Arab Emirates, Belgium, the Czech Republic, France, the Republic of Korea, Mongolia, Morocco, Qatar, Saudi Arabia and Spain. A series of government-sponsored meetings were organized at local cultural centres following the inscription. These are aimed at following up on the situation of falconers and the tradition. The Directorate of Cultural Heritage is organizing periodic (at least annual) meetings for communities concerned at public cultural centres in the different Governorates. The objective of these meetings is to assess the need to safeguard the element, if any, and connect those communities with the public officials concerned, at relevant Ministries.