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'I get to continue my academic career': archaeologist who fled Damascus for Leiden

Ghazwan Yaghi was a leading archaeologist and researcher in Damascus but had to flee in 2014 because of the war. An NWO 'Refugees in Science' grant has enabled him to pick up where he left off in his academic career. 'I've found myself again in this project.'

Ghazwan Yaghi is sitting in the office of Gabrielle van den Berg, Professor of Cultural History of Iran and Central Asia. It’s her project that he has joined. Van den Berg is also at the interview – we arrive as the two are deep in discussion about the first steps in Yaghi’s research. Books are strewn throughout the room: old ones, new ones, thick and thin, and in a range of different languages. Books are a subject that Yaghi keeps returning to during the interview. ‘I had an extensive library at home too, about the archaeology of the region and the cultures that I study in my work. But there’s nothing left: everything was destroyed within the space of a few hours.’

Grant for refugee academics

Not that Yaghi looks like a defeated man: he is full of enthusiasm about the research project that he has just started, on the relationship between the ideology and architecture of the Mamluks during their reign in Damascus (between about 1250 and 1500 BC). At the start of the year, he heard from the Netherlands Organisation for Scientific Research (NWO) that he had been awarded a Refugees in Science grant, and he officially started on 1 March. It is a pilot programme that funds a one-year research post for academics who have fled their homeland and want to continue their academic career in the Netherlands.

Ghazwan Yaghi: 'I thought that as I had worked with Dutch people I already knew all about the country. That was a slight misconception!'

The Netherlands via Turkey

In October 2014, Yaghi and his family fled Syria, initially to Turkey. ‘I could do a bit of work there, but didn’t have much in the way of prospects,’ he says. ‘You obviously begin by looking for a safe place for your family and yourself. But then you also want to offer them a good future.’ He therefore travelled on to the Netherlands in 2015. ‘I had spent some time working at the Netherlands Academic Institute in Damascus in 2006, and had contacts from then.’ These contacts also told him that it wouldn’t be difficult to come to the Netherlands: all he had to do was board a plane. ‘Which is what I did. But when I arrived at the airport I realised that this was a very different trip from when I was still “Ghazwan Yaghi, the Syrian archaeologist” who was coming to a conference. It was only then that I became aware of the ramifications of my journey.’ 

Difficult language

Yaghi registered as a refugee and applied for a residence permit: ‘a difficult period,’ he calls it. The permit arrived four months later, which mean he could arrange for his family to come. They were given a house in Houten, near Utrecht. ‘I thought that, as I had worked with Dutch people, I already knew all about the country. That was a slight misconception,’ he laughs. ‘Dutch is a really difficult language! What was a bonus was that the Dutch are really friendly.’

When I left Syria, I had three posts. I had a lot of experience, but it’s not easy to get into academia in the Netherlands. 

Academic baggage

The hunt for work could begin. ‘I originally trained as an archaeologist. I have done a lot of research into the archaeology of Syria and the associated cultures – my PhD research was about the Mamluk Sultanate. When I left Syria, I had three posts: as Director of Archaeological Training and Research at the Directorate-General of Antiquities and Musuems, as lecturer at Damascus University and as Head of Islamic Antiquities at the Syrian Arab Encyclopedia [an academic publisher, ed.].’ He thus had quite some academic baggage. ‘But it’s not easy to get into academia in the Netherlands. And I don’t have the funds to start my own research.’ 

Through the grapevine

How did he end up in Leiden, working on Van den Berg’s research project? ‘That was a real case of through the grapevine,’ says Van den Berg. ‘Ghazwan had been to the NWO information day on grants for refugees and spoken to Christian Lange, Professor of Arabic in Utrecht. He told me about Ghazwan’s expertise and wondered if he would be able to join my research project.’ A condition of the NWO grant is that the refugee researcher joins an ongoing project that has NWO funding. ‘My colleague from Nijmegen, Maaike van Berkel, Professor of Medieval History, was also interested in working with Ghazwan, but hadn’t secured her NWO funding. So we decided that Leiden would submit an application.’

The Arak al-Silahdar Mausoleum in Damascus, from the Mamluk period.
The Arak al-Silahdar Mausoleum in Damascus, from the Mamluk period.

Mamluk architecture

They were successful: Van den Berg and Yaghi’s joint proposal got through the NWO’s strict selection process. Yahgi will research how, during their reign – from the middle of the 13th to the beginning of the 16th century – over the region that is present-day Egypt and Syria, the Mamluks expressed their ideology through buildings. ‘Prominent Mamluks built a lot of large complexes that housed public amenities such as mosques, hospitals or water supply systems. Their main aim in building such complexes, however, was to demonstrate their power to their subjects.’ They therefore left traces of themselves in the architecture: references in the decorations or even mausoleums built into the facade. And as these buildings housed public amenities, the Mamluks could rest assured that the buildings would be well maintained and that their legacy would consequently be preserved for posterity. ‘That can be seen even today: for instance, the Arak al-Silahdar Mausoleum and the Jaqmaqiyya Building, on the north face of the Umayyad Mosque in Damascus.

Buildings legitimise power

The buildings can really be seen as the mass media of the time, Yaghi explains. ‘They could reach all their subjects with these buildings, and could thus legitimise their power. The rulers knew that they were nothing without a building. Just as how today’s ruler’s in the region rely on Al-Jazeera, for instance.’ Yaghi’s project will focus specifically on buildings in Damascus. ‘Damascus was the second city in their empire. And as that’s where I come from, and I’ve always been interested in the city’s heritage, I already know a lot about the buildings.’

The architecture can be seen as the mass media of the time: it was how the rulers reached their subjects.

Descendants of the Turks

Yaghi’s research ties in perfectly with Van den Berg’s current research project. ‘In two ways actually,’ Van den Berg explains. ‘I’m looking at the Turks, who lived further to the east, in Central and West Asia. The Mamluks are in fact their descendants: Mamluk is the name given to the Turks who, as slave soldiers from the north and east, ended up in the Egyptian region. They started out as slave soldiers and ended up as rulers.’ Van den Berg and her team also mainly look at urban regions – as does Yaghi. ‘And we see comparable things, such as in Samarkand in present-day Uzbekistan. There are buildings there that former ruler Timur built “for eternity”.’

Academic career

Yaghi is pleased with the opportunity that the NWO programme represents. ‘I’ve always been interested in architecture, in the why of a design. I’ve found myself again in this project, and get to continue my academic career.’ But he thinks he won’t be the only one to benefit from the programme. ‘These “new” academics are a welcome addition to Dutch academia. They can make connections, and make the academic world more diverse.’

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