Stonemason carving a stone

World Monuments Fund have three projects supported by Cultural Protection Fund grants. We chatted with World Monuments Fund Director, John Darlington, to learn more about their Syrian Stonemasonry Training Scheme in Jordan and their project in Yemen which is equipping museum professionals from Taiz with the skills necessary to document the city's damaged cultural heritage. 

Please could you tell us about the Syrian Stonemasonry Training Scheme in Jordan?

World Monuments Fund has been around since 1966, we have worked in a number of conflict zones and have a pretty good understanding of what happens to heritage in the aftermath of/and during war and part of this project was born from that experience. We were looking at what was happening in Syria, particularly the destruction of Palmyra, but also places where people live, historic towns like Aleppo and Homs; not just great heritage that’s been destroyed deliberately but also the heritage that has been simply caught in the crossfire of fighting. Because of our experience, we also knew that when the dust of war settles there would be an absence of people with the right skills to conserve and rebuild monuments of the past. In particular there would be an absence of conservation stonemasons who can preserve and conserve Aleppo or Homs or Palmyra, and that’s because they either died, fled or the educational system isn't there to provide training. We were looking at the huge numbers of refugees on the borders of Syria and thinking how can we make our project for those people. Our solution is that we train Syrian refugees and local Jordanians in the art of conservation stonemasonry, giving them the skills to rebuild heritage and to give them livelihoods as well. 

The project started in September 2017 with 45 students, none of which had picked up a chisel before, who were a mixture of men and women aged between 15 and 43. Twenty of the best students received additional training and now have achieved essentially a City and Guilds level three qualification. The results have been absolutely amazing. Five of the trainees have gone into employment and the other 15 have been offered employment. The project is very focussed on people and building skills, not just the skills to restore heritage, but giving them hope and livelihoods and something for the future through heritage. 

Our solution is that we train Syrian refugees and local Jordanians in the art of conservation stonemasonry, giving them the skills to rebuild heritage and to give them livelihoods as well.

Do you have any particular favourite moments you could tell us about?

Personally, it’s just fantastic to see the progress the trainees have made. One of our students, Mahmoud has produced a metre square sculpture divided into four parts which has this hoopoe (a bird) in the middle which is sitting in a pomegranate tree. Around the edge Mahmoud has carved a small architectural scene, which includes a tiny little town with a mill chimney to represent the UK and the tutor on the course, the master mason, who is from Yorkshire. I just love those little stories. Here is someone who has lost their world really in a sense in terms of the war in Syria and they have proven that they have real genuine talent, it’s those kind of moments when you can see the project has had a real impact on people. 

Another moment, when you think 'blimey this is why I do the job', was when Notre Dame burnt down, one of the masons decided that he wanted to create a carving for Notre Dame as a gift. He’s created a beautiful little water spout in the shape of a fish, a really stunning piece of work. Really it was a gesture of sympathy and support for a world renowned icon of heritage from people who also work in that field and who have seen their heritage destroyed. I love that story about someone from the poorest part of society giving a gift to a rich Western nation to say 'I feel your pain'.

 ...it’s those kind of moments when you can see the project has had a real impact on people.

Stone carving
Mahmoud's stone carving of a hoopoe in a pomegranate tree  ©

World Monuments Fund

Stone water spout in the shape of a fish  ©

World Monuments Fund

WHAT HAVE YOU FOUND THE MOST REWARDING ABOUT WORKING ON YOUR PROJECT?

The ambition of the project was to see people employed and see those skills used in heritage conservation. We decided that the best outcome we could possibly hope for was to get people into work because that is so so difficult and it really makes a difference. We now have students working for Turquoise mountain in Amman, one person has gone to University in Canada and we have another person we are supporting to get a visa to move to the UK, where hopefully he will get funding so he can go to a cathedral stonemasonry school. It’s that making a real impact on people’s employment that is the proudest moment. Additionally, having that mix of diversity with men and women, Jordan in itself is a very liberal country but it is also quite traditional, to have men and women working alongside in what is seen traditionally as a masculine industry is great to see.

We decided that the best outcome we could possibly hope for was to get people into work because that is so so difficult and it really makes a difference.

Cultural Protection Fund investment has been low to date in Yemen, (something we are addressing with our new round of grants), could you tell us a bit about your project there?

Our project is located in the city of Taiz, the old capital of Yemen, which has an amazing architectural heritage, mainly brick and ottomen era. In 2015 the war fully broke out. Taiz was surrounded by rebels and many of the buildings were shelled. Since that time we’ve been working with the government in training local people to learn how to assess damage in war torn cities and how to restore those buildings.

A few weeks ago, we finished the restoration of a national museum, with a grant from the Cultural Protection Fund. The whole project was £100k for the restoration of a national museum, which is incredible. In a country where conflict is still raging, to actually point to people and say, ‘here is a building which is iconic and it is being restored by you the local population’, that is a very powerful thing to do and hardly anyone is doing it. There is very little happening in Yemen in terms of physical conservation and more needs to be done.

What advice would you give to someone who is looking to apply for funding? 

For me it’s all about people. When you’re thinking of applying for funding, think about the impact it will really have on people and livelihoods, I think that unlocks so much. If you get that right then all kinds of benefits flow through that, so really focus on how you can improve and help people’s lives, for me that would be a guiding principle.

When you’re thinking of applying for funding, think about the impact it will really have on people and livelihoods.