A new wayfinding system makes the cultural treasures of northern Syria’s Forgotten Cities more accessible to the world.
The Forgotten Cities, nearly 700 towns and villages occupying a mountainous region of northern Syria, are among the most memorable places on the planet. The impressive ancient ruins in these remote settlements west of Aleppo are connected by an 87-mile circuit of hiking trails––pathways that are now more accessible to tourists and locals thanks to new wayfinding system designed by PenguinCube SAL (Beirut). Signage in Arabic and English directs visitors to routes along the pathways as well as to the most significant monuments within the rural settlements.
Once prosperous, the Forgotten Cities offer some of the greatest examples of Byzantine architecture anywhere in the world. These well-preserved basilicas, monasteries, baths, villas, and tombs were mostly built during the 4th and 5th centuries near the lost city of Antioch, an important center for early Christians. They were once part of a major agricultural center providing wheat, olives, and grapes for the ancient populations in the region. Often described as “dead cities” for their resemblance to eerie ghost towns, these farming villages are remarkably intact and their remaining buildings and archeological sites offer a rare picture of life in antiquity.
In 2006, seeking to raise awareness of this rich cultural heritage, the Directorate General of Antiquities and Museums in Syria’s Ministry of Culture embarked on a project to improve the existing routes through the ancient towns. The Swiss Agency for Development and Cooperation conceived the idea of developing a wayfinding system for the hiking trails and backed the effort with financial and logistical support. By demonstrating their commitment to preserving and enhancing the area, the organizations hope to convince UNESCO to designate the Forgotten Cities as a prestigious World Heritage Site like the Egyptian pyramids, the Great Wall of China, and Thomas Jefferson’s Monticello.
PenguinCube was selected to create signage along three existing trails leading to 15 of the ancient towns. Prior to the development of the wayfinding system, tourists mostly had to rely on local guides to find their way through steep terrain and ruins scattered over dozens of miles.
“Whether the hikers were foreigners or locals, the wayfinding system is designed to help them easily navigate the area,” says project manager and designer Tammam Yamout of PenguinCube. “Each route connects three to five villages or sites, and the messages and arrows on the signs give you the direction of the upcoming destination.”
Yamout and his team helped to determine the locations of the more than 200 signs by walking the trails. “It was a very hands-on process. We visited and slept in the towns many times,” he recalls. “One time, the locals invited us for dinner––they had prepared rice and goat heads, which didn’t look very appealing.”
The clients’ mandate to preserve the unique combination of natural terrain and archeological remains in the area led the designers to avoid imposing markers, superfluous information, or historical mimicry. The signs also needed to be maintenance-free for up to 20 years, capable of withstanding harsh weather conditions and the potential abuse of farm machinery, low cost, and manufacturable on site with a local workforce. PenguinCube developed a simple tablet design that would blend into the landscape and could be easily made by local construction teams. About 25 local villagers were involved in producing, transporting, and installing the signs.
Once the basic design was established, PenguinCube developed a family of navigational, informational, and directional signs in three different sizes. The largest, measuring about three by four feet, incorporates a map of the trails in the area. The next biggest is divided into horizontal sections to note the names of different towns, and the smallest is simply adorned with an arrow to point hikers in the right direction. “We wanted to have a 10-meter visibility distance for the signs,” says Yamout in explaining the varied dimensions.
Concrete was chosen as the sign material for its ability to withstand vandalism and harsh weather conditions. “It will not be harnessed as firewood by the locals and can withstand nature’s generosity and wrath,” says Yamout. “Since little to no maintenance is planned in the near future, these signs must endure numerous weather cycles unscathed. Concrete slabs could be fabricated on site at little cost.”
Two typefaces were chosen for the lettering on the signs: GE East Extrabold for the Arabic script and Infotext Bold for the English text. “These fonts were selected for their harmony with each other, as well as for their thickness, in that they were easy to cut on a router,” notes Yamout.
Since ordinary vinyl and paint did not meet the project’s durability requirements, the PenguinCube team determined the lettering and arrows should be made from the type of polyvinyl chloride (PVC) used for outdoor signage. “The lettering needed to be solid, while flush to the surface of the concrete,” says Yamout. “This was made possible by embedding solid PVC letter boards into the concrete itself. The letter boards were perforated to allow the poured concrete to pass through them as the sign was being cast.”
The PVC components, fabricated by the Beirut-based companies Peters Brass and Management of Resources and Environmental Solutions, were attached to the molds in which the concrete was poured so the lettering became integral to the casting.
Aided by the new wayfinding system, tourism in the Forgotten Cities area had been slowly increasing and benefitting the region economically––until civil unrest overtook Syria this year.
“Many European tourists have visited and hiked the trails, and this has created a micro-economy for the residents who sell their local produce and cheese to the tourists, and offer rooms for people who want to stay the night,” says Yamout. He adds, “If the signage helps disoriented locals as well, then the project can be considered a comprehensive success.”
--By Deborah Dietsch, segdDESIGN No. 33, 2011
Editor's note: Washington, DC-based writer Deborah Dietsch covers art, architecture, and design for numerous publications. Her latest book is Live/Work: Working at Home, Living at Work.
“This series of wayfinding signs is the perfect solution for the problem at hand: it is maintenance free, weather proof, low cost, can be produced by a local work force, and blends naturally and seamlessly with the environment. It is not stuffy or overdone, and fulfills its role with purpose and simplicity. Perhaps most impressive, this project will truly have a powerful and positive impact on the people who live in this area of North Syria.”
“The jurors were mightily impressed by the simplicity and effectiveness of this entry. Compared with higher-budget and more sophisticated briefs, this 'hand-made' approach to creating trail signing was with the minimum of cost and fuss, and yet it creates a totally appropriate and long-lasting solution. A lot can be done with a little bit of thinking and use of readily available materials.”
FORGOTTEN CITIES HIKING TRAIL
Client: Swiss Agency for Development and Cooperation; Ministry of Culture, Directorate General of Antiquities and Museums in Syria
Location: Aleppo, Syria
Design: PenguinCube SAL
Design Team: Tammam Yamout (project manager, designer), Josette Khalil (creative director, designer)
Fabrication: Peters Brass (PVC lettering); Management of Resources and Environmental Solutions, local community (concrete work)
Consultants: MORES (environmental engineering, client representative, planning, contracting)
Photos: PenguinCube SAL