Large contemporary photographs brightly capture scenes of everyday life: A man reading a book. Two boys fishing from atop a tower of rocks. A city glimmering beneath a star-filled sky. A colourful market that hints at a place that is rich in tradition and culture.
Greeting visitors at the entrance to Syria: A Living History, these images contrast sharply with the devastation wreaked by the country’s six-year civil war. Instead, the exhibition at the Aga Khan Museum in Toronto celebrates the land and people of Syria, and offers hope that in time, the nation can rebuild.
“We developed the narrative based on the thematic areas that mattered most to us,” says Dr Filiz Çakir Phillip, who co-curated the exhibition with Professor Nasser Rabbat, Aga Khan Professor of Islamic Architecture at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. “We carefully selected recognisable objects that demonstrate how ancient works of art have influenced and inspired modern artists, and how different identities and styles have merged to form what we call Syrian art,” she explains.
Museum visitors command a panoptic view of Syria’s 5 000 years through sculpture, ceramics, textiles, and architecture. The artwork on display highlights the vast contributions that diverse cultures within Syria — Mesopotamian, Greek, Roman, Byzantine, Persian, Ottoman, and Arab — have made toward world heritage. It also shows how seemingly disparate artefacts, often separated by epochs in history, are connected by compelling ideas and themes.
Among the first objects that one encounters is the deceptively small figurine of an eye idol. Carved from gypsum around 3200 BCE in the ancient Mesopotamian period, this powerful symbol is traditionally thought to have offered spiritual protection. It was excavated at the ancient city of Tell Brak in northeastern Syria, where it had been discovered among thousands of other eye idols — small anthropomorphic plaques with huge eyes — in a richly decorated building, known as the “Eye Temple”.
So enduring is the eye motif, that it can also be found embroidered in an artefact produced thousands of years later — a splendid 18 – 19th century wool brocade robe — as a symbolic protection against the “evil eye”.
The display leaves no doubt that Syria sits at a crossroads of faith and culture. Only steps away from the eye idol are an 8th century BCE panel of a falcon-headed Egyptian god discovered in the ancient city of Nimrud, a 6th century silver plaque of the early Christian apostle Saint Paul, and a Muslim mihrab from 16th century Damascus. These objects attest to the changing relationship between people and the divine that has unfolded in that ancient land.
Syria was also a crucible for the development of language. In fact, it can be said to have given us our modern-day alphabets, including the Latin script that is used in English, as well as Arabic, Hebrew and Greek scripts. Each of these traces back to the letters developed by the Phoenicians, an ancient civilisation that was situated along the Eastern Mediterranean coast from 1500 - 539 BCE on land that is now part of Syria and its neighbouring countries.
Visitors can explore the evolution of script firsthand at an interactive station where they can uncover the different names of “Syria” in Cuneiform, Greek, Assyrian and Arabic. It is a reminder of the polyglot heritage and importance of this cradle of civilisation.
An even more immersive experience is the virtual three-dimensional rendering of a 17th century Aleppo home, which visitors can step into with the use of a computer tablet. Syria is well-known for the exquisitely decorated interiors of its private residences, and the Aleppo Room is part of a house that belonged to a Christian merchant family. It illustrates the life and culture of the city, and features intricate paintings revealing biblical stories.
The curators have also chosen to display several works from contemporary Syrian artists. A digital reproduction of Tammam Azzam’s Freedom Graffiti, for example, juxtaposes Syria’s experience of beauty and devastation. The photographic piece superimposes Gustav Klimt’s iconic work, The Kiss over the walls of a war-torn building in Syria. Positioned to face the only window in the upper gallery with light shining in from the museum’s entrance, it resonates with hope.
In addition, contemporary works by Elias Zayat and Fateh Moudarres (1922–99) merge personal experiences with reflections on modern-day Syria. Zayat’s striking 12-foot mural painting titled Deluge: The Gods Abandon Palmyra, captures the thrust of the exhibition’s aspiration.
The mural is inspired by the great flood story — recounted over thousands of years in the Epic of Gilgamesh, the Old Testament and the Holy Qur’an. Zayat chose Palmyra for the setting as a way to link Syria’s past, present and future. Signifying a cleansing of the world, the painting portrays diverse characters and species bracing for disaster in their darkest hour, but also promises the glimmer of a new beginning.
The flood narrative runs like a river through time — a shared human connection from the ancient Mesopotamians through the monotheistic peoples of Judaism, Christianity and Islam. It offers hopeful signs of resilience in the face of suffering, unity amidst diversity, and the possibility of a brighter future.
Syria: A Living History is particularly timely, as thousands of former Syrian refugees mark the one year anniversary since their arrival in Canada. As well, many Canadians are interested in learning about their new neighbours and where they come from.
“This is a very important exhibition as the story of Syria’s rich multicultural history has been absent from the public’s perception of the country and its peoples in recent years,” says Aga Khan Museum Director and CEO, Henry Kim. “For the public, it is not only a chance to learn more about a region that was a cradle of civilisation and a crossroads that linked cultures over 5 000 years, but also home to a vast population of resettled refugees who now live among us in the west.”
The exhibition has also been a big draw for the Syrian community. A steady stream of families and tour groups have been visiting the exhibition since it opened in October.
The Museum says Kim is pleased to be able to “welcome all Syrian newcomers to this country, and to ensure that they and their host families have the opportunity to join in our celebration of the diversity and history of Syria.”
“We want Syrians to realise the value we place in their arrival in this country, and to understand that they are a vital part of the cultural mosaic of Canada,” he adds.
Syria: A Living History conveys a deep understanding of the country’s history and diverse character, and offers hope that its people can rebuild again. It shatters narrow perceptions of a place plagued with endless violence and conflict, and a people in perpetual flight for safer refuge.
The exhibition’s popularity has prompted the museum to extend it by a month. It will now run until 26 March 2017, says Kim.
“We hope that a better appreciation of Syria’s priceless contributions to the world’s heritage over five millennia will add urgency to the efforts to bring about peace and reconciliation in that country.”