Elias Zayat, Deluge: The Gods Abandon Palmyra, 2011–12, acrylic on canvas, 12' 3“ × 5' 8”. From: “Syria: A Living History.”

Elias Zayat, Deluge: The Gods Abandon Palmyra, 2011–12, acrylic on canvas, 12' 3“ × 5' 8”. From: “Syria: A Living History.”

“Syria: A Living History”

Elias Zayat, Deluge: The Gods Abandon Palmyra, 2011–12, acrylic on canvas, 12' 3“ × 5' 8”. From: “Syria: A Living History.”

Visitors entering the Aga Khan Museum’s “Syria: A Living History” exhibition first encounter Deluge: The Gods Abandon Palmyra, 2011–12, a twelve-foot-tall, multipanel acrylic by Elias Zayat. A tempestuous image of shared flight, the painting evokes present-day Syria’s cataclysmic violence and the predicament of its refugees while simultaneously alluding to a richly layered multicultural heritage; flood stories are found in the Epic of Gilgamesh, the Qur’an, and the Old Testament. The work thus sets the tone for the exhibition as a whole, which provides a counternarrative to recent media depictions by presenting Syria as an intricate cultural mosaic that evolved over thousands of years. From an ancient Mesopotamian eye idol made of gypsum (ca. 3200 BCE) to work by contemporary Syrian artists, forty-eight objects bear witness to the numerous civilizations, including Assyrian, Egyptian, Hittite, Babylonian, Persian, Greek, Roman, Byzantine, Ottoman, and Arab, whose legacies have shaped modern Syria.

Positioned at a geographical crossroads, Syria has a millennia-old history as part of far-reaching trade networks and numerous empires. As the country is currently shut off from museal exchange, curators Filiz Çakir Phillip and Nasser Rabbat relied on loans from the Atassi Foundation (a nonprofit foundation for Syrian art), the Louvre in Paris, Berlin’s Museum für Islamische Kunst and Vorderasiatisches Museum, and New York’s Metropolitan Museum of Art, as well as Toronto’s own Royal Ontario Museum and the Marshall and Marilyn R. Wolf Collection, to mount this small but thoughtful and beautifully installed exhibition, presented under the patronage of UNESCO. With its determined title, the show was conceived as an act of resistance to erasure, a celebration of the region’s long history of multiculturalism, and an urgent appeal to viewers to learn from the past with an eye to the future.

Works highlight centuries of cultural borrowings and intertwinings. An eighth-century BCE Assyrian ivory panel with ceramic inlay, for example, shows Egyptian-influenced figures, while a digital reproduction of a conch-inset niche with Old Testament inscriptions from the reception hall of a sixteenth-century Samaritan’s house in Damascus borrows from traditional mosque architecture in the form of a Mamluk-dynasty mihrab. Motifs shared by Near Eastern civilizations, such as the apotropaic eye, appear in works across the ages, whether carved into the fourth-century-BCE idol mentioned above or woven into a Kurdish robe from the eighteenth or nineteenth century. Some objects are paired to suggest the long-standing coexistence of different faiths. In one example, the silver Emesus vase of the late sixth century, decorated with medallion portraits of biblical figures, sits next to a similarly shaped chased, repoussé, and inlaid copper vessel commissioned by an Ayyubid sultan, inscribed with votive formulae and scenes of courtly life. Both alike in dignity, the pieces stand in literal and figurative proximity, in quiet defiance of sectarian war.

The exhibition is organized around a number of themes, including divinity, interactions with nature, and state and religion. One of the show’s most powerfully affecting aspects is its emphasis on the idea of home. Glassware, chair ornaments, a gorgeous antique floor mosaic decorated with a repeating pattern of Alexandrine parrots (so called because Alexander the Great introduced this species to the region from the Punjab), a lavish inlaid backgammon board, and other beautiful quotidian effects encapsulate successive ages of refined domesticity and leisure. Via handheld tablets, visitors can also virtually explore the opulent painted interior of a seventeenth-century room in a Christian merchant’s house in Aleppo, which is now installed in the Museum für Islamische Kunst. Offering a reprieve from images of a bombed-out Aleppo, the room’s painted ornamentation featuring biblical and courtly scenes, and calligraphic inscriptions of psalms and Arabic proverbs, allows visitors to walk in the footsteps of the past, to immerse themselves in an alternative frame for Syria’s different religions, languages, and peoples.

The exhibition also features six works by modern and contemporary Syrian artists, appositely showcasing a range of formal languages, media, and iconographies. In the hallway through which one exits the exhibition hang two works by Tammam Azzam: Storeys Series, 2015, a painting of a destroyed urban landscape; and The Kiss (Freedom Graffiti), 2013, a reproduction of Klimt’s The Kiss Photoshopped onto the exterior of a bullet- and bomb-ravaged building, its holes and pockmarks mimicking the pattern decorating the male figure’s robe. Visitors are invited to hang notes atop the image in a symbolic patchwork, echoing Azzam’s gesture of love among the ruins; when I visited, one message written in a childish scrawl read, “Me and my dad will help.” In the face of the destruction and looting of Syria’s cultural heritage and the ongoing trauma experienced by its peoples, the exhibition overcomes historical and geographical distance to create a galvanizing sense of a kaleidoscopic living history. If the show downplays past conflict, it effectively advocates not only for the preservation of this heritage but also for an increased awareness of historical models of diversity and inclusion.

Alison Syme