Syria Exhibition At Aga Khan Museum, Toronto
Exploring the very concept of Syria as a country through its beautiful past, at Toronto’s Aga Khan
If the current state of the Middle East isn’t enough to shake your faith in humanity, consider its status as our longest continuous experiment in civilization. In the Fertile Crescent, humans have been living together in large groups since before we were even technically capable of recording our history. That the result of this is a desert punctuated by cities that are regularly burning is not the highest recommendation for the whole human project.
The saving grace here is that such a view is rather limited, even if it is the one with which we’re typically presented through our media and entertainment. The Aga Khan Museum is hoping to bring a much wider – and, it should be said, more hopeful – perspective to the fore with its new exhibit, plainly and pointedly titled Syria.
“Despite the carnage of today, this is a country that has 18 religions: three of which are only in Syria; two of which cannot be classified as Abrahamic. They are older ideas. They’ve been tolerated there this whole time,” explains Nasser Rabbat, director of the Aga Khan Program for Islamic Architecture at MIT and co-curator of the new exhibit. “This is a country that is heterogenous culturally – not just ethnically or religiously, as people would now blame it to be. It’s actually a country that has somehow invented the notion of multiculturalism, and lived with it for a very long time.”
Even the very concept of Syria as a country could stand some multicultural parsing. The country as we know it today, with its jagged borders and spikier problems, was drawn up by British and French diplomats in the wake of the First World War. The name dates back to the Bronze Age, specifically the Assyrian empire that controlled much of what roughly corresponds to northern Syria until about 600 BC. The name was then shortened by Greek invaders who couldn’t entirely wrap their tongues around it, but managed to expand the region to cover much of what we now consider the Middle East.
In the time between then and now, Syria has been a distant province of Rome, the centre of the most expansive Muslim empire the world has seen and a central crossroads between powers in Cairo, Istanbul, Asia and Europe’s colonial ambitions.
All these cultures have been written across Syria’s art and architecture, carefully displayed in the Aga Khan exhibit. Rabbat helped to organize the collection into five themes, each corresponding to what he describes as the essentials of civilization – “or culture, if you want to use a less loaded term.” Divinity tackles our relationship to the ineffable, particularly relevant given that all the Abrahamic religions and a good chunk of their precursors grew up in the region. Humans & Beasts examines our relationship to nature, Religion & State our official expressions of power, Home looks at private life and Affinities is something like the exhibit’s bow, explicitly tying together some of the underlying similarities in the region’s cultures.
That idea shows up everywhere in Syria, though: Christian urns, for instance, sit beside Muslim ones, the only difference being their adornment. Tile mosaics, so important to Arab home decoration and Muslim grand architecture, are placed in their Roman roots. Proto-Arab iconography rests beside an lusciously decorated Qu’ran. 17th-century wood panels depicting Christian iconography are set against contemporary abstract paintings of The Last Supper.
“Another culture comes along, it’s still inexperienced, so it looks around and says, ‘Wow, that’s really great architecture, wow that’s incredible art – I want something like that! But I really don’t like red,’” Rabbat says of how these cultures build upon each other. “Even though there have been destructions in history, in cultural production there is a continuity. The ones that come later, always are trying to imitate what’s there before. And then it turns around and says, ‘I have my own taste. Let’s see how we can modify it.’”
One of the most striking examples is what would appear to be a Mihrab, an ornately decorated Muslim prayer niche, frequently found in mosques and, if they are grand enough, homes. Get closer, though, and you’ll see Hebrew inscriptions on the walls: this particular mihrab comes from the home of 17th century Jewish merchants, who co-opted the style by putting the Psalms on its edges. It’s a powerful symbol of just how much melting has gone on in this particular cultural pot.
If this is all a bit too historical to calm modern minds, though, Syria also includes some firm messages of hope. In a section called – in a gesture more existentially poetic than you generally find in a museum – The Vagaries of Time, there sits a small slab of basalt, carved with an image of a person praying. On the back it shows the scars of bomb drops: this particular piece, made in the 9th century BCE, was dug out of the ruins of Second World War Berlin, where it had been resting after Baron Max Von Oppenheim dug it up in the early part of the century. This culture, even fragments of it, has a way of surviving.
“Clearly some in Syria are showing us that they can decide to not live together,” Rabbat says. “But we want to remind them: look at the stratification of all these old civilizations in your land. They reflect the notion that living together not only is possible, but it induces great art.
“The art is not just the trace of the possibility of living together, but at the same time the reminder that none of us is a claimant to an exclusive ownership of this land,” he continues. “We’ve all lived in it together, we’ve all contributed to it, we all learned from each other, and we left traces of our presence at the end.”