In Review

A Heartwarming and Heartbreaking Exhibit

Syria: A Living History, a recent exhibit at the Aga Khan Museum in Toronto, focuses on the human context of art and artifacts.

Tammam Azzam, Freedom Graffiti, 2013 (Gustav Klimt, The Kiss). © Tammam Azzam

By Robert Israel

In the Aga Khan Museum’s third-floor gallery, the exhibit Syria: A Living History channels five thousand years of history through a representative display of forty-eight works of art.

Latticed windows illuminate the rooms with muted sunlight, as in a house of worship. Of the items on display—artifacts, paintings, sculptures, jewelry, brassware, and textiles—many date from the birth of Islam, Judaism, and Christianity, while many more hail from present-day, war-torn Syria. Two themes come to mind as I view the exhibit: timelessness and urgency.

Objects of art representing the three faiths, once confluent, are grouped by the entrance. A small object, circa 550 or 600 CE, catches my eye. It depicts St. Paul, known then as a Jew, Saul of Tarsus. Nearby is another, smaller object, made from gypsum, of an Eye Idol, circa 3200 BCE (page 86). Etched onto the idol are two sets of eyes, drawn close together, as if by a child, and their stares hold on me as I move about the gallery. I am reminded of my visit to Via Dolorosa in Jerusalem, years ago, when a vendor near the Stations of the Cross sold me a similar Evil Eye, this one made of pressed copper. After thousands of years, a talisman that wards off evil spirits still captivates.

The exhibit’s accentuation of timelessness transports me to a landscape of burnt sienna and heat, evidenced by a small dedicatory stele depicting worshippers—an undated fragment of orange-red rock found on the scorched earth during a nineteenth-century excavation of a ruined temple. It represents a time when pilgrims journeyed there for faith and fellowship.


Syria: A Living History, an exhibit at the Aga Khan Museum, Toronto, Ontario from October 15, 2016–February 16, 2017.

Photo of a carved idol figure of four eyes

Eye Idol, Syria. Gypsum, carved, circa 3200 BCE. Royal Ontario Museum, 959.91.50

In juxtaposition to the grouping of these artifacts are those that celebrate an era of peace and abundance. Syria was once such a place. A digitally recreated Samaritan house transports me to Damascus, when Syria’s capitol city was a bastion of wealth. During the Mamluk period (1250–1517 CE), scholars throughout the Islamic world gathered in Damascus. Jews thrived there, too, and their homes were similarly proportioned. Peering inside a recreated home, I marvel at intricately engraved brassware and resplendent silken and woolen robes. Just beyond is a finely crafted wooden backgammon or chess box that sparkles with inlays of mother-of-pearl.

The intention of these historic groupings is to communicate the conjoining of humankind, faith, and landscape. Collectively, they provide a reflective perspective and invite viewers to consider them in contrast with the more contemporary objects positioned just beyond.

It is this next group, located within eyeshot, where the exhibit shifts focus from timelessness to urgency. It includes contemporary sculptures, paintings, and collages produced by Syrian artists currently working under perilous conditions to express their creative spirits.

The work of contemporary Syrian artists, whose obdurate spirits defy the country’s current repressive government and the endless conflicts, is corroborated by the pulse of today’s headlines. Two days before my visit, I read a dispatch in The New York Times by correspondent Anne Barnard, who described a surrealistic “moonscape of war” as she gazed from her hotel window in embattled Aleppo.

“I walked into the room and drew the curtains,” Barnard wrote, “and I saw beautiful Aleppo, and in the distance this huge plume of smoke. It was the battlefront where rebels outside the city were trying to break the siege of eastern Aleppo.”1

Barnard visited Aleppo just before it fell. Since her visit, the Great Mosque of Aleppo, built in 715 CE, has been reduced to rubble. The Al-Madina Souq, the largest covered market in the world, dating from the fourteenth century, has also been destroyed. And while it is true that Syria has endured countless battles, going back from before and during the time of conquerors like Alexander the Great to the Crusades, no battles before this current war have been as devastating.

Perhaps this is the reason a photographic collage—hung full-length and encompassing an entire wall of the exhibit—that shows a bombed-out Aleppo facade with an image of Gustav Klimt’s sparklingly gilded Kiss superimposed onto it, a creation of contemporary artist Tammam Azzam, arrests my attention. The effect is jolting because it is so unexpected, so assaultive to the eye and to the sensibilities. To see an image of a modern edifice with a sensually entwined couple barely concealing the dark granite craters is to witness obliteration, the banishment of love, and the end of civilization.

Even though Syria’s history may be a place of centuries-long religious and internecine conflicts, by choosing to title the exhibit a “living history,” the curators envisage Syria as a nation that rises from the ashes. In fact, they declare, in a note to the exhibit, history has shown us that no destruction is final, even if it “takes another generation” for Syrians to reclaim and rebuild their ravaged land.

“This is precisely why we named the exhibit ‘a living history,’ ” insists Syrian-born co-curator Nasser Rabbat, a professor at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. “We want to counter the pervasive images from the media and elsewhere that the entire country is a ‘moonscape,’ and to dispel the rumors of the obliteration of all cultural and religious artifacts in Syria today. This is just not so. This is why the exhibit provides a long historical perspective. Syria has been destroyed dozens of times and has been rebuilt over and over again by the determination of the Syrian people. We want to remind viewers that Syria is a human civilization. What we are saying is that we are concerned about the Syrian people. To simply focus on artifacts alone, without placing them within the human context, is obscene.”2

With the human context in mind, consider an eyewitness account from Aleppo. Omair Shaaban, a former student at the University of Aleppo, wrote for The Washington Post:

The war here has been going on for more than four years. Hundreds of thousands of people have fled, and thousands more are dead, including many of my friends. . . .

If you aren’t killed by airstrikes or shells, your big worry will be food. . . . But now a lot of poor people don’t have enough money to buy food, because there aren’t jobs anymore, so every neighborhood has young volunteers whose responsibility is to get food and other supplies for their communities.3

By Shaaban’s account, Aleppo right now is a living hell.


The Aga Khan Museum, which opened to the public in 2014 on a seventeen-acre site on the outskirts of Toronto, Ontario, serves as a home to an extensive, private collection showcasing Islamic and Muslim arts. Its Brazilian granite exterior rises above an expansive, welcoming courtyard with pristinely landscaped gardens, reflecting pools, and flowering trees. Though within earshot of the Don Mills superhighway just beyond its perimeter, once you are inside the building, the distractions of the outside world vanish. The museum encloses visitors in a relaxing atmosphere of calm, sensuality, and contemplation.

This is by design. The museum’s namesake and benefactor, His Highness the Aga Khan Shah Karim, the forty-ninth imam of the Shia Imami Ismaili Muslims (a dynasty that dates back to the 1800s), acquired the Toronto site in 2007. Soon after, he hired Japanese architect Fumihiko Maki to undertake the museum’s design. Maki’s mandate was to make the building pay homage to the concept of light, “to direct and to diffuse light into the building in ingenious ways,” according to the museum’s website, which adds that the building should be “positioned 45 degrees to solar north to ensure that all exterior surfaces receive natural light over the course of the day.”

The museum’s embrace of light illuminates a time in our history when civilization in Syria teeters on extinction. Syria: A Living History illustrates this fragility in a region that has seen so many ground battles and airstrikes that thousands of acres of wasteland have been created.4

If this destruction were not tragic enough, the world looked on in horror when, in March 2016, televised images from Mosul, Iraq, showed black-hooded members of the Islamic State, or ISIS, as they ransacked museums, toppled ancient statues, and demolished artwork across Syria and Iraq.

Marina Gabriel, a research assistant at the American Schools of Oriental Research (ASOR) at Boston University, admits that not all the information ASOR collects from Syria is reliable. Yet ASOR remains steadfast in its mission to monitor the specific sites that have been damaged or destroyed and to document the looting of religious and cultural artifacts out of a commitment to provide accurate reports to the global community.

“We rely on satellite images,” Gabriel says, “and we rely on reports we gather from a network of contacts on the ground. These contacts send us smart phone images and cell phone videos documenting what’s happening. We post these on our website. We also have alliances with other groups in Syria and elsewhere who are engaged in similar efforts.”5

“The destruction is on a scale the world hasn’t seen since World War II, and it’s accelerating,” Boston University archaeologist Michael D. Danti told me. “It’s certainly the gravest cultural emergency of our times.”6

Danti presently teams with a cadre of art historians and members of the U.S. State Department to document the wanton looting of artifacts and artwork in the Middle East by recording images of these pilfered items and posting them on the Internet in hopes of derailing efforts by black marketers hell-bent on hawking them to the highest bidders. But time is running out.

“For anyone who cares about humanity’s cultural heritage,” Danti said, “it’s heartbreaking.”

Amr Al-Azm, former head of the Centre for Archaeological Research at the University of Damascus, works closely with ASOR, providing them with updates on religious and cultural sites under siege in his native Syria. He is now an associate professor at Shawnee University in Portsmouth, Ohio.

“I left Syria when there was a dramatic increase in conflicts that turned a once civil society into a warzone,” Al-Azm says. “Since that time I have built up a network of connections within the country to document the increase of destruction there.”

Al-Azm, together with representatives of religious, educational, and cultural institutions, founded The Day After: Heritage Protection Initiative to “help to raise the profile in the global community to preserve the cultural heritage” of the war-torn nation. The Day After has received grants from the United Nations and the Smithsonian to carry out its work.

“It is clear the Islamic terrorists are profiting from the looting of religious and cultural sites,” Al-Azm says. “We are here to thwart them and to remind the world that they cannot succeed.”7


There is much that is both heartwarming and heartbreaking in this exhibit. Take, for example, a page on exhibit behind a Lucite case of a copy of the Qur’an dating back several thousands of years ago: its gilded pages shine as if they had been etched yesterday as they recount Muhammad’s journey from Mecca to the farthest mosque in Jerusalem. Positioned nearby is an equally vivid mosaic panel from the seventeenth century that includes images of the Prophet’s sandals to illustrate his wanderings.

Yet, what I find most arresting is a painting by one of the contemporary Syrian artists, Fateh al-Moudarres, completed in 1964.8 It shows Jesus with black hair and dark skin, a man who is a native of the Middle East, raising his goblet to bless those joining him at the table (page 85). I see al-Moudarres as an artist who has absorbed his nation’s ancestry, who has embraced the myths and the miracles. The vibrancy of his colors gives the viewer a sense of the heat and light of a nation where creative fertility has existed for centuries. And it speaks of the reverence for faith that is at the core of the endangered Syrian culture.

Painting of The Last Supper

Fateh al-Moudarres, The Last Supper, oil on canvas, 1964. The Atassi Foundation


Near the exit, space is reserved for visitors to express their written responses to the artwork by affixing slips of paper to a wall. The cards attest to the power of the images to move viewers.

“Syrian Lives Matter” is scrawled on one card. “We Are Syria!” is printed in block letters on another.

Leaving the Aga Khan Museum, I walk across its bright alabaster courtyard under a cloudless sky. In my mind’s eye, I revisit the images displayed behind Lucite and glass and reflect on how these contrasted with the heartrending images of destruction, captured by the contemporary artists who show us what is occurring in the country today.

The urgency of Omair Shaaban’s words come back to me as I make my way, unharmed and footloose, in a flourishing and welcoming Toronto.

“People here are suffering because we want freedom,” this young man from Aleppo wrote. “Before the war started, I joined a demonstration against [President] Assad’s regime—and I was arrested, beaten and detained in a tiny cell for five days for it. . . . I want to live in a free Aleppo. I want to stay here, where I was born, all my life. It’s my right.”


  1. Anne Barnard, “My Journey into Aleppo: Watching Moonscape of War Turn into a Functioning City,” The New York Times, November 8, 2016.
  2. Interview with Nasser Rabbat, January 2017.
  3. Omair Shaaban, “We Live in Aleppo. Here’s How We Survive,” The Washington Post, October 21, 2016.
  4. See Hilary Howard, “Satellite Images from Syria,” The New York Times, March 2, 2012.
  5. Interview with Marina Gabriel, January 2017.
  6. Interview with Michael D. Danti, January 2017.
  7. Interview with Amr Al-Azm, January 2017, The Day After: Heritage Protection Initiative.
  8. Fateh al-Moudarres (1922–1999) was born in Aleppo, studied in Rome and Paris, and became an influential teacher at the University of Damascus. He was considered an important leader in Syria’s modern and surrealist art movements, culling forms from Assyrian antiquity, as well as from Christian and Muslim symbolism.

Robert Israel is a Boston-based writer and editor whose last piece for the Bulletin, “Growing into Faith” (Summer/Autumn 2016), described coming of age among his exiled immigrant Russian-Jewish forebears.

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