Penn Museum exhibit illustrates rich, complex history of Syria and Iraq

A mortuary portrait of Yedi’at from Syria, Palmyra in the 1st-2nd centuries on display in a new exhibition titled “Cultures in the Crossfire: Stories from Syria and Iraq” at the Penn Museum in Philadelphia, PA on April 7, 2017.

To the great majority of Americans, the bloody Syrian civil war is an unending tableau of human suffering.

Since its inception in 2011, with the onset of protests against the regime of Bashar al-Assad, the conflict has convulsed the country, spilled over into Iraq, and served as an opening for terror groups to subjugate and brutalize local populations.

 More than 400,000 people have been killed, while 12 million have been displaced, creating a torrent of refugees seeking entry into Europe, taking the perilous journey across the Mediterranean or over the Balkans.

But its other insidious result has been the steady destruction of an ancient culture that ties directly to the modern West and carries with it some of the world’s great traditions.

It was in recognition of this great harm that the Penn Museum at the University of Pennsylvania opened a new exhibit Saturday that seeks to illustrate the rich and complex culture that has emerged over thousands of years in Syria and Iraq. It draws from a deep collection of Near East artifacts, sculpture, tools, household objects, and manuscripts, all of it interspersed with newly created works by the Syrian artist Issam Kourbaj.

With terror groups systematically launched on a campaign to destroy cultural sites that conflict with their ideology, the exhibition served as a stark warning of what might be lost.

“This material is not only for the people from the Near East, but for us, too,” said museum director Julian Siggers. “Here we see the first cities. We have a historical connection [to the region]. It is a pretty desperate story, but it also is one of hope. The hope is the resilience of the people.”

One point that the curators are trying to make is that the region has an overlay of religions and cultures -- Sunni Arabs, Shiites, Christians, Jews, Kurds, and Turkmen, to name just a few. Many of their most important cultural sites, as in the Syrian city of Palmyra, are being systematically destroyed.

 One tradition fed off another, curator Lauren Ristvet pointed out, noting that the exhibition included a 12th-century Arabic translation of the Greek mathematician Euclid. Many of the original texts of Greek and Roman thinkers were saved after the fall of Rome and the ensuing destruction, Ristvet said, because they had been translated into Arabic and preserved.

Kourbaj, the artist-in-residence at Cambridge University, created his works specifically for the Penn exhibit. In video, sculpture, and other media, Kourbaj said he is trying to interpret and react to the artifacts and the conflict. So in one work he arranges canceled travel documents and other travel paraphernalia next to an ancient stamp for sealing letters, in a separate display case. The most important document for many residents of the Fertile Crescent these days is a ticket out of the region -- and that is usually unattainable.

Kourbaj, who grew up in southern Syria and is still in touch with family members there, is not terribly optimistic about the future of the region.

“There is no such thing as a fix anymore,” he said. “It is almost like it has become far too complex to find one medicine. There is no one tablet that you can take and the Syrian crisis is done.”