The accomplishments of ancient Mesopotamian society are being celebrated in a new Toronto exhibit, but the showcase is also shining a light on a contemporary crisis: the looting and destruction of artifacts, architecture and archeological sites in Syria.
The Royal Ontario Museum is unveiling Mesopotamia: Inventing Our World this weekend, the sole Canadian venue of the show's international tour.
The exhibition explores more than 3,000 years of the ancient society's story through more than 180 priceless artifacts drawn from the vast collection of the British Museum and bolstered by items from the ROM and museums in Chicago, Philadelphia and Detroit. The ROM's main exhibit has a sister show called Catastrophe, which delves into the looting of Baghdad's Iraq Museum beginning in April 2003.
Ancient Mesopotamia — encompassing present-day Iraq, northeastern Syria and southeastern Turkey — "is one of the biggest cradles of civilization," said Clemens Reichel, ROM's associate curator for the ancient Near East and professor of Mesopotamian archeology at the University of Toronto.
The teams developing the two exhibits felt strongly about not just exploring the area's past, but also "its present-day challenges," he told CBC News.
Starting in 2003, 15,000 artifacts were stolen from Iraq "and many other terrible things happened in that country — to archeological sites, to its cultural heritage — and we really felt that this point should be brought across in our exhibits. We shouldn't just talk about the past, we should talk about the present as well."
Amid the recent rise in violence in Syria, UNESCO revealed on Thursday that six world heritage sites in the war-ravaged country are in "imminent danger" and need safeguarding from the looting and destruction of valuable artifacts and delicate, ancient sites.
In Iraq a decade ago, museum officials anticipated the possibility of looting and were able to stow away or protect some important treasures. The same is not true for Syria today, Reichel says.
"Syria has surprisingly not caught that much attention in international press, unlike in Iraq.... The situation in Syria is potentially even worse than Iraq," he said.
"We cannot send in an army to stop this. What we can do at home to prevent this kind of looting is by not buying into it. It's people who buy [artifacts without provenance] that encourage this looting. If there's no market, then this inevitably will stop, eventually."
Mesopotamia: Inventing Our World opens to the public Saturday and runs until Jan. 5, 2014.