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Syrian exhibit at Aga Khan Museum aims to give 'glimmer of hope for the future'

A new exhibition about Syria at the Aga Khan Museum in Toronto offers a glimpse of 5,000 years of art and artifacts, highlighting a rich and diverse heritage, while giving hope to the survivors of a brutal civil war that their culture will live on.

Aga Khan Museum hosts 1st major showcase spotlighting Syria since civil war began

Prof. Nasser Rabbat shows some of the rare artifacts on display as part of the exhibit Syria: A Living History, at the Aga Khan Museum in Toronto. (CBC)

There's much more to Syria than what we see in the daily news about violent conflict and refugees, say organizers of a new museum show.

Syria: A Living History, opening Saturday at the Aga Khan Museum in Toronto, includes 48 works from the past 5,000 years to highlight that country's multicultural legacy and its important contributions to world heritage.

This 5,000-year-old carved eye idol is an example of the cultural heritage of Syria that is threatened by the civil war. (Brian Boyle/ROM/Aga Khan Museum)

Syrian-born Nasser Rabbat, who co-curated the exhibition and is a professor in the Aga Khan program of Islamic art and architecture at MIT in Cambridge, Mass., says the show conveys "the hope for Syria to return to being a normal country, a prosperous country contributing to world culture that it has done for thousands of years."

While he says that his "heart bleeds" for his native country and the terrible destruction there of human lives along with architecture and artifacts, his greater concern is for "the spirit of the human beings."

A stone slab (or stele) with the depiction of a prayer, dates from the 10th to ninth centuries BC. Co-curator Nasser Rabbat says, 'What's important to be preserved or perhaps actually to be revived is the spirit of belonging to Syria.' (Vorderasiatisches Museum/Aga Khan Museum)

"Because buildings are the product of humans, and I am much more interested in restoring the hope, the pride, the humanism to the Syrians to be able to recreate anew."  

Among the ancient objects on view:

  • An eye idol believed to be an offering for protection against the evil eye, from Tell Brak in northeastern Syria that was carved around 3200 BC. 
  • A small stone slab with a prayer carved into it from 10th century BC;
  • A copper incense burner from the 13th century.

The show includes a 3D virtual reality experience on a computer tablet where viewers can "step inside" a 17th-century Aleppo room. 

There are also six works of art from contemporary Syrian artists, including a digital reproduction of Tammam Azzam's Freedom Graffiti that shows Gustav Klimt's famous painting The Kiss superimposed onto a bombed Syrian building. It drew worldwide attention after the artist posted it on Facebook.

(Tanmam Azzam/Ihab Aljaby)

During the exhibition, visitors to the gallery can write a message on a blank card and clip it to the wall showing Azzam's artwork.

Rabbat wants this work, the final one visitors will see, to leave people with a message of hope.

"One can remember that this is just a destructive episode, and we can go back, or hopefully we can go back, to that train of creativity that has marked the history of the country."

A glass mosaic bowl, probably from Homs, Syria, 25 BC to AD 25, on loan from the Metropolitan Museum of Art, is one of the 48 works from Syria's rich cultural heritage. (Metropolitan Museum of Art/Aga Khan Museum)

"No claim whatsoever that this show is going to be able to alleviate the pain of the refugees, of the people who are being killed in the bombardments, of the people who are being executed — all of these are extreme violent acts that we have absolutely no way to stop as museologists and art historians and historians, but what we are actually doing is to weave from the history of Syria a glimmer of hope for the future."

Politicians attend preview

At an advance reception for the exhibition, among those taking in the show were Heritage Minister Mélanie Joly, Immigration Minister John McCallum and some recent arrivals from Syria. 

Heritage Minister Melanie Joly (centre) and Immigration Minister John McCallum attend a preview of the exhibit at the Aga Khan Museum. (CBC)

Rola Mustafa, who came to Canada a year ago and now helps newer Syrian refugees settle here, felt the show will help her share the accomplishments of her country's past.

"People in Toronto will be able to come and see for themselves and get to know the culture and the civilization of Syria," she said.

Kahtan Alizouki, who has been in Canada for five years, noted that while "there are people at risk every day, Syrian artifacts are quite important for saving the memories of those people."

Aga Khan Museum director and CEO Henry Kim said in a statement, "We hope that a better appreciation of Syria's priceless contributions to the world's heritage over five millennia will add urgency to the efforts to bring about peace and reconciliation in that country." 

With Canada now spearheading a new diplomatic effort to end the civil war there, for the people of Syria and for those who are struck by the tragic loss of life and culture, that outcome can't come soon enough.

Syria: A Living History is on display at the Aga Khan Museum in Toronto until Feb. 16, 2017