A new exhibit opened in Paris on September 26th, highlighting the spread of Christianity from Jerusalem throughout the Middle East. Titled “Chrétiens d’Orient. 2000 ans d’histoire,” the exhibit at the Institut du Monde Arabe, or IMA (Institute of the Arab World) will run until January 14, 2018. It celebrates the importance of Eastern Christians in the political, cultural, social, and religious development of regions throughout the world.
The exhibit opened in the presence of French President Emmanuel Macron and is part of the events celebrating the 30th anniversary of the Institute du Monde Arabe at the end of 2017, an institute focused on offering an enriched and better knowledge of the Arab world in the West.
A UNIQUE EXHIBIT
The event is “a unique exhibit,” wrote Jack Lang, director of the IMA. There are about 300 objects, some of which are in Europe for the first time. They include precious manuscripts, icons, mosaics, and third-century frescoes from the Domus Ecclesiae of Doura Europos – the earliest identified Christian house church, in Syria, and they come from the largest museums in the world – the Vatican Museums, the Louvre, the British Museum, etc. They highlight the two-thousand-year history of many of the Christian communities in the East: Coptics, Greeks, Assyrian-Chaldeans, Syriacs, Armenians and Maronites. “A plural history” that developed between the Mediterranean, the Euphrates, the Nile, the Bosphorus through the Roman, Byzantine, Muslim, Ottoman, and Arab era until the national movements. Among them are nine objects from the Custody’s Terra Sancta Museum, including the splendid model of the Holy Sepulcher made out of wood and mother-of-pearl, a funeral inscription, a mother of pearl Mater Dolorosa and a register from 1616.
It will be an “immersion into the heart of the cultures that participate in the diversity of our contemporary world and that plunge into our history,” said Gérald Damain, mayor of the city of Tourcoing, who will host the same exhibit from February 17 to June 5, 2018, at the MUba Eugène Leroy.
The Exhibit and Objects on Display
The first part will feature the first through sixth centuries and will focus on evangelization, the first Christian communities and their flourishing, the councils, the origins of the Eastern churches, monasticism and pilgrimages. Three beautiful sixth-century Byzantine capitals from the Terra Sancta Museum will highlight the beauty of Christian architecture, developed with the spread of ecclesiastical buildings starting in the age of Constantine.
The second part begins in the seventh century and goes all the way to the fourteenth century. It features topics related to the Eastern churches after the Arab conquest, the various intellectual, artistic and cultural interactions, the development of the Arabic language in the liturgy, finally reaching the Crusader period and beyond. Among the pieces provided by the Custody of the Holy Land, there is a precious sixth-century figurative mosaic from Mount Nebo in Jordan (Khirbat al-Mukhayyat, St. George’s Church). This would represent the only Arabic pre-Islamic inscription known in Syria-Palestine in a “bi-salam” funeral formula combined with the name of the deceased archdeacon “Saola,” written in Greek on the right hand side.
The third part features the fifteenth through twentieth centuries and delves into the idea of a unified Arab world under the Ottoman Empire and into the intricate relationship between the “sublime door,” the courts and the diplomats from Europe and the Eastern Churches (Catholic and Orthodox), aimed at the protection of the Holy Places. On this topic, the Terra Sancta Museum will display two decrees: One is from 1397 by the Sultan Mammeluq al-Malik al-Zaher Barquq, which allowed the “Religious Franks” to reconstruct a part of the Holy Sepulcher that had fallen. Another decree from 1561, issued by Suleiman the Magnificent, established the new residence of the Franciscans in the Georgian Monastery of St. Savior in Jerusalem after Mount Zion was abandoned. Some of the topics featured in this section include the splendid artistic renewal of icons starting in the seventeenth century from Aleppo to Beirut, Jerusalem, Damascus and Cairo.
MEMORY AND THE FUTURE
The last part, in the twentieth through twenty-first centuries, features works in light of the Arab revival, the fall of the Ottoman Empire, exile and immigration, focusing on the concept of the “memory” of a heritage that has been passed on to this day, even outside of the original geographic areas. A contemporary photographic exhibit with intimate scenes from the daily life of Christians from six Arab countries (Egypt, Jordan, Syria, Palestine, Iraq, Lebanon) will close the exhibit.
However, the exhibit is not only aimed at the preservation of a tangible and intangible cultural heritage, which is often forgotten or threatened by the new religious radicalism spreading in the Middle East, but it is also a reflection on the concept of diversity and multiculturalism, a very current theme in Europe. “This event emphasizes and enhances the, albeit small, Christian presence among the Arab world in the West,” said Br. Stéphane Milovitch, who heads up the Cultural Heritage Office of the Custody of the Holy Land. Faced with the phenomenon of immigration, we too often focus on Islam, but perhaps we should consider the contribution that many Christians in the East can make, with their thousand-year history and great cultural heritage, for the building of a new Europe.
Corrado Scardigno – Terra Sancta Museum