© The Abou Adal collection, Beirut | Yûsuf al-Musawwir, Virgin Hodegetria surrounded by saints (Aleppo, Syria, 1650)
by Marc DAOU
In a landmark exhibition, the Arab World Institute (IMA) in Paris is showcasing works, frescoes and scripts recounting the 2,000-year history of Christians in the Middle East – a heritage under threat in a region scarred by war and persecution.
The exhibition, “Oriental Christians: 2,000 Years of History”, was inaugurated by French President Emmanuel Macron and his Lebanese counterpart Michel Aoun at the IMA in central Paris on Monday, and will run until January 14. With Christian communities in the Middle East facing mounting threats, the show offers a timely reminder of the hardships they endure in the cradle of Christianity.
But it’s not just contemporary conflicts that have made Oriental Christians stand out. As the exhibition sets out to prove, their multi-faceted culture, rich heritage and long history have been instrumental in shaping the Middle East (Egypt, Jordan, Iraq, Lebanon, Syria, Israel and the Palestinian territories) of today.
The exhibition is presented in a walk-through fashion and aims to shed light on the role Christianity has played throughout pivotal periods in history. These include the establishment of the first churches, the Muslim conquest, the development of Catholic and Protestant missions, the Christians’ contribution to the nahda (the Arab renaissance), and the impact on cultural and political developments in the 20th and 21st centuries. The exhibition also focuses on what IMA describes as “the contemporary vitality of the Christian communities in the Arab world”.
On display are several spectacular works, including manuscripts, frescoes, liturgical objects, steles, gospels and mosaics. Some of have never been exhibited in Europe before, such as a 13th century Lebanese-made fresco of the Madonna and the Child and some rare Syriac Orthodox manuscripts.
A world first
“IMA’s mission is to shed light on the various aspects of cultures and beliefs present in the Arab world, and I realised there had never been an exhibition of this magnitude devoted to Christians in the Middle East before,” Jack Lang, a former French culture minister and now president of the IMA, told FRANCE 24.
“Because our role is also to fill gaps in knowledge, small and large, I decided with our teams here at the institute to organise an event to show the exceptional cultural wealth of Christianity in the Middle East,” Lang added, describing the exhibition as a “world first, because of the scale and originality of the works on show.”
The Paris exhibition is unique in that it brings together works lent by Western museums and a wealth of material coming from the Middle East. Organisers say this has helped them better represent the rich culture and history of Christian communities – Coptic Christians, Maronites, Syriacs, Catholics and Orthodox Christians – still living in the region.
In setting up the show, IMA reached out to the Paris-based Christian charity “l’Oeuvre d’Orient”, which is under the protection of the archbishop of Paris and has maintained strong relations with the majority of the Christian denominations present in the Middle East for more than 160 years.
“For us, it was absolutely essential that we, in Paris and in France, are reminded of this rich history and heritage, as well as the links our country has with these Christian communities, also historically,” said Father Pascal Gollnisch, director-general of the Œuvre d’Orient. “This region is the birthplace of Christianity and, during these troubled times, it is important to remember this history and how we are linked to it.”
The exhibition ends on a rather symbolic note, with present-day portraits and photographs of Christians living and practising their faith in the Middle East. Organisers say the aim is to demonstrate that despite the many hardships they face, these Christian communities still maintain a vital and dynamic presence in the region.