Penn Museum exhibit sheds light on war-torn cultures in Iraq and Syria

Dubbed the “cradle of civilization,” the land that encompasses present-day Syria and Iraq has witnessed the beginning of agriculture, the invention of writing, and the foundation of the first cities and states. The region’s rich cultural heritage, with a history that spans millennia, is truly that of the world.

But the past decade of bloody conflict in the countries has caused devastating destruction. War has left hundreds of thousands of Syrians and Iraqis dead, and tens of millions displaced. Ancient cities like Aleppo are being destroyed; bombs have been dropped by the Syrian air force, ISIS has demolished buildings and objects it deems idolatrous, and historic items have been stolen and sold in the illicit antiquities trade.

What was once an ancient oasis—people took pride in living among their countries’ historic ruins—is suffering unimaginable damage.

A new special exhibition at the Penn Museum, titled “Cultures in the Crossfire: Stories from Syria and Iraq,” sheds light on the heartbreaking state of the war-torn region, while also emphasizing the richness of the countries’ cultural heritage—and the importance of preserving it.

“If people are affected by what they hear in the news about the wars in Syria and Iraq, they should come see the exhibition,” says Syrian-born archaeologist Salam Al Kuntar, a lead curator of the exhibit. “They should come and learn more, really put what’s happening into context, and gain a different perspective. This is much different than what people see on television.”

The exhibition, co-curated by Penn associate professor of anthropology Lauren Ristvet, showcases more than 50 objects from the Museum’s Near East and Mediterranean collections, a variety of Arabic manuscripts from Penn Libraries, and seven contemporary artworks from Syrian artist Issam Kourbaj. Viewers can take a captivating journey through the region’s ancient past, exploring contributions to knowledge, living traditions, cultural diversity, areas of targeted destruction, the refugee crisis, and a hopeful future.

“There are a lot of misconceptions about Syria and Iraq,” says Al Kuntar, a research fellow at the Museum. “We really wanted to convey that these places are not dark places, or places of just violence and destruction.”

The exhibition, on view through next year, also intertwines the important work of the Penn Cultural Heritage Center, which, thanks to the efforts of Al Kuntar, as well as Brian Daniels and Richard Leventhal, has been collaborating with groups in the Middle East to help combat the loss of irreplaceable cultural heritage. This work is mostly displayed in the exhibit via documentary clips.

“It shows our response to the destruction,” says Al Kuntar. “We are not passive; we are proactive.”

The exhibition’s opening reception at the beginning of April drew about 80 refugees to the Museum. The day, boasting talks and music, was a celebration of Syrian and Iraqi culture.

“The exhibit talks about the tragedy that probably was the reason they became refugees,” Al Kuntar says. “They feel the crisis, they can identify with the loss. They long for these places and appreciate them. And this exhibit, in return, shows their new home, Philadelphia, cares about them and their culture, too.”

Keep an eye on the Museum’s website for upcoming events related to “Cultures in the Crossfire,” including workshops, concerts, and conferences. Also, stop by the recently evolved Artifact Lab, adjacent to the exhibit, which allows guests to see artifacts, including objects from the Middle East, in various stages of conservation.

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