Celebrating Syria’s Rich History in Toronto

2017 is already in full swing. Down south a new President has been sworn in and here in Toronto we are still waiting for the deep freeze. The semester has also resumed and this time around I am TAing for a new course on Egyptian myth and mythology, which will be enlightening. I had previously TAed a course on Egyptian religion, so this course’s focus will take me deeper into the realm between science and faith – at least from an Egyptian perspective.

Looking Back to Look Forward

The situation in Syria and the Near East has not fully abated as we started the year off already with an attack on a night club in Istanbul that killed more than 30 persons. The impact of the Russian advances in Syria has not yet been properly understood and even in Egypt several occurrences of troubles continue to persist. In Canada, we recently read news that it has been already a year for many Syrian refugees, who came to Canada in late 2015. Starting a new life here after fleeing the dire situations in their country must be a difficult task. Yet, I was very happy to see one of my PhD colleagues, who hails from Syria, welcoming her family members to Canada – she was separated from them for more than two years! Sure, we can say we are aware of these troubles and challenges these refugees must have gone through, but can we truly understand?

Syria’s History and the Aga Khan Museum

Now, in late October the Aga Khan Museum in northeastern Toronto opened a new exhibit on Syria: A Living History, on display until February 26, 2017. Overcoming huge piles of snow, my friend Taylor and I made it to the museum and explored this timely exhibit, which tells the rich and colourful story of the country’s history of more than five millennia in a thematic manner. Objects, grand or small, are on display and come from its own collections  as well as from the Louvre, the Met, the ROM, and the Staatliche Museen zu Berlin in Germany.

The Aga Khan Museum in Toronto
The Aga Khan Museum in Toronto

Syria’s Rich and Cultural Heritage on Display

Organized into themes ranging from Divinity in the beginning to Humans & Beasts, then Religion & State, and finally Home, the artifacts chosen range from all periods and reflect the varied cultural history of Syria. We saw one of the famous eye idols (ROM 959.91.50) that are found in great numbers at Tell Brak in north-eastern Syria – this one here comes from the so-called Eye Temple. While this votive object dates to over 5,000 years ago, we then looked at a panel from more than 4,000 years later. A panel shows two candle holders at the bottom and then the sandals of the prophet in the centre with a lamp hanging from the top. The name of Allah is visible on top of the nozzle and this panel was found in Damascus and dates to the AD 17th-18th centuries. The cultural and religious transformations are evident within the exhibit as one ivory inlay (ROM 961.13.5) shows just that. Carved in Syria during the 8th to 7th centuries BC, it shows an individual in traditional Egyptian hairdo and has one arm extended with wings – it is made in the Phoenician style and exhibits artistic influence from Egypt. For millennia, Syria witnessed groups of  Babylonians, Egyptians, the Mamluks, or Arabs call it home and each culture left their mark on this country. The story continues today as the exhibit finishes with works of art by modern Syrians. Among these is the exquisite painting of The Last Supper by Fateh Moudarras, who integrated surrealism into his works and is regarded as one of Syria’s celebrated modern artists. It goes on to show that the story of Syria is truly a “living history”.

In Close Contact with Aleppo’s Architecture

In one corner, the visitor could engage in a very interactive way with one architectural element, namely the well-known Aleppo Room. It comes originally from Aleppo and has been in the collection of the Museum für Islamische Kunst in Berlin (1.2862) since the early 20th century. Now, here, I took hold of a tablet loaded with Google’s Augmented Reality software Tango. Holding it and looking onto the screen, I moved it along the room, panning left and tilting up and down the bare walls of the corners. As I would do so, I would look on the screen, which would move along and show the decoration along the walls in this Aleppo Room. While the original was not in Toronto, I could experience the room as if I was in Berlin – all without having to travel for hours!

Gazing onto the main exhibit hall from up above
Gazing onto the main exhibit hall from up above

I also got into a discussion with a security guard, who kept watch over the exhibit. Photography unfortunately was not allowed. Graciously, however, the guard explained the background of this niche (which was installed within the museum’s wall), which came from the so-called ‘House of the Samaritan’ in Damascus. It was not the original niche, but instead a digital reconstruction. Niches such as this are normally representative of the Mamluk period (AD 13th to 16th century) and are known as a mihrab. Here, however, the owner, who was Jewish, veered away from tradition and inscribed excerpts from the bible within! The guard remarked that, while there are many religions, there is always one creator. The take away? We all can get along.

Lives of Syrian Refugees in Canada

When I look at the stories of Canadians grappling with the influx of Syrian refugees into our cities, this last thought is truly the case. Churches, private persons, and other organizations have taken the courageous step to sponsor a refugee and many wonderful people have devoted their time to work with these to welcome and help them with their transition in Canada. While my colleagues and I organized an event at the ROM in early December, we are happy to report to have raised some funds in support of a very important initiative: NMC-CESI. This initiative, founded by graduate students in my department, regularly brings together Syrian youth in weekly language and cultural exchange workshops.

A few panels were also set up by the ticketing booth to tell of the recent history of Cairo's Museum of Islamic Art
A few panels were also set up by the ticketing booth to tell of the recent history of Cairo’s Museum of Islamic Art

In looking forward to 2017, I am grateful that I live in a country, which welcomes the outside world with open arms. It is a privilege to live here, where people from different walks of life come together in harmony and express their culture without fear of persecution. Within this context, the Syria: a Living History exhibit at the Aga Khan is a timely offering as it celebrates the country’s vibrant and storied past. In the end, the exhibits holds lessons for us all.

Further Reading

Syria: a Living History

The exhibit is on display until February 26, 2017 and can be seen at the Aga Khan Museum at 77 Wynford Dr, Toronto, Ontario.

  • The museum  produced an illustrated companion book that highlights some of the objects on display. It is available for sale within the gift shop for around C$ 9 and can be found for FREE as a downloadable resource at the Aga Khan website.
    • Find the Companion Book for FREE here – LINK.

The museum has also welcomed many of the Syrian refugees into the museum free-of-charge to see their own culture and past in the exhibit. See here a recent news article announcing this initiative: LINK.

  • The museum has also produced a short video on the exhibit, which features stories by several of the Syrian refugees, who visited the collection in late 2016. You can watch it below:


This important initiative is led by Rasha el-Endari and Robert Martin and more information can be found on their website.

  • Crowd-funding campaign: Currently, they are hosting a fundraiser to raise funds for the initiative. Please consider supporting them – you may find the details here: LINK.
  • Positive Family Reunion: Rasha’s family also arrived in Canada only a short while ago and her reunion has been featured in the CBC on this great news.

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