Chrétiens d’Orient, 2000 Ans d’Histoire: A Major Exhibit in France
I spent over an hour there, in that small rotunda, about twenty feet across. Display cases of manuscripts in Coptic, Syriac, Arabic, and Armenian encircled me, the only one of the museum’s patrons to linger so long in that spot. The rest of the exhibit, outside this temporary cloister, was equally worthy of attentive study, but this room captured my senses and held me still. It was the music, played on a loop, that transfixed me: the Akathist hymn, the ancient prayer about the life of the Virgin Mary, resounded in Armenian, in Arabic, in Greek, in Syriac, and in Coptic. Choirs from each tradition sang their version of the hymn, a shared patrimony that emerged from Syria to inspire Orthodox Christian worship everywhere. On the wall near the entrance flashed full-size, high-resolution renderings of frescoes from medieval churches in Lebanon. This installation was titled “Languages and Liturgy,” and it certainly felt liturgical to the senses. Only the incense was missing.
I needed the whole hour not only for the manuscripts, but also for the monumental icon of the Akathist hymn on display. Attributed to Youssef al-Musawwir of Aleppo, painted between 1650-67, and part of the famed collection of Georges Antaki, the icon’s panels depict the twenty-four strophes of the hymn, surrounding a central image of King David. The panels are labeled in Greek, while David holds a phylactery with text in Arabic. Though the Akathist is attributed to Romanos the Melodist, the icon portrays the Psalmist David as a divine guarantor of the icon’s revelatory authority about the Virgin Mary. And just as the Theotokos is central to Orthodox Christian prayer around the world, so also is she to this rotunda, in a small museum in northern France.
A few rooms away is another, very different cycle of paintings about a young girl caught between two worlds: on the wall hang original manuscripts from a recent graphic novel, Coquelicots d’Irak, by Brigitte Findakly and Lewis Trondheim. The autobiographical book, a surprise success in France and now published in English as Poppies of Iraq, weaves vignettes of family, culture, and religion from a Christian girl’s childhood in Iraq with grown-up reflections about her back-and-forth identity between Iraq and France. She was raised by an Orthodox Iraqi father and a French Catholic mother, learned the Quran in public school, and received books in the mail with references to Israel torn out. She recounts memories of primary school assignments about nationalizing Iraqi oil fields, the shifting regulations about women’s dress under different political regimes, and joyful family picnic trips to the archaeological site of Nimrud.
Family photos are interspersed with the painted panels, such as one from that famous site outside Mosul, destroyed in 2015 by Daesh (the so-called Islamic State). “If my father had known those winged lions would be destroyed one day,” she writes, “I’m sure he would have framed the shot differently.” In this room there is no music, but rather sounds of silence, fitting for the portion of the museum emphasizing “Exile and Memory” among Orthodox Christians in the twentieth century. The stories on display here—of Armenian genocide, of Christian Palestinians erased from history, of Iraqi manuscripts buried and exhumed—still need to be told and retold, in whatever forms help us to hear.
Juxtaposing these two spaces—and the disparate graphic novels that manifest their themes—demonstrates both the scope and the poignancy of the expertly curated exhibit, “Chrétiens d’Orient, 2000 Ans d’Histoire,” which is hosted by the MUba Eugène Leroy (Musée Beaux Arts) in Tourcoing, France through June 11 (following an initial exhibit at the Institut du Monde Arabe in Paris). Showcasing over 300 objects from Iraq, Syria, Palestine, Israel, Lebanon, Egypt, and Armenia, along with loans from museums and private collections in Germany, Italy, the United States, and elsewhere, the show ambitiously synthesizes the joys and sorrows, the hopes and fears, of the diverse worlds of eastern Christians.
The designed walk-through of the exhibit is roughly chronological, ranging from portions of dilapidated third-century church walls from Dura-Europos, Syria, up to contemporary drone video of the Mar Mattai monastery in Kurdistan. While the technology employed to bookend the exhibit differs, both the beginning and the end narrate one of the clear curatorial themes: the threat of persecution or, in the words of the exhibit, “patrimony in danger.” The Dura-Europos church was partially buried (and thus partially preserved) during a war between Romans and Sasanians around the time of the Decian persecution, and monks at today’s Mar Mattai monastery have recently looked upon battles with Daesh in the Nineveh plain below. Even the very periodization of Christian history chosen by the curators makes clear the emphasis: a video chronology at the exhibit’s beginning labels the years 64-324—a period of substantial theological and ecclesial development, often under salutary conditions—with the grim title, “Période des Persécutions.”
While persecution of the early Christian churches was probably more sporadic and focused than it was ubiquitous, the curators are not incorrect to highlight this theme at the outset, since it foreshadows a dominant concern of Christians in the Middle East today. One ancient response to a dangerous world was to flee and establish alternative communities of holiness. Thus the eastern Christian charisms of asceticism and monasticism occupy much of the premodern portion of the exhibit.
Symeon Stylites, the Syrian ‘stylite’ saint who lived atop a pillar in the desert, provides the paradigm of solo virtuosic ascetic holiness, and viewers encounter him through multiple media: a 5th-6th c. stele representing his eponymous pillar and ladder, a 17th-c. icon, a scale model of the pilgrimage complex surrounding the remains of his pillar, and a video loop of an excerpt from the Mexican biopic, Simón del desierto (1965). The communal form of monasticism had origins in Egypt, which is represented most strikingly by a stele of Shenoute (5th c.), the leader of a monastic federation, and also a fully intact tunic and hood (8th-10th c.), belonging to a priest named Kholti from the monastery at Naqlun, according to the Coptic inscription on its sleeve.
Not all ascetics and monks decided to live as such by their own volition. Thanks to the aridity of the Egyptian desert, a corpus of textual records survives that documents the dedication of child oblates by their parents. The exhibit includes one of the best preserved papyri in this genre, from the ancient monastery of Phoibammon and dated between 770-80. The document is written in Coptic, but this was also the time of transition to Arabic language and Muslim rule in Egypt. It is possible that the unpreserved beginning of the papyrus carried a pro forma Muslim blessing, prior to the decidedly Coptic Christian content below, as evidenced by other papyri from that era. For example, an inheritance settlement from 738 (P.KRU 38) retains a Greek-language version of the Bismillah protocol (“in the name [of God] the compassionate, [the merciful]; there is no God [but God alone;] Muhammad [is the messenger of God],” but then continues the document with a standard Christian invocation in Coptic (“+ In the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Ghost, consubstantial Trinity”).
Turning to the next part of the room, the viewer sees a large example of interaction between the early Arabic language and Christian self-presentation: a well-preserved church mosaic pavement from Mount Nebo, Jordan (535-6), which includes the Arabic “bi-salam” (“in peace”). Indeed, the curators portray the interrelationship between Christianity and Islam in the late ancient and medieval eras in a mostly positive light, by emphasizing the “hybrid art” of Syrian and Egyptian artifacts from the 13th and 14th centuries. An Egyptian book of the Gospels in Arabic, for instance, uses calligraphy of striking formal similarity to that of the Quran, while an ornately decorated glass bottle was “undoubtedly the work of a Muslim artisan working for a Christian client.” The ornaments and boundaries of the work come “from an Islamic repertoire,” while the central narrative elements come from Christian hagiography.
The curators do not emphasize violent encounters between Christians and Muslims, at least not those prior to the 20th century. The Crusades, which often loom large over the periodization of Christian history, are reduced to one summary text and two objects, positioned at a transition between two rooms. The layout of the exhibit does not encourage the viewer to spend much time with that era, but rather to move past it toward the Ottoman era. To aid the transition to modern Christianity, a video projection of scrolling text moves along an entire wall, fifteen feet wide by ten feet high. Alternatively in Greek, Syriac, Arabic, and French, the text runs by: “Blessed are the peacemakers, for they shall be called sons of God.” Those who have ears to hear, let them hear the message of the curators.
Perhaps the most illustrious peacemaker in the Christian tradition is St. Francis of Assisi, whose order of Franciscans features in an object around the corner: an Arabic document dated to October 4, 1397, in which the Sultan Ez-Zaher Barkuk permits the Franciscans to rebuild the Church of the Holy Sepulchre.
Several other original documents that formalize relationships between Christians and Muslim rulers round out this section, but their calligraphy soon recedes to the background, as the era of movable-type printing dawns. One case houses a polyglot Bible from 1695 with several Semitic languages alongside—more stunningly—various typesets for Coptic, Syriac, and Arabic from 16th-c. Rome.
This portion of the exhibit makes plain the linguistic and regional diversity on display throughout the whole. The Ottoman Empire contained multitudes, a bazaar of peoples so fascinating to newcomers that some innovative merchants tried to show it off to the Western world. In the period leading up to World War I—the era of Mark Twain’s The Innocents Abroad, among other voyeuristic travels to the Middle East—shops such as “Tarazi & Sons” in Beirut gathered a kind of ‘cabinet of curiosities’ from the region. The displayed photographs of their store (still in existence today as “Maison Tarazi”) exude a well-intentioned and benign Orientalism; in an era that was modern in many sensibilities but preceded widespread photography and telecommunication, their collection made visible many cultural products unavailable to Western eyes. The eastern gaze seemed, for a while, to be innocently curious.
But World War I drew lines in the sand, lines which became inscribed on maps. And as this exhibit transitions toward the 20th century, the curators demonstrate how the diverse forms of eastern Christianity became solidified—with mostly bad consequences—into well-defined and bounded subjects of modern nation-states.
The curators rightly assumed that most viewers would know the outlines of the 20th-century nationalist narratives in the Middle East: the origins of the modern boundaries of Lebanon, Syria, Iraq, Armenia, Israel, Palestine, and Egypt. They fill in the color of those stories with microhistories of various individuals and groups from these regions. Over here is a document from a Syrian archdiocese accounting for loss of life and property during the war. Over there is an aerial photograph of the Armenian refugee camp at Port-Said, Egypt, in 1916. Everywhere is the story of exile, more than biblical in its proportions.
Some eastern Christian communities under threat have found hope in the preservation of precious symbols of their patrimony. Several video installations near the end of the exhibit dramatize this experience of reclaimed holiness. Recent drone video of the Iraqi monastery of Mar Mattai testifies to the resiliency of Christian monastic institutions amid war. A video of the 1950 exhumation of St. Charbel Makhlouf in Lebanon shows how the incorruptible body of a local saint can give hope to a minority community in a period of regional turmoil.
A third video captures the bittersweet exuberance of minor victories, the muted but real joy of outwitting an enemy under conditions of extreme duress. In 2014-15 Daesh occupied and partially destroyed the historic monastery of Mar Behnam, a Syriac Catholic community in northern Iraq. Christian symbolism was destroyed or removed; inscriptions in Aramaic and Syriac were defaced. But the video installation shows a moment of redemption from 2016, after the monastery was recaptured by Iraqi security forces: the monks of Mar Behnam had concealed their most precious Syriac manuscripts in large cans and hidden them in a storage closet behind a hastily constructed false wall, under a staircase. The video recorded their reopening of that closet, a miniature resurrection from a sealed tomb.
Many of these final installations express the struggle and paradox of how Christian life might carry on under threat and amid ruins. A Coptic couple chooses to have their wedding photograph taken in front of smoldering rubble in Cairo. An Iraqi Christian poses with his military rifle in front of a mural of St. George. But the series that most affected me was “Gaza 2015,” by photographer Serge Negre. In the modern West, the words ‘Christian’ and ‘Gaza’ sound dissonant to most people, since stories of Jewish-Muslim strife there have occupied our attention for as long as ‘the Gaza strip’ has been a geopolitical designation. But Negre’s pictures illuminate the quotidian aspects of ongoing Christian life in Gaza, as in a simple photo of children preparing for Sunday Mass.
On second thought, perhaps nothing is simple about being a Christian in Gaza. An arresting, large-scale photograph finds three schoolboys—are they posing or candid?—perched atop some recently discovered ruins in Gaza. One’s backpack hangs unzipped on this, a normal day. The pillars and stones, two inscribed with crosses, are larger than the boys are, just as the Eastern Christian traditions on which they stand are larger than these boys can yet imagine. Unanswered questions emanate from the overturned earth: Was this ancient church discovered through an accident or an explosion? Through modern development of the land? Do these boys have a sense of their Christian heritage on this very spot? What does their future hold? Will they too become part of the flight of Christians from the region?
The boy on the right seems to grasp the significance intuitively. With his hand on the ruins of the pillar, like a modern-day stylite, he stands his ground defiantly. He looks straight into the heart of the camera’s eye. He’s not leaving.
Michael Peppard is associate professor of theology at Fordham University. His most recent book is The World’s Oldest Church: Bible, Art, and Ritual at Dura-Europos, Syria.
Public Orthodoxy seeks to promote conversation by providing a forum for diverse perspectives on contemporary issues related to Orthodox Christianity. The positions expressed in this essay are solely the author’s and do not necessarily represent the views of the editors or the Orthodox Christian Studies Center.