How the ibis became a symbol of human dominance and tragedy in Syria and the world

At the March Meeting in Sharjah, Syrian-Armenian artist Hrair Sarkissian explained the story of the bird and its relevance to the region

Hrair Sarkissian
Final Flight, 2018
Mixed media
10 1/4 x 2 3/8 x 2 inches
Courtesy of the Artist

Project Hrair and Tate Modern (Vasilis Oikonomopoulus).
Northern Bald Ibis (extinct in Palmyra/Syria in the 30s and reappeared again in 2002 and disappeared again during the war, and were seen the last time in 2010).
Skull scan in Madrid (Macro Photogrammetry but it may also require a mix of data - tbc) and reproduction of 7 pieces to mount on metal poles.
3D printing in-house afterward with material to be defined with client (aim is to look like bone, as real as possible)
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Hrair Sarkissian’s (2018-2019) installation Final Flight comprises seven hand-painted model skulls of the northern bald ibis.

It explores the bird’s former migration trail between Palmyra in Syria and Ethiopia, drawing a comparison with the Syrian refugee crisis. It also alludes to the bird’s decline from a figure of potent symbolism to a casualty of war and the human dominance on the environment.

Final Flight is essentially a story about a bird,” Sarkissian said during a panel titled The Environment, Climate and Global Warming, and the Anthropocene on Sunday at the March Meeting in Sharjah, which is centred on issues of post-colonialism. “But when reading it carefully, it has historical, religious, ecological and geopolitical elements.”

The ibis has had significant cultural ties to the region for centuries. With its downward-curving beak, the bird was often featured in hieroglyphs and was viewed in ancient Egypt as a symbol of wisdom and a herald of the annual rising of the Nile.

Early Muslims, on the other hand, believed the migrating birds served as guides for pilgrims during their Hajj to Makkah.

The ibis was once widespread in the region, but is now on the brink of extinction, with once-thriving populations in the Middle East almost completely decimated.

Migration Route Map
Hrair Sarkissian
Final Flight, 2018
Mixed media
10 1/4 x 2 3/8 x 2 inches
Courtesy of the Artist

Metal surface showing the Ibis migration itinerary shown with LED lights (fixed to the back of a water jet cut sheet of metal - brass/aluminium/steel). Light needs to be boxed at the back of the metal surface to keep it contained

“The northern bald ibis has been on the critically endangered red list of the IUCN (International Union for Conservation of Nature) since 1994,” Sarkissian said. “The decline of this bird species from its original breeding range is part of a large wave of biodiversity loss that has occurred in the region in the past 30 to 40 years, at a time when several other species of iconic animals and plants became extinct.”

The ibis had not been seen in Syria since the 1930s. The last known wild colony was located in southern Anatolia and was officially declared extinct in 1989.

“So you can imagine the disbelief of the young Italian ornithologist Gianluca Serra [when he] went to the Syrian desert near Palmyra in the early 2000s and local Bedouins told him a story about a bird he was not expecting.”

Serra and the local Bedouins managed to trace a small colony in the Syrian desert. It comprised only seven birds but presented a new-found hope for the restoration of the species’ presence in the region.

Hrair Sarkissian. Courtesy Hrair Sarkissian

“There were two choices,” Sarkissian said. “Keep the colony a secret or make sure they get valued and protected locally. They chose this last one, and the tiny new colony was intensively studied and protected with support of the Syrian government.”

There is, however, one problem when protecting a long range migratory bird species such as the northern bald ibis. They travel long distances and spend winter elsewhere.

“For a protection plan to work, there needs to be protection on the other end, and also the route. It took time to figure out exactly what that route was and where the birds ended up,” Sarkissian said. “The black flocks flying in formation over the desert horizon would travel back and forth twice a year, crossing seven countries.”

In 2011, the war broke out in Syria, creating a sudden major restraint on the Palmyra conservation programme
Hrair Sarkissian, artist

Starting from Palmyra, in July, they would fly southward for several days along western Saudi Arabia before taking a break. Then they would move to Yemen, continuing their flight over the Bab el-Mandeb Strait, crossing into Djibouti and Eritrea until they reached their final destination in the middle of the Ethiopian highlands. Six months later, they would return through a slightly different route, over the south coast of Sudan, crossing the Red Sea.

“Despite the intensive conservation efforts in Syria, protecting turned out to be almost impossible,” Sarkissian said. “The number of adult breeding pairs returning to Palmyra in the spring time declined from three pairs in 2002 to only one pair in 2010.”

The main reasons behind this decline included illegal hunting and electrocution by the power cables on the birds’ migratory route.

“Then, in 2011, the war broke out in Syria, creating a sudden major restraint on the Palmyra conservation programme,” Sarkissian said.

Trained local rangers continued conservation efforts on their own for the next few years, but between 2013 and 2014, only three birds were seen at the wintering site in Ethiopia.

“In the springtime of 2014, only Zenobia, a mature female ibis who was the last one to know the migratory route returned to Palmyra,” Sarkissian said. “That same year Palmyra was destroyed. It was the last time the northern bald ibis was seen in the skies of the Syrian desert.”

It has been 11 years since the war in Syria broke out, a conflict, Sarkissian said has ramifications far beyond its borders.

“By conservative estimates, 400,000 people have been killed while millions of Syrians have abandoned their homes, seeking shelter and peace across borders through treacherous crossings over border or land,” Sarkissian said.

“The story of the northern bald ibis could be their story."

Updated: March 06, 2022, 1:28 PM