Syria: Splendor and Drama is not your regular exhibition. It is an event that marks the first milestone in raising global awareness of the destruction of the country’s cultural heritage in the ongoing conflict.
The exhibition, which runs until August 31 at Palazzo Venezia in Rome, focuses on the damage already suffered and the risk of further destruction of the many remnants of Syria’s Islamic and Christian past, such as the Roman ruins of Ebla and Palmyra, or the Aleppo citadel.
“Everyone agrees that culture is worth today more than ever – and yet they keep paying lip service to it without doing anything. Down to facts, culture is constantly downsized and, what is worst, everyone is standing still in front of the devastation of a place that has been the cradle of 5,000 years of civilisation,” says Francesco Rutelli, a former culture and tourism minister and former mayor of Rome, who as head of the Priorità Cultura association has been promoting the initiative.
“Today in Syria, we are facing the catastrophic destruction of an un-repeatable legacy, one that comprises monuments, archaeological sites, mosques, churches and historical centres of priceless value,” Rutelli says. “Nonetheless, the reaction of the international community has been even more frustrating: silence and indifference, a sort of resignation, where all the issues in tackling the political crisis and military developments also drove to the abandonment of culture.”
The exhibition features more than 20 works from some of Italy’s largest museums, all serving to throw light on the civilisations that have prospered in Syria. Rutelli is hoping action will be taken soon.
“Ahead of Unesco’s International Conference in May last year, together with Paolo Matthiae [an archaeologist who serves as director of the Ebla expedition and head of the Italian archaeological mission in Syria], we launched an appeal to demilitarise some of the most important archaeological sites in the world to avoid irreparable destruction,” he says. The identified locations are: the Aleppo citadel, its souq and the Umayyad Mosque; Bosra in southern Syria; Qalaat al-Madiq citadel in Apamea; Qalat Siman (church of St Simeon Stylites – the oldest surviving Byzantine church); and Ebla.
“Unesco could take over the preservation duties of these sites,” says Rutelli, “setting as a target the partial interruption of the violence that has provoked 160,000 victims, millions of refuges and the catastrophe of historical, archaeological, religious and monumental heritage that is at the root of our civilisation and risks disappearing forever.”
And this is only one of the possible lines of intervention, he says, adding that the selected locations, among others, need to be urgently monitored for illegal excavation and smuggling. A large satellite picture in the exhibition depicts how clandestine diggings are taking place across Syria.
The event has been promoted by Italy’s ministry of culture, curated by Daniela Porro under the patronage of Unesco, and put together thanks to the partnership with Matthiae.
Music by the Academy Award-winning Italian composer Ennio Morricone and poignant videos accompany the guests in a gradual build-up that ends in the last room, where monuments and people are both depicted under fire.
“A true master, such as Morricone, donated his music to underline the emotion, the suffering and the people’s redemption will,” says Rutelli. “Instead of having to stare at the ruins of minarets or clandestine excavations, I’d love to look at the portraits of Palmyra or at the face of a Syrian girl singing about her love for the land. In one video, we see a young girl who is forced to stop singing because of a bomb explosion. We hope that one day, not too far away, she will start singing again.”
• Syria: Splendor and Drama is at Palazzo Venezia in Rome until August 31. Visit www.prioritacultura.it