Christian Artifacts of the Middle East Can Show Us a Thing or Two About Tolerance

A page of a 17th-century prayer book in Syriac and Arabic.
Credit: Collection Antoine Maamari, Beyrouth

Behind the famous dilating windows Jean Nouvel designed for its Seine-side home, the Institut du Monde Arabe has presented a string of recent shows that have deepened and diversified France’s understanding of Islam. From “The Thousand and One Nights” (2012) to “Hajj: The Pilgrimage to Mecca” (2014) and the epic “Ocean Explorers” (2016), exhibitions here have disclosed the breadth of Islamic culture and history, and their intimate, centuries-long links with the West.

But Islam is not the only religion in the Arab world, and this autumn the institute, which celebrates its 30th birthday this month, has turned its attention to another faith. “Eastern Christians: 2,000 Years of History,” a vital, thorough, and sometimes astonishingly gorgeous exhibition, explores the birth and transmission of Christianity from Jesus’ death to the present day.

“Eastern Christians” has been billed as the largest exhibition anywhere devoted to the religion in the Middle East, and among its paintings, manuscripts, tapestries, mosaics, ivories and liturgical vestments are several critical loans from Lebanon, Jordan, Israel and Iraqi Kurdistan. It has opened at a grave time for Christians in the Middle East, who have faced appalling violence and even enslavement at the hands of the Islamic State. And it steps into a roiling debate in France, where right-wing politicians, especially, have deplored the plight of Christians in the Middle East — though not always with humanitarian motives.

“Eastern Christians” was inaugurated by President Emmanuel Macron, who attended the show alongside his Lebanese counterpart, Michel Aoun, who is a Maronite Christian. It’s received acres of media coverage, not just from Christian publications like the newspaper La Croix, but on numerous mainstream radio and television programs. On one news channel Jack Lang, the former culture minister who is the director-general of the Institut du Monde Arabe, called Christianity an “essential component of the Arab world,” and warned of an “emergency” for eastern Christians, who constituted 20 percent of the region a century ago, but make up no more than 4 percent now, according to the Pew Research Center. Their continuing migration, and persecution, threatens the diversity and the vibrancy of the Arab world itself.

The exhibition opens with a fragment of red silk, dating to around A.D. 800 and lent from the Vatican, whose floral rosettes enclose the enthroned Mary, sitting stiffly as the archangel Gabriel delivers some big news. The weaving comes from Syria, and, like the Jordanian mosaic and Lebanese bas-relief it hangs alongside, it deploys Hellenistic motifs in the service of a new religion, born in Jerusalem and quickly evangelized.

Faded frescoes and fragile handwritten Bibles evoke the lives of early Christians, who faced consistent oppression and prayed largely in private. But in the early fourth century the Roman emperor Constantine converted to Christianity, and his Edict of Milan established freedom of religion across the realm. Under his imperium, churches sprouted across the Middle East, and ornate censers, candelabras, mosaics and goblets with gold crosses testify to the new prestige and security Christians enjoyed.

The fourth and fifth centuries saw Christians quarrel over theological matters and divide into numerous sects. And as its title implies (“Eastern Christians,” not “Eastern Christianity”), this is an exhibition about multiple cultures, speaking numerous languages, practicing a variety of faiths sometimes at odds with one another. Manuscripts in Greek, Arabic, Coptic or Syriac are presented in a magnificent circular gallery equipped with speakers that play hymns from across the region. An Arabic canticle to the Virgin Mary gives way to a woman singing a plangent hymn in Armenian; an ululating chant of repentance comes from the Syriac Orthodox Church.

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SOURCE: The New York Times
Jason Farago