It is in Palestine that the Gospels place the preaching of Christ, and it is between the Mediterranean and the Euphrates, along the Nile, and on the banks of the Bosporus, that the new religion developed and set down roots before spreading.
Today, in spite of all of the vicissitudes of ancient and contemporary history, Christians in the Middle East are not residual traces of a defunct past, but real stakeholders in an Arab world the construction of which they contributed to enormously.
It is to tell their particular histories as full-fledged components of the countries in which they live (Egypt, Syria, Iraq, Lebanon, Jordan, and Palestine) that the Arab World Institute
, in coproduction with the MuBA Eugène Leroy, the Musée des Beaux-Arts of Tourcoing, presents, until 14 January 2018, this major exhibition.
Christian Churches of the Middle East in the 21st century
Unique and Hitherto Never Exhibited Works
Developed in close association with representatives of numerous communities, with the help of Oeuvre dOrient, the exhibition includes more than three hundred objects, including numerous heritage masterpieces, some of which have never been shown in Europe and have been lent for the occasion by the communities themselves. Among the marvels: the Rabbula Gospels, a famous Syriac illuminated manuscript from the 6th century; the first known church frescoes in the world - from the third century - from Dura-Europos in Syria; mosaics from the first Palestinian and Syrian churches; portraits of Coptic monks from the Egyptian monastery in Bawit; stelae and pilgrimage souvenirs with the effigies of Saint Menas, Saint Simeon, and Saint Thecla, as well as icons illustrating the magnificence of the Sacred.
Diversity as Witness to a Long History
This exhibition presents, from Antiquity to the present, a journey though the religious, political, cultural, and artistic history of these Christian communities. It first addresses the emergence in the pagan Roman Empire of a new religion that would, in the space of three centuries, take the place of the ancient gods. The exhibition also dedicates a significant space to the development of monasticism.
The exhibition shows how the Greek, Coptic, Assyrian Catholic/Assyrian-Chaldean, Syriac, Armenian, and Maronite Churches were formed, against the backdrop of the founding theological debates, which were renewed in modern times under the impetus of Catholic and Protestant missions from Europe. It presents these churches today, in the diversity of their rites, their saints, their traditions, their sites, their sacred languages, their architectures, and their iconographical representations.
An Existence in the Face of the Muslim Conquest
The rapid early Muslim conquest under the first four caliphs (632-661), introducing Islam as a new religion in the Middle East, was a challenge for Christians even though they were free to retain their beliefs. Despite their status as dhimmis (protected persons), and the gradual decline in their proportion of the population, they continued to play a major role in public administration and in intellectual and social life under the various caliphates as well as the Ottoman Empire (1453-1923).
Through translation, they were vectors of cultural exchange. Through their place in the arts, architecture, and crafts, they participated in the blossoming of the new civilisation whose language they gradually adopted. Their churches remained active, as evidenced by continued architectural and artistic creations.
An Active Participation in Arab Nationalism
In the nineteenth century, the involvement of Christian thinkers, often secular, in the awakening of nationalism surpassed the sometimes bloody traumas of their history, confirming the historic rooting of their communities in the Arab world. They played a major role in the social life, politics, economics, arts, and letters of the countries to which they belonged. That is what the exhibition will highlight, without disregarding the pressing issues of our day.
A Present Full of Dangers and Promises
In some regions today, the crises in the Middle East that are so destructive for everyone threaten Christians in their very existence. Beyond the human drama it represents, beyond the fears for the preservation of tangible and intangible heritage that is two thousand years old, it is the question of the diversity of the Arab world that is at stake. However, hidden by the horrors in the news and by the development of extremist movements, a new secular, civic consciousness is developing in Arab societies. This exhibition concludes with visions of a possible future.