Long before the Middle-East and North African (MENA) region became synonymous with Islamic culture, a rich and deep-rooted Christian heritage has been in existence. Since its adoption as the official religion of the Roman Empire and the proliferation of Westernised Renaissance images, it is easily forgotten that the Near-East is the birthplace of the Christian faith. Alongside North Africa, it was also home to some of the greatest early theologians (St Augustine of Hippo, Origen) and Arab Christian thinkers (Khalil Gibran).
Multi-media exhibition ‘Eastern Christianity: 2000 Years of History’ (currently at The Arab World Institute, Paris) seeks to redress this historical imbalance, with a particular focus on Egypt, Lebanon, Syria, Jordan, Iraq and the Holy Land (Israel and the Palestinian Territories). This comprehensive exhibition has been made possible through the vision of curators, Elodie Bouffard and Raphaelle Ziade, as well as the cooperation of artists and institutions from across the globe. As well as guided tours for older audiences, there is a specially adapted programme for children.
There’s a very intentional, chronologically-faithful narrative to the event. The press release contains a mission statement of sorts…
‘Today…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…’
With contemporary Arab Christians facing a particular existential crisis in light of the region’s turmoil, an undercurrent of concern for their survival characterises the exhibition.
Some of today’s Middle-Eastern Christians no doubt draw hope and inspiration from their forebears. Very much in step with St. Paul’s counsel, Christians in the ancient Levant made the best out of their situation, good or bad. At a nadir of persecution under various Roman emperors, they met in clandestine house gatherings (domus ecclesia). Under the aegis of a newly sympathetic state (following Constantine’s apparent conversion and religious policy shift), an emboldened Christian community built magnificent edifices of worship, lavishly decorated. It is to these artefacts that much of the exhibition is dedicated. Several of the displays are in startlingly good condition such as the Codex Sinopensis which depicts Christ healing two blind beggars and dates back to the 6th Century AD. Visitors remark on the non-European features of the saints on the reliefs. ‘Far closer to reality than what is often represented’, one observes.
The exhibition charts the rise in popularity of monastic and hermetic lifestyles. Christianity diversified from being almost exclusively a faith of city-dwellers to those who sought solitude in purposely straitened circumstances. Perhaps the most extreme example of such asceticism was St. Simeon Stylites, whose idea of religious devotion was spending the bulk of his life on top of a column.
MENA Christians continued to flourish, both culturally and in terms of freedom of worship, even as Islam was on the ascent. They were given a protected status known as ‘dhimmis’; albeit subject to specific taxes and other differential treatment. Nevertheless, Arabic was adopted by the Christian community and adapted for worship. Audio samples attest to traditional hymns with a distinctly Eastern flavour. Already widely available in local languages such as Syriac (written Aramaic) and Coptic, scripture was translated into the region’s new lingua franca. Miraculously, these huge multilingual tomes have survived antiquity.
Arab Christian expertise in translation and pedagogy was sought by their Western brethren. Islamic as well as Persian and Occidental influences could be seen in the aesthetics of Orthodox iconography and artwork.
Middle-Eastern Christians lived a relatively harmonious existence until they were caught in the cross-fire of the Crusades. Successive Caliphates encouraged forced conversions of their Christian subjects. Persecution came from both Muslims and the Crusaders, engendered by a certain suspicion about their loyalties, as much as ideological differences.
In the centuries to come, as the Ottoman Empire became the dominant regional power, there were moments when the civil liberties the Ancient Christian community had once enjoyed were somewhat restored. Most notably, Suleiman the Magnificent and French King Francis I signed a treaty in 1536, affording Christians free movement throughout Europe and (the real motivation behind the alliance) facilitated trade. Arab Christians excelled in their mercantile pursuits, regarded as honoured intermediaries between East and West. The exhibition is at pains to emphasise how much they contributed to the prosperity of the region.
The sombre latter part of the exhibition reflects the grave turn of events for Eastern Christians towards the end of 19th Century. As the sun was setting on the Ottoman Empire, tragically Eastern Christians were being killed en masse; be it genocide (Armenians massacred by the Young Turks) or man-made famine (Lebanon).
Today, Middle Eastern Christians make up an estimated 3% of the population, compared to 20% at the beginning of the 20th Century. Their fortunes are often microcosmic parallels of what is going on regionally; whether it’s fighting for recognition amidst revived nationalism or being driven to migrate because of escalating violence and/or oppression. It is this mass migration that is considered the greatest threat to the continued presence of Arab Christians and culture in the lands of their origin. Still, the exhibition is not a project of gloom. Its raison d’etre is to avoid such a socio-cultural cataclysm through education and raising awareness of this religious minority’s plight beyond the MENA region.
It concludes on a hopeful note, focusing on the resilience of modern Arab Christian communities and movements. They defiantly forge their own identity, whether at ‘home’ or abroad. Rites and Sacraments are still celebrated openly and joyously. Despite, or maybe even because of the severe challenges, Eastern Christianity is experiencing a renewal.