As the Syrian conflict escalates, an exhibition of 19th-century artwork depicting life in the Levant couldn't arrive at a better time, writes Rym Ghazal.
Lithographs on exhibition in Sharjah depict Levant in 19th century
Set in the background, in the distance under a haze, is the Al Aqsa Mosque and the Dome of the Rock, one of the Muslim world's holiest sites. In this WH Bartlett painting of Jerusalem, there is no gold dome, only a blue one.
In another Bartlett creation, the magnificence and sheer size of the great temple at Baalbek in Lebanon is captured in the most intricate detail.
A third painting renders the western entrance of Damascus, where a multi-domed structure with two slender minarets is, in fact, a hospital for pilgrims built by Sultan Selim I in 1516, and known as Tekiyeh.
It is surrounded by a mosque, a mausoleum and perched tents, resting places for weary travellers. There is even a soos (liquorice) drink vendor carrying a distinctive large jug on his back, and a sweets vendor, both of whom were usually the first to receive travellers visiting the city. In this image, WHM Farlane recreates one of the first of Damascus's great Ottoman monuments.
These are just three of the 171 lithographs by more than 30 Orientalist European artists from the 19th century on display as part of the Levant Exhibition at the Sharjah Art Museum.
A selection from the private collection of Dr Sheikh Sultan bin Mohammed Al Qasimi, Ruler of Sharjah, the works offer a panoramic record of life in Syria, Lebanon, Palestine and Jordan through the talents of artists such as David Roberts (1796-1864), William Henry Bartlett (1809 -1854) and Joseph Mallord William Turner (1775-1851) commonly known as "the painter of light" and the genius of English Romanticism.
Organised by the Sharjah Department of Culture and Information's Arts Directorate in cooperation with the Sharjah Museums Directorate, the exhibition has been put on as part of the Ruler's vision of "promoting fine arts with the objective of developing a collective mindset preserving peoples' heritages through a visual medium that would refine human's aesthetic appreciation over time".
The exhibition of these paintings, an important chronicle of a nation's history,couldn't have arrived at a more relevant moment.
Beginning with the first uprising in March 2011, Syria has become embroiled in a horrific conflict, leaving thousands dead and more than a million displaced, with unprecedented destruction of its cities and countryside. There have been regular reports of bombarded historic sites, with Aleppo's old city mercilessly hit.
Aleppo's medieval souq, known locally as the Souq Al Madina and forming part of "the Ancient City of Aleppo" Unesco World Heritage site, has suffered extensive damage from continued fighting between government forces and rebels.
According to media and opposition sources, the rebels now control about 90 per cent of the Ancient City.
"That the fighting is now destroying cultural heritage that bears witness to the country's millenary history - valued and admired the world over - makes it even more tragic," said Irina Bokova, the director-general of the UN Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organisation (Unesco).
Such incidents transform the paintings hanging at the Sharjah Art Museum into valuable reminders of what the world will be losing if this conflict continues.
Each painting tells an important story of change over a span of more than 100 years to important historic, religious and cultural sites in a region often rocked by conflict. With the paintings for comparison, it become obvious that sites like the Al Aqsa Mosque and the Baalbek temple - as well as many others - have deteriorated considerably under the strain of conflict. The ubiquitousness of the iconic cedar tree in most of the Lebanon paintings and the complete transformation of cities such as Sidon and Tripoli serve as a stark reminder of the degradation of the natural environment and the loss of architectural heritage.
The images captured in Jordan, such as Petra's ruins and tombs, have been preserved to a great extent and those of Syria remained, until recently, almost identical to how they are depicted in 19th-century paintings.
"Impressed by what they had seen, those Orientalists produced what we could call documentary artworks depicting historical places, geography, garments, traditions and life of people in these countries," said Abdulkarim Al Sayed, an artist and researcher in arts at Sharjah's Arabic Art Centre.
"Due to their religious or historic significance, Sidon, Jerusalem, Bethlehem, Tyre, Damascus, Akka and Al Khalil (Hebron) with its Sanctuary of Abraham or Ibrahimi Mosque are the main towns depicted by the displayed artist, even though the artists used Hebrew names to describe them for political reasons," he said.
Al Sayed wrote one of the introductory pieces in the exhibition's catalogue, detailing the history of the paintings, its artists and how Orientalist art started with the French.
"Following Napoleon's invasion of Egypt in 1798-1801, it stimulated great public interest in the region and encouraged westerners, including artists, to visit Middle Eastern countries," he wrote. Other important paintings of Syria include that of TheGreat Khan of Old Damascus, an area which has been a Unesco World Heritage Site since 1979. The Khan was an old hotel used by rich travellers and merchants. Then there are sites that have become inaccessible to Syrians, such as Mount Hermon, drawn by Eugene Ciceri, capturing two travellers resting at ruins set against snow-cloaked mountain peaks. The area, also known as Jabal Al Sheikh, a mountainous region straddling Syria, Lebanon and Israel, was lost to Israel in the six-day Arab-Israeli war in 1967.
Then there is the famous Barada River, the Banias Cave (one of the sources of the River Jordan), numerous castles, villages and souqs. The various Syrian images offer glimpses of the traditions and costumes of the people of that time. A particularly vibrant painting by R Meeder, entitled A Bedouin from Houran, is of a tribesman in a brown and white thoub charging on a camel and brandishing a spear-like weapon.
But it is the Conference of Arabs by David Robert, from Petra in Jordan, that captures what Bedouins must have looked like at the height of their glory. Sitting together at the bottom of a mountain, against the ruins of Petra, the colourfully dressed men are engrossed in a serious discussion with their weapons - rifles and swords - close by.
Also on display are works depicting the holiest sites, including the Church of the Nativity and Church of the Resurrection, tombs of prophets, caravans, villages, valleys, rivers, marketplaces, coffee shops and magnificent landscapes of an older and lusher Levant.
"The Levant Exhibition offers us an inviting window to look at a remote past and the glory of the proud culture in the Levantine countries," said Dr Maha Aziza Sultan, a fine arts critic and university lecturer in Lebanon.
"We thought the memories of such places had been gone forever, but they are there, recorded in the artworks of great artists who wanted to celebrate their love of the sun and the Arab lands," she said.
"In their pursuit of beauty in this part of the world, those Orientalist artists did in fact change arts in their native Europe and - through their creations - took their beloved East to its museums."
The Levant Exhibition is at the Sharjah Art Museum until October 30. For more information, call the museum at 06 568 8222 or visit www.sharjahmuseums.ae
Rym Ghazal is a senior features writer for The National