Contemporary Art Response: Syria

By Simurgh Staff

Constant turmoil from ISIS occupation and the Syrian Refugee Crisis sparked artists within Syria, and from across the world, to comment on these issues. The loss of culture transcends medium and geographical/ political borders, appearing as a significant theme throughout works of art. Syria has become a focal example of cultural destruction as one of the nations considered to be the “cradle of civilization.”1 Acts of cultural heritage destruction in Syria cause individual trauma and the attack on the collective memory of Syrians. 

“I don’t think of my images as ghosts,

I think of them as a testament

to the resilience of culture”

Kevin Bubriski

Beginning just a few years before the civil war in Syria, Kevin Bubriski photographed Syrians and their monuments in what is now considered a preservation act—even if Bubriski did not initially intend preservation to be the outcome of his work.2 Compiled into a book titled Legacy In Stone: Syria Before The WarBrubiski published his collection of over 100 black and white photos depicting monuments that no longer exist or were severely damaged by the ISIS regime.3 However, Bubriski does not consider these images to be totems of a lost culture. Rather, he views these photos as symbols of Syria’s ability to continue.4 Bubriski stated in an interview, “‘I don’t think of my images as ghosts, I think of them as a testament to the resilience of culture.’”5 For archaeologists and other scholars, Bubriski’s photos hold more significance as art that contributes to the preservation of Syrian’s culture before ISIS.6 

“Mustafa Ali Gallery” 
Photo by Wisal Ahdab. CC BY-SA 3.0.

Some Syrian artists who continue to live in Syria and comment on these issues. The artists themselves are testaments to the “resilience of culture.”7 One such artist is sculptor Mustafa Ali, who pulls his inspiration from Palmyra.8 Ali was personally affected when ISIS took control of Damascus and Palmyra. ISIS soldiers destroyed many of his artworks and threatened his life.9 Ali responded to this experience with a sculpture of a human face was divided down the middle, “‘Like the Syrian face, because, you know, we kill—brother kills his brother.’”10 Many of Ali’s works reflect Syrian aesthetics (both contemporary and historical), while incorporating his personal response to the loss of culture. 

 Syrian-born contemporary artist Issam Kourbaj has gained international fame working out of England. Kourbaj watches and responds to the onslaught on Syria and its people from afar. This is emphasized in his work, which Kourbaj describes as “‘a quiet gesture, an archive to remember those who have been forgotten, and an invitation to ponder what the future might bring to what’s left of my people and of my country.’”11 

His work Unearthed shows the fragmentation of both his own identity as a Syrian living abroad and of the Syrians who continue to live in a nation that is under constant change.12 

“Issam Kourbaj ‘The Artist’s Voice’” (2014)
Produced by Diana Scarborough. CC BY 3.0.

Kourbaj also uses the concept of the match to emphasize just how these contemporary events effect the culture of the Syrian people on a daily basis.13 When the conflict within the nation ultimately settles down, Syria will not be the same.

The shifting nature of Syria has influenced these artists who invoke their Syrian aesthetic roots while considering the impact of the loss of Syrian culture. However, the damage to the collective memory of Syria truly what makes the loss of culture so significant: cultural destruction is a trauma that transforms the culture itself.

  1. Cultures in the Crossfire: Stories from Syria and Iraq 
  2. ‘Legacy In Stone’ Captures Images Of Syria Before War 
  3. Ibid. 
  4. Ibid. 
  5. Ibid. 
  6. Ibid. 
  7. Ibid 
  8. Syria’s Leading Sculptor Keeps Creating In A Time Of Destruction 
  9. Ibid. 
  10. Ibid. 
  11. Unearthed: Syrian Artist Responds to War in His Homeland 
  12. Ibid. 
  13. Ibid. 

Contemporary Art Response: Egypt

By Simurgh Staff

After the Egyptian Revolution in 2011, a surge of Egyptian artists rose to comment on the changed society. Many contemporary artists used their medium to remark on the changes to museums and heritage, with some even helping to preserve the heritage that is left. 

“Tahrir Square, Cairo, in the early morning”
Photo by Frank Schulenburg. CC BY-SA 3.0 US. 

Alaa Awad (b. 1981) primarily paints murals1 and is most famous for his mural near Tahrir Square painted during the Egyptian Revolution—The Battle Mural.2 His art utilizes the pharaonic style with figures flattened to two dimensions3, invoking the Egyptian heritage and identity with which Alaa Awad profusely identifies.4 In the mural of The Tomb of Sobekhotep (2012), Awad shows several bald and bearded men praying and making offerings to an enthroned mouse and cat.5 At the time this mural was painted, the religious regimes gaining power disproved of this mural for mocking the Muslim Brotherhood and others.6 Awad’s other murals invoke monumental moments of Egyptian history. By using building as a canvas for mural painting, the capturing of these moments is physically, monumentally huge; the audience cannot ignore them. His historical references remind Egyptians of their heritage.7 However, because he uses his art to engage in political commentary, and because Awad’s artistic style balances on graffiti, many of his murals have been destroyed by the various governments which have ruled Egypt.8 

Another contemporary artist, Khaled Hafez, deals with the dualism of Egypt: a constant balancing scale between the past and the present; the East and the West; progressive and terrorist.9 Following these theme deeply ingrained in Egyptian culture, Hafez utilizes well-known Egyptian icons from historical and popular culture.10 In his painting Sketches for Sonata in 3 Military Movements, Hafez shows two lionesses and a large cow with a pharaonic symbol sitting on its head. However, surrounding the three animals are several sniper-like figures. The figures are a single color, like a shadow, but nonetheless identifiable, much like the depictions of pharaonic figures in ancient Egyptian reliefs. The inclusion of the animals and the snipers in demonstrates the duality of the collective consciousness of Egypt; civilians are constantly confronted by the clash of the depth of their history with contemporary issues of violence and unrest.11  

As conflicting forces seek to destroy or distort Egypt’s past, artists utilize their abilities to preserve and bring to life the ideological battles between these forces. Artists invoke historical motifs, blending them with styles relevant to present societal trends. Contemporary Egyptian artists are preserving their experiences, while simultaneously giving a voice to their cultural history. 

  1. Alaa Awad- Biography 
  2. Alaa Awad- The Missing Mural 
  3. Ibid. 
  4. Alaa Awad- The Sons of Liberty and Heritage 
  5. Alaa Awad- The Tomb of Sobekhotep
  6. Ibid. 
  7. Alaa Awad- Biography 
  8. Ibid. 
  9. Khaled Hafez: The Art of Dichotomy 
  10. Ibid. 
  11. Khaled Hazfez: African Memories 

Corruption in Museums

By Simurgh Staff

Corruption can exist in any institution or organization, and museums are no exception, with significant ties to the political sphere. For a majority of Iraqi, Syrian, and Egyptian museums, looting has surfaced as the result of political turmoil—people take advantage of chaos and grab artifacts to sell for economic support. Museum personnel have also been the culprits of looting. This demonstrates how corruption can exist in museums, as some employees are no longer working to protect the artifacts. Corruption in the various levels of staff and management erodes at the integrity of museum personnel. 

Egyptian Museum Entrance Hall
Photo by Julianna Whalen, 2017.

Money is often the primary motivator of looters and low wages are one reason for corruption. At the National Museum in Egypt, security guards looted the very museum they were paid to protect1, because they do not get paid much. Their average salary is about 250 Egyptian pounds a month (about $15 USD), which is barely enough to live off of in the Egyptian economy.2 In Iraq, some museum officials have looted valuable items opportunistically and pawned the artifacts for extra money. This was the case when Iraqi museum officials unprofessionally removed objects from the Kuwait National Museum.3 Officials have questioned and denied their colleagues’ involvement in the lootings, but how else could the perpetrators know exactly how to retrieve such objects without being caught?4  

“The National Museum in Kuwait”
Photo by Kuwaitsoccer. CC BY-SA 3.0 US.
“Iraq National Museum”
Photo by David Stanley. CC BY 2.0.

The National Museum of Iraq in Baghdad was severely looted during the 2003 invasion of United States troops.6 Many speculated that the looting was carried out by two sets of people—“Baghdadis off the street, and professionals with inside information about the museum.”7 Evidence also suggests that Saddam Hussein’s administration permitted and possibly even encouraged a large-scale systematic looting of cultural artifacts from Iraqi museums8. The United States was also accused of being part of the Baghdad looting, but the results of that investigation have been inconclusive.9 Nonetheless, the looting is considered an inside job, as several museum officials claim:  

After the looting a set of master keys to the museum was discovered in a plundered storeroom. The keys belonged to al-Mutawalli, who museum employees say kept them in her office safe, which only she could open. She told me that no one else had access to the keys, but she could not explain their presence in the storeroom.10  

However, some “corrupt” museum officials have been wrongly accused. Dr. Zahi Hawass (curator of the National Museum in Egypt) had this happen to him. Disregarding the status of the accusation, Hawass withdrew from his job as Chief of Antiquities. Hawass had distaste for the corruption within Egyptian’s government, “‘Those people are insects, they are nothing.’”5 With instability in government and the loss of state protection, museums have been left to their own resources—which are not always safe or effective. This also contributes to the use of a scapegoat, as demonstrated by the case of Dr. Zahi Hawass,  when it comes to looting and corruptions. 

Through the political turmoil of recent decades and the high profit capacity of the black-market, museums have become ripe for looting by their own officials. However, lack of transparency and inadequate investigations hinder the ability to determine how artifacts are removed and who is at fault during museum lootings. 

  1. Former Egyptian Museum Dir Says Looting Inside Job, Memphis Mus Looted [UPDATE 40] Damaged Mummy ID’d, Sinai Antiquities Robbed 
  2. Ibid.
  3. Indiana Jones or Inside Job at Iraq Museum? 
  4. Ibid.
  5. Taylor, Kate. “Egypt’s Chief of Antiquities Says He’s Not Staying On.” New York Times, March 4, 2011, A12(L). Infotrac Newsstand (accessed April 12, 2019). 
  6. Museum Madness in Baghdad 
  7. The Thieves of Baghdad 
  8. Ibid.
  9. Three Years After Looting of Iraqi National Museum: An Official Whitewash of US Crime 
  10. The Thieves of Baghdad 


For links to essays on the preservation of cultural heritage, please scroll.

As international awareness surrounding the destruction of cultural heritage in the Middle East and North Africa grows, organizations efforts to counteract the effects of terrorism, military conflict, and looting are multiplying.  “Now is the time to rebuild what we can, learn how to combat future destruction, and focus on people as much as we focus on the physical aspects of cultural heritage.”  

Cultural Preservation Team in Georgia.
U.S. Embassy Georgia, Public Domain.

Museums themselves are sponsoring projects for digital recreation of endangered artifacts. This includes photographs of objects, as well as 3-dimensional scans for virtual access. Modern technology has increased online accessibility from remote locations. For example, the Return to Mosul exhibit in Damascus can be explored via Google Arts & Culture.

Even more importantly, international organizations are actively addressing the need to remove artifacts from areas of conflict and boost security for valuable items which may be targeted by looters. However, this can lead to additional issues to arise in relation to colonialist assumptions. Americans and Europeans are often motivated to push for preservation as a way to satisfy their own colonialist perceptions of Middle Eastern culture. “The white man’s burden is the idea that privileged white people have the responsibility to raise up ‘uncivilized’, non-white people for the betterment of the world.” 

Organizations led largely by Westerners which concern themselves with the preservation of cultural heritage have a history of justifying their intervention with claims that the nationals of these countries are ill equipped to preserve their own cultural heritage. A list of the organizations discussed in these essays with links to their websites can be found under Resources.


Lack of infrastructure, civil unrest, and military conflict in Middle Eastern and North African regions have all contributed to the loss of cultural heritage in countries such as Syria, Egypt, and Iraq.

Destruction in Homs, Syria (2012).
Photo by Bo Yaser. CC BY-SA 3.0.

Cultural heritage is the gift left to us from past generations and societies, including physical artifacts and social practices, that we claim as our history.

Terrorist groups target cultural sites, inflicting damage and removing artifacts which they then sell as a means to fund their militant activities.

Bombs rip apart museums, there are calls for the destruction of pyramids, and the construction of dams threatens to wash away thousands of years’ worth of cultural heritage sites.

Museum corruption also contributes to the loss of cultural heritage. The economic stresses caused by war and terrorism have led citizens to loot antiques from historical areas and museum collections. Security guards and officials have been suspected of pawning items to compensate their low wages. In some cases, the United States military has also been accused of contributing to cultural heritage destruction. 

Within days of the United States ground invasion of Iraq during Operation Iraqi Freedom, significant looting of museums in Babylon, Kufa, and Baghdad stripped the country of Mesopotamian relics. The U.S. converted the 4,000-year-old city of Babylon into a military base causing ‘major damage’ though digging, excavating, scraping, and leveling the ancient city.

Understanding all of the factors which lead to the destruction of cultural heritage will increase the success of organizations dedicated to preservation. Because destruction occurs in various forms with multiple, separate parties to blame, a singular approach to preventing destruction will never be able to fully address the issues introduced in these essays. Rather, a multilayered strategy would have the potential to more effectively reduce the losses of cultural heritage in the Middle East and North Africa.

Looting & More

While researching the contemporary issues and discussions surrounding the cultural heritage of the Middle East and North Africa, destruction and preservation only scratch the surface. This section includes essays on topics varying from the intangible parts of cultural heritage to the ways in which contemporary artists from Egypt, Syria and Iraq have addressed these issues in their artwork. Looting is a prevalent problem deserving of expanded focus, as do the responses of Western countries, and those living in countries affected by the loss of cultural heritage.  

Looting is distinct from other forms of destruction because the artifacts are often resold. This has created controversy as western retailers and art collectors turn a blind eye to the possibility of buying stolen goods. When an antique is identified as stolen, the questions of repatriation and reparation arise. Who is responsible for enforcing the return of looted artifacts? What ethical policies are in place to prevent the purchase of stolen items?  Another related topic is the production of replicas, sold as authentic antiques, accompanied by forged documentation.  

Lid of the Coffin of the Priest of Heryshef, Nedjemankh
CCO 1.0

When Western countries insert themselves into the preservation of cultural heritage, discussions surrounding their motivations become necessary in determining what is ethical and to what extent their involvement is justified. Essays on ownership, cultural appropriation, and the concepts of Orientalism and Egyptomania address the inappropriate interests of the United States and Europe in the culture of the Middle East and North Africa.