For all its misfortune, Syria was lucky in one respect. Just before the country sank into the devastation of civil war, a group of young students from the University of Damascus managed to document a large number of historic mosaics with the help of Greek experts from the European Center for Byzantine and Post-Byzantine Monuments, a non-profit organization under the purview of the Ministry of Culture. Launched in 2004, the Syrian Mosaic Pavement Documentation project was one of Greece’s most important programs in Syria before its second phase – a workshop on conservation – was violently interrupted by the war in 2008.
The archive is now safely filed away at the center’s offices in Thessaloniki in northern Greece, serving as a valuable resource not just for researchers interested in East Mediterranean Byzantine art, but also for international law enforcement authorities investigating incidents of looting and destruction at Syria’s museums, monuments and archeological sites.
An online database of Syrian mosaics is also available and the aim is to use this digital archive for the publication of a single tome. It contains more than 7,500 images of 365 mosaics, a fraction of the large number of artifacts that were brought to light in years of archaeological excavations.
Now, for the first time, these beautiful mosaics dating from Roman to Byzantine times are being shown to the public in a digital exhibition organized in cooperation with the University of Damascus at the municipal Melina Mercouri Cultural Center in central Athens.
The show’s centerpiece is a digital map of Syria covering the floor of the exhibition hall. According to the show’s supervisor, archaeology professor Natalia Polou, the map transports visitors to Damascus, Palmyra, Apamea and Maarat al-Nouman – the four key cities where the mosaics were discovered – so they can appreciate the quality of the art that once decorated homes, public buildings and temples across Syria.
An e-table shows the mosaics separated in thematic categories like mythological battles, Christian celebrations, geometrical figures and epigraphs. At the same time, images from before and after the Syrian civil war will highlight the extent of the destruction wrought on the country’s cultural heritage. Many of the damaged works come from the extensive collection of the Maarat al-Nouman Museum, which was used as a military base during the war, and were salvaged during covert mission led by archaeology professor Maamoun Abdulkarim. The Syrian academic had taken part in the program organized by Greece’s European Center for Byzantine and Post-Byzantine Monuments and was able, as director of antiquities for the Syrian Ministry of Culture, to save many artifacts from war zones. His experience is documented in a short documentary shown at the exhibition.
The exhibition at the Melina Mercouri Cultural Center (66 Irakleidon, Thiseio, tel 210.345.2150) is on display until August 6 and admission is free of charge. Opening hours are daily from 9 a.m. to 1 p.m., and 5-9 p.m. Tuesdays through Saturdays.