In March 2015, ISIS began destroying precious Middle Eastern heritage sites. Pop-Up Palmyra is an art exhibit of crowd-sourced artistic responses to this destruction. Ashara, a virtual art installation was presented by Micah Morgan.
On Saturday April 16, the Phoebe A. Hearst Museum of Anthropology asked the local community to consider “the destruction of the past” through art. The creative responses culminated in the Pop-Up Palmyra Exhibit. Palmyra, known as, “The Pearl of the Desert,” was attacked by ISIS most recently this spring. The Triumphal Arch and the Temple of Bel were destroyed. Four hundred humans lost their lives inside a Roman Theatre.
My husband, Gareth Morgan, and I presented Ashara, a virtual art installation. Ashara is a 3D exploration of the geometry of human writing and language, and a testament to the continuity of the human experience. The piece is based on the fundamental nature of the numbers one to ten. The work is inspired by Empires of the Word, by Nicholas Ostler. Ostler writes, “as one result of Semitic language persistence, it can be shown that counting to ten has hardly changed here in over four thousand years, 200 generations.” That statement impacted us so much that we decided to drop anchor and focus on the embodiment of harmony and persistence through numeric communication.
Geometry of Language of Ashara
Ashara centers on three languages that have been spoken and written widely in the Middle East for four millennia. Akkadian was spoken for almost two millennia from the 23rd Century BCE. It is the language of Gilgamesh and Hammurabi’s code. Aramaic was the lingua franca of the Middle East from the 6th century BCE to 5th Century CE. It was the language of Zenobia of Palmyra, and the Christian gospels. It is still used in the Syriac Church to this day. Arabic has been the most commonly spoken language of the Middle East for over a millennium; it is the language of Islam and the vibrant modern cultures that make up the Arab world.
Histories of the Middle East over the 200 generations that these languages have been spoken often focus on discontinuity. It is easy to concentrate on the countless conflicts and conquests between the many different cultures, religions, and peoples who have lived in the region over that time. This piece instead focuses on the continuity, the shared commonality that makes up the human experience. One facet of that, is the wealth of phonic similarities these different languages share in their enumerations.
The numbers 1 to 10, when spoken by a modern Arabic speaker brought up watching Mosalsalat on TV and reading author Naguib Mahfouz, would be understood by an Aramaic speaker in Jerusalem in the days of Herod. The same ten numbers would be understood by an Akkadian governed by Hammurabi two thousand years before that.
Memory and Pain of Ashara
The project challenged me to consider that the past may never truly be destroyed.
When we speak of the dead, even dead languages, the artifact lives through memory. Those memories are spoken, written, bound in our muscles; pulled taut with the formations of centuries of mouths and gesticulations of limbs. Memory is activated in absence, and so requires loss. War and destruction are cruel realities, and, as in the case of Palmyra, invaluable artifacts have been lost. We hope that Ashara points to the fundamental human need for communication, and understanding, giving and receiving as we tread common ground.
The truth is, I don’t want to have to remember. The more closely the loss cuts to our core, the more painful the memory. I believe this applies individually and culturally. Perhaps, this is the reason we have to find a discourse to express the pain and discomfort of what we need, what we’ve lost, what may have been taken.
During this project, like many others, Gareth and I engage in a dance as we research and build. From one corner of the room, he approaches with software engineering, and from the other, I approach with visual art and cultural studies. We move toward each other until the space between us is brief but not tender, and then, we research ferociously. We spend weeks reading books, visiting, reaching out, sending emails, and looking at artifacts. That act of unguided chaos together removes the memory in those moments of our own field, and we focus on what is materializing at hand.