The “Syrian Sarcophaguses”

The “Syrian Sarcophaguses”

The “SYRIAN SARCOPHAGUSES” is a project by the artist Dr. Nizar SABOUR. It is inspired by ancient civilizations and was created to honor the artwork of Syrian creators (painters, poets, novelists and musicians).His unique output serves to emphasize the importance of preserving cultural memory in the face of violence, to insist on life despite death.We are honored to present this project because of its importance, not just for Syria for the entire global community. We believe that artistic production, regardless of the artist’s identity or nationality, is important to all humanity. We also believe that honoring the living is as sacred a duty as honoring the dead.The following is a study conducted by Natalia Mikhalovna and Mahar Dawood. It examines Syrian sarcophaguses, the source of the idea, and Dr. Nizar Sabour’s intended message that the enemy of creativity is not death but forgetfulness.
We hope you find this study enlightening and informative.
Arte Arta Team

 In this article, we deal with the analysis of the “sarcophaguses” of the collection and the sources of their iconographic characteristics. Among these sources, several categories stand out, ranging from traces of ancient Syrian art (from the sculptures of Palmyra to the icons of Syria in the Middle Ages) to the works of the artists themselves, the central theme of each sarcophagus. The article presents Sabour’s approach to working on artistic heritage and past experience, as they are treated and reinterpreted in a specific way by the artist.

On March 20, 2019, the artist Nizar Sabour’s exhibition was inaugurated at the National Center for Visual Arts in Damascus, where a set of new works entitled “Syrian Sarcophaguses”, executed between 2017 and 2018, were introduced to the public. Each work bears the name of a prominent figure in Syrian culture, among whom are writers, poets, artists, critics, and others. In total, the exhibition included 55 works. The exhibition was not intended to sell the paintings to individual buyers Rather, the artist’s dream is to have his work transferred as a whole to a permanent collection.

In an interview published after the opening of the exhibition, Nizar Sabour said: “We have lived through years of continuous death during this war. The river of death is parallel to the river of life, and one is not greater than the other. Life’s value comes from what one does while we are alive, our contributions, and generosity of spirit. This is what I always focus on. I think that everyone is deserving, and I would add that if I could complete the experience, I would present no less than 350 Syrians from the middle of the century to today – influential cultural figures that cannot be ignored.”

That would be my choice, but at the same time, there is an exhibition to produce and you have to choose names that have value, impact, and effectiveness in the Syrian cultural, artistic and social scene.

The title of the new collection by Nizar Sabour: “Syrian Sarcophaguses” is not accidental, and refers to the results of archaeological excavations in the second half of the twentieth century. Phoenician sarcophaguses were found for the first time in Tartus, a Syrian city on the Mediterranean coast, as well as in other regions: Ram El Dahab, Al-Hamrat, Al-Marah, and Amrit.

Phoenician sarcophaguses were originally called “anthropoid Sarcophaguses ” (from the Greek anthrōpoeidēs, from anthrōpos human) by the French archaeologist Adrien Prévost de Longpérier, and many such sarcophaguses were later discovered in an area extending from Phoenicia to the southern coast of Spain. They feature in the collections of various museums around the world, such as the Egyptian Museum in Berlin, the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York, the British Museum in London, the Carlsberg Museum in Copenhagen, the Louvre Museum in Paris, the Hanover Museum, the Beirut Museum, the Cairo Museum, the Cathedral Museum in Tartus and the National Museum in Damascus.

Almost all of these sarcophaguses have common features. As a general rule, the huge sarcophagus mimics the size and shape of a human being, It has two components: a box and a cover, of about two meters in length. At the top of its cover, there is a representation of a human face – male or female. The rest of the body is not indicated in any way – either by painting or sculpture or with the help of clothing or other techniques – but is only subtly indicated in the body of the sarcophagus itself by the shoulders and the waist. It is believed that the various types of anthropoid sarcophagus originated in ancient Egypt and that the practice persisted in the lands of Amrit in later ages, remaining in a traditional form among a certain class of society, as it continued to be used in communal cemeteries across different regions. At the same time, it is worth noting that no special marks or features were used to distinguish one sarcophagus from the next. The style of the Phoenician sarcophagus shows several Egyptian, Persian and Greek influences.

The Syrian archaeologist Muhammad Raif Haykal points out that: “The Phoenicians believed that the human soul did not fade away at death, but rather enters into a state of stillness and tranquility similar to nothingness and that the soul does not leave the body completely at the time of death but accompanies it and remains close to it in its cemetery. Therefore, they took care to bury the dead in a safe place. They placed the corpses of kings and notables in thick stone sarcophaguses. As for average people, they were buried in wooden coffins or wrapped in palms. The presence of anthropoid sarcophaguses in the cemetery not only reflects the contemporary religious belief but also has importance from a social perspective: the person buried in it distinguished himself and showed his rank and family status in the social hierarchy. It, therefore, had functions related not only to the sacred but also to the culture of the place and society of which it was a part.

 sarcophaguses 1

In this sense, the idea on which Nizar Sabour based his series is consistent with the idea of the Phoenician sarcophaguses. The artist himself pointed out that the “Syrian Sarcophaguses” do not contain the idea of the death of those figures portrayed on them, and he followed by saying: “The sarcophaguses were only used for persons of high status having contributed greatly in their societies. I search for both contribution and aesthetic quality, and if you look at any museum in the entire world, you will find Fayoum portraits, and they have their own specific form just like all graphic art has its own specific form.”

Although the title of the exhibition raises the issue of a person’s direct relationship with death, as well as important questions about the artistic production accompanying the funeral rites (from pouring masks directly on the face of the deceased with plaster and wax down to his bust, to surrounding mummies with cocoons of hemp and papyrus). In fact, in “Syrian Sarcophaguses”, there are only seven pieces featuring figures who are deceased, and the rest feature living people.


In this context, “Syrian Sarcophpic 3 Sarcophagusesaguses ” are closer to the famous trend in the history of art when an artist chooses another artist to be the subject of their artworks. There are many well-known references such as several paintings of the Renaissance by Raphael, “Mary Cassatt” by Edgar Degas, “Van Gogh” by Paul Gauguin, Picasso and Modigliani who were each painted by the brush of the other, and several others until late in the twentieth century. By examining the formal details of the art, we find that the measures of the works are completely dependent upon the measurements of the ancient sarcophagus. The height is 160 cm and its width is 32 cm. This ratio between length and width goes back to the artistic traditions in the region, which Nizar Sabour reclaims through his artistic research.                                                        

 The artist’s depiction also shows features of late Egyptian burial arts, especially the Fayoumpic 4 Sarcophaguses portraits, which replaced ancient Egyptian burial masks. Here, we can recall that the early Fayoum images appeared in the middle of the first century AD, that is, at the height of Roman rule in Egypt. In the Roman tradition, the busts of late ancestors were also of great importance – they were concerned with replicating the image of their likeness, and were thought to be linked with the souls of the deceased. In the earthly world, the Fayoum portrait protected the soul from oblivion and loss after death.

In “Syrian Sarcophaguses”, it is possible to observe the relationship of the sarcophaguses with the Fayoum portraits on several levels. First, in the positioning of the image of the human being and the arrangement of its parts. In the Fayoum tradition, the images are attached directly to the mummified body, often with strips of hemp and adhesive material to replace the face and make it stand out, thus reducing the viewer’s focus on the body, which is completely covered in bandages. Sometimes, the feet and hands were added in sculpture, collages, or drawings, as is often the case with examples of mummies of the early first century AD from the town of Huwara. In “Syrian Sarcophaguses”, Nizar Sabour reproduces a similar solution in his own artistic language.
To demonstrate this, we see the hands appear drawn in “Latakia sarcophaguses“: Safwan Dhahoul (born in 1961) and Elias Zayat (born in 1935). In the case of icon painter Milad Al-Shayeb (1918-2000), the two palms appear printed on the canvas.

pic 5 Sarcophaguses

Another feature of the Fayoum portraits that inspired Nizar Sabour is the preservation of the utmost resemblance between the image and the person represented therein.
“The first portraits of Fayoum were portraits in the full sense of the word,” Strelkoff says in his book, Portraits of Fayoum. It is believed that the Fayoum portraits were not painted after the death of their owners. Rather, they were completed during the life of the person and were kept in their home until death, after which they were transferred and entombed with the mummy.
In fact, the images of people themselves, which were mummified in antiquity or placed in a sarcophagus, were replaced by Nizar Sabour with a black and white photograph of those persons whom he displayed on the sarcophagus.
The artist prints the image using laser printing on canvas. Transferring the image to the canvas is done in stages: first, the artist applies an equal layer of glue to the face of the printed image (here – the matte acrylic medium). Then he puts it down on the canvas and gently strokes the surface of the image to remove air bubbles, and then wipes the excess around the edges of the image. After the photo has dried – for at least 8 hours – the artist gently wipes the photo paper with a damp cloth or sponge to remove it so that the photo will transfer onto the canvas as a mirror image.

An important common feature between Sabour’s works and Fayoum portraits is the golden detail used in the execution of the portrayal. In Fayoum portraits, gold is a means of transforming the image of a specific person into an eternal, sublime image distinct from the earthly one. With the gold, the image takes on features of reverence and signs of veneration. The researchers noted that, in all of the portraits in Fayoum, the background was not originally covered with gold, but was only done after the image was inserted into the bandages. Some other golden elements, for example, crowns, branches, points, stars, etc. are not just for decoration but also carry meaningful content indicating the venerated status of the deceased. This was carried out in a way known today as the stencil method, and these details were not at first present. In the illustrated picture, they only appeared when the image was attached during the ritual accompanying the funeral.

Nizar Sabour distinguishes the sarcophaguses of the living from the sarcophaguses of the dead through the color of the circle that circumscribes the golden halo around the head of the person represented on the sarcophagus. A blue line indicates those who are deceased: Louay Kayali (1934-1978). A red circle indicates a living person, and it can be seen on the sarcophagus of Safwan Dahoul (born in 1961). The only exception to this is the violet circle (from a mixture of red and blue) around the halo of the late Fateh al-Moudarres, (1922-1999), whom Nizar Sabour considers “the icon of Syrian visual art, not in the religious sense, but in the symbolic sense.”

All of them are combined with a halo, a disc, or circle of light around the head, bringing them visually closer to the representation of a religious icon. In the late nineties and early twentieth century, Nizar Sabour had more than once recovered images and visual formulas (motifs) from religious art and produced a “contemporary icon” illustrating this very notion. The iconic impression of “Syrian Sarcophaguses” is reinforced by the referencing of some technical steps used in medieval icon painting, considered as prototypes or major influences for the work. They were included by Sabour in a new context. The photograph was used instead of the original line drawing and venerable silhouette, and the transition from black and white to color was used instead of a transition from shadow to light. In addition to that, a relationship is noted between the center of meaning and the center of  form, as the artist pays special attention to the movement of the hand of the depicted characters, as well as their gestures, which often simulate the position of prayer. pic 6 SarcophagusesSabour points out that the hand gesture – where the palms of the hand are open as if they are touching light flowing from the outside has a great emotional value for him. A similar gesture is found in the works of one of his favorite ancient Russian icon painters, Theophanes the Greek, in the frescoes of the Church of the Transfiguration of the Savior in Novgorod (1378), where he uses the prayer gesture with raised hands in the icons of Saint Macarius of Egypt and Saint Daniel the Stylite. We find similar ones in the sarcophagus of Sarah Shamma, Saad Yakan, and Milad Al-Shayeb.

The citing of these iconic details is not an anomaly or accident given the artist’s experience, but rather the result of his long work with iconography and the techniques of ancient and medieval arts. These have consequently become some visual formulas, of iconographic origin, which Sabour sourced from the past: part of his artistic language and the defining features of his style. In this context, we will be closer to the truth when we understand the leitmotif of the personages displayed with a halo in the works of “Syrian Sarcophaguses”.

pic 7 SarcophgusesIt is not just the images of the honored figures themselves that have been used as a source for the visual formulas (motifs) in “Syrian Sarcophaguses”, but also their own works of art. Sometimes, details of their works or even complete works, with some modifications, cover the middle part of the sarcophagus. On ancient sarcophaguses, this section was usually decorated with various motifs with symbolic and ritual significance for the preservation of the mummified body. Contemporary cultural figures’ “bodies” displayed by Sabour consist of their own artistic creations as if these were their flesh and blood.
Let us take, for example, the “sarcophagus” of Mahmoud Hammad, for whom Sabour chose a painting dating back to the year 1977 from the collection of the Arab Museum of Modern Art (Mathaf). Sabour restores part of the composition of the Hammad painting with great precision and also subjects it to some adaptation for the dimensions and shape of the sarcophagus.

The orientation and some color detail of the original painting were also changed. This accurate reproduction of the honored figure’s work within the work of another artist visually achieves a kind of confirmation and sets the intended tone of the work. This honors and celebrates the achievement of the featured cultural icon, and simultaneously settles questions relating to preserving the rights of the author of the artistic work.pic 8 Sarcophguses

Another example is seen in the sarcophagus of Safwan Dahoul, who is known for his works within a single color spectrum. He has worked since the eighties of the twentieth century on the series “Dreams”, which deals with issues of humanity (often of women) in its unity and feeling of waiting. His image of the empty chair standing at the table has been repeated since at least 1995, and it is the theme that Sabour chose for the sarcophagus.

Louay KayaliIt can be concluded that Sabour’s choice of theme for a portrayed figure was deliberate. Thus, the theme becomes a way to identify the person displayed in the sarcophagus.

It is also possible to find a new use of visual formulas from Sabour’s previous artworks, as found on the sarcophagus of Louay Kayali, where Sabour chose for him the motif of the olive dish. This image appeared in Nizar Sabour’s artworks in 2015-2016, which repeatedly referred to the dish’s deep symbolic meaning: it says: “In the raging of battles, death, and fear, we are looking for solutions within us. How do we search for what unites Syrians? What unites them? It is neither the geography, nature, the national culture, nor even the name of the country, ‘Syria’, that brought them together. However, I saw that this dish unites them because it is found on all of their tables regardless of their origin, religion, and sect. On the tables of the rich and the poor, as politics creates divisions among the people, art unites them.” Indeed, the use of the olive dish motifs in Kayali is in perfect harmony with the main theme of this artist’s work. He dealt with the social problems of humankind, trespassing on the privacy of the poor, who are burdened by the hardships of life.

In summary, we can say that the “Syrian Sarcophaguses” by Nizar Sabour is the result of a synthesis of artistic experiences from different eras. As for Sabour, it is part of his own way of capturing the past centuries of cultural, historical, and artistic development of the region, relying as he does on the teachings of ancient civilization, thereby recovering the traditions of Syrian art along with the works of contemporary Syrian artists.

The series of this project is based on the conscious study of historical sarcophaguses and the motifs of ancient burial rites in general. This does not evoke the issue of human kind’s relationship with death, but it opens the door to a dialogue about the artistic expression that accompanies funeral rites (from the plaster and wax masks of the deceased to their busts and even their many copies in frescoes and mosaic works and through to the structures of hemp and papyrus used for mummification).
In addition, he turns to artistic solutions that we distinguish as similar to the process of drawing icons from the Middle Ages, and he re-introduces them and lends them new symbolic content with new connotations. All these visual formulas related to artistic heritage are subject to a kind of double rethinking: first in the works of the artists he celebrates, then in Sabour’s own experience and artistic language.

Nizar Sabour raises an important issue in contemporary Syrian art, which is the relationship between religious art with its civic counterpart, and about the possibilities of combining an understanding of the aesthetics of the image and the content of symbolic meaning. From his point of view, it is possible to distinguish between them. With the help of the visual formulas of religious art, it is possible to present a topic that is not related to religion. Perhaps the most important thing about “Syrian Sarcophaguses” is that, like Sabour’s previous works, it transforms our understanding of the human being in Syrian art from the representation of a particular artist to a representation of art in general and the artistic output of Syria as a whole.

Here is a representative list of the featured Syrian cultural icons in the “Syrian Sarcophaguses” collection:

Fatef al-Moudarres

Fateh al-Moudarres: (1922-1999) born in Aleppo, one of the leaders of the modern art movement in Syria. Moudarres studied at the Accademia di Belle Arti in Rome. He opened new doors to Syrian art through his liberal ideas and taught it in the Faculty of Arts. His studio in Damascus turned into a cultural center for Syrians until his death.

Saadallah Wannous

Saadallah Wannous: (1941 –1997) was a Syrian playwright. He studied journalism in Cairo,  held for many years the directorship in the Music and Theater Administration of Syria. In the late Sixties, he traveled to Paris where he studied theater and encountered various currents, trends, and schools of European stage. In the late Seventies, Wannous helped establish and later taught at The High Institute for Theater Arts in Damascus. He also started Theater Life magazine, of which he was editor-in-chief for years. In 1996, he was Selected by UNESCO and the International Institute of Theater, to present that year’s address to the world theater community during its celebration of International Theater Day on March 27. This was the first selection of an Arab writer since the organization started this tradition in 1963.

Khaled al-Asaad

Khaled al-Asaad: (1932-2015) born in Palmyra, a Syrian archaeologist and the head of antiquities at the ancient city of Palmyra, He worked with American, Polish, German, French, and Swiss archaeological missions. His achievement is the elevation of Palmyra to a UNESCO World Heritage Site. He was also fluent in Aramaic and regularly translated texts until 2011.


Adunis: Syrian poet born in Lattakia (1930), He led a modernist revolution in the second half of the 20th century, “exerting a seismic influence” on Arabic poetry comparable to T.S. Eliot’s in the anglophone world. He won many awards for his works, and he is a perennial contender for the Nobel Prize in Literature, Adunis has been described as the greatest living poet of the Arab world.

Colette al-khouri

Colette al-Khoury: Syrian novelist and poet, born in Damascus (1931), Khoury’s notability stirs from her work in politics and literature. Much of Khoury’s work stemmed from her desire to avoid blatant retaliation; writing was the best and only way she could express herself. Khoury dedicated her work to immersing herself in the female psyche, particularly defending women’s right to love.

Mohammad al-MaghoutMohammad al-Maghut: (1934 – 2006) Syrian writer and poet born in Salamiyah, he was credited as the father of the Arabic free verse poetry, liberating the Arabic poems from the traditional form and revolutionizing the structure of the poem. He wrote for theater, TV, and cinema. He received awards on his works (2005) Prize for Poetry – Sultan Bin Ali Al Owais Cultural Foundation, (2000) Medal of the Experimental Theater – Cairo, (1973) Prize of Said Aql of Theater and Prize for Poetry – An-Nahar Newspaper (1950).

Maram al-Masri: Syrian poet, born in Lattakia (1962) she studied English literature at the University of Damascus and settled in France in 1982. She is considered “one of the most renowned and captivating feminine voices of her generation” in Arabic. Her poems have been translated into several languages, including French, German, English, Spanish and Turkish. She received the Adonis Prize for the Lebanese Cultural Forum and other international awards.

alt=”Abed Azrieh” />Abed Azriye: Syrian musician born in Aleppo (1945) who traveled to Paris since 1976. On a mixture of ancient western and eastern instruments. In his work, he sets ancient and modern Arabic, Sumerian, and other West Asian texts to traditional instruments. He translated classical poetry, such as the Sumerian Epic of Gilgamesh, into French.

Lotfi al-Ramhein: A sculptor (1954), he studied in Carrara, Italy. He held many exhibitions in Syria and abroad. He is one of the most important Syrian sculptors. He worked on all materials and raw materials of sculpture (wood, stone, marble, metals). He lives and works in France.

Khalil Sweileh

Khalil Sweileh:  Syrian journalist and novelist, born in Al-Hasakah (1959), studied literature at Damascus University. He received the Naguib Mahfouz Medal for Literature for his novel “Writing Love,” (2009), and the Arab journalism award (2010).

Mustafa AliMustafa Ali: Syrian sculptor (1956), he studied at the Faculty of Fine Arts in Damascus and Italy. He worked on various materials from bronze to wood. His studio is located in Old Damascus and includes a gallery, a workshop, and an art library.