When Nasr Saradar watched the video of ISIS destroying a 3,000-year historic site in Nimrud, Iraq at Penn Museum, he was shaken.

A Syrian refugee who now works in refugee resettlement in Philadelphia, Saradar visited the museum’s Cultures in the Crossfire exhibit when it opened last April. “It was heartbreaking and emotional,” he said of the footage from Nimrud.

The video, recorded March 2015, shows three men smashing and pulling down a wall of carved stones, part of a destructive mission that saw members of ISIS take sledgehammers, explosives and a bulldozer to an ancient palace from the ancient Mesopotamian city of Kalhu. Another clip shows the minaret of a seventh century mosque crashing to the ground under bombardment by government forces.

The visual documentation provides a moving opening to the University City exhibition.

Overall, Cultures in the Crossfire makes the case that the cultural destruction has not been incidental to the conflicts in Syria and Iraq — but a direct consequence and explicit aim of the combatants.

The damage has spanned the six UNESCO-designated World Heritage sites in Syria, including the ancient cities of Aleppo and Palmyra.

Brian Daniels, director of research and programs for the Penn Cultural Heritage Center at the museum, said curators hoped to build on the increased awareness of the cultural costs of armed conflict.

Credit: Emma Jacobs

“In terms of cultural heritage destruction,” Daniels said, “I cannot tell you a moment in world history where people have been more aware than right now.” He noted that destruction carried out by ISIS in Palmyra appeared on the front page of the New York Times.

However, he added, media coverage of the damage to heritage sites, “doesn’t mean that people are connected to it.”

Cultures in the Crossfire presents the videos and photos of the destruction alongside archaeological artifacts from Syria and Iraq from the museum’s collections, supplemented by a handful of items loaned by the Smithsonian and University of Pennsylvania libraries.

The museum had a number of stone mortuary portraits from the ancient city of Palmyra, dating to the first and second centuries and similar to others targeted by ISIS, as well as ritual objects and ceramics.

The exhibit also highlights another area that Daniels said has received less attention than it deserves: Syrians’ and Iraqis’ emergency preservation efforts.

Photos of emergency protection measures — sandbags, adhesives and fabric — being put in place at the Ma’arra Mosaic Museum in Syria to prevent further damage to its collection of Roman and Byzantine mosaics are part of the Penn Museum display.

The scope of the exhibit is wide. Interwoven with explanations of the cultural destruction are notes about the simultaneous, immense humanitarian crisis underway. Syria alone has seen hundreds of thousands killed and millions displaced.

Clothes of children who drowned trying to escape, dipped in plaster Credit: Emma Jacobs

Contemporary art by the Syrian artist Issam Kourbaj appears alongside the artifacts.

In “Dark Water, Burning World,” miniature boats modeled on fifth century examples in a British museum carry crowds of burnt matchsticks, echoing the images of boats of refugees crossing the Mediterranean. For another piece called “Lost,” Kourbaj took clothing which belonged to children who drowned in the crossing to Lesbos, Greece, and dipped it in plaster. Daniels said exhibition organizers welcomed the artist’s involvement.

“What we were struggling with is how do you represent the scale of tragedy, something that is in fact unrepresentable,” he said. “How do you convey the pain that comes with the loss of lives of culture in this region?”

The final piece of the exhibition is another of Kourbaj’s installations. A bar of soap made in Aleppo from olive oil and laurel using methods passed down for generations sits beside a fragment of a sink mounted to the wall. “Aleppo Soap, Don’t Wash Your Hands,” entreats visitors not to wash away the humanitarian tragedy, but to reflect on Syrian heritage caught in the midst of the conflict.

Saladar hopes that, “when people understand who the ancestors of the Syrian people are and what their culture is about, they may understand that those terrorist groups do not represent everyone.” Greater awareness of the magnitude of the physical destruction, he also noted, “might push for more humanitarian aid.”

Cultures in the Crossfire continues through November 25, 2018. Curators are planning for it to travel to other institutions.