Idrimi: Stories Ancient and Modern

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Idrimi first came into my field of vision when a Syrian friend, archaeologist and sculptor Zahed Tajeddin showed him to me, when we met in the British Museum. Zahed, like Idrimi, is from Aleppo and keenly feels the relevance and power of this ancient stone man, with his pop-eyes, his faraway stare and his hand placed very firmly on his heart.

Idrimi has been at the British Museum since he was unearthed by Sir Leonard Woolley and shipped to London from his hideaway in Hatay Province, now a disputed Syrian/Turkish territory, where he had lain tucked safely underground for well over 3,000 years. Immediately after Idrimi’s arrival in London in 1939, the staff at the British Museum whisked him underground once more, again for his own protection – this time from Luftwaffe bombs. Since then, he has never left the Museum, too fragile to travel again.

In the summer of 2016, spurred on by Zahed, I sent an entirely unsolicited email to Factum Foundation to ask whether they might be interested in a project highlighting culture and history in the midst of the destruction of Syria with Idrimi as a physical centre point for stories of Syrian refugees and culture. Adam Lowe, their founder and director replied immediately and positively. Factum Foundation’s inspiring work helps to ensure that ‘through the use of the most advanced digital technology available, future generations are able to inherit our physical heritage through truly accurate recording and open source dissemination of the object’s condition as we received it and where it can be studied in depth and enjoyed by all. Where this requires the creation of facsimiles to preserve the original and make the digitally perfect derivative available to a global public then we will be there.’

A few months after we first speak, the long expected but none the less devastating siege of Aleppo begins.

Late January 2017: hours before the British Museum opens its doors to the public, the ‘heavy lifting’ team arrives to manoeuver the sizeable and very fragile sculpture out of his protective glass case. This is the result of much hard work and determination by the wonderful people at the British Museum, in particular the support of Jonathan Tubb, the keeper of the Middle East and the phenomenally energetic project curator James Fraser, on whose blog you can read about Idrimi.

The scanning process, takes two days. The British Museum manages to keep the gallery open, enabling the public to walk past and see what is happening. So rare is it for Idrimi to be out of his case, that a scholar writing a book on him flies over from the States to see him close up. Out of his protective glass, Idrimi has a far stronger presence – more vulnerable and yet far more powerful. I am excited as crowds of people, old and young alike, stop to watch and ask us what is happening and why. Few can believe the prescience of Idrimi’s story and many fall under the somewhat unexpected charm of this lugubrious old man. One young girl of around eleven announces to a delighted Jamie, the curator, her intention to become an archaeologist.

By early April 2017: the work on all the digital data has been finished and uploaded to the British Museum’s Sketchfab site, enabling anyone worldwide to view him freely in far more detail than ever before available and word is beginning to get out about Idrimi, ‘the 3,500 year old refugee from Aleppo’.

Making Light’s work on the Idrimi Project now changes as we team up with Syrian organisations in the UK and an oral historian to train Syrian refugees from all over the UK to become interviewers and record the oral histories of a few dozen of their compatriots who have fled their homeland to come here to Britain as refugees. It can only ever be a drop in the ocean of the 13 million Syrians who have had to flee since 2011. Work too begins in Madrid to create an absolute and perfect 1:1 replica of Idrimi, enabling this venerable figure to take to the road once more, this time as a figurehead for the story of all Syrian refugees: physical testament to the resilience, determination and cultural importance of the people and place. Idrimi a steady point in the great vortex of change that Syrians face today.