Generally interested in audiovisual installations, I was very excited to visit Cités Millénaires at the Institut du Monde Arabe in Paris described as an immersive experience on millenary cities. Palmyre, Alep, Mossoul and Leptis Magna: four cities which, despite the incredible heritage they hold, have been disfigured by the effects of the war. These four names resonate with the beauties of the Arab world but also with the consequences of its recent history. Cités Millénaires proposes a virtual journey into these cities, resurrected for the occasion.
Four cities, four spaces; each one of them arranged in the same way: a big room with a wall projection of the virtual city showing its current look and reconstituting the monuments before their destruction, a circular map in the center giving some geographical references and another screen displaying historical photographs of the city when it was still intact. Around, some interviews of scientists, historians or former locals give some insights into the city’s history and vibe. Plus, smaller rooms around focus on a particular part of the city, a particular monument, or a particular moment in history, always in video form. The same pattern is repeated four times, then a virtual reality experience follows where the visitor can through himself in the ancient cities – it is very well done! It ends with a video showing other historical sites around the world which are worth saving. Overall, the exhibition gives power to the visuals. There is few text, just to give some context and when it is more present, it is as quotes to transition from one city to the next. Text is thus quite emotional and poetic, making the visual experience even more fascinating.
There are a few highlights. Leptis Magna in itself is one. I personally did not know about this city (shame on me I guess) and was amazed by the richness of its archaeological site. It is, in my opinion, the most incredible city of the four. Its theatre, its basilica, its arch, every element of it inspires beauty and wealth. What a city it must have been during the Carthaginian and Roman Empire! Even though it is the third space of the exhibition – I knew what to expect – I felt very emotional ‘visiting’ Leptis Magna, more, for some reason than, the other ones, maybe due to its more ancient nature. A second highlight is definitely the interviews of people who lived in Alep and had to leave because of the Syrian war. One of them in particular was poignant: the young man, now living in France, expresses his love for his city, for his country, his wish to go back and the sadness and frustration he feels because of what has and is still happening there. This kind of moment in Cités Millénaires is on point : it gives context to the experience and reminds the visitor that it is not some sad thing happening in another part of the world, it is our reality. With the same intention, Greetings From Aleppo is another highlight. The art piece by Issa Touma Floor der Meulen and Thomas Vroege is a video journey through today’s Alep, showing that it is still a city where people live, and that they are the first victims of the war and destruction of their heritage. It is again a poignant moment which left me with one thought: nothing is ever acquired.
Needless to say that Cités Millénaires is a must-see. It is an emotional experience through some of the most incredible cities the earth have seen. It is historical yet current, emotional yet educational and visual yet full of content. It makes not judgment but says one thing: let’s work to preserve our heritage.
P.S. : I wish I could have better visuals in this post but the whole exhibition being made of AV, I could not take better pictures. Sorry about this.