Friday, August 17, 2007

Lebanese play "Zenobia" draws cultural and historical parallels

A history resource article by  © 2007

Queen Zenobia's Last Look Upon Palmyra, by Herbert Gustave Schmalz
Image courtesy of Wikimedia Commons
This play sounds fascinating! I am presently reading The Chronicle of Zenobia by Judith Weingarten so the characters portrayed in this performance are known to me. Zenobia's leadership in a culture where women were seldom seen and not officially heard is nothing short of miraculous. Her adaptability is even more amazing as, unlike her distant relation Cleopatra, Zenobia endured being the captured prize in a Roman triumph and even later married a Roman senator. I wish I could see this play. I wonder if anyone has thought about filming it?

"History is a mirror of the future," says Oussama Rahbani. "If you don't have a history, you don't have a future." It was with this notion of embracing the past in order to greet the future that Lebanese composer Mansour Rahbani, in collaboration with his sons Marwan, Oussama, and Ghady Rahbani, created the epic musical "Zenobia," which opened a five-night run on Wednesday evening for the Byblos International Festival, in the old port city north of Beirut.

Though in many ways a tragedy, ending in defeat and suicide, the play is at heart a celebration - of culture, music and freedom, and, perhaps more forcefully, of the strength, determination and ferocity of the female spirit.

What makes "Zenobia" enveloping and believable is the plot's adherence to the play's historical foundation. Zenobia was the third-century queen of Palmyra, an oasis in the desert of central Syria fueled by caravans snaking along the Silk Road. Sandwiched between the two great powers of the day, the Persians to the east and the Romans to the west, the city was caught between two empires jockeying for position. Palmyra became a Roman province in the first century.

A head said to represent Odenathus in the Palmyra
Museum.  Image courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.
When her husband Odenathus was murdered along with his heir, Zenobia, ruling in the stead of her young son Vaballathus, rebelled against Rome. She was eventually defeated and hauled off to answer for her defiance but not before liberating greater Syria, Palestine and parts of Egypt.

With this historic episode as a reference, the Rahbanis succeed in fabricating a performance of savory meaning and depth. This is not to say that they do it alone - close to 100 actors and actresses took the stage on Wednesday night, with a supporting army of technicians, designers, choreographers and assistants - but the creative energy behind the production is exemplary of the quality of theater Lebanese audiences have come to expect from a Rahbani production.

The play opens with a dream sequence in which Zenobia, played by Carole Samaha, receives a prophecy from Cleopatra that she will be ruler of the East. In reality Cleopatra was Zenobia's idol - she even claimed to have descended from her as Zenobia's mother hailed from Egypt. But in the play, Cleopatra takes on the additional role of Zenobia's subconscious, mentor and, at times, tormentor.

Odenathus, the king of Palmyra, returns with the army from a victorious battle against the Persians. While Zenobia asserts that the victory belongs to Palmyra and not Rome, her counselor Longinus - modeled after the queen's real-life advisor, the philosopher and rhetorician Cassius Dionysius Longinus - tries to convince her to break away from Rome. Zenobia is reluctant to cut the alliance, even though she remains intensely tethered to the East.

This state of affairs does not last long, however. Odenathus travels to Emesa (modern day Homs in Syria) against the advice of Zabdai (played by Ghassan Saliba), the leader of Palmyra's army. There the king is betrayed by his nephew Ismail Maeonus, who, after killing Odenathus and his son, declares himself "the king of kings."

Zenobia, who now fears that her city will be trampled underfoot by the Persians and Romans alike, takes charge and vows to extend her territory into Asia Minor and up to the gates of Rome itself."

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Syrian mosaics restored in Ravenna featured in exhibit

A history resource article by  © 2007

A Syrian mosaic fragment from the late Roman
The following article was a press release from ANSI.

Ravenna, the capital of Roman and Byzantine mosaics, has turned its hand to a fresh clutch of works, restoring a number of priceless designs on loan from Syrian museums.

"The mosaics, which are currently on display, were created by artists during the late Roman period, when Syria was a province of the Roman Empire.
Ravenna was the centre of late Roman mosaic art in the fifth century CE but Syria was also considered a crucial production point."
 "Its capital Antioch was particularly renowned, and it was for a long time one of the most important areas of mosaic production in the entire Roman Empire."
“Mosaici d’Oriente. Tessere sulla via di Damasco” (“Mosaics of the East. Tiles on the Road to Damascus”) will showcase a selection of precious artworks from this era.
Most of the mosaics were designed for the floor and feature a variety of animals, symbolic designs whose meaning is still being studied by experts."
"One shows a series of animal pairs — a zebra and a lion, a cheetah and a unicorn — facing a fruit tree. Another depicts identical pairs of birds and quadrupeds standing next to a large urn."
"A third panel shows scenes from a hunt, including animals chasing one another, against a background of stylized rose-designs."
"The exhibition, the result of months of careful restoration work by Ravenna experts, is the second in a series of collaborations between the western Italian city and Syria." 
"A show last year focusing on the golden age of Ravenna, explored the town’s influence throughout the Mediterranean and included a number of Syrian mosaics among its 100 pieces on show."
"Ravenna developed rapidly after first replacing Rome as capital of the western Roman Empire in the fifth century CE and then becoming the capital of the Byzantine Empire."
"Its rulers built the finest Byzantine churches outside Constantinople and to this day, the city retains its name as the ‘Capital of Mosaics.’"
"Among the city’s most famous pieces is its Mausoleum of Galla Placidia, from 425-430, which shows a gold cross in the middle of a starry sky. Later pieces, completed after Ravenna was conquered by the Byzantine Empire, include mosaics in the Basilica of San Vitale, showing a series of scenes from the Old Testament, and small sequences in the Basilica of Sant’Apollinare Nuovo, depicting Christ’s miracles and parables on one side, and the Passion and Resurrection on the other.""

The Good Shepherd mosaic from the Mausoleum of Galla Placidia in Ravenna, Italy, a World Heritage Site.
Image courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.

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