Archaeological shows, whether large or small, are like icebergs. What you see is the tip of a mountain of history submerged in the ocean of time. “The World Between Empires: Art and Identity in the Ancient Middle East,” which opens at the Metropolitan Museum of Art on Monday, is like that. It’s a big show, packed with surprises, and connected equally to the present and the past. And in this case the tip takes the shape of a wide-open field with a long road running through it.
The terrain is dominated by giants, ancient competing superpowers seen late in their long histories: imperial Rome to the west and Parthia in Iran to the east. But unusually for a show in which they are featured, the focus here is not on them. It’s on a patchwork of subject cultures — roughly corresponding to modern-day Iraq, Israel, Jordan, Lebanon, Syria and Yemen — that lay between them.
Often those cultures are themselves presented as if shaped by the Roman and Parthian presence. This exhibition offers a different picture. Yes, imperial influence is there, and often strong, but far from being all-determining, each of the cultures considered borrows imperial symbols and styles, but partially, selectively, critically — grafting them onto local traditions. The results include distinctive new grass-roots hybrids, in which conflicted responses to domination, even outright resistance to it, can sometimes be read.
Museums, with their air of balanced neutrality, tend to aestheticize conflict and gloss over the chaos and destruction it can create. This exhibition doesn’t do that. Realistically, it couldn’t. Most of the territory it covers has experienced culturally targeted violence for millenniums, up to and including the present.
The curators — Michael Seymour and Blair Fowlkes-Childs of the Met’s department of ancient Near Eastern art — keep this reality constantly visible, in wall texts and in a centrally placed video dealing with recent attacks on art in Syria and Iraq. By doing so, they acknowledge that past and present are always linked, and that objects on view in the show are powerful in ways that go beyond aesthetics.
Finally, through their arrangement of those objects — around 190, which date roughly from 100 B.C. to 250 A.D. — the curators make clear why imperial Rome and Parthia were so invested on asserting control of the Middle Eastern “world between”: because one of the most extensive and lucrative trade routes on earth stretched across it, and, gallery by gallery, culture by culture, the exhibition traces its path.
This begins in Southwestern Arabia (modern-day Yemen) and moves north to the kingdom of Nabataea — an ally of the Roman Empire — with its rock-cut capital at Petra (now in Jordan). From there the route continues through the rebellious territory of Judaea (Israel and Palestine), to the ritual center of Heliopolis-Baalbek in present-day Lebanon. Finally come the route’s grand, easternmost cities, until very recently well-preserved ruins: Palmyra and Dura-Europos in Syria, and Babylon and Hatra in Iraq. In the art at each stop, imperial influence is evident, if only as an overlay, and local traditions hold their own.
Sometimes the coexistence of styles can be startling. Southwestern Arabia was isolated from Rome and Parthia by desert, but as the source of an international spice and incense trade, was commercially bound to both. Possibly it was this positioning — intimate but arm’s-length — that encouraged Arabia to import foreign styles, but let them stay foreign, unabsorbed.
That, at least, is the impression given by a magnificent bronze sculpture of a rearing horse at the start of the show. A textbook example of Greco-Roman naturalism, it was cast in Yemen, as an inscription confirms. Yet another Yemen work nearby, a near-abstract alabaster head of a woman with enormous eyes and a small, sweet smile (she was affectionately nicknamed Miriam by the archaeologists who found her), could not look more different. It’s hard to believe both came from the same place, but they did.
Two carved goddess heads from Petra are similarly paired puzzlers. One, fine-featured and ivy-crowned, is textbook Classical. The other, identified by inscription as a native Nabatean deity, is a flat, foursquare limestone upright with what look like stuck-on lips and eyes. One thing you learn from them is that ancient Middle Easterners seem to have been far less inclined than we are to define a culture by a single style. Difference, far from being a problem, made sense to them, was what they liked.
This was demonstrably the case at the ecumenical settlement of Dura-Europos. Not only did multiple cultures, including Roman and Parthian, converge there, so did many religions, monotheistic and polytheistic. The section of the show devoted to the city includes a frieze of an Arabian god on camelback, clay tiles from a synagogue ceiling, and a wall painting that may be the earliest depictions of Jesus. Even hard-to-place items fit in fine. An oval limestone head of a man with staring, worried eyes is now tentatively identified as a god, but who cares if he is or isn’t? Anyone would be glad to have so soulful a fellow around.
Still, the city’s reputation for pluralist harmony may be inflated. Paintings depicting broken statues hint at conflicts. And conflict is built into art from ancient Judaea, particularly the small selection chosen for the show. It’s dominated by a magnificent bronze portrait of the emperor Hadrian, who not only tried to force his emperor-as-god cult on the monotheistic people, but also suppressed the Jewish revolt for independence from Rome. Near Hadrian’s image in the gallery is a vitrine holding small objects — dishes, jugs, a knife, a mirror — discovered in a cave where Jewish rebels hid. One bronze jug, possibly stolen from a Roman army camp, is decorated with a figure of a Classical-style Victory. The face of the figure has been thoroughly rubbed out.
Erasure, justifiable and not, is a common fate of art in the territory the show defines. Recent satellite images have revealed that Dura-Europos, left unguarded during the current Syrian civil war, is being picked clean by looters. In 2015 and 2017, major structures at ancient Palmyra were brought down by Islamic State militants. Monuments in both northern and southern Iraq — at Hatra, Nimrud, Nineveh — have been blasted out of existence.
Destruction is also one of two main themes in the show’s 12-minute video, a taped conversation among three historians: Zainab Bahrani, professor of ancient Near Eastern art and archaeology at Columbia University; Michel Al-Maqdissi, a researcher at the Louvre, and Michal Gawlikowski, professor emeritus at the University of Warsaw. Ms. Bahrani, who is Iraqi, minces no words in describing what the erasure of art means to her. It’s a form of “ethnic cleansing,” she says. “And in many cases, really, it’s a form of genocide.”
Their second theme is preservation, and their urging of museums to protect, document and contextualize vulnerable work carries special weight at a time when questions around the restitution of cultural property are in the air. Should objects be returned even when the return might place them in danger? The issue is ethically many-sided and emotionally complicated, but at least one reaction feels clear looking around the show: You can’t help but feel relief that what’s here is safely here.
And there are magnetic things. One is a tiny Babylonian Venus, her nude body carved from milky alabaster, her eyes set with rubies, a gold crescent moon in her hair. A tomb relief of a young Palmyrene woman named Bat’a is another; traces of original paint intensify her riveted, direct-address gaze. And there’s a marvelous life-size carving of an eagle from Petra. Possibly conceived as a protector of the dead, it stands alert, wind-tousled and spread-winged, as if braced for a storm.
And a singular piece that ends the show, a late-third-century Sardonyx cameo, marks the start of a new Middle East history. Two decades or so before the cameo was carved, the Sasanian Empire rose to power in what is now Iran. Its first ruler, Ardashir I, vanquished the Parthians. His son, Shapur I, triumphed over the Roman army and, shockingly, captured its emperor Valerian.
This is the event etched in the cameo, which, like so much art in the show, sends complex political and ideological messages echoing back and forth through time. The cameo form itself was one anciently associated with the celebration of Greco-Roman imperial rule, but here, adapted for use as Sasanian propaganda, it advertises the ignoble defeat of that rule. And although the event depicted is grim — Valerian died in captivity — the object that records it is a thing of unusual beauty, with colors dark as the sea, bright as the sky.
The World Between Empires: Art and Identity in the Ancient Middle East
March 18 through June 23 at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, Manhattan; 212-535-7710, metmuseum.org.
Let’s block ads! (Why?)