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From the Ancient Middle East, Art That Links Past and Present

An Exhibition at the Met Challenges How We Look at History

A bronze horse cast in Yemen on display at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York City, March 2019 Vincent Tullo / The New York Times

“From the first century BC through the mid-third century AD, the political map of the Middle East was defined by two superpowers,” write the curators of a spectacular show currently on view at the Metropolitan Museum of Art. One behemoth was the Roman Empire, “with its power base in the Mediterranean.” The other was the Parthian Empire, “which controlled Iran and much of Central Asia.” 

“The World Between Empires: Art and Identity in the Ancient Middle East,” open from March 18 to June 23, 2019, brings together a glorious collection of artwork from the area “in between” these two great powers. The region included much of the modern Middle East: southwestern Arabia, Nabataea, Judaea, Syria, and Mesopotamia. According to the curators, this geographic space was a contested one, squeezed by powerful neighbors looking to gain at each other’s expense. But its inhabitants had much in common with one another: they spoke a variety of related languages, worshipped a range of deities in similar settings, and were part of a connected trading network that brought goods and commodities over short—and sometimes long—distances.  

The question of shared identity—imperial or otherwise—is a vexing one that the exhibition does not set about definitively answering. Rather, the exhibition succeeds in focusing the eye on places that often get overlooked, relegated to the dreaded periphery—or worse, a “world between.”

Many of the objects on display are jaw-droppingly beautiful. One of the first on display is a ten-inch alabaster statuette of a goddess. She wears a gold necklace and pendant earrings, with a lunar crescent above her finely arranged hair. Standing with her palm outstretched, she is naked but for a ruby in her navel and two rubies set in her eyes. It is worth going just to see her: she took my breath away.

An alabaster nude goddess from Babylon on display at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York City, March 2019

An alabaster nude goddess from Babylon on display at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York City, March 2019

Vincent Tullo / The New York Times

The exhibition is surprising, moving,

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