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, and often dazzling. And it carries a particular significance at a time when the cultural landscapes of Syria and Yemen are devastated by war, and in some cases, deliberate destruction. The Islamic State, also known as ISIS, has destroyed the Temple of Bel at Palmyra, along with other buildings, tombs, and objects, and murdered those who once sought to preserve and protect them for future generations. They did so to erase the past; to wipe the historical record clean of reminders that this part of the world has a long history that is not connected to Islam, and that its people once believed and lived in different ways to those “approved” by fundamentalists.

THE WEALTH OF NATIONS

“The World Between Empires” presents nine linked towns and regions, each geographically and culturally distinct from the others but connected through trade routes. Three major trade networks defined the commercial life of the Middle East: spice and caravan routes through the north, maritime connections accessing the Indian Ocean, and land routes running east to China as part of the early Silk Road. 

Trade generated enormous wealth for those who had access to desirable goods. Southwestern Arabia, for example, was famed for its frankincense and myrrh as well as for being a gateway for spices and jewels—such as the rubies sported by the nude goddess—from South Asia. The people living in southwestern Arabia were “the richest nations in the world,” Pliny the Elder wrote, thanks to the insatiable appetites of those in both the Roman and Parthian Empires for aromatics and spices. What made matters worse, he noted sourly, was that “they purchase nothing whatever in return.” Today, the empires would be said to be running a trade deficit. 

Pliny the Elder’s comments underscore the fact that the fruits of commerce were not always concentrated in imperial hands—something that the exhibition makes abundantly clear. A magnificent bronze statue of a rearing horse, dated to the second century, is revealed by its inscription to have once been part of a pair that guarded the sanctuary of Madrah by Hawti’athat of the Ghayman tribe in southwest Arabia. Although missing its twin, as well as its rider, the statue is a reminder that in the ancient world, you didn’t have to be part of an empire to be able to enjoy the finer things in life. Wealth was generated where there was extensive trade. The workmanship of this quality and standard show the willingness not just to show off the fruits of prosperity but the means to pay for it, too. 

The location of some of the places that flourished are obscure to many: the names of such kingdoms as Hadramawt, Qataban, and Himyar are all but unknown outside the rarefied world of classical scholarship. But by bringing together art that was produced or proudly displayed in these locations, the curators ask the viewer to consider the centrality to world history of regions otherwise portrayed as marginal or even irrelevant. 

For this reason, the exhibition’s title is a curious one. In describing the cities, peoples, and cultures that form the focus of the exhibition as belonging to a “world between empires,” the curators effectively define these cities, peoples, and cultures in relation to the greater powers that surrounded them. But in point of fact, the exhibition provides a subversive and deeply compelling view of those who are precisely not Roman or Parthian. Situated outside of the apparatus of empires, these cultures possessed sophistication and subtlety that were the result of extensive borrowing from multiple sources and drawing on a variety of artistic as well as linguistic, religious, and cultural models. This sophistication is captured by the objects on display, which encourage the visitor to think about the ancient past as one of vibrant regional and intercontinental connections; of movements of people, ideas, and objects over hundreds or even thousands of miles.

FORGING IDENTITIES

The exhibition as a whole may testify to the existence of a common identity among the peoples of the ancient Middle East, but the objects also demonstrate the strength and distinctiveness of local cultures within the region. The rise of Judaism set Judea, for example, on a unique path not only in its religion but in political, economic, and cultural development. Monuments such as the Temple of Jerusalem, one of the largest temples in the ancient world, were built to convey an insistent, singular message of the power of one religion (in this case, Judaism) and to drown out others. A strong local identity coalesced around the religion, along with a desire for autonomy. In Judaea, the Romans met with the most robust and regular rebellions from large parts of the local population, who reacted to the overlordship, and the social, cultural, and political models imposed from afar.

The Nabataeans, whose kingdom controlled vital trade routes on a north-south axis, had their own ways of managing external pressure. The Nabataeans were fiercely independent and “exceptionally fond of freedom,” as the historian Diodorus of Sicily writes; when threatened, they would “take refuge in the desert, using this as a fortress, since it lacks water and cannot be crossed by others.” They were also enormously wealthy: they built the city of Petra into one of the most extraordinary locations in the ancient world, complete with enormous monuments carved into the rock. Petra was a metropolis, an emporium, and a jewel in its own right. Like New York City, Petra thrived because it was accessible and mutable—and also like New York, it was not above trumpeting its own glory. One of the most striking exhibits is a giant limestone bust of Zeus-Dushara, the chief deity of the city, discovered by the Temenos Gate at Petra.

In Palmyra, local authorities fostered a distinct identity by issuing bilingual coinage and insisting that civic inscriptions on buildings be written in Greek as well as Palmyrene Aramaic. The exhibition includes a lovely set of reliefs and funerary portraits of Palmyrene elites, beautifully carved by master craftsmen. One, a striking image of a young woman named Bat’a wearing a collection of expensive jewelry that was commissioned by her grandfather during her lifetime, is particularly fine. The carving is also important from an art-historical perspective, because unlike most others, it still contains some original pigment.

Ancient reliefs from the Middle East on display at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York City, March 2019
Ancient reliefs from the Middle East on display at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York City, March 2019
Vincent Tullo / The New York Times

WHO OWNS HISTORY?

Each of the nine zones of the exhibition offers revelations—from a full-sized, perfectly intact, fabulous Roman shield found at Dura-Europos (in Syria), to what is widely considered to be the earliest representation of Jesus Christ in the world, also found at Dura-Europos, inside a building that is thought to be the world’s oldest surviving church. Like the nude goddess, each of these objects alone is worth the visit.

A display of beautifully preserved glassware is captivating for the fineness of the objects and the brilliance of their color. I was transfixed by the relief of what is almost certainly the Arabian god Arsu, protector of caravans and ruler of the evening star, riding a camel and with a scarf around his neck billowing behind him. And I smiled at the cippus—a small funerary monument from Sidon in what is now Lebanon—that records the life of a woman named Bremousa (whose name literally means “angry woman”). Bremousa, it says, “was excellent and did not cause trouble. Farewell!” I can think of worse ways to be remembered.

The exhibition’s lavishly produced catalogue dedicates a final chapter to the wartime destruction of heritage sites in the Middle East. It also includes satellite images of Dura-Europos that document a second threat: illegal excavations are ravaging this site, as trophy hunters seek treasures to sell to unscrupulous buyers. That is heartbreaking. 

One cannot help noticing how many of the glories on display at the Met come not from museums and collections in the modern countries in which they were found (though there are some important loans from Israel, Jordan, and Lebanon) but from collections in Denmark, France, Germany, the United Kingdom, and the United States. That says a lot about how the material culture of some parts of the world have been acquired by those living in others, as economic and political centers of gravity have shifted over time.

Those shifts have shaped the wider narrative of how we look at the past. Identifying peoples and geographic regions as being “between empires” presupposes that those empires are what matters. It can be tempting to think of the regions that connect empires as being important and interesting only in terms of how they link other, notionally more important and interesting states together. But as anyone who sees this exhibition should realize, not a single piece on show is marginal, produced by or for people on the periphery. Hopefully this magnificent show can help change how we look at ourselves, as well as how we look at those who were central—and not in between.

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