Voices past and present

Portrait of a woman holding a spindle and distaff and flanked by lion handles (c. 120 A.D.) came from Palmyra, and is on loan from Ny Carlsberg Glyptotek, Copenhagen. Photo: Adel Gorgy

Art and objects from the ancient Middle East embody both the fleeting nature of time and the enduring impact of long-ago cultures

By Mary Gregory

Entering the Metropolitan Museum’s exhibition, “The World between Empires: Art and Identity in the Ancient Middle East,” filled with images of deities, war paraphernalia, funerary objects, coins, and relics of everyday life, one feels the presence of two millennia filled with history, spirituality, culture and conflict. Names and borders are different, but the timeless gazes of portraits and the surprisingly familiar aesthetic of the works remind us that the more things change, the more they stay the same.

Close to 200 works, including many important international loans, come together to give a sense of ancient places like Petra, Mesopotamia, and Palmyra, and of cultures like the Nabataeans and Phoenicians. Separate sections of the exhibition focus on areas of the Middle East, stretching from Yemen to Syria, from 100 B.C. to 250 A.D. Along with art and artifacts are photographs, maps, and video bringing the past and present together. “In focusing on an area of the world that has been deeply affected by recent conflicts and the destruction of sites, monuments, and objects, this show also engages with complex questions about the preservation of cultural heritage,” stated Max Hollein, director of The Met.

A Ruby-Eyed, Alabaster Beauty

The exhibition organizers, Michael Seymour and Blair Fowlkes-Childs, highlight a three-century long contest between the powerful Roman and Parthian empires for control of the trade routes of the ancient Middle East, and the ways that local cultures evaded their influences. Distinct societies and diverse religions flourished.

The diminutive work that opens the exhibition is stunning and challenging. It’s a small alabaster statuette, about the size of a hand, on loan from the Louvre. Delicately modeled, with articulating arms, the female figure wears a gold necklace, earrings and crown and has inlaid rubies in her eyes and navel. Fowlkes-Childs remarks in the audio accompanying the work that the sculpture came from a grave in ancient Mesopotamia. While the portrayal might seem similar to Aphrodite or Venus, she says “these questions of divine identity are not always easy to solve.” Seymour later adds that they believe the statue depicts Ishtar of Babylon. But, he points out, “She is being represented in new ways.”

Among the highlights is a beautiful wall plaque of a cheetah with charming incised circles indicating its spotted fur, from Palmyra in the third century. In the gallery featuring works from southwestern Arabia, the vivid realism of an elegant bronze horse contrasts with an extraordinarily modern-looking, abstracted face carved in a stele of stone, though they come from about the same place and time (first to second century).

The Push and Pull of Time

Some of the things in the exhibition are startling because we know them, but never imagined we’d see them, like the humble unglazed pottery jar that once held the Dead Sea Scrolls. Others are astonishing because of their anonymity. Who knew that two extremely rare early paintings of Jesus on view here belong to the collection of nearby Yale University? Still others are compelling because, despite the 2,000 years that have passed, they seem so familiar, like glasses and jars from Tyre and Sidon. The cities, the wall texts explain, had particularly fine sand for glass-making, and became famous for their glassware.

There’s a constant sense of the push and pull of time as one passes through the galleries. At one moment it all seems so distant, at another, so near. And that seems to be part of the point. Wall texts throughout the exhibition discuss the destruction of cultural heritage so problematic today. A group of experts appear in videos discussing the tragic losses of artworks across the region. But they also present ideas for the future, offering hope.

A particularly poignant carved wall plaque remains in memory after walking among treasures from cultures enduring and long forgotten. It’s an altar, praising the goodness, mercy and power of god, but leaving that god unnamed.