Wednesday, April 17, 2019

The World between Empires at the Metropolitan Museum of Art


The World between Empires:

Art and Identity in the Ancient Middle East

Metropolitan Museum of Art
March 18 - June 23, 2019

Reviewed by Ed Voves

Original Photography by Anne Lloyd

The World between Empires is the latest in a series of spectacular exhibitions at the Metropolitan Museum of Art dealing with the rise and fall of powerful states in the ancient Middle East. This often-told story, however, is viewed from an unconventional perspective. The Met exhibit focuses upon small political "players" trying to maintain a degree of independence, as rival superpowers plotted strategy and unleashed their armies.

Unlike Pergamon and the Hellenistic Kingdoms, the notable 2016 exhibit at the Met, World between Empires does not have many "show-stopper" art works among the 190 artifacts on display. Many of these objects lack the familiar hallmarks of Greco-Roman art. These factors, however, are not drawbacks as might at first be assumed.

The keynote of the works on view in World between Empires is variety. The geographic area surveyed by the exhibition is vast. Likewise, the ethnic diversity of the populations who resided in the region's major cities like Palmyra or Petra, is reflected by the range of the art works on display. There were bonds of unity, as well, and these too can be studied in the Met's exhibit.

Anne Lloyd, Photo (2019) Rearing Horsefrom Southwestern Arabia, ca. 2nd century

The rearing horse, on loan from the Dumbarton Oaks Museum in Washington D.C., is a case in point. This bronze Arabian steed testifies to the remarkable way that shared cultural models promoted cohesion in the patchwork of city-states and small kingdoms of the ancient Middle East. The statue was discovered in Yemen, broken into eighty fragments. When reassembled, an early form of Arabic writing, Himyaritic, was found incised on the shoulder of the horse. The inscription mentions a second horse, fragments of which were later discovered.

But who were the riders? Scholars believe that they were local versions of the Greek gods, the twin brothers, Kastor and Polydeukes (Castor and Pollux to the Romans). These twins, also known as the Dioskouroi, were venerated for their role as protectors of travelers and victims of strife. In lands menaced by warfare, the appeal of this rearing horse and its now vanished rider would have been universal.

World between Empires is a major reappraisal of the ancient cultures of the Middle East from 100 BC to 250 AD. However, the unhappy parallels with the contemporary political situation in the Middle East is a "problem" which cannot be ignored. A battleground in ancient times, the region remains so today. At some point during the exhibition, most visitors are likely to stop and ask themselves "is the subject here dealing with ancient times or the present?"

Anne Lloyd, Photo (2019) Gallery view of The World Between Empire exhibition

At the very entrance to the exhibit, ghostly images of ancient funerary monuments appear as if by magic. Inwardly, we know that these are digital images of ancient people from Palmyra, a half-forgotten city on the trade route to the east. Yet, the front page of today's newspaper or the evening news report often present us with faces like these from Yemen, Syria, Israel or Iraq, victims of terrorist attacks or from "counter-terrorist" air strikes. 

Anne Lloyd, Photo (2019) 
Funerary relief of Tadmur, wife of  Mokimu, from Palmyra, ca. 148 A.D.

What do we see when we study this compelling monument?  Past or present?

This is the face of a long-dead woman named Tadmur, wife of Mokimu, a citizen of the oasis-city of Palmyra in Syria. The inscription, written in the Palmyrene version of Aramaic, tells us the date of her death, which corresponds to the year 148 by our reckoning. Tadmur's lively intelligence somehow emerges from the carved limestone to an extraordinary degree. It's not hard to think of her living today, trying to keep alive in a precarious, war-torn world.

The major focus of World between Empires is the way that small kingdoms and city-states like ancient Palmyra managed to survive in the crossfire of the two contending superpowers of that bygone era. The Roman Empire marched in from the west, confronting its formidable adversary, Parthia, riding in from the east. People like Tadmur, lived and worked in the region's cities, Palmyra, Hatra, Heliopolis-Ballbek and Dura-Europos, never knowing for sure from which direction the invading army might come.

The Middle East during the period covered by the exhibition, 100 B.C. to 250 A.D., was also cross-roads for religious ideals and practice.

Anne Lloyd, Photo (2019)
Statuette of standing nude goddess, from Babylon,1st century B.C.-2nd century A.D.

This extraordinary statuette comes from Babylon. The fabled city, much reduced from its former glory, was still an important urban center in Mesopotamia. The intermingling of artistic styles and of cross-cultural assimilation are present in this extraordinary work of art from the collection of the Louvre.

 The goddess depicted is most likely Ishtar, a very ancient figure from Mesopotamian mythology. The voluptuous body type is that of Venus or Aphrodite from the Greco-Roman pantheon. The ruby-inlaid eyes and navel most probably came from southeast Asia, via the Indian Ocean maritime trade route to the Persian Gulf and then brought to Babylon by caravan.

At the same time, new cults arose and flourished. Devotion to Mithras, engaged in battle against the malign forces of the cosmos, hopped over the battle lines. Originally an Indo-Iranian deity, Mithras was embraced by the troops of the Roman legions. Mithras was sometimes viewed as a companion of the Sun God, referred to as Sol Invictus. Others considered Mithas and Sol one and the same savior deity.

Anne Lloyd, Photo (2019)
 Altar for Sol, Malakbel and Palmyrene Gods, late 1st-2nd century

An altar on display in the Met exhibit shows Mithras/Sol  riding on the back of an eagle, one of the symbolical animals associated with Rome.

The veneration of Mithras reached incredible levels of devotion, especially among Rome's soldiers, as noted above. A fresco fragment form Dura-Europos, a strategic fortress guarding the Roman Empire's border with Parthia, shows Mithras and Sol. Mithras is shown wearing a Phrygian cap, also worn by freed slaves in ancient Rome. A version of the cap was worn by Patriot soldiers in the American Revolution, bearing the motto "Liberty or Death." Later, it was adapted during the French Revolution as the bonnet de la Liberté.

Anne Lloyd, Photo (2019)
 Wall painting of Mithras and Sol, from Dura-Europos, ca. 210 

Now in the collection of the Yale University Art Museum, this fresco would have decorated a temple called a mithraeum. Here, initiates into the cult of Mithras/Sol were baptized with the steaming blood of a sacrificed ox. This gruesome ritual took place at similar sites wherever the Roman legions set up their camps and forts.

Given the nearly invincible reputation of the Roman legions, it is surprising that Rome did not quickly conquer the Middle East as Alexander the Great had done. Two factors prevented this. A powerful kingdom, Parthia, had gained control of a large domain, centered upon present-day Iran. The highly effective cavalry of the Parthians, squads of swift-moving horse archers, followed by armored lancers known as cataphracts, thwarted Rome's infantry tactics.

Another adversary of the Pax Romana, less formidable in military power, was equally tenacious: the Jews.

In 115, the Roman emperor, Trajan, unleashed a massive campaign to knock-out the Parthians. Trajan was a gifted strategist. He and his veteran cavalry commander from North Africa, Lusius Quietus, defeated the Parthian frontier forces and rapidly marched through Mesopotamia toward the Persian Gulf. For a brief moment, the Romans under Trajan appeared to be repeating the sensational conquests of Alexander.

Like a mirage in the desert, the visions of glory quickly vanished. Jewish communities in many regions of the Roman Empire rose in revolt. Embittered by the Roman destruction of the Temple of Jerusalem in the year 70, Jewish resistance groups seized the opportunity for revenge with so many of the Roman legions deployed far to the east.

By the time the revolts were suppressed, Trajan was dead. The Parthians regrouped and began to counterattack. The prospect of a very long, very bloody war confronted Trajan's successor, Hadrian.

Anne Lloyd, Photo (2019)
 Head and torso of cuirassed statue of Hadrian, ca.117–138

This brings us, face to face, with one of the most notable art works in World between Empires. In 1975, Israeli archaeologists, excavating a Roman military base, discovered the head and torso of a bronze statue of Hadrian which had once been displayed in the camp shrine. Seldom, in my experience, has an  "official" statue captured the inner conflicts and contradictions of a great leader to the degree achieved by this incredible portrait of Hadrian.

Anne Lloyd, Photo (2019) Head of cuirassed statue of Hadrian, ca.117–138

Hadrian (76 A.D.-138 A.D.) was arguably the most intelligent and effective of the Roman emperors. He proved himself an able diplomat, negotiating an end to Trajan's deadlocked Parthian War. The peace treaty lasted almost fifty years, one of the longest periods without a major war in the history of the Middle East.

Unfortunately, Hadrian was also capable of remarkable cruelty, murdering Lusius Quietus, Trajan's cavalry leader, on a baseless charge of treason. Far worse, Hadrian made one of the most spectacular blunders in history, the effects of which still resonate in today's world.

Following the Jewish revolts that plagued Trajan's campaign, Hadrian planned to rebuild Jerusalem and restore it to the Jews. In 130, he changed his mind, renaming the city, Aelia Capitolina, and turning it into a Greco-Roman municipality. The Jewish population of Judea, under the charismatic leadership of Simon Bar Kokhba, fought back, initially driving the Romans out of the land they planned to colonize. It took Hadrian three years to crush the insurgency and he followed his "victory" by exiling most of the Jewish survivors. 

The statue of Hadrian on display in World between Empires is thus a direct link to one of the defining incidents of world history. Looking at the features of Hadrian, one senses the combination of brilliant talent and heedless insensitivity that triggered the Bar Kokhba revolt. It was Hadrian's fatal decision that created the Jewish diaspora, culminating in the founding of the nation of Israel, nearly two thousand years later.

The scorched earth tactics of Hadrian's Sixth "Iron" Legion left few artifacts of this tragic era in Jewish history except for the emperor's statue later found in their camp. The Muse of History (or Divine Providence) provided a measure of compensation.

Anne Lloyd, Photo (2019) 
Herbert Gute’s 1930's painting of the Dura-Europos fresco, 
The Wilderness Encampment and the Miraculous Well of Be'er 

At the end of World War I, the chance discovery of the ruins of the ancient city of Dura-Europos led to a long-term series of excavations during the 1920's-1930's. The city, located in the desert of eastern Syria, had been a Roman outpost on the border with Parthia, later the Persian Sasanian Empire.

Dura-Europos was a cosmopolitan city with temples and shrines to almost every conceivable god. It was also home to the oldest Christian Church yet found, dating to 232, with the earliest depictions of Jesus. Equally significant, a Jewish synagogue was excavated. Spectacular paintings of biblical scenes were unearthed. The originals are part of the collection of the National Museum of Damascus. As a result of the recurrent wars in the area, few Westerners get to see these extraordinary works of art.  

Yale University provided many of the archaeologists for the Dura-Europos "dig." Most of the artifacts from Dura-Europos in the Met exhibit come from Yale's collection. The Yale excavators went one step further. Unable to bring the synagogue frescoes back to New Haven, they commissioned an artist, Herbert J. Gute (1908–1977) to paint copies of some of them. Gute used gouache paint to recreate the ancient works of art. As can be seen in the above work, The Wilderness Encampment and the Miraculous Well of Be'er, he succeeded brilliantly.

Thanks to the rediscovery of Dura-Europos and its Jewish synagogue, valuable insights have been gained into the lost Jewish civilization of the ancient Middle East. 

Anne Lloyd, Photo (2019)
 Stele with schematic face, from Timan, southwestern Arabia, early 1st century

Archaeology, like history, often repeats itself. The sensational finds at Dura-Europos  were matched by post-World War II excavations in Yemen in the south-west tip of the Arabian peninsula.  

A young American archaeologist, Wendell Phillips, established the American Foundation for the Study of Man in 1949. Phillips led expeditions to Yemen in the 1940's and 50's, unearthing spectacular artifacts. Many of these are now part of the collection of the Arthur M. Sackler Gallery of the Smithsonian Institution. The Sackler loaned several major pieces to the Met, including this extraordinary Stele with Schematic Face, from the early first century. This funerary monument would have been painted in ancient times, but now can sit next to one of Modigliani's sculptures without causing a raised eyebrow. 

Anne Lloyd, Photo (2019)
Gallery view of The World between Empires showing Rearing Horse, ca. 2nd century

These fascinating artifacts and works of art yield powerful reflections. Many of these thoughts are somber ones, clouded by current events. Yemen has been torn apart by civil war since 2015. An international coalition led by Saudi Arabia, with U.S. support, has only made the situation worse. Over 50,000 people have been killed in the fighting, uncounted thousands more have perished from disease and starvation. Hunger menaces millions - and the war in Yemen continues.

Palmyra and Dura-Europos were excavated only to be targeted for destruction by ISIS terrorists in 2015. A heroic scholar, Khaled Al-Asaad, was brutally murdered trying to save some of Palmyra's precious antiquities. 

This is a world not unlike that of Tadmur, wife of Mokimu of ancient Palmyra. I could not but wonder about our troubled future, as I visited the World between Empires galleries.

Will the Middle East (and the world in general) ever be reassembled from its broken bits and pieces like the Rearing Horse from ancient Arabia? Or will civilization once again be reclaimed by the sands?

Text: Copyright of Ed Voves, all rights reserved

Original images: Copyright of Anne Lloyd
Images courtesy of the Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York City.

Introductory image:

Aedicula for Aglibol and Malakbel, February 236. Roman, Imperial period. Marble sculpture: H. 38 9/16 × W. 26 3/8 × D. 4 3/4 in. (98 × 67 × 12 cm). Musei Capitolini, Rome, MC 1206; NCE 2406.

Anne Lloyd, Photo (2019) Rearing Horse, ca. 2nd century. From Southwestern Arabia, possibly near Ghayman. Bronze sculpture: H. 40 3/16 × W. 11 × L. 41 3/4 in. (102 × 28 × 106 cm) Dumbarton Oaks Library and Museum, Washington, D.C., DO 1938.12

Anne Lloyd, Photo (2019) Gallery view of the entrance to The World Between Empire exhibition at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York City.

Anne Lloyd, Photo (2019) Funerary relief of Tadmur, wife of  Mokimu. ca. 148. From Syria, Palmyra. Limestone sculpture-inscribed: 20 5/8 × 15 1/8 × 7 5/8 in. (52.4 × 38.4 × 19.4 cm) Metropolitan Museum of Art. Purchase, 1898. Accession Number: 98.19.2.

Anne Lloyd, Photo (2019) Statuette of standing nude goddess, 1st century B.C.-2nd century A.D. Mesopotamia, Babylon. Stone sculpture (alabaster), stucco, gold, rubies:  H. 10 1/4 × W. 1 15/16 × D. 1 15/16 in. (26 × 5 × 5 cm). Credit Line: Musée du Louvre, Paris, AO 20127

Anne Lloyd, Photo (2019) Altar for Sol, Malakbel, and Palmyrene Gods, late 1st–2nd century, late 1st–2nd century.  Marble sculpture:  H. 33 1/4 × W. 20 7/8 × D. 20 7/8 in. (84.5 × 53 × 53 cm). Capitoline Museums, Rome.

Anne Lloyd, Photo (2019) Head and torso of cuirassed statue of Hadrian, ca. 117–138. Found in Israel, Camp of Legio VI Ferrata, near Tel Shalem. Bronze sculpture: H. 32 11/16 in. (83 cm). Israel Antiquities Authority, Jerusalem, 1975-763 (head) and 1975-764 (cuirass).

Anne Lloyd, Photo (2019) Head of cuirassed statue of Hadrian, ca. 117–138. (Details above).

Anne Lloyd, Photo (2019) Herbert J. Gute’s painting of the Dura-Europos fresco, The Wilderness Encampment and the Miraculous Well of Be'er, 1933-35. Gouache on paper on board: 73 3/4 x 8 ft.10 in (73 3/4 x 106 in.) Yale University Art Gallery, New Haven. 1936.127.7

Anne Lloyd, Photo (2019) Gallery view of The World between Empires exhibition showing Rearing Horse, ca. 2nd century, from Southwestern Arabia. Dumbarton Oaks Library and Museum collection (Details above).

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