“The World Between Empires,” linking present and past, celebrates the distinctive art from all the cultures of the Middle East.
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.