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The Great Transition

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Metropolitan Museum of Art
A silver-gilt chalice from Attarouthi, Syria, late sixth–early seventh century

But life had changed. After the Arab conquest, the cities of Jordan continued to thrive from new commerce. But they came to be flanked by very different buildings, in the midst of intensely irrigated estates, which were placed at a little distance from the cities. These were the new palaces of the Muslim Umayyad dynasty. Some of them, such as Mshatta (now on the edge of Amman airport), were as large as a small town. They are brought to life in the catalog by careful essays and by superb aerial photographs. Stone medallions taken from the exuberant façade of Mshatta strike us as we enter the last room of the exhibition. Eroded though they are, their warm stone is brilliantly lit, so as to highlight stylized leaves and grape-filled branches that have the tension of coiled springs. They suggest an energy that could go on forever, like the intricate permutations of moving patterns in a computer screen-saver. Palaces such as Mshatta reminded their owners and those who visited them of the vast cultural horizons and access to diverse skills that had opened up as a result of the implosion of the Middle East.

For those who frequented such palaces, as courtiers and bureaucrats, running the new empire was a matter of business as usual. Ancient empires had always depended on the collaboration of local elites, who knew their own region and how to work its complex fiscal systems so as to generate wealth for their rulers. The situation favored the “little big men”—the urban notables, the lesser nobility, and the gentry of the provinces. We already meet them as we enter the second room. Here we are faced with a spectacular array of silver-gilt chalices. These chalices were given by local families to the church of Attarouthi in Syria. To read the Greek inscriptions around their rims, which ask for the salvation and safety of their donors, is to read a gazetteer of the gentry.

Such people did not vanish with the coming of Islam. Take the case of John of Damascus (who died in 749). He is known as the great exponent of Greek Orthodoxy. But, although he wrote in Greek, he was an Arab Christian. His first name had been Mansur. His grandfather had handled the taxes of Damascus under the Byzantine emperor Heraclius. His father had served the first Muslim caliphs. He himself had retired to a life of contemplation and industrious polemics only after he had served as a bureaucrat. Far behind the rolling storm of the Muslim armies, local families such as that of John of Damascus settled down to assume the strain of administering the last and greatest empire of the ancient world.

Egypt was the province where the little big man throve. Ever since Roman times, it had been the workhorse of empire. The result was the creation of a particularly tenacious class of administrator-landowners. As late as the ninth century, the Sunni Muslim Caliph Ma’mun (813–833) was entertained in Egypt by a wealthy Coptic widow. She plied him with purses of gold presented on trays covered with rich brocade. These, she said, were the fruits of wealth “obtained from this soil and your justice! We have a great deal of it.”

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Byzantine Collection, Dumbarton Oaks
Detail of a silk fragment showing a man, possibly Samson, wrestling a lion, eastern Mediterranean, late sixth–early seventh century

It is time to look more closely at the ideals of these people. We can do this through the unique collections of ivories and textiles that are the pride of the exhibition. For it is through ivories and, above all, through textiles that we get to the heart of the self-understanding of the persons (Muslims, Jews, and Christians alike) who both bore the burdens of empire and reaped its profits. What did these objects mean to them? For textiles, the answer is plain. Textiles meant robes, and robes meant status. Looking at the spectacular Coptic textiles in the exhibition we are looking at a language of wealth and power that runs from one end of the period to the other. Many of these robes have been redated to the seventh and eighth centuries. Muslims would have worn them with as much pride as did Jews and Christians.

These robes swathed their bearers in a mystique of good fortune. This mystique was adopted by members of every religious group. The ninth- or tenth-century shawl of Apa Toter carried an inscription that combined Kufic and Coptic letters that wished: “use it in happiness…and rejoice.” A contemporary shawl bore an inscription in Arabic that wished the Muslim wearer “blessing and happiness and safety.”

It is against the background refrain of the search for happiness and abundance that we must place the art of Christians, Jews, and Muslims throughout this period. The notion of abundance gave meaning to the echoes of classical themes that ran through the textiles from the sixth to the tenth century. We sometimes fail to notice how serious and how persistent this theme was. We treat the gods and goddesses, and the heroes and heroines of Greek mythology that appear on Coptic textiles, as if they were folkloristic fragments whose origin and purpose had long been forgotten. We tend to smile when confronted, in the first room, by a great Coptic hanging where little cherubs that look as if they were made in Lego offer baskets of heaped fruits at the end of spindly arms.

But the hint of abundance that is conjured up by this gesture was no trivial matter. For the cherubs personified the wealth of the soil from which the fortunes of the little big men of Egypt grew. The gods may have died. But the warm energies that the gods represented still breathed through the robes and tapestries that sheathed the great and rendered their houses magnificent.

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Museum of Islamic Art, Cairo
A bronze figure of a hare, Egypt, tenth–eleventh century

We forget this because we have been taught to see late antiquity and early Islam in exclusively religious terms. In the words of Finbarr Flood, the period has suffered from an “excessive focus on religiosity.” Anna Ballian warns us not to assume that “religion permeated every aspect of medieval society and in importance far outweighed secular matters.” For this was by no means the case. There was always room for a “religion of the world”—a tenacious conviction that there was more to life than piety. There was also something thrilling and almost numinous about wealth, good health, and the gift of children.

Hence the tenacity of themes taken from classical mythology. The curling vine of Dionysos spreads through every monument, textile, and ivory of the period. Plump Silenus appears on the exquisite late-classical silverware of Constantinople. But we also find him reeling among naughty maenads on the tapestries of Egypt. Most surprising of all, we find him on a brazier found in the Islamic palace of al-Fudayn (Mafraq, Jordan), still flanked by distinctly playful persons in the nude. Amazons on jaunty horses continue from the fourth to the ninth century—by which time they carry the Arabic bismillah (“In the Name of God”) woven beside them.

But perhaps the longest-lasting motif is the hare, an ancient symbol of fertility. It is constantly reproduced on textiles. The hare also entered the repertoire of Islamic ceramics and glasswork. And so (in the next-to-last room) we see a late, late classical bunny making its positively last appearance, its great ears transformed almost beyond recognition into a geometrical pattern, in a ninth-to-tenth-century lusterware bowl from Iraq or Egypt.

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Musée National du Moyen Âge, Thermes et Hôtel de Cluny, Paris
A silk roundel with Amazons, said to have been excavated at Panopolis (Akhmim), Egypt, seventh-ninth century

Many of these spectacular textiles came from the outskirts of Akhmim in Middle Egypt. Akhmim had once been called Panopolis, the City of Pan. In the fourth and fifth centuries, Panopolis had been a racy place. It had produced Greek poets who made it to the top of Byzantine society. From his great monastery, only twenty miles away across the river, the monastic leader Shenoute of Atripe (died circa 465)—whom we meet at the far end of room two—fulminated against the flashy gentry of Panopolis, most of whom were Christians, as no better than “Hellenes”—that is, pagans. Yet the textiles excavated from the necropolis of Akhmim show that they took little notice of the fierce abbot. For the next half-millennium the little big men of Panopolis (Christian, Jewish, and Muslim) continued to thrive. As Copts they called their city Schmin. As Muslims, they called it Akhmim. But the textiles continued to arrive. By the end of the period they came to Egypt from regions joined by the great galaxy of Islam—from as far apart as Central Asia and Tunis.

Faced by the changes associated with the rise of Christianity in late antiquity, it was once fashionable to cite, with approval, the lines of Swinburne:

Thou hast conquered, O pale Galilaean; the world has grown grey from thy breath….

For the little big men of Panopolis/Akhmim (and for many like them elsewhere)—Jews, Christians, and Muslims—the world had by no means turned gray. It was as bright as ever.

If we turn back to the remarkable work of Elizabeth Bolman on the newly restored frescoes of the church of the Red Monastery, near Sohag in Middle Egypt, we see that gloom did not prevail even in the great monastery of Shenoute. The frescoes date from the seventh century—from the very moment that the world appeared to have been turned upside down by the Arab conquests. Their message was far from gray. The faces of patriarchs and of holy men with deep-set, piercing eyes forcibly asserted the unbroken chain of masters and disciples on which the Christian tradition of the monastery rested. This sense of continuity ensured that, in succeeding centuries, the great monasteries of Egypt emerged as the flagships of Christian culture.

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Arnaldo Vescovo/American Research Center in Egypt
The ceiling of the sanctuary of the Red Monastery Church near Sohag, Egypt, with frescoes showing monastery leaders and Alexandrian patriarchs, circa sixth–seventh century

We forget how impressive these monasteries were. In the early Middle Ages, they towered above the better-known libraries and monastic foundations of the West. In the year 900, the library of the White Monastery of Shenoute housed at least a thousand manuscripts. This was twice as many as any library in Charlemagne’s Europe. Still protected and endowed by the local Christian gentry, they were spectacular places. The bright patterns of ornamental painting covered the walls of the Red Monastery like a splendid, rustling tapestry.

In around the year 600, these developments still lay in the future. But the young monk from the monastery of Epiphanius at Luxor, who copied out the Greek maxims of Menander, chose one maxim that says it all: “We all wish to get rich. But not all of us make it.”

The exhibition is, frankly, about those who made it. The mosaics, the silverware, the parchment volumes, the ivories, and the textiles (even the poignant little shirts of those who died young) once gave confidence and joy to those who could afford them. This is an exhibition not only about what people worshiped, but also about what they loved and what they hoped for. Landowners, administrators, and clergymen, they were not necessarily saints, heroes, or heroines. But their mute remains take us back to centuries whose final outcome they themselves could not have imagined. They form a human—and, let us hope, a humane—link between our own times and a distant, major turning point in the history of the world.

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