The Great Transition

Byzantium and Islam: Age of Transition (7th–9th Century)

an exhibition at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York City, March 14–July 8, 2012
Catalog of the exhibition edited by Helen C. Evans, with Brandie Ratliff
Metropolitan Museum of Art, 332 pp., $65.00; $45.00 (paper) (distributed by Yale University Press)
Vladimir Trebenin/State Hermitage Museum
A silver plate from Constantinople depicting two companions of Dionysos, Silenus and a Maenad, 613–630. Images from classical mythology persisted in Byzantine art well into the Christian era, and in Middle Eastern art long after the Islamic conquest.

In the century between 630 and 730 a considerable portion of the Old World took on its modern face. Through a series of astonishing campaigns, Arab Muslim armies created a single empire that, for a time, would reach from southern Spain to northern India and the western borders of China. From the “big bang” of these conquests a new galaxy emerged. From then onward, a closely interconnected chain of Muslim regions (one part of which, from modern Morocco to the borders of Iran, came to speak Arabic) stretched across Africa and Eurasia, joining the Atlantic to western China. A new civilization came into being, one that has lasted, with many permutations, into our own days. In the words of Finbarr Flood, a major contributor to the catalog of the Metropolitan Museum’s somewhat modestly titled exhibition “Byzantium and Islam: Age of Transition (7th–9th Century),” the foundation of the Arab empire was “one of the most remarkable achievements in human history.”

The exhibition takes us to the heart of this great detonation. It embraces the last century of the pre-Islamic Middle East and the first two centuries of Islam. To our surprise, we do not find ourselves in a world swept by a mighty wind. Instead, we enter a series of quiet rooms where time seems to stand still. Like a perfect late fall day, only the occasional rustle of a falling leaf startles us into realizing that the seasons are about to change. The few clear signs that Islam had, indeed, become politically dominant in the Middle East by the end of the seventh century strike us with almost ominous intensity. For there are so few of them.

In the room dedicated to commerce, we suddenly find silver coins that are like all their predecessors, except that they now bear a new religious message in a new, Arabic script. In the room before it, we notice the discreet censoring of the representation of a living creature on the floor of a Christian church, out of respect for Muslim attitudes toward art. In the last room, we come on pages of the Koran that look as ornate and magnificent as any Christian gospels of their time. They are covered with a Kufic script, whose bold, foursquare lines have an ancient grandeur, strangely unlike the fluid scripts that we now associate with medieval and modern Arabic.

In all these cases, we are brought up short by hints of purposive change in a world that, to all appearances, had not changed. Even with Islam present in it, we are looking back into a world before our own, still caught in the…

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