Cities That Touched Heaven

Ruins of the ancient city of Palmyra, 2009
Dario Bajurin/Alamy
The ruins of the ancient city of Palmyra in 2009, many of which were destroyed by ISIS militants in 2015

The Metropolitan Museum has once again brought us back to the Middle East—to a cradle of civilization that, by a cruel turn of history, has become a scene of hatred, destruction, and cold-blooded pillage. It is not often that a landscape is conjured up at the very moment when many of its best-known monuments have been leveled with dynamite and its ancient ruins pock-marked with looters’ pits. At Palmyra in present-day Syria, for instance, satellite photos showed the erasure of the mighty temple of Bel, once the heart of the ancient city. On August 27, 2015, it was there. On August 31, it was not. The massive platform on which the temple had stood for 1,900 years was empty: nothing remained but a gray smear of dust. A little earlier, Khaled el-Asaad, the retired director of antiquities at Palmyra, had been executed by members of ISIS for having “refused to give information as the militants searched for saleable objects.”

All this was shockingly visible. But already in the 1980s, Palmyra, once acclaimed as the “Venice of the Sands,” was also the site of the notorious Tadmor Prison, where the death squads of Hafez al-Assad did their work, silently and underground, only half a mile from the temple. We should enter this exhibition gingerly—we are still walking on volcanic land.

One cannot praise enough the enterprise of Blair Fowlkes-Childs and Michael Seymour in bringing together an unrivaled assembly of objects to depict a Middle East very different from the one we now know. “The World Between Empires” covers the period from the second century BCE to the third century CE, when the Middle East was divided between two adjacent empires—Rome and Persia.

The exhibition takes us on a journey, region by region, from Yemen to the great routes across Syria that joined the Mediterranean to Mesopotamia. It is a spacious display, full of relatively small objects loaned from all over Europe and the US. It shows that, despite loose talk by modern experts, there was no “clash of civilizations,” no irrevocable conflict of East and West between the two empires. Like Sumo wrestlers pitching their gigantic bulk against each other within a narrow ring, the two superpowers stayed on the mat. Their maneuvering for position seldom escalated into total war. This happened twice, first when the Roman emperor Trajan lunged to the head of the Persian Gulf in 116 CE, and again when the cavalry of the Persian king Shapur I broke loose to ravage northern Syria in the middle of the third century. More usually, neither empire aimed at the outright conquest, and still less at the annihilation, of its rival.

On either side of the frontier, empire of…

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