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 some sort had existed from time immemorial—as all-embracing as the sky, and usually as distant. Accustomed to loyalty to one superpower or the other, the populations of the Middle East settled down to a period of prosperity that is all the more poignant to us because it was based on factors no longer operative in modern times. They require some leap of the imagination to understand. Fowlkes-Childs and Seymour encourage us to turn our backs, if only for a moment, on the blinding glare of those modern notions we bring to the study of the Middle East.

For instance, this was a world without the stridency of modern nation-states. Syria, Iraq, Palestine, Jordan, and Israel did not exist other than as fluid geographical terms. Great temple-cities, linked across deserts by caravans and, in fertile areas, by royal roads, sucked up the water and the food provided to each by its own ecological niche. Loyalty to their city was the nearest thing that any of the inhabitants of this network of settlements, from Antioch to Babylon, could come to “nationalism.”

Languages rose and fell without being closely tied to ethnic identities, and still less to state systems. What mattered, in this great echo chamber of old and new cities, was finding a common language in which to trade, to govern, to boast of social status, and to explore the good things of life. Ever since the days of Alexander, Greek had been the common language of the elites of western Asia, from the Mediterranean to Afghanistan. It did not penetrate deeply below the elites, but like French in ancien régime Europe, Greek was the Stradivarius among languages—all aspects of life could resound in their full richness when expressed in it. Even under the Roman Empire, Latin remained peripheral to the Middle East. Speakers of Arabic and Aramaic slipped easily into Greek. Cuneiform tablets—the world’s most ancient documents—continued to be produced in Uruk and Babylon, but many tablets were accompanied by Greek translations and were written in a language studded with Greek loanwords.


Greco-Roman architecture, in its most refined forms, takes travelers by surprise when they visit landscapes that seem as distant from those of Greece and Rome as the face of the moon. Those who have made their way into the Nabataean city of Petra and have climbed the ridge to look down on the awe-inspiring desolation of the Wadi Arabah find it strangely disorienting to meet, in this wild place, a series of rock-cut tombs (now called the Deir, or monastery) that are carved in clean golden stone, in a classical style reminiscent of Regency Bath. Yet no prince regent, and no ladies and gentlemen from the novels of Jane Austen, have been here. Rather, these were the tombs of the tough masters of the caravans that carried the spices of India from the ports of the Gulf of Aqaba up to the Mediterranean.

Descending from the Deir to the middle of the city, we find, near a temple court that bore exquisite Greek sculptures of Venus and of Dionysus, a votive offering to al-‘Uzza, the Arab Venus, that is as stark a pattern of two great eyes, vertical nose, and pursed lips as a Brancusi. It is among the most arresting objects in the Met exhibition. It was meant to catch the attention of a goddess. The inscription in Nabataean—not in Greek—makes this plain: “The goddess of Hayyan, son of Nybat.”

For there was another aspect of this forgotten Middle East that fills us with sharp regret for the present. It was a region of remarkable religious diversity. In Dura-Europos (where the palace of the Dux Ripae, the Duke of the Roman Bank, hangs like a Rhine castle over the wide Euphrates in modern-day Syria), a peaceful pluralism seems to have prevailed. In the 1930s excavators of the Yale University expedition led by the great Russian émigré scholar Mikhail Rostovtzeff uncovered a city honeycombed with shrines great and small. They found Mithras, Hadad, Atargatis, and a trio of Palmyrene gods. Each of the three gods was punctiliously dressed in the armor of a clibanarius, or “boiler boy,” as they were known, because of their heavy mail (see illustration on page 29). First appearing on the steppes of Central Asia, these armored horsemen were the precursors of the medieval knight.

More surprising yet, in 1932 the Yale expedition found, at a time when it was thought by scholars that no Jewish religious art had existed in the ancient world, a large Jewish synagogue, covered from floor to ceiling with narrative frescoes (and miraculously sealed in the earth supporting the western wall of the city against Persian attack). Not far from this impressive building, a smaller house had been converted into a Christian church, with frescoes that showed the miracles of Christ.

It is worth lingering on this seemingly limitless religious exuberance. Modern persons tend to see the cities of the Middle East in terms of trade networks. Cities such as Palmyra have been described as “caravan cities.” The idea that the Middle East owed much of its prosperity to its location at the western end of a Silk Road that stretched without interruption from Syria to China attracts us. It has become something of a mantra, calculated to cast a euphoric glow—of progress, interconnectivity, and tolerance—on the regions through which this magic road is imagined to have passed.

In reality, what we moderns tend to call “caravan cities” and “trading hubs” saw themselves, rather, as temple-cities. They drew their pride (and much of their revenue) from being thought of as special places where earth was joined to heaven, and the human race partook, for a moment, in the power and happiness of a diverse population of immemorial gods. Though devoted to Jehovah alone, the Jewish Temple of Jerusalem was only one such place that rang with shouts of joy, in an air heavy with perfume and the smoke of sacrifice. To understand the Middle East up to and beyond the year 300 CE, we must think away the victories of Christianity and, later, of Islam. We must fill innumerable cities and villages with temples surrounded by heaving crowds gathered to worship the gods with billowing clouds of incense, boisterous processions, and bouts of merry drinking.

This diffuse religiosity is what made the caravans that brought frankincense from Yemen to the Mediterranean so lucrative. Created in a unique ecological niche—where the monsoon mists of the Indian Ocean swirled around resin-producing trees on the hills outside Sana’a—incense could mean different things to different people. Emperors burned it in huge potlatch bonfires to delight the citizens of Rome. Doctors used it in their remedies: Glen Bowersock, with his sharp scholar’s eye, found two hundred references to frankincense in the works of the great doctor Galen of Pergamon (129–199 CE).1


But frankincense was more than that. Just as light or the glow of gold was thought of as the purest material reflection on earth of the spiritual world—so that a temple or a church filled with light contained nothing less than “frozen God”—so the smell of incense was matter at its most ethereal, closest to the sweetness of the gods. Incense formed a delicate bridge between the human and the divine. In a world crowded with hostile as well as with benign presences, incense acted as a repellent to drive off demons. No wonder that it rose in billows in the temples of the Middle East.

After years of work at Dura, Rostovtzeff traveled to India in 1937. He was amazed by what he found. As he wrote to his friend George Vernadsky:

What struck me above all in India is the life of that [which] I have studied all my life as a destroyed, ruined past…. In the Indian temples, especially in South India, it is all alive. Enormous temples—just like the temples of the Syrian cities—with hundreds of Brahmins, temple servants, dancing girls, musicians, temple prostitutes, beggars, pilgrims of both sexes. Temples where incense is burning…. Temples where religious ceremonies are carried out each day….2

The sight of living temples relieved the great scholar’s soul. They also challenge the historian to think more about the social and economic function of temple-cities. In the second and third centuries CE, great temples stretched in a continuous arc, from Baalbek in Lebanon to Tamil Nadu. But “temple economies” were not exotic products only of the East. As the medieval scholar Ian Wood has recently shown in a challenging monograph, in the Christian form of monasteries and pilgrim shrines, temple economies played a crucial part in the economic and social development of medieval Europe.3 How was it that the Middle East, the western half of that great continuum of ancient worship, was torn off in the years after 300 CE?

Two recent books give partial answers to this huge question. Matthew Canepa’s The Iranian Expanse is a highly original study of the manner in which the succession of rulers of Iran, from the time of the Achaemenids (550–330 BCE) to that of the Sasanians (224–651 CE), manipulated collective memory through the creation of stunning monuments at important locations in their empires. All across the Iranian plateau, carefully sited palaces and impressive rock carvings conveyed political and historical messages that were all the more potent for seeming to grow, with unverbalized power, from the landscape itself. By making these landscapes speak, Canepa enables us to see the world not with Roman eyes (as is usually the case) but with Persian eyes, looking out over the Middle East from the immense plateau of Iran.

Relief with Three Palmyrene Gods, first century CE

Musée du Louvre, Paris/RMN-Grand Palais/Art Resource

‘Relief with Three Palmyrene Gods’; limestone, first century CE

Canepa is at his best when discussing the Sasanian dynasty, which did the most to challenge Rome for control of the Middle East. Under the Sasanians, man and nature were brought together to produce spectacular sites. At Taq-e Bostan (near the city of Kermanshah in modern-day Iran), great rock carvings seem to emerge of their own accord from the cliff face at just those points where the shimmer of water and a splash of vivid green break the monotony of the bone-dry land. In Firuzabad, a palace and a perfectly circular city sit, like a great compass, in the middle of a natural amphitheater, where a shimmering line of distant peaks hints at a measureless world beyond. The palace and fire temple of Takht-e Soleyman, set in the caldera of an extinct volcano in Iranian Kurdistan, take possession of the top of the world, as the foothills of the Zagros mountains descend, in great steps, to the plains of Iraq and Syria.

The Sasanians themselves saw such sites, which impress us with their uncanny sense of place, as points where the hidden will of the Zoroastrian deity Ahura Mazda (in the spirit world) was made manifest by the visible will of the King of Kings. Yet Canepa shows how the Sasanians, at the same time as they made their rule seem as solid as the timeless rocks, strove to eclipse the memory of their immediate predecessors, the Parthians, who had ruled from the third century BCE to 224 CE. Indeed, the Sasanians were, he writes, the “authors of some of the most profound caesuras in cultural memory that ancient Western Asia experienced.” They replaced a variety of local cults with a “reformed” Zoroastrian orthodoxy, defined by the king and his spiritual advisers. Altogether they brought a new, more strenuous mood to the conduct of government, war, and diplomacy in every part of their huge empire.

Shapur I (circa 215–272 CE) meant business on a truly global scale. His armored cavalry crashed into Syria as far as Antioch. The rock carvings at Naqsh-e Rostam and Bishapur show him receiving the homage of a succession of defeated Roman emperors. In 260, he even took the emperor Valerian captive with his own hands. Standing by itself at the end of the exhibition at the Metropolitan, an exquisite small cameo from the Cabinet des Médailles of the Bibliothèque nationale in Paris shows Shapur I in a moment of epic glory—at the charge, the pennant-like ribbons that represented the charisma of the king fluttering behind him, as he grasps the Roman emperor by the wrist.

But that was not all. A rock carving discovered in 2002 in Afghanistan (at Rag-e Bibi, north of Kabul off the road to Mazar-e Sharif) showed Shapur I hunting a rhinoceros. The rhinoceros stood for the kingdom of the Kushans, based in North India, whom he had driven from Afghanistan. At the two ends of western Asia, the defeat of Roman emperors in Syria and of the Kushans in Afghanistan meant, for Shapur I, the visible fulfillment of the will of Ahura Mazda on earth.

The politics of the Middle East took on a new urgency. The Roman and Sasanian Empires felt themselves to be permanently preparing for or engaging in war. Both empires were ruled by leaders who claimed direct inspiration from God. In this more streamlined world, the Big Easy of temple-cities seemed wasteful, even immoral. It was enough that divine guidance should come directly from heaven, through a ruler and his chosen cadre of priests. Shapur I had allied himself with a section of the Mazdaean clergy of Iran who claimed to be the bearers of a reformed and more authoritative version of the teachings of Zoroaster. Only a generation after Shapur, from 312 onward, the Roman emperor Constantine did much the same. Claiming to be personally preserved and inspired by Christ, he turned away from the temples and lavished privileges on the Christian clergy.

Both Shapur and Constantine were revolutionaries who claimed to be saving the ancient empires they ruled. Shapur I placed his rock carvings beside the tombs of the Achaemenids at Naqsh-e Rostam to claim a link with the deep past. But with his aggressive imperial ideology and alliance with the Zoroastrian clergy, he had already stepped across a chasm into a new world. Constantine wished to be seen as a new Augustus, but he also saw himself as the ruler of a yet better, because Christian, empire, cut loose from its pagan past.

Hence the interest of a book on the one man who thought that he could step across that chasm to bring back the age of temples and gods—Constantine’s nephew Julian. Julian ruled the Roman world from 361 to 363. He was killed when leading a major expedition into Persian Mesopotamia. Haris Teitler’s The Last Pagan Emperor: Julian the Apostate and the War Against Christianity is an impeccably scholarly work. It establishes in great detail, and with a certain dry humor, the fact that most of the martyrdoms said to have been undergone by Christians during the reign of the apostate emperor were mere fairy tales invented by Christians of a later age. Julian the Apostate, despite his sinister moniker, was never a persecutor of the church.

Each bogus martyrdom receives an entire chapter of careful demolition. The reader—and especially any reader who visits the village of Saint-Élophe (near Toul, in northern France)—may rest assured: Saint Eliphius was not decapitated on October 16, 362; nor did he walk “a few hundred meters…with his severed head in his hands…to the place where Eliphius surrendered his spirit.” Such small certainties are reassuring. They show the modern scholar at work in full command of the tools of his trade—meticulous source criticism, mastery of chronology and of Roman law. But what does the book tell us about Julian?

First and foremost, an approach to Julian that no longer sees him as a persecutor of the church makes us realize how much his attitude toward Christianity was a family matter. The Christianity that he hated was no great church arrayed throughout the empire: it was the Christianity of his uncle Constantine (whom he despised as a self-indulgent show-off) and of his cousin Constantius II, who rose to power by murdering his relatives—one of whom might easily have been himself. Far from wishing to combat Christianity by turning paganism into a sort of “anti-church,” as Teitler claims, Julian’s principal concern was to out-Constantine Constantine by transferring to pagan priests the system of privileges that Constantine had lavished on the churches—tax-exempt status and generous corn doles with which, quite frankly, to buy up the population of entire cities. In the intensely hierarchical society of the later Roman Empire, the abrupt withdrawal of the privileges that had bolstered the social position of the Christian clergy was probably the most demoralizing “persecution” of all. Those who faced undramatic déclassement through bureaucratic rulings were likely to relish and to circulate fictional stories of blood-and-guts martyrdoms.

And what did a young man of the 340s and 350s actually know about the ancient worship of the gods? Julian’s covert abandonment of Christianity (which probably happened when he was twenty) went hand in hand with a conversion to “philosophy.” In the ancient world, conversion to philosophy did not simply mean a change of mind. It meant a change of life as drastic as conversion to a religious order in modern times. The beard and the dark cloak of the philosopher were as much a sign of a special lifestyle as the dog collar and the tonsure. And this conversion took him into more than usually esoteric, Neoplatonic, spiritualist circles for whom much of paganism itself seemed grossly “material” and in need of reformation. Whenever he met traditional paganism, he was dissatisfied with it. Crossing the Middle East in 363, he was struck, when passing Batnae, by the “fumes of frankincense…on all sides.” Far from being cheered up, he added that “it looked to me like overheated zeal, and alien to proper reverence for the gods.”4

Too much frankincense! I suspect that if Julian had returned from his Persian expedition, he would have spent as much time “reforming” his own pagan cults (much as Shapur I had reformed the Zoroastrian clergy) as persecuting the Christians.

But he did not return. Moving into the Middle East, Julian, for all his charisma and courage as a leader, was trapped in the logic of an ancient landscape. The bitter critic of Constantius II found himself at the head of an expedition as complicated as the Schlieffen Plan, many parts of which may have been laid down years ahead by his despised cousin. He reached Babylon only to find his army sinking into the mud of a crisscrossed system of canals that joined the Tigris to the Euphrates. Retreating north to avoid the insect-ridden swamps, Julian was struck down by a javelin, possibly thrown by an Arab from a tribe allied to the Persians. He fell a victim to the sharpened sense of confrontation between Rome and Persia that had followed the revival of Iran under Shapur I. The apostate emperor was only the most romantic, but by no means the last, of thousands of soldiers caught in the meat grinder of war, which was, alas, the other side of life in a world between empires.