‘The World Between Empires: Art and Identity in the Ancient Middle East’
The Middle East is a place where “God has ninety-nine names,” according to a well-known Islamic hadith. The diversity of deities displayed at the Metropolitan Museum’s new show, “The World Between Empires: Art and Identity in the Ancient Middle East,” reveals some of the roots of this multiplicity. Visitors will find an astounding range of images of the divine, as well as arresting secular portraits and objects that vividly convey the quality of life in the period—roughly, between 100 BC and 300 AD—when the empires of Rome and Parthia vied for control of this complicated region.
More than half a millennium before the emergence of Islam, pagan belief systems of Greek, Semitic, Mesopotamian, and Arabian cultures, as well as Judaic and early Christian sects, rubbed up against each other in prosperous trade hubs like Palmyra, Babylon, and Petra. The Met show leads us on a meandering route that connects these ancient cities, as well as other, less celebrated towns like Dura-Europus in modern Syria, a Greco-Roman garrison town with an amazingly varied cultural heritage. Many of these sites lie in modern zones of warfare or instability, and their remaining antiquities are under grave threat from thieves and Islamic extremists, as the exhibition makes clear. A moving pair of satellite images from Dura-Europus shows the transformation of the town’s central sector into a cluster of looters’ pits over the past decade, as the Syrian government lost the ability to police its perimeter. A film playing on a loop in the show’s central room features eyewitness testimony to the magnitude of the losses throughout the region.
Dura-Europus furnishes some of the most compelling objects and images displayed in “World Between the Empires.” Roman soldiers defending against a Parthian siege around 250 AD built mounds of earth and mud to reinforce the town’s walls, unintentionally creating time capsules of some of its major shrines. Among these are the remains of what may be the earliest known Christian church, and two frescoes recovered from its walls, blurry but remarkably intact, are thus among the oldest depictions of Christ and his apostles. Other wall paintings from Dura-Europus attest to a remarkable religious diversity: The gods Mithras and Sol are seen sharing a couch at a festive banquet; a Roman military officer carries out a pious sacrifice as his troops look on; and, in two scenes represented here by painted facsimiles, Judaic artists depicted scenes from the Hebrew scriptures, in defiance of the Biblical commandment against “graven images.” An elaborately painted Roman shield, recovered from under the ruins created by the siege, reminds us of the town’s strategic importance, at the point of contact between the two empires of the show’s title.
Divinity was omnipresent in the ancient Middle East, even in the shapeless stones called baetyls that were often objects of cult worship. Among the most intriguing objects in “The World Between the Empires” are limestone steles from Petra bearing carved facial features on a bare, flat plane. On one such stone a pair of dotted squares flanking a thin rectangle, barely recognizable as the rudiments of a face, were enough to convey the presence of a goddess in a shrine of the first century AD.
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