Museum  March 18, 2019

The World between Empires: Art and Identity in the Ancient Middle East

Ville de Grenoble/Musée de Grenoble-J.L. Lacroix

Portrait of Bat‘a, Late 2nd–early 3rd century, Limestone, pigment. Palmyra Musée de Grenoble, Grenoble

Department of Antiquities of Jordan

Stele of a Goddess (“Goddess of Hayyan”), 1st–2nd century Limestone. Petra, Temple of the Winged Lions Department of Antiquities, Amman

The landmark exhibition The World between Empires: Art and Identity in the Ancient Middle East, which opens March 18, 2019, at The Metropolitan Museum of Art, focuses on the remarkable cultural, religious, and commercial exchange that took place in cities including Petra, Baalbek, Palmyra, and Hatra between 100 B.C. and A.D. 250. During this transformative period, the Middle East was the center of global commerce and the meeting point of two powerful empires—Parthian Iran in the east and Rome in the west—that struggled for regional control. The exhibition will focus on the diverse and distinctive cities and people that flourished in this environment by featuring some 190 outstanding examples of stone and bronze sculpture, wall paintings, jewelry, and other objects from museums in the United States, Europe, and the Middle East. Among the highlights will be a Nabataean religious shrine, reconstructed from architectural elements in collections in the United States and Jordan; the unique Magdala Stone, discovered in a first-century synagogue at Migdal (ancient Magdala) and whose imagery refers to the Temple in Jerusalem; and wall paintings from a church in Dura-Europos that are the earliest securely dated images of Jesus. Sculptures from Baalbek illuminate religious traditions at one of the greatest sanctuaries in the ancient Middle East, and funerary portraits from Palmyra bring visitors face to face with ancient people. The exhibition will also examine important contemporary issues—above all, the deliberate destruction and looting of sites including Palmyra, Dura-Europos, and Hatra.

“The compelling works of art in this exhibition offer a view into how people in the ancient Middle East sought to define themselves during a time of tremendous religious, creative, and political activity, revealing aspects of their lives and communities that resonate some two millennia later,” said Max Hollein, Director, The Metropolitan Museum of Art.  “Further, in focusing on an area of the world that has been deeply affected by recent conflicts and the destruction of sites, monuments, and objects, this show also engages with complex questions about the preservation of cultural heritage.”

The exhibition is made possible by Dorothy and Lewis B. Cullman.

Additional support is provided by the Gail and Parker Gilbert Fund and the Ruddock Foundation for the Arts.

Yael Yolovich, Courtesy of the Israel Antiquities Authority

The Magdala Stone, 1st century, Limestone. Migdal, Synagogue Israel Antiquities Authority, Beth Shemesh (2010–2881)

Exhibition Overview

The exhibition evokes a journey along ancient trade routes, beginning in the southwestern Arabian kingdoms that grew rich from the caravan trade in frankincense and myrrh harvested there and used throughout the ancient world. Camel caravans crossed the desert to the Nabataean kingdom, with its spectacular capital city of Petra. From here, goods traveled west to the Mediterranean and north and east through regions including Judaea and the Phoenician coast and across the Syrian desert, where the oasis city of Palmyra controlled trade routes that connected the Mediterranean world to Mesopotamia and Iran and ultimately China. In Mesopotamia, merchants transported cargoes down the Tigris and Euphrates rivers to the Persian Gulf, where they joined maritime trade routes to India. These connections transcended the borders of empires, forming networks that linked cities and individuals over vast distances.

© RMN-Grand Palais / Art Resource, New York

Statuette of Standing Nude Goddess, 1st century B.C.–1st century A.D., Alabaster, gold, stucco, rubies, bitumen. Babylon Musée du Louvre, Paris.

Across the entire region, diverse local political and religious identities were expressed in art. Artifacts from Judaea give a powerful sense of ancient Jewish identity during a critical period of struggle with Roman rule. Architectural sculptures from the colossal sanctuary at Baalbek and statuettes of its deities reveal the intertwined nature of Roman and ancient Middle Eastern religious practices. Funerary portraits from Palmyra represent the elite of an important hub of global trade. Wall paintings and sculptures from Dura-Europos on the River Euphrates illustrate the striking religious diversity of a settlement at the imperial frontier. And in Mesopotamia, texts from the last Babylonian cuneiform libraries show how ancient temple institutions waned and finally disappeared during this transformative period.

A key topic within the exhibition will be the impact of recent armed conflicts in Iraq, Syria, and Yemen on archaeological sites, monuments, and museums, including deliberate destruction and looting. Some of the most iconic sites affected—Palmyra, Hatra, and Dura-Europos—feature in the exhibition, which will discuss this damage and raise questions regarding current and future responses to the destruction of heritage.

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