In Empires’ Remnants, Wonders of Survival
‘Assyria to Iberia,’ at the Metropolitan Museum of Art
What are we losing? News reports tell us that the terrorist group referred to as the Islamic State is not only destroying architectural monuments in Syria and Iraq, but is also doing brisk business selling looted antiquities abroad. The specifics of these sales — what has gone where — are so far unclear. But you can get a sense of what might be heading for destinations unknown with a visit to“Assyria to Iberia at the Dawn of the Classical Age” at the Metropolitan Museum, a big, complicated, magnificently esoteric show of a kind the Met persists in doing better than anyone, even as audiences increasingly shy away from the unfamiliar.
In reality, you know more about this material than you may imagine. The bulk of the exhibition is set in a part of the world that’s in the headlines every day: the Middle East, or as the Met prefers to call it, the Near East, embracing Egypt, Iran, Iraq, Israel, Lebanon, Syria and part of Turkey. And it’s territory that to some degree we all live in: multiethnic, multilingual and polyreligious. As in most of the world, nationalism is rife; rule is top-down; violence recurs. So do peace, neighborliness and cultural exchange, with material, ideas and people crossing borders and stretching boundaries.
Globalism, fueled by commerce and curiosity, is the show’s overarching theme, though the globe that it’s dealing with is a relatively contracted one, defined by a specific time frame: the first millennium B.C., when the Age of Bronze became the Age of Iron.
The introductory gallery presents a world on the cusp of change. The old Homeric civilizations — the Mycenaeans on the Greek mainland, the Minoans on Crete — are on the wane, but internationalist traffic is fully underway. You can feel its crosscurrents flowing in the appearance of exotic objects, dating back to the 14th century B.C., on Greek islands: on Rhodes, in a ceramic painted with a Near Eastern theme called the “Master of Animals”; on Euboia, in a faience cat figurine with a distinctly Egyptian look and gold jewelry that has Babylon written all over it.
Then, in the ninth century, comes drama and trauma, as the Assyrian empire, native to northern Iraq and a type-A culture if ever there was one, assumed military dominance. A tight-lipped, staring stone portrait of one of its major kings, Ashurnasirpal II, stands at the entrance to the Assyrian section, like a rocket rooted in the earth. An inscription on his chest both spells out his cosmic sovereignty as “king of the universe,” and details the geographic coordinates of his realm: from the banks of the Tigris to the Mediterranean’s shores.
A lot of art, and most imperial art, is propaganda, and the Assyrians were committed self-advertisers. The high relief images of larger-than-life supernatural beings that lined their palaces — a muscle-bound, hawk-headed guardian spirit in the show is one — were, whatever their religious or political meaning, a species of shock-and-awe art, designed to spook you, bring you to your knees. Carved illustrations of episodes from Assyrian history, some scaled to billboard size, preached a uniform principle: Might makes right.
If proof were needed that beauty must be accepted as an ethically neutral concept, here it is. A panoramic seventh-century wall relief depicting an Assyrian clash with the Elamite kingdom of Iran is so lightly and deftly cut as to look, from a distance, like a fine-weave tapestry. Only when you get closer does its image come into focus: battle as an airless, soundless scene of mutual mass murder — war as we never see on the evening news — with men slashing, skewering and bludgeoning one another as corpses pile up.
In a smaller, separate related panel nearby, the chaos has passed. A post-skirmish banquet is in progress, with the Assyrian king and his queen decorously toasting each other in a garden. The equanimity produced by just rule appears to prevail. But if you look carefully up to the left, you’ll see a severed head — of the vanquished Elamite king — hanging in a tree.
You’ll also notice something odd about the faces of the royal couple: In an otherwise pristine carving, their eyes have been gouged and their noses and mouths chiseled away. They may have been vandalized by soldiers in the Babylonian armies that brought Assyria down in the early seventh century. No power lasts forever. And as much as the Met show is a display of imperial might, it is also a roll call of states and kingdoms gone — Elamite, Philistine, Hittite — leaving their DNA embedded in art that itself has only barely survived.
In one case, the disaster was modern. In the early 20th century, the German archaeologist Baron Max von Oppenheim (1860-1946) shipped a cache of monumental stone Syro-Hittite sculptures from northeastern Syria to Berlin, where he kept them stored in a former iron foundry. During an Allied air attack in 1943, the foundry was bombed and went up in flames. When hoses were trained on the smoldering ruins, many of the still-hot basalt sculptures exploded.
Nearly 30,000 fragments were preserved, and, in 2001, painstaking restoration began. One example of it, a six-foot-long statue of a creature with a human head, a bird’s body and a scorpion’s tail, is in the show. In its original palace setting, it served as a fearsome gatekeeper. In its present blown-apart, patched-together state, it looks unsightly and almost illegible, an irreversibly maimed casualty of war.
For obvious reasons, less conspicuous, packable objects have always had a better a chance of staying out of harm’s way, and the show, organized by Joan Aruz, curator in charge of the museum’s Near Eastern art department, is rich in them. Assyria certainly produced its share: A smartphone-size ivory relief of a lioness attacking — or is it embracing? — a young man is one of the outstanding things and, on loan from the British Museum, one of the great sculptures in New York at present. (A matching version, even better preserved, was looted from the Iraq Museum in Baghdad in 2003.)
But when it came to moving precious portables around, the Phoenicians — merchants by trade, explorers by nature, whose city-state lined the Levantine coast — commanded the field. In a sense, they are, with Assyrians, the show’s other great Iron Age power, though in a recessive, businesslike way. Assyria’s might was strictly land based; Phoenicians plied the sea, coming and going from ports in Lebanon and Syria to Egypt, Greece, Cyprus, Italy and Spain, dropping off and picking up as they went.
Through objects they created, or copied or transported, their presence is everywhere: It’s there in a gleaming gilded silver bowl with Assyrian and Egyptian divinities in a clinch at its center; in cosmetic boxes made from giant seashells, a luxury item in vogue from Greece to Mesopotamia; and in statuettes of gods and demons so widely and commonly traveled that they were unlikely to be considered entirely foreign anywhere. Thanks in part to Phoenician mobility, Etruscans in central Italy, citizens of Cyprus, and Babylonians in southern Iraq were, at least in their art, on a cosmopolitan par.
At the end of the seventh century, more change. Babylonia became the new Assyria, as ruthless as its predecessor in erasing resistance, and as ingenious in visually asserting its own imperial brand, most noticeably in glazed brick mosaic images of lions and dragons that covered its palaces. Ahead lay the fluorescence of Classical Greece and the rise of Persia, marching in from the east, sweeping all before it like dust.
Looked at one way, the Met show is basically a story of multiple destructions, a fatalistic narrative sugarcoated with fabulous art. Seen from another angle — and neither view is true without the other — it’s primarily a tale of absolutely stunning human invention, invention inspired by reasons good and bad, but stunning either way. And for certain it’s a story — a reminder — of what museums are for. By telling us what, almost despite ourselves, we’ve managed to keep from the past, it suggests the scope of what we’ve lost and are still in danger of losing, and compels us to make every possible effort to lose no more.
Correction: September 23, 2014
An art review on Friday about “Assyria to Iberia at the Dawn of the Classical Age,” at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, misidentified the direction from which Persia invaded Babylonia and Greece in citing events in the ancient world. It was from the east, not the west.