A landmark exhibition The World between Empires: Art and Identity in the Ancient Middle East, 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.
Highlights of the Exhibition
Among the highlights will be a Nabataean religious shrine, reconstructed from architectural elements in collections in the United States and Jordan, and the unique Magdala Stone, discovered in a first-century synagogue at Migdal (ancient Magdala) and whose imagery refers to the Temple in Jerusalem. 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. 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.” – Max Hollein, Director, The Metropolitan Museum of Art.
The exhibition is made possible by Dorothy and Lewis B. Cullman with additional support provided by the Gail and Parker Gilbert Fund and the Ruddock Foundation for the Arts.
Overview of the Exhibition
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.
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.
Key Topics of Discussion
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.
Catalogue and Programs
The exhibition is accompanied by a richly illustrated catalogue, suitable for specialists and the general public alike. Published by The Metropolitan Museum of Art and distributed by Yale University Press, the book will be available in The Met Store ($65, hardcover). The catalogue is made possible by The Andrew W. Mellon Foundation.
Education programs include: two informal 30-minute “Conversations with…” (April 19 and May 17, 11:30); an in-depth 60-minute “Curators’ Talk” (May 10, 6:30 p.m.); a “Sunday at The Met” featuring discussion of trading networks that linked the Middle East to Central Asia, South Asia, and China (April 7, 2 p.m. to 3:30 p.m.); and a two-day symposium focused on civic, religious, and personal identities revealed in the art of the ancient Middle East (March 28 and 29, 10 a.m.–5 p.m.). The symposium is made possible by the Macaulay Family Foundation.
Theme: Memory and Culture: the theme for the April 12 MetFridays (5:30–9 p.m.) The evening will include talks, screenings, workshops, and art-making activities that explore the impact of memory on cultural heritage. Tim Slade, director of the film The Destruction of Memory, and Azra Akšamija, artist and Associate Professor of Architecture at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, will discuss implications of the destruction and looting suffered at significant cultural heritage sites (6:30–8 pm). Clips of the film will be shown. This lecture is made possible by the Pearl Ehrlich Fund.
This event is part of MetFridays: New York’s Night Out.
MetFridays programs are made possible in part by Bonnie J. Sacerdote.
Career Lab: There will be a career lab on the topic of Culture and Art for teens, ages 15–18 (March 15, 4:30–6:30 p.m.). This program is free; reservations are encouraged (metmuseum.org/teens).
Social Media and Online Features
The exhibition is organized by Michael Seymour, Assistant Curator, and Blair Fowlkes-Childs, Research Associate, both of the Museum’s Department of Ancient Near Eastern Art.