Mesopotamian Masterpieces | Arts & Culture | Smithsonian
Current Issue
November 2014 magazine cover
Subscribe

Save 81% off the newsstand price!

Mesopotamian Masterpieces

Exquisite art and artifacts from the world's earliest civilization are dazzling visitors to New York's Metropolitan Museum of Art

Smithsonian Magazine | Subscribe

As Iraq fitfully rebuilds, a groundbreaking exhibition is showcasing that nation’s rich roots in Mesopotamia, the region that gave birth to the world’s first urban civilization some 5,000 years ago. “Art of the First Cities: The Third Millennium b.c. from the Mediterranean to the Indus” places the land between the Tigris and Euphrates rivers in the center of a vast commercial, religious and cultural network that linked the ancient cities of Ur in southern Iraq, Mari in Syria, Troy in western Turkey and the IndusValley city of Mohenjo-daro in Pakistan. Originally planned to usher in the third millennium in 2001, this exhaustive and stunning survey of early Bronze Age art may be behind schedule but could hardly be more timely. It is on view at the MetropolitanMuseum of Art, in New York City, through August 17.

The exhibition focuses attention on the distinctive style and far-reaching influence of the art created by the Sumerians of lower Mesopotamia, a people who founded the first cities, invented writing, created monumental architecture and developed irrigation, poetry and the rule of law. “People think that a culture dating from the third millennium b.c. must be primitive, which is emphatically not the case,” says Metropolitan curator Joan Aruz, who began planning the show five-anda- half years ago. “It was a very elite society with sophisticated music, art and literature.”

With some 400 works culled from 51 museums and private collections in the United States and 15 countries across Europe, the Middle East and Asia, the show traces a trade connection that stretched from Greece to Pakistan and from the Gulf states to the Caucasus. “What intrigued me most was the chance to demonstrate the extensive trading network that developed to bring both raw materials and finished luxury goods to the royal courts of Mesopotamia and other sites,” says Aruz. “No exhibition has ever covered such a broad geographic expanse.”

The Sumerians likely bartered palm, fish and vegetable oil, wool and cloth, grain and other agricultural products for such items as gold from Egypt and central Turkey, wood from Iran, and copper and diorite from the Oman Peninsula. Raw blocks of lapis lazuli were transported by foot or donkey from northeastern Afghanistan to Mesopotamian palaces, where artisans fashioned them into sculptures, bowls and jewelry. Sailing across the Arabian Sea, merchants from the IndusValley converged on the bustling seaport of Dilmun, in present-day Bahrain, with their cargo of ivory combs and carnelian belts and beads to trade with buyers from Ur, 400 miles to the north.

The Metropolitan exhibition opens with a limestone statue of a full-bearded “priest king” believed to be from 3300-3000 b.c. Uruk, a city of some 40,000 inhabitants that was home to the legendary epic hero Gilgamesh. Located 150 miles south of present-day Baghdad, Uruk was once filled with lush gardens, man-made canals and sprawling mud-brick temples. At the Met, subsequent galleries present gold and lapis lazuli jewelry and statuary from the royal cemetery at Ur, which was excavated from 1922 to 1934 by British archaeologist Leonard Woolley. (The city-state of Ur emerged as an important center of commerce and Sumerian culture circa 2700 b.c.) The prize piece is the Standard of Ur (below), a trapezoidal box, 18-1/2 inches long by 8 inches high, that depicts battle and banquet scenes in elaborately detailed mosaics composed of shell and lapis lazuli inlay. Because it was found beside the skeleton of a man, Woolley speculated that the box, which dates from the late phase of the Early Dynastic period (circa 2550-2400 b.c.), was carried like a banner, or standard.

Other pieces from Ur’s royal tombs include the ornate hammered gold, lapis lazuli and carnelian headdress (opposite) of an Early Dynastic queen named Puabi and a lyre adorned with the golden head of a mythic horned bull sprouting a florid beard of lapis curls. A similar bull-headed lyre, from Puabi’s tomb, was damaged in Baghdad’s NationalMuseum during looting there in April.

Numerous cuneiform tablets relate tales, such as that of the great flood, that may have inspired stories that appear in the Old Testament. Other myths are represented on inch-high cylinder seals that deliver a visual impact way beyond their size. Relief carvings and elaborate inlay portray ordinary people, kings and, in some instances, the gods and goddesses that were believed to control every aspect of life. In the Mesopotamian world, the gods owned the cities, and humans did their bidding at the behest of kings.

One gallery is devoted to the world’s first empire, the Akkadian dynasty, which united Ur, Mari and other cities and flourished from 2300 to 2159 b.c., until it collapsed back into independent city-states. Cylindrical stone seals picture deities in horned headdresses engaged in battle. A mold, perhaps used in the making of a shield, depicts a deified ruler and the goddess Ishtar, invoked in matters of war, love and fertility, along with vanquished prisoners proffering plates of fruit.

Nearly half the pieces in the exhibition illustrate the aesthetic and cultural interchanges among the first cities. The artifacts are presented in a sweeping display, arranged in geographic progression from west to east. Elaborate gold earrings, hairpins and beaded necklaces from Troy resemble aspects of jewelry found in Greece, central Turkey, Mesopotamia and the IndusValley. Arustic banquet scene incised on a silver cup by a master craftsman from western central Asia echoes the banquet depicted on the Standard of Ur.

The final galleries are devoted to Lagash—an independent city-state in southeastern Iraq that re-emerged after the fall of the Akkadian empire in 2159 b.c.—and to the Third Dynasty of Ur, which conquered Lagash and other cities around 2080 b.c. Gudea, a pious leader and temple builder who ruled Lagash shortly before its fall, is memorialized as an architect to the gods in a life-size black diorite statue.Nearby, a naturalistically carved gypsum head (circa 2097-1989 b.c.) of an unknown ruler, with its furrowed brow, sunken cheeks and startling eyes, appears to gaze far into the future, evoking an eerily psychological portrait that foreshadows classical Greek sculpture.

Despite the impossibility of borrowing objects from Iraq and Iran because of embargoes, Aruz was able to acquire key works from the BritishMuseum, the Louvre, the University of Pennsylvania and other Western museums. She also tracked down pieces in museums in Turkey, Bahrain, the United Arab Emirates, Saudi Arabia, Pakistan and Uzbekistan.

A single carnelian bead, delicately etched with white circles, which was found on the Greek island of Aigina near Athens, 2,500 miles from its origin in the IndusValley, provides dramatic evidence of a trading network that linked the Aegean Sea to the IndusValley. “It was a shock to find it that far west,” says Aruz. “Until now, the beads had never turned up west of the royal tombs of Ur.”

In another surprise, a three-foot-high figure of a nude man carved around 2500 b.c. on the island of Tarut, in the Arabian Gulf near Bahrain, bears a marked similarity to figures found 600 miles north at Khafajah, near today’s Baghdad—an indication of the wide-ranging impact of Mesopotamian sculpture.

“The distressing news about the looting at the National Museum in Baghdad and at archaeological sites throughout Iraq makes this exhibition all the more poignant and relevant,” says Mahrukh Tarapor, the Metropolitan’s associate director for exhibitions. “We in the Western world need to be reminded that the beginnings of our civilization reach back to the earliest cities in that part of the world. We talk about globalization so glibly today, but there was a large degree of globalization going on in the third millennium B.C.”

Tags
About Richard Covington

Richard Covington is a Paris-based author who covers a wide range of cultural and historical subjects and has contributed to Smithsonian, The New York Times and the International Herald Tribune, among other publications.

Read more from this author

Comment on this Story

comments powered by Disqus