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

The Metropolitan Museum of Art

March 18 through June 23, 2019

Dedicated to Khaled al-Assad, former retired Director of Antiquities at Palmyra

Temple of Bel at Palmyra

The Temple of Bel at Palmyra before its destruction by ISIS in 2015


By Michele Leight


The Metropolitan Museum of Art's exhibition, "The World Between Empires: Art and Identity In the Ancient Middle East" circa first century B.C. to the third century A.D., offers a sweeping view of ancient Middle Eastern civilizations lying between the Roman and Parthian Empires, located in present day Syria, Yemen, Jordan, Lebanon, Israel and Iraq. Multiple gods and goddesses manifested in every aspect of daily life. Grand cities designed for large crowds, banquets and the rituals associated with pilgrimages to worship at temples were shared throughout the region during religious festivals. Thousands would descend at certain times of year and architects had to embrace that reality, which they did on a scale unprecedented in history. The visit of an emperor would result in a flurry of building and beautifying. This exhibition focuses on the most celebrated and famous cities - Palmyra, Dura-Europos, Heliopolis-Baalbek, Jerusalem, Petra, Hatra, Babylon, Tyre, Sidon - and the culture, skilled production and trade that contributed to their rise that benefited their nations and both empires, which clashed over several centuries in conflicts known as the Roman-Parthian Wars. Peaceful interludes facilitated the magnificence we see here. 

The influence of Hellenism - introduced centuries earlier by Alexander the Great - is pervasive, although it is the indigenous cultures that do the "appropriating" on their terms, and even the most outwardly Greek looking structure conforms to ancient Middle Eastern norms in their layout and design. Inner courtyards, a signature Middle Eastern living arrangments, prevail, affording both security, privacy - and greenery under a canopy of sky. Stairs lead to rooftops for rituals and relaxation. Moonlit nights under the stars in ancient times  must have been spectacular in the cities featured in this wonderful exhibition. 

Venus wtth ruby eyes

"Statuette of Standing Nude Goddess, 1st century B.C.-1st century A.D. Alabaster, gold, stucco, rubies, bitumen. H. 10 1/4 inches. W. 1 15/16 inches. D 1 15/16; Babylon; Musee  du Louvre, Paris

"Nude goddess imagery had a long history in Mesopotamia, carrying connotations of fertility and sexuality but the forms that emerged in the Seleucid and Parthian periods were different from any produced before. Body shapes derived from graeco-Roman sculpture were adapted to the needs of Mesopotamian religious imagery, resulting in distinctive categories and reclining nude goddess figures." (Exhibition catalogue)

The exhibition is curated by Michael Seymour and Blaire Fowlkes-Childs, curators of The Metropolitan Museum of Arts Department of Ancient Near Eastern Art, who also authored the accompanying catalogue "The World Between Empires: Art and Identity In The Ancient Middle East," distributed by Yale University Press.
The curators have kept the mood of this thought-provoking exhibition upbeat, while simultaneously revealing the tragic loss of irreplaceable works of art in recent wars in Iraq, Syria and Yemen, and their devastating effect upon the people, land and cultural heritage through wall-text and a 12 minute documentary.

Introductory Gallery to the Exhibition


Alabaste camel

"Incense Burner with Scene of Man Riding Camel," 3rd century; Calcite alabaster, 12 5/8 inches high, Shabwa, The Trustees of the British Museum, London

Introductory wall-text in the first gallery sets the scene:

"From the 1st century BC to the mid-2nd century AD, two superpowers defined the map of the political Middle East: the Roman Empire, with its base in the Mediterannean, and the Parthian Empire, which controlled Iran and much of Central Asia. The two empires competed over territories and trade routes across the Middle East, alternating between war and uneasy peace. Yet the region in which these events took place was distinct from both Rome and Iran, and its inhabitants had much in common with each other. They spoke related languages, traded along the same routes, and worshipped similar gods and goddesses. Their art draws from multiple traditions, expresses the complexity of their cultural, religious and personal identities, and gives a glimpse of traditional life at the meeting point of two empires.


Painted wood shield

"Shield, (Scutum)" Mid-3rd century, Painted wood and rawhide, 41 9/16 inches high,  Dura Europos, Tower 19, Yale University Art Gallery, New Haven, Yale French Excavations at Dura-Europos (Syria)

In this gallery, fragments of wool and silk textiles, beautiful glassware for scented oils, a wine pitcher, coins bearing the profiles of Roman emperors, funerary sculpture, an incense burner, and magnificent shield, illustrated above, offer insight into a rich world of creativity, manufacturing and commodities that flowed along the trade routes between the two superpowers.  The Romans had a vested interest in protecting and controlling these routes, which they did with their legions and soldiers, and also sub-contracted to local conscripts, who feature prominently as subjects in many artifacts in this show. Banditry was a problem, flaring up throughout the Empire, especially with tantalizing, heavily laden caravans as temptation, which made easy targets. The "Shield (Scutum)," illustrated above, was discovered in thirteen pieces in Dura-Europos, Syria, in a tower that collapsed during the Sasanian attack around 256, and is presumed to have been used by a Roman legionary. The painted motifs of winged Victories, eagle and lion are all symbols of Roman military power and success. As an object of war, it is extraordinarily beautiful. 

Southwestern Arabia
(Modern-Day Yemen)

Rearing horse

"Rearing Horse," Ca. 2nd century, bronze,40 1/16 high, Southeastern Arabia, possibly Ghayman; Dumbarton Oaks Library Oaks and Museum, Washington. D.C.

The "Arabian" horse has long been a legend in the world of horse lovers and riders. They are famously fast and beautiful. The magnificent "Rearing Horse," illustrated above, is missing its rider, and was once one of a pair with riders, designed to be viewed in profile. It bears three inscriptions, one of which indicates that the pair were dedicated at the sanctuary of Madrah by Hawi'athat of the Ghayman tribe. According to the the exhibition catalogue, the dates of production have ranged from as early as the fifth century B.C. until as late as the fifth century A.D. "Rearing Horse" is considered one of the most important surviving bronzes from ancient southwestern Arabia, which was especially fortunate not to be caught in the crosshairs of conflict. No warfare took place in this region, yet Hellenistic and Roman stylistic influence was strong. "Rearing Horse," would not look out of place in Rome or Greece.


Camels and cooks

"Stele of 'lil," 2nd to 3rd century, Calcite alabaster, 21 5/8 inches high, Southwestern Arabia, Musee du Louvre, Paris

The beautifully illustrated exhibition catalogue includes a photograph of a frankincense tree against a cloudless blue Arabian desert sky:


"Far from the major centers of the Parthian and Roman Empires and separated by the desert from the other trading hubs of the ancient Middle East, southwestern Arabia was a site of imagination for ancient historians. Herodotus, writing in the fifth century B.C, described Arabia as the home of the phoenix. However, he also knew that this distant land was the source of resins, aromatics and spices that were in everyday use around him. The region already played a significant role in the commercial and economic life of the ancient Mediterranean and Middle East during the Iron Age, and during the Parthian and Roman period it was critical to the largest global trade networks. As the source of several precious commodities - most importantly frankincense and myrrh - and a key conduit for many others by way of Indian Ocean trade, the southwestern Arabian kingdoms of Hadramawt, Quataban, Himyar, Ma'in, and Saba' were at once geographically distant from and profoundly connected with the great empires of Parthia and Rome....Frankincense lay at the heart of the economic success of the south-western Arabian kingdoms. The fragrant resin from the frankincense tree was the preferred incense for burning in temples and households for religious and funerary rituals across the Roman and Parthian world."


Copper lion from southwestern Arabia

"Lion," Late 1st millennium B.C., Copper alloy and shell; 10 1/2 inches long, Southwestern Arabia, The Metropolitan Museum of New York

Throughout this exhibition, eagles, serpents, horses, camels, lions - and even elephants - appear on artifacts as diverse as incense burners, small and monumental sculptures of gods and conquerers, and architectural elements in homes, palaces and places of worship. The beautiful bronze illustrated above, "Lion," created from copper alloy and shell (the eyes) in the 1st millenium B.C., is in the ancient Middle Eastern tradition, not the Hellenistic style of "Rearing Horse," and it also once had a rider.

Child Dionysos

"Striding Lion Ridden by Eros or Child Dionysos," Early 1st century B.C. - mid-1st century A.D. ; Arthur M. Sackler Gallery, Smithsonian Institution, Washington D.C.

The "Striding Lion Ridden by Eros or Child Dionysos," created in early 1st century B.C- mid-1st century A.D, illustrated above, was one of a pair that probably formed part of a shrine on the roof of a building in Southwestern Arabia. It is fashioned from bronze, its Hellenistic style and Dionysiac imagery accompanied by inscriptions that confirm it was made by an Arabian artisan specifically for use by a local clansman in Timna, not for export. These stylistic "appropriations" appear on many artifacts in the show, throughout the Middle East, evoking a multi-cultural approach to trade and inhabitants under foreign rule.


"Head of a Woman, (Miriam)," 1st century B.C. - mid-1st century A.D, Calcite alabaster, stucco, bitumen, 11 7/8 inches high, Timna, Haid ibn 'Aqil cemetery, Smithsonian Insitution, Washington D.C.

Above and below, we have a striking contrast in the interpretation of feminine beauty. The exquisitely carved, representational "Head of a Woman,  (Miriam)," created in the 1st century B.C. - mid-first century A.D., excavated in the Haid ibn Aqil cemetery at Timna, has plaster hair that was originally painted black, and eyes that were inlaid with either blue glass or lapis lazuli. "Stele with Schematic Face," created in the 1st century, was found in the same cemetery, yet could not be more different. The abstract stele represents a strong aniconic (opposition to idols and images) tradition in ancient southwestern Arabian art, was also once painted, with remnants of pigment present on the raised border, eyebrows and the edges of the brows. The Swiss born German artist Paul Klee, (1879-1940), surely must have seen an artifact such as this in photographs or a museum, because his exquisite abstract portraits evoke this beautiful stele from Timna - the creation of a fellow artist hundreds of years ago, and thousands of miles away from Europe where he lived and worked. The catalogue notes that "cubic stones were sometimes cult objects in much the same way as Nabataean baetyls (sacred stones that were supposedly endowed with life). Stylized, highly simplified faces, such as the one on this stele, are another shared tradition reflecting the connections between southwestern Arabian and Nabataean art."  


Stele with schematic face

"Stele with Schematic Face," Early 1st century, Limestone pigment, 8 7/16 inches wide, Timna, Haid ibn 'Aqil cemetery, Smithsonian Institution, Washington D.C.

Pliny wrote of the Southwestern Arabian kingdoms as the valuable prize that was never incorporated into the Roman or Parthian empires:

"They are the richest nations in the world, seeing that such vast wealth flows in upon them from both the Roman and Parthian empires; for they sell the produce of the sea or of their forests (frankincense and myrrh trees), while they purchase nothing whatever in return." (Exhibition catalogue)

Tracing the main trade routes from the Middle East displayed on maps throughout the show, it is astonishing to see how far the heavily-laden camels and horses with intrepid riders traveled, through sandy deserts, mountain passes, across oceans and rivers, in all types of weather without bottled water or Google Maps to ease their passage. All had to be housed, hydrated and fed for extended periods of time, in sickness and in health, over thousands of miles. 

They did have inns along the trade routes! There is a book available at online booksellers and in the Met bookshop, "The Middle East Under Rome," by Maurice Sartre, that offers invaluable information about the nuts and bolts of everyday life as well as the challenges managing a vast empire.


(Jordan, Including Petra)


The Royal Tombs, four of the most impressive rock-cut tombs at Petra, overlooking the city. From left to right: Palace Tomb, Corinthian Tomb, Silk Tomb and Urn Tomb

"At its height during the last century B.C. and First century A.D., the Nabatean kingdom stretched from Mada'in Saleh (ancient Hegra), located in present-day Saudi Arabia in the south to Damascus in the north, and from the Sinai Peninsula in the west to deep in the Arabian Desert to the east. Caravans traveling north from southwestern Arabia eventually crossed into Nabatean territory, giving the kingdom control of the onward flow of frankinsence, myrrh, spices and other commodities to the Mediterranean coast and to the land routes north and east across Syria....The earliest Greek references to the Nabateans describes them as nomads, although even in these sources they are already described as dominating the strategic economic niche of controlling  trade routes between northern Arabia and the Mediterranean. The description of the Greek general and historian Hieronymos of Cardia, who was present for a military campaign in the region about 312 B.C., is preserved in excerpts included in the first-century B.C. Library of History of Diodoros of Sicily."  "They are exceptionally fond of freedom; and, whenever a strong force of enemies comes near, they take refuge in the desert, using this as a fortress; for it lacks water and cannot be crossed by others, but to them alone, since they have prepared subterranean reservoirs lined with stucco."  (Exhibition catalogue)


"Bust of Zeus-Dushara," 1st century B.C.-1st century A.D., Limestone, 31 7/8 inches high, Petra, area of Temenos Gate, Deparment of Antiquities, Amman

The nomadic tribes gradually settled into a more sedentary existence, living among settled populations in northern Arabia. By the second century B.C. a territorial state existed, with its capital Petra located at the center, a meeting point of trade routes in what is now called Jordan:


 "A key Nabatean road leading northwest connected Petra with the port city of Gaza on the Mediterranean coast. Other routes led north, connecting cities throughout Syria and ultimately to the eastern routes that made up the early Silk Road. Recent research makes clear that a third important connection for the kingdom was a sea route, revealed through shipwrecks and ceramic evidence that identify Nabataean trade links from Aquaba (ancient Aela) and along the Arabian coast connecting maritime and inland trade routes."

Eagle and Thunderbolt

"Relief with Eagle and Thunderbolt," 1st century B.C.-1st century A.D.; Limestone; H. 21 5/8; W. 24 inches; D. 23 5/8 inches; Petra, area of Temenos Gate; Department of Antiquities

The sandstone tombs carved into cliffs in Petra are world famous, and movie buffs will recognize them from the film "Queen of the Desert," starring Nicole Kidman, portraying Gertrude Bell.  Freestanding temples arranged along a collonaded main street, including the main temple by a pool and garden complex, were also part of the empire city. Petra is also a feat of water engineering:


"Channels brought water from several miles away for drinking and for agriculture, while the little rain that Petra received was efficiently collected via channels and cisterns and nymphaeum, pools and elaborate gardens. This control over water resources was key not only to the Nabataean survival and to the viability of desert cities but also to the management of trade routes that created the kingdom's prosperity." (Exhibition catalogue)


 "Elephant Capital," 1st century B.C.-early 1st century A.D., Limestone, 49 7/16 inches wide, Petra, Great Temple, forecourt, Department of Antiquities, Amman

A narrow ravine between high cliffs opens up to reveal two of the most famous monuments in Petra, the tomb known as Khazneh al Faroun, "Treasury of the Pharoahs,"and a temple called Qasr al-Bint al-Faroun, "Fort of the Pharoah's Daughter." The latter was in fact the cult center of the city's patron deity Dushara. Comparisons of Petra's tombs have been made with much earlier Iron Age monuments - similar "crow-step" patterns can be found in Assyrian and Achaemenid Persian art - and to freestanding Phoenician (Lebanon) tombs at Amrit on the Mediterranean coast. Through interaction of Nabataeans with the Graeco-Roman religion, Dushara was identified with both the Greek god Zeus and the Roman god Dionysos.

Petra is a far more massive complex than the famous temples and palaces. "...a particularly interesting feature of the temple's later phase is the addition of a theatron, an open-roofed theater that could apparently seat more than 600 people....impressive gardens, including a large pool with an island pavilion, that have been discovered on the eastern side of the temple are reminiscent of the gardens associated with Hellenistic palaces in the Middle East, particularly those of Herod the Great (r. 37-4 B.C.) in neighboring Judea." (Exhibition catalogue)

The catalogue indicates that it is highly likely that Greek plays were performed at Petra's theatre in the rocks before it became incorporated into Nabataea because numerous other theatres existed in other parts of the Roman and Parthian Middle East at this time. Plutarch reveals that Parthian kings enjoyed Greek plays.

"Nabataea's shift from independence to incorporation by Rome as the province of Arabia in 106 under the emperor Trajan (r. 98-117) seems to have caused little disruption to its economic model. However, Nabataea's economic position did change as Roman navigation of the Red Sea improved and viable Indian Ocean routes from Egypt were established. Gradually these new routes began to undercut southwestern Arabia's virtual monopoly on Indian Ocean trade, also making it possible to circumvent Nabataea. At the same time, eastern land routes from Syria to Mesopotamia and beyond were becoming more important as a unified Parthian Empire facilitated trade across Iran and Central Asia." (Exhibition catalogue)

In an article entitled "Cities That Touched Heaven," in the New York Review of Books, Peter Brown writes:

"Those who have made their way to the Nabataen city of Petra and have climbed the ridge to look down on the awe-inspiriing desolation of the Wadi Arabah find it strangely disorienting to meet, in this wild place, a series of rock-cut tombs (now called the Deir, or monastary) that are carved in clean golden stone, in a classical style reminiscent of Regency Bath. Yet no prince, and no ladies and gentlemen from the novels of Jane Austen, have been here.  Rather, these were the tombs of the tough masters of the caravans that carried the spices of India from the ports of the Gulf of Aqaba up to the Mediterranean."

Tough masters they might have been, but they certainly appreciated beauty, and invested heavily in it.


(Israel, including Jerusalem, and Palestine)


"Dead Sea Scroll Jar and Lid," 2nd century B.C., Ceramic; 24 7/16 inches high, Qumram, Cave 1, The Metropolitan Museum of Art; Gift of the Hashemite Kingdom of Jordan

 Jews had been living in Judea for thousands of years before the Roman legions led by their emperors and commanders entered the Middle East. "Empire politick-ing" and ruling was an avaricious and ruthless business and there is a fascinating  example of it involving Mark Anthony and Cleopatra, who need no introduction. In "The Middle East Under Rome." Maurice Sartre writes:

"Anthony sought to retain as much of the system of indirect administration as he could, by means of a network of client princes .....with Octavian's approval, in 41 (CE) he had restored a kingdom in Judea that benefited Herod, Antipatros' son and a faithful ally of Rome since 63, to the detriment of the last Hasmonean, Matthias Antigonos, who had made the mistake of helping the Parthians. Herod had conveniently married a Hasmonaean, Mariamme, and had become a grandson by marriage of Hyrcanos II and Aristobulos II; he was thus guaranteed a certain legitimacy, at least in the eyes of the Romans. In fact, he had to re-conquer his entire kingdom, because he had been made king of a country entirely occupied by Parthians. Moreover, Cleopatra VII, the Egyptian queen and Anthony's mistress since 41, used her liason with the imperator to try to regain part of her ancestor's kingdom. In 37-36, in a major redistribution project that included anticipated conquests as well as the lands in the east that were already his, Anthony gave Phoenicia, Coele Syria, and part of  Cilicia back to Cleopatra. However, owing to Herod's persuasive influence there, he refused to let her have Judea as she had demanded, except for the balsam woods of Jerico..."

There had been considerable in-fighting between Hellenized Jews and the more traditional observers of Judaism prior to the Roman incursion in Judea that, tragically, played into the hands of the Romans who at first did not seek to change the status quo. There was a major stumbling block to their ability to manage Judea as they did other states, described in the exhibition catalogue:

"Of the Kingdoms surrounding the Dead Sea to the North and West of Nabatea, one, Judea, would come to play a critical role in Roman and world history. Jewish communities existed throughout the Middle East during the Roman and Parthian period, and Judaism flourished alongside polytheism (the worship of many gods) across the region. However, whereas in the rest of the Middle East these formed part of larger societies in which polytheism dominated, in Judea the monotheistic faith of Judaism prevailed. This religious difference had profound political implications, causing tensions beyond the kingdom's place in the wider context between the Selucid, Roman and Parthian Empires to project their power in the Middle East. At times, local identity and autonomy could not be reconciled with Imperial control, and Judea would prove to be the center of some of the largest and most serious rebellions against Roman rule....At the core of Judean religious and political life was the Temple of Jerusalem: the Temple's high priest held great political, as well as spiritual, authority, and throughout the Hasmonean period (ca. 140-37 B.C.) the roles of king and high priest were combined in a single individual. The Temple was one of the largest in the ancient world, a site of pilgrimage for worshippers from across the Middle East during the festivals of Pesach (Passover)" (Exhibition Catalogue)

Ossuary of Philoutarios and Annios

"Ossuary of Philoutarios (or Philoutrion) and Annios, 1st century B.C.-1st century A.D., Limestone, paint, body 23 1/2 inches long, lid 25 inches long, Judea, The Metropolitan Museum of Art. Museum Accession

Generally, the Romans recognized local laws for non-Roman subjects throughout the empire, including the Jews. Unlike all other subjects in the Middle East, however, the Jews were monotheistic - they worshipped one God. In "The Middle East Under Rome," Maurice Sartre writes:

"Augustus and Claudius reminded Romans that they were to respect the Temple, Jerusalem, sacred texts and synagogues, as required by recognition of the Torah as the indigenous law of the Jews ....This recognition meant that the emperors had created a difficult situation for the Roman administrators, because the Torah governed civil and religious life in such a way that they were inextricably linked. Uninformed Romans may well have thought that the Jews sought to set themselves apart from others. The most fundamental institutions, such as celebration of the imperial cult, parading of military recruits, and the practice of nudity in athletics, were all forbidden in Jerusalem; in addition, Jews could not be called before the tribunal on the sabbath."


Needless to say, prefects did not comply with the emperors wishes, with devastating results for the Jews when they objected to the new administrators rules. 


"Head and Torso of Cuirassed Statue of Hadrian," Ca. 117-138; Bronze, overall  32 11/16 inches, high, Camp of Legio VI Ferrata, near Tel Shalem; Israel Antiquities Authority, restored and exhibited at the Israel Museum, Jerusalem

"Some of the most serious rebellions against Roman rule occurred in Jerusalem and the province of Judea, and the evocative imagery that developed around Jewish resistance to Rome continues to resonate today....The Roman province was formed from the client kingdom of Judea, ruled by Herod the Great (r. 37-4 B.C.) and his descendants, and kingdoms to the north and south. The province proved difficult for Rome to control, with religious practices among the causes of conflict. In particular, the Roman requirement that subjects of the empire participate in the imperial cult - the worship of the emperor as a god - contradicted the core tenets of Judaism...."

"The First Roman-Jewish War, or Great Revolt, in 66-73/74 led to the destruction of the Jerusalem Temple. Another major revolt, known as the Bar Kokba rebellion (132-35), was suppressed by the emperor Hadrian (r. 117-138), who expelled the Jewish population from Jerusalem and merged Judea with the province of Syria to form a new province, Syria-Palestina. This gallery includes discoveries from the Cave of Letters that offer a rare glimpse into the lives of people who sheltered there during the Bar Kokba rebellion; other objects feature symbols of the Jerusalem Temple and expressions of Jewish identity within the Roman Empire" (Exhibition wall text)


The Romans were brutal generally with anyone that disobeyed their rules, and Hadrian even more so. The magnificent Temple and most of the artifacts were destroyed, some taken to Rome.  A relief from the "Arch of Titus" in Rome depicts soldiers carrying the Temples holy objects in a victory parade. Jerusalem was looted and much of it burned, as were the homes in surrounding neighborhoods that belonged to Judeans. Most were killed, but several thousand were sent to Rome as slaves, and some were tasked with helping to build the Coliseum because they were artisans. Some Judean rebels escaped and hid in mountain caves from which they could see the city that had once been their home. Mirrors, glass plates, pitchers and other artifacts on display were discovered here. There is an evocative photograph of the view from one of the caves in the show and the catalogue.

One of the most fascinating artifacts in the show is the "Dead Sea Scroll Jar and Lid," illustrated above, that was found in the first of the Qumran caves by Bedouin shepherds in 1946 and formally excavated in 1949. "The Dead Sea Scrolls" were, except for one written on copper, written in Hebrew, Aramaic and sometimes in Greek, on parchment or papyrus, material that would normally not survive. The very dry conditions of the Judean Desert and their storage in the torpedo shaped vessel were a godsend. The seven scrolls found inside include the Great Isiah Scroll (containing the entire Book of Isaiah); a fragmentary text of Isaiah; The Community Rule, a key source of the scholarly debate between the Sons of Light and the Sons of Darkness; the Genesis Apocryphon, featuring a conversation between Noah and his father, Lamech; the Thanksgiving Scroll, containing hymns of thanksgiving, and the Peser of Habakkuk, a theological commentary on the biblical Book of Habakkuk. The excavation of all the caves was completed after ten years, in 1956.

Despite the wholesale destruction of Jerusalem and Hadrian barring Jews from entering the city during his reign, some returned and  smaller Jewish communities survived in Judea and the ancient Middle East till modern times - including in Dura-Europos, Syria, as described below. 

Tyre and Sidon
(Coastal Cities in Phoenicia - Present Day Lebanon)

3 Glasses

Left: "Beaker Signed by Jason; Mid-1st century; Glass, blown in three-part mold; H. 3 9/16; Daimeter: 2 9/16 inches; Said to be from Scythopolis (Beit She'an); The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York; H. O. Havermeyer Collection, Bequest of Mrs. H. O. Havermeyer, 1929; Center: "Amphoriskos (Hexagonal Flask) Signed by Ennion; Early 1st century; Glass, blown in a four-part mold; H. 55/8 inches; W. 3 1/8 inches; D. 2 13/16 inches; Diameter rim 1 1/2 inches; Said to be from Potamia, near Golgoi, Cyprus; The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York. Gif of Henry G. Marquand, 1881; "Beaker Signed by Neikais," Mid-1st century; Glass, blown in a three-part mold; H. 3 3/8 inches; Diameter 2 11/16 inches; Eastern Mediterranean; The Metopolitan Museum of Art, New York. Museum Acession

Tyre and Sidon were major ports in Phonecia - present day Lebanon - linked to far reaching trade networks and colonies, and with long standing ties to ancient Greece, as described by Maurice Sarte in "The Middle East Under Rome:"

"By the third century, countless members of the indigenous population who had acquired some of the distinctive features of the Greeks were considered Greek. Inhabitants of Tyre, Sidon, and Byblos, for example, were accepted as competitors at the great Pan-Hellenic games at Olympia and Delphi..."

There was no greater honor as far as the Greeks were concerned - they were obsessed with athletes and sports. A stroll through the magnificent Greek and Roman galleries on the first floor of the Met is proof enough of that. What is evident in comparing Greek and Roman sculpture with that of the Middle East - particularly the artifacts created under Roman rule at the same period in history - is the total lack of male nudity in the frescoes, artifacts and sculpture. Female nudes are represented in Baalbek-Heliopolis and Mesopotamia (Iraq) sections of this show - but no male nudes.


Ship model

"Votive Ship Model for Zeus Baithmares," Bronze, gilding, 20 1/16  wide, Bab Mareaa; National Museum, Beirut

The Romans made important improvements to the harbors of Tyre and Sidon during their reign, which played a critical role in their economic success and the overall expansion of the Mediteranean trade. In addition to being busy ports, Tyre and Sidon were important centers of industry and artistic production:

"At the core of their commercial success was the production of purple dye and clothing and the manufacture of cosmetics and perfumes made from both local and imported spices and aromatics, as well as glassmaking and metalworking. In addition, the cities prospered in their roles as exporters of incense, cedar, and agricultural goods across the Mediterranean, including wheat, olive oil and wine from a wide region that stretched from the Beqaa Valley to the Hauran, and as importers of luxury goods such as linen, jewels, and silk from Judea, Syria and Central Asia, India and China. Several Phoenician ports were already well established in the Bronze Age, and by the Iron Age merchants and colonists sailing from them traded and settled across the entire Mediterranean region. During the Roman period, harbors were modified with Roman construction techniques that extensively increased their capacities." (Exhibition catalogue)

The historian Flavius Josephus (First century A.D.) wrote that Mark Anthony denied Cleopatra's wish to control both cities around 34 B.C.:

"(Anthony) gave her the cities that were within the river Eleutherus, as far as Egypt, excepting Tyre and Sidon, which he knew to have been free cities from their ancestors, although she pressed him very often to bestow those on her also."

Lucan, a Roman epic poet during the infamous emperor Nero's reign, wrote about Cleopatra's luxurious silk clothing, woven in Sidon.

Another special privilige was granted to Tyre, this time by Rome: unlike many other cities in the eastern half of the Roman Empire, in Tyre it was permitted to mint coins in silver instead of the customary bronze.

Pliny the Elder wrote about the murex shell, from which the royal purple dye was extracted - an industry dating back to the bronze age - and Tyre's loss of its previous prestige by the first century A.D.:

"...Tyre, once an island separated from the mainland by a very deep sea-channel 700 yards wide, but now joined to it by works constructed by Alexander when besieging the place, and formerly famous as the mother-city from which sprang the cities of Leptis, Utica and the great rival of Rome's empire in covering world-soverignty, Carthage and also Cadiz, which she founded outside the confines of her world; but the entire renown of Tyre now consists in a shellfish and purple dye!" (Exhibition catalogue)

The glass artifacts in this section are gorgeous, reflecting the transition in technique from core-formed and cast (glass) to blown glass in the middle of the first century B.C. This was revolutionary, and made glassware more affordable to a greater number of consumers:

"Although glass was produced at various locations along the Phoenician coast, including Tyre and Berytus, Strabo, (a geographer), writing during the first century A.D., refers to Alexandria and Sidon as the most important glassmaking centers and comments that Sidon's sand was the best in quality; Pliny described Sidon as artifex vitri, the "producer of glass.' Recent discoveries at Sidon include large raw glass chunks and ingots and a primary glass kiln dating to the early Roman period. The luxury items produced during the first century A.D. by the master glassworker Ennion, as well as Jason and Neikias, and by the half dozen other glassmakers who identified themselves specifically as 'Sidonians' in their signatures, attest to the quality of Sidonian glass and suggest the cachet the city's name carried for consumers." (Exhibition catalogue)

Not illustrated here are beautiful lead coffins - the lead imported from Iberia and Sardinia - that was smelted in a simple furnace and cast in a single open mold of clay or possibly sand. The decorations bear a striking resemblance to Graeco-Roman motifs: Corinthian columns, sphinxes, dolphins, Medusa (Gorgon) heads, laurel leaves, berries, and grapevines.  The lead coffins were placed inside larger stone or wooden sarcophagi, or directly in the floors of rock-cut tombs, and therefore were not intended to be displayed openly.

Tyre and other Syrian cities had other, "human" exports," as explained by Sartre in "The Middle East Under Rome:"

'....Tyre was not simply a great industrial and commercial city; it also produced a galaxy of rhetoricians, philosophers, and jurists. The best known were Marinus, Maximus, and Domitius Ulpianus (Ulpian); although these three did little work in Tyre itself, they nevertheless contributed to its glorious reputation. For Tyre, like most Syrian cities, did turn out 'intellectuals' - but most of them hastened abroad to find students and followers of the old intellectual centers of Greece, Asia Minor, and even Rome."

It is appropriate to end this section with the ships that helped shape the destiny and fame of Sidon and Tyre. "The Votive Ship Model for Zeus Baithmares," illustrated above, is dedicated to Zeus Baithmares by Kerdon, son of Diodoros, two names that frequently appear in inscriptions from Sidon. Detailed knowledge of ship design would have been common in Sidon, and this model was probably produced 30 miles from Bab Mareaa. This ship has been identified as a swift vessel.




Aerial view of the sancuary at Heliopolis-Baalbek

At a seminar accompanying the exhibition, a professor said that a model of Heliopolis was included at the opening of Rockefeller Center, because it was broadly inspired by it. Heliopolis-Baalbek is strategically located between two foothills of the Anti-Lebanon Mountains "where the Orontes and Leontes Rivers and plentiful springs create a highly fertile area. Its name 'city of the sun,' may reflect ties between Phoenicia and Egypt: the name 'Baalbek' appears only in the fifth century, though it is probably Caananite for 'Baal of the spring' in reference to Baal, the storm god revered throughout the region in the Bronze and Iron Age." (Exhibition catalogue)


Head of a sphinx from statue of venus

"Head of a Sphinx from a Statue of Venus Heliopolitana, Early 3rd century; Marble, 11 inches high,  Baalbek, Musee du Louvre

Heliopolis is famous for collosal statuary built during the Roman period and for its three main gods: Jupiter Heliopolitanus, Venus Heliopolitana, and Mercury Heliopolitanus. Cross cultural influences are strong, combining Middle Eastern and Graeco-Roman features in the gods and architecture, and show the complex religious life, where new deities incorporated elements of earlier ones, "and cult rituals and settings that borrowed from different traditions....The emperor Trajan (r. 98-117) reportedly consulted the oracle at Heliopolis before embarking on his Parthian campaign; the prediction of his imminent death was accurate and may have inspired subsequent imperially funded expansion projects at the sanctuary and Jupiter Helioplitanus's apparent rise in popularity."  

It is understandable that the supreme god of agrarian fertility, water sources, weather, and the cosmos would be hugely popular. The  survival  of   communities, large and small, depended on  them.

Aphrodite Anadyomene

"Statuette of Aphrodite Anadyomene," Ca. 1st-2nd century, Bronze, gold and semiprecious gems,  5 13/16 inches high, Baalbek, National Museum, Beirut

"Bronze and terracotta statuettes produced in the Roman period that depict Aphrodite in the poses of famous Classical or Hellenistic statue types were popular throughout Phoenicia and Syria, but the additon of the necklace and earrings reflects Middle Eastern traditions of the bejeweling and adornment of divine images...In the context of Baalbek, such a statuette affirms the continuity of the goddess's veneration from the Hellenistic to the Roman period in conjunction - and evidently not in conflict - with the worship of Venus Heliopolitana, whose very different iconography is connected to that of Astarte..." (Exhibition catalogue)

Civilizations had gone before Heliopolis-Baalbek, as they had in other famous cities in the ancient Middle East, most often close to a river or other water source, from which they could direct water via irrigation canals:

"The sanctuary was located on a prehistoric settlement mound that had been inhabited more or less continuously since the eighth millennium B.C. It had been transformed into a fortification during the Seleucid Empire's struggle for regional power against the Ptolemies of Egypt in approximately 200 B.C., and part of the same structure was possibly used by the Roman army under Pompey in 64 B.C. New research establishes that construction of the sanctuary complex began almost definitely after 15 B.C., later than previously thought, and probably represents a donation to a Roman city by the Judean king Herod 1 (r.37-4 B.C.), as mentioned by Flavius Joesphus. At this time, Heliopolis became part of the first Roman colony in Syria, which was created at Berytus (Beirut), and the Augustan legions V Macedonia and VII Augusta Gallica were established there." (Exhibition catalogue)

A chapter entitled "From Babylon to Ctesiphon," two of several ancient cities of Babylonia, in Southern Mesopotamia, not to be confused with Northern Mespotamia, also highlights the magnificent city of Hatra, critical to the Parthian Empire's regional security:

"The city of Hatra, in particular, not only acted as an important political and religious center but also effectively controlled trade along a major land route at the western end of the Silk Road and when necessary formed a military bulwark against Rome..."

Lion and ox

Left: "Lion Protome," 1st century, Limestone, 18 7/8 inches high, Baalbek, Temple of Jupiter Heliopolitanus, Staatliche Museen zu Berlin, Antikensammlung, Berlin. Right: "Bull Protome," 1st century,  Baalbek, Temple of Jupiter Heliopolitanus, Staatliche Museen zu Berlin, Antikensammlung, Berlin

The "Lion Protome" and "Bull Protome" illustrated above are from friezes at the Temple of Jupiter Heliopolitanus, and are descendants of Achaemenid-period bull column capitals. Lions heads feature the great beasts with open mouths, which worked as drains, allowing water to run off the roof."

The catalogue notes that "...Bulls are significant as Jupiter Heliopolitanus's acolytes, and lions appear to be attributes symbolic of divine power: lions heads are often featured on the bottom of the god's ependytes (a tight-fitting tunic)."


The Temple of Bacchus, Heliopolis-Baalbek

This vast project took two centuries to complete, and "...In its final form, the sanctuary of Jupiter Heliopolitanus included the temple building and courtyard with two monumental alters and two water basins  with two porticoed enclosures, all accessed through the propylaea and an unusual hexagonal court. The sanctuary was oriented on an east-west axis and situated on a massive elevated platform, and a vast system of artificial terracing and a cryptoporticus (semisubterranean covered passageway) supported the buildings. The extremely well-preserved temple located to the south of and parallel to the Temple of Jupiter has been tentatively attributed to Dionysos/Bacchus, and two small temples located within an enclosure to the southeast are dedicated possibly to the Muses as nature goddesses and the Tyche (Fortune) of the city (previously the round temple was erroneously attributed to Venus). Quarries located approximately half a mile (1km) to the south and west provided local limestone for the sanctuary's construction, and granite was imported from both Egypt and the Troad in northwestern Anatolia for hundreds of massive columns...The sanctuary was located on a prehistoric settlement mound that had been inhabited more or less continuously since the eighth millenium B.C. It had been transformed into a fortification during the Selucid Empire's struggle for regional power against the Ptolemies of Egypt in 200 B.C., and part of the same structure that was possibly used by the Roman army under Pompey in 64 B.C., later than previously thought, and probably represents a donation to a Roman city by the Judean king Herod 1 (r.37-4 B.C) as mentioned by Flavius Josephus. At this time, Heliopolis became part of the first Roman colony in Syria, which was created in Berytus (Beirut), and the Augustan legions V Macedonia and VIII Augusta Gallica were established there..." (Exhibition catalogue)

The rise of Christianity changed the fortunes of Heliopolis-Baalbek. Emperor Theodoisus (r. 379-395) destroyed the sanctuary, and constructed a church in the courtyard of the Temple of Jupiter. An earthquake may have been responsible for a fire that completed the destruction of the church in the middle of the sixth century. The Ummayyads conquered the city in 635, and the city lost its prominence until the sanctuary complex was incorporated into a citadel at the end of the eleventh century.


Aedicula for Aglibol and Malakbel

"Aedicula for Aglibol and Malakbel," February 236, Marble, 38 9/16 inches high, Rome, Musei Capitolini, Rome

Beautiful Palymra features prominently in the documentary accompanying the exhibition because of the wholesale and senseless destruction wrought by ISIS in the recent conflict in Syria. In an article in "The New York Review of Books," Peter Brown writes:

 "At Palmyra....satellite photos showed the erasure of the mighty temple of Bel, once the heart of the ancient city. On August 27, 2015, it was there. On August 31st, it was not: nothing remained but a grey smear of dust. 

Khaled al-Assad, the retired director of antiquities at Palmyra, had been executed earlier by members of ISIS for having refused to tell them where they had hidden antiquities. ISIS executed innocent people at Palmyra, as well as engaging in the physical destruction of monuments that had survived centuries: 

"During their occupation of Palmyra in 2015 and 2017, ISIS (the so-called Islamic State of Iraq and Syria) demolished multiple ancient buildings with explosives. These actions, which were filmed for propaganda purposes, included the destruction of the Temple of Bel (illustrated at the top of this review), the ancient city's main religious center that had also been used as a church and then as a mosque over the course of its long history. The Temple of Baalshamin, Arch of Triumph, Tetrapylon monument, and several tower tombs were also demolished, and the ancient theater was damaged. Many sculptures in the Palmyra Museum were destroyed or smashed. Illicit digging and the looting of objects have also taken place." (Wall text)

That is the tragic story. However, while never side-stepping the disastrous effects of recent events due to war and terrorism, this show celebrates the extraordinary beauty of Palmyra through the largest number of artifacts of any section, their survival for centuries driving home how disastrous intolerance can be for the arts as well as innocent life. 

Three gods

"Relief with Three Palmyrene Gods," 1st century, 28 3/8 inches wide, Bir Wereb, in the Wadi al Miyah near Palmyra, Musee du Louve, Paris

Leaders of all great civilizations wanted to leave behind proof of their greatest achievements. The artisans, artists and builders of old knew that, and poured their hearts into their creations, like the works of art we see here. No violent act can take that away. It has been documented for posterity, and, thanks to museums, we continue to see their work and celebrate it. Ancient historians, poets and scribes wrote about what they knew - for us to know about them and their world.

"Located at a spring that created an oasis in the Syrian steppe, Palmyra was a cosmopolitan and wealthy trading center. The city had already begun to establish its key role in trade between the Persian Gulf and the Mediterranean Sea by the first century B.C. and in time profited enormously from levying tariffs on products in return for the protection of caravans by units of mounted Palmyrene archers. Immense prosperity spurred the urban development of a city that became reknowned for its grandeur and specifically for its lavish temples, tombs, and sculptures. Pliny the Elder's description of Palmyra as 'having a destiny of its own between the two empires of Rome and Parthia' can be applied not only to the city's political and economic position but also to its cultural, religious, and artistic identity between the first century A.D. and the Roman emperor Aurelian's (r. 270-275) final sack of the city in 273. Palmyra's relationship with the Roman Empire and connections to Mesopotamia and the Parthian and early Sasanian Empires underwent multiple  changes, and the balance between Roman contol and Palmyrene independence in particular is often difficult to pinpoint and resists simple classification. Remarkably, Palmyra was the only publicly bilingual city in the Roman Middle East, with its civic inscriptions written in both Greek and the local dialect, Palmyrene Aramaic; its own coinage was also biligual..." (Exhibition catalogue)

Illustrated above is part of an elaborate alter, "Aedicula for Aglibol and Malakbel" late 1st-2nd century, from the Musei Capitolini, in Rome. Dedicated to Roman and Parthian gods, respectively, they are depicted shaking hands - a civilized and welcome image after present-day destruction. 

Malakbel (left), wears Parthian clothing - trousers, short tunic and open overcoat - while Aglibol (right) wears a Roman-style cuirass with a sculptural "muscled" breastplate (similar to that of the bronze bust of Hadrian) and a cloak. The inscriptions are Palymyrene Aramaic, and mention the dedicator as Tiberius Claudius Felix, who made this gift with a group of Palmyrenes, who are not identified. Although it is not specified, it is possible the dedicator was Roman from Palmyra or descended from a Palmyran family.


"Portrait of Bat'a," Late 2nd-early 3rd century, Limestone, pigment, 21 1/4 inches high, Palmyra, Musee de Grenoble, Grenoble 


The magnificent, elegant and elaborately bejeweled Palmyrene lady illustrated above, "Portrait of Bat'a," reveals the great prosperity during the period she was created - late 2nd-3rd century - and an increase in women's roles as tomb owners, that was in itself a change in status. Many fragments of jewelry include inlays of glass, faience and precious and semi-precious stones, an indication of the city's extensive trade network. The inscription reveals that Bat'a's grandfather commissioned the portrait during her lifetime, and is probably an actual likeness. This suggests that Palmyrene portraiture includes representations of individuals, not just readily available "off the shelf" portraits that were common. The remnants of pigment are also notable:

"Dark pigment dileneates her almond-shaped eyes and the rims of her eyelids and provides the portrait with an expression that contrasts starkly with the vast majority of Palmyrene portraits with unpainted eyes. Her jewelry stands out vividly owing to the significant traces of ocher and red pigments on the chain looped over her hair, two or three necklaces, her brooch and her bracelets. She also wears earrings and a ring set with a central stone on her left little finger. The lunar crescent pendant, called a lunula, suspended from her middle necklace is a very popular type depicted in numerous contemporaneous portraits and can be compared with a necklace in a tomb of a young woman outside Rome." (Exhibition catalogue)

Woman with spindle flanked by lions

"Portrait of a Woman Holding a Spindle and Distaff and Flanked by Lion Handles," Ca. 120, Limestone,  24 13/16 inches wide, Palmyra, Ny Carlsberg Glyptotek, Copenhagen

As in other cities, the hub of civic and religous life were the temples of hybrid design funded by local benefactors. Palmyrenes offered dedications to their own gods that reflected the city's diversity. They also offered dedications in other communities, including Dura-Europos and Rome, demonstrating the link between their religious and civic identities. The catalogue notes that "...From the beginning of the city's urban expansion, a group of powerful tribes and families dominated commercial, social and religious life, and their continued relevance throughout Palmyra's history is revealed by their remarkable commemorative funerary portraits displayed in monumental tombs located on the city's edges..."


"Relief Plaque with Cheetah," Ca. first half of 3rd century, Limestone, pigment, 15 3/4 inches wide, Palmyra, University of Pennsylvania Museum of Anthropology and Archaeology, Philadelphia, Babylonian Expedition to Nippur II

Palmyra got off to a shaky start with the Romans. In 64 B.C. Syria was designated a Roman province of Syria, however they were not "subject to tribute" (tarrifs) as eary as that. The second-century historian Appian recorded Mark Anthony's unsuccessful raid in 41 B.C, considered the earliest evidence of contact between Palmyra and Rome:

"When Cleopatra returned home Anthony sent a cavalry force to Palmyra, situated not far from the Euphrates, to plunder it, bringing the trifling accusations against its inhabitants, that, being on the frontier between the Romans and Parthians, they had avoided taking sides between them; for, being merchants, they bring the products of India and Arabia (from Persia) and dispose of them in Roman territory. In fact, Anthony's intention was to enrich his horsemen, but the Palmyreans (Palmyrenes) were forewarned and they transported their property across the river, and, stationing themselves on the bank, prepared to shoot anybody who should attack them, for they were expert bowmen. The cavalry found nothing in the city. They turned around and came back, having met no foe, and empty-handed." (Catalogue)

Appian's insights offer a vivid image of the merchants of Palmyra and their vast network. The Palmyrene community was already established at Dura-Europos (see below), which had been under Parthian control since the late second century B.C: "...A community of Palmyrene and Greek merchants in Seleucia (assumed to be Selucia on the Tigres) was established by the first century A.D. Honorific inscriptions on the bases of statues of Palmyrene nobles, which were set up on brackets halfway up columns overlooking streets, temples and the agora in a manner specific to the city, record their contacts with trading outposts in the Parthian Empire in the early first century, including the port of Charax Spasinou in the kingdom of Characene on the Persian Gulf and Babylon. These inscriptions are the earliest in a long series documenting Palmyrene trade with areas under the control of the Parthian and subsequently the Sasanian Empire." (Exhibiiton catalogue)

Where other city-states may have suffered the consequences of too much bonhomie with the Romans after their defeat by the Sasanian Empire, Palmyra was able to side-step a similar fate due to their diplomatic handling of the complex business of accommodating coming and going empires. With all the strains that occupation by other powers must bring, Syria somehow managed to build some of the most magnificent cities of all time.

In "The Middle East Under Rome" Sartre writes of the ingenuity and construction know-how required to produce these Syrian cities:

"Cities in Syrian provinces saw a significant expansion of monumental architecture, at least until the middle of the third century. The remains of cities like Apamaea, Palmyra, Gerasa, and Bostra, not to mention the sanctuary at Heliopolis, afford an excellent idea of the richness of the buildings, the size of the construction that must have been undertaken everywhere, even in cities where uninterrupted occupation since ancient times had erased all vesitiges, such as Antioch, Laodicea, Damascus, and Berytos."

This was of course written before the tragic descration of Palmyra in 2016. As the wise professor Michal Gawlikowski, professor emiritus at the University of Warsaw, says in the documentary accompanying the exhibition, we still have the photographs. Images are powerful. They fire the imagination. They linger in our memories. They Inspire us. We also have the accounts of ancient historians, and present-day historians, scholars, archaeologists, geologists and others that have contributed to the preservation of the collective wonders we see in an exhibition like this, who enlightened ordinary folk like me at the accompanying symposium, Met-Talks. While none of them skirted the disaster that has befallen some of these historic cities of antiquity and their artifacts and buildings in the past two decades due to war and looting, they were overwhelmingly optimistic about the future prospects for antiquities and whatever has somehow managed to escape annihilation. The fact that they were there speaking about their dedication to these wonderful old civilizations was proof of that.

The "Relief Plaque with Cheetah," illustrated above, with traces of pigment, was excavated during the Babylonian expedition to Nippur II, in 1890, by the University of Pennsylvania. Its normal resting place is the University of Pennsylvania Museum of Anthropology and Archaeology, Philadelphia, so it will not disappear from view - like all the other artifacts in this show. We can console ourselves with that.

It was interesting to note the number of female representations in the "Palmyra" gallery, and that was no coincidence. Palmyra seems to have specialized in fascinating, strong women, perhaps the most famous being Queen Zenobia. Wall text reveals that Queen Zenobia took advantage of Rome's weakened power after multiple conflicts in the Middle East by acting as regent for her son Vaballanthus (r. 267-272), and greatly expanding territory under Palmyrene control. The wall text notes that "in 270 she launched a campaign that brought Anatolia and even Egypt under Palmyrene rule. However, Palmyra's imperial expansion coincided with a return of Roman military strength under the emperor Aurelian (r. 270-275), who campaigned across Anatolia and Syria to restore Rome's lost territory. Zenobia was forced to flee and Aurelian captured Palmyra, restoring Rome's eastern Empire. Zenobia and Vaballanthus were eventually captured, but their subsequent fates are uncertain: accounts from execution to long lives in comfortable exile. Zenobia's story has inspired a range of legends, an opera, and representations in art from antiquity to the present."

I will indulge myself and the reader here by opting for the Hollywood ending - Zenobia and her son lived happily ever after in comfortable exile.

      Dura Europos
        (Eastern Syria)

Julius Terentius performing a sacrifice

"Wall Painting of Julius Terentius Performing a Sacrifice," Early 3rd century (before 239), Paint on plaster;  64 15/16 inches wide, Dura-Europos, Temple of Bel, Yale University of Art Gallery, New Haven, Yale-French Excavations at Dura-Europos

Of all the cities in the exhibition, Dura-Europos appears to be the most cosmopolitan, perhaps owing to its location. It is not only the mixture of people from different cultural and ethnic backgrounds that is notable, but also the co-existence of civilians and soldiers, in what was a garrison town. Also noteworthy, everything in this superb gallery was found during the Yale-French Excavation at Dura-Europos in 1932 - including several artifacts in the opening gallery of the show, including fragments of wool and silk textiles, a wine pitcher, "graffiti" of a mounted lancer - whose attire includes a conical hat, perhaps representing a Parthian or Sasanian soldier - a Palmyrene, or another Syro-Mesopotamian fighting in a unit of the Roman army, or from another Roman legion drawn from recruits elsewhere. Last but not least, is the magnificent painted shield of a Roman legionary, illustrated at the top of this review. Their permanent home is the Yale University Art Gallery, New Haven. What a worthy undertaking that was, back in 1932, for the benefit of us all.

"Dura (Dura-Europos), founded by Selucid I, had a singular destiny: a Selucid garrison in the third century B.C.E, it took off as a city during the second century just prior to conquest by the Parthians. In this respect, it had more in common with cities in Mesopotamia than with Syrian cities. Having escaped conquest by Pompey, it remained for nearly three centuries - from 113 B.C.E. to 165 C.E. - as a frontier outpost on the western edge of the Parthian Empire. However, during those three hundred years, the Greek elements of the city endured. The native Macedonian aristocracy still ruled the city, and its members' names are the ones that appear on official documents...As a border city, Dura always maintained relations with Greek and later Roman Syria. The first century seems to have been a period of prosperity, as if the benefits of pax romana in Syria were felt in adjacent Parthia. Numerous buildings were created, undoubtedly paid for by funds raised though the city's foreign trade." (The Middle East Under Rome)

What is immediately striking about this gallery is the frescoes - wall paintings. Two, considered the earliest paintings of Jesus, once decorated a church depicting biblical scenes, including "Wall Painting of Christ Walking on Water," and "Wall Painting of Christ Healing the Paralytic," in which "Jesus gestures toward a sick man lying on his pallet at the right...that might have inspired Christians to have faith in Jesus's power (detail illustrated below). Although the setting of the story was a lake (the Sea of Galilee), the wavy lines that represent water may have evoked a river that continued around the baptistry, perhaps beginning in a scene of paradise, and more significant than a lake for Dura's inhabitants, who were closely tied to the Euphrates River." (Exhibition catalogue)

Christ healing

Detail of "Wall Painting of Christ Walking on Water," Ca. 232, Paint on plaster, 57 1/16 inches high, Dura Europos, Christian bilding Baptistery, Yale University Art Gallery, New Haven, Yale-French Excavations at Dura-Europos (1932)

There are marvellous hand painted tiles that once graced the roof of a synagogue, decorated with mythical creatures, flowers and pomegranates. Also on display are copies of wall paintings from the Dura-Europos synagogue by Herbert J. Gute, part of the Yale-French excavation team, whose originals are now in the reconstruction of the synagogue at the National Museum of Damascus (see photograph below). 

One reproduction, "The Wilderness Encampment and the Miraculous Well of Be'er," "prominently feature some of Judaism's most important symbols, such as the menorah, candelabra, and shrewbread table that appear together in front of an aedicula in the scene of Moses and the twelve tribes of Israel at a well in the wilderness (the scene has been interpreted variously as the Feast of the Tabernacles, the Wells of Elim, Waters of Marah, and Miriam's Well)" (Exhibition catalogue). The other, "The Destuction of Dagon before the Ark of the Lord," features destruction, of pagan statues broken, their bases bare, lying in a pile among cult utensils; the Ark of the Covenant on a cart pulled by oxen has been interpreted as the recovery of the Ark from the Temple of Dagon in the land of the Phillistines, to separate themselves from polythesim - the worship of many gods.

12 tribes

Hebert J. Gute (American, 1908-1977), The Wilderness Encampment and the Miraculous Well of Be'er, 1933-35, Gouache on paper on board,  106 inches wide, Yale University Art Gallery, New Haven

There is also a "Wall Painting of Mithras and Sol." The cult of Mithras was popular with soliders in the Roman soldiers across the empire in the second and third centuries:

"Although Mithras's name is derived from that of the Iranian god Mithra, and his Parthian clothing is intended to indicate his Eastern origin, Mithraism in the Roman period is thought to have originated in Italy - or possibly in Commagene in Asia Minor - in the late first century A.D. and spread from there throughout the Roman Empire." (Exhibition catalogue).

The most stunning wall painting is illustrated above, is also one of Dura's most famous, "Wall Painting of Julius Terentius Performing a Sacrifice," from the Temple of Bel (also called the Temple of the Palmyrene Gods), which was situated inside the Roman military camp within the walls of the city. It depicts Tirentius "performing the ritual of sprinkling incense onto a burning thymiaterion (incense burner) accompanied by members of his unit. The object in his left hand is most likely a scroll with liturgical texts. His name and tribunal rank are inscribed in Latin, and the figure behind him is identified in Greek as Themes, the son of Mokimos the priest. A standard bearer holding the vexillum (military banner) typical of the Roman cavalry appears at the scene's center facing Tirentius and the other soldiers...At the top left, the three figures in military dress placed on pedestals represent statues, almost certainly of Palmyrene gods, possibly Aglibol (left), Iarhibol (center), and Arsu (right), especially since the latter figure carries a round shield...this painting clearly indicates that high-ranking officers, standard bearers, and other soldiers participated in various cults, including those of Palmyra." (Exhibition catalogue).

Arsu riding a camel

"Relief of Arsu Riding a Camel, Ca. 2nd century; Gypsum; H. 13 inches; W. 17 1/2 inches; D. 2 3/4 inches; Dura-Europos, Temple of Adonis; Yale University Art Gallery, New Haven, Yale-French Excavations at Dura-Europos

The winsome "Relief of Arsu Riding a Camel" from the Temple of Adonis, depicts - probably, the catalogue is not definitive - the Arabian god Arsu, who was a protector of caravans and ruler of the evening star: "At Dura-Europos, the veneration of gods who were depicted carrying local weapons, notably a spear and a small round shield, was probably due to the influx of nomadic populations during the Parthian period: many are shown riding horses or camels, and some are identifiable by name through inscriptions." (Exhibition catalogue). 

In theTemple of Adonis, almost all inscriptions and graffitti were Semitic.

Illustrated below is a highly expressive "Head of a Bearded God," with black paint still well preserved on eyes and brows, and red paint on his lips. The catalogue states that he resembles a lifesize male head from the Temple of Zeus Megistos, probably identified as Zeus Kyrios/Baalshamin, "strongly suggests that this head also represents a Semitic divinity. The storm god Hadad is a possibility in part owing to the sculpure's findspot outside of the Temple of Atargatis..."

Over 40 sculptures of Herakles were excavated at Dura-Europos, broadening the scope of deities, and significantly the only depiction of male nudity in the show. None have inscriptions, and some - or all - may represent the Mesopotamian god Nergal or an ancient Middle Eastern hero or protective deity. A quarter were found in houses, perhaps indicating the hero-gods role as the cental figure in family cults. Their styles vary, reflecting Dura-Europo's diversity: one figure fighting a lion has a Parthian hairstyle, the next has a powerful muscular form with a lion skin tied around his neck - a classical interpretation. Similar Herakles figures from Palmyra, Hatra and and Seleucia on the Tigris give proof of the popularity of this god, whatever his name, across the Middle East.

Head of a bearded god

"Head of a Bearded God," C. 1st century, Soft white limestone, plaster and paint; 6 5/16 inches high, Dura-Europos, street outside the Temple of Atargatis, Yale University Art Gallery, New Haven, Yale-French Excavations at Dura-Europos

A stunning photograph in the exhibition catalogue illustrates Dura-Europos' dramatic location:

"Located on a promontory high above the Euphrates River in a fertile agricultural area in eastern Syria, Dura-Europos is a key site for understanding cultural and religious diversity and the interaction between soldiers and civilians in the Parthian-Roman frontier zone. A regional capital under Parthian control by the late second or early first century B.C., which eventually became a Roman military outpost about A.D. 165, the city fell to the Sasanians almost a century later during a violent invasion under Shapur I (r. 241-272) and was not rebuilt. Excavations at Dura have been extensive, and discoveries include a military camp, at least nineteen religious buildings, more than one hundred houses, shops, baths, an amphitheater, a necropolis, wall paintings, sculptures, and texts on parchment and papyri. Dura illustrates exceptionally well how religious life functioned within a cosmopolitan community in the ancient Middle East, and above all it provides a remarkable glimpse of how polytheism and monotheism coexisted during the middle of the third century. The Christian building, a house repurposed as a space for Christian worship, is dated about 232. The synagogue, also dated to the third century, is famous for its figural wall paintings, and both were located in the vicinity of multiple buildings where various deities of different origins were venerated. Together, all of these sacred spaces and the wall paintings, sculpures, and inscriptions discovered within them illuminate aspects of the religious practices and cultural identities of Dura's inhabitants." (Exhibition catalogue)


The south and west walls of the synagogue excavated at Dura-Europos, re-constructed in the National Museum of Damascus

The beautiful synagogue illustrated above (in the catalogue), was re-constructed in the National Museum of Damascus, and shows the south and west walls. It underwent significant renovations during the mid-240s (C.E.), shortly before the space was filled so that a rampart could be constructed for military defense. An entrance courtyard preceded the large hall, where a painted Torah niche was located in the center of the main west wall. The ceilings were decorated with the painted and fired clay tiles previously mentioned, and a few are inscribed with the names of the buildings benefactors. The wall paintings also previously mentioned - discovered in the 1932 Yale University-French excavation - about 28 preserved panels in all, illustrate 58 different narrative episodes. This, the catalogue notes, overturns previous ideas about aniconism as a central requirement of early Jewish art. "Aniconism," as described in the dictionary, is the "absence of material representations of both the natural and supernatural worlds in various cultures,  particularly the monotheistic Abrahamic religions. This ban may extend from only God and deities, to saint characters, all living beings and everything that exists."

The catalogue notes that "limited access to the paintings themselves, or even to high quality photographs, has been a problem faced by recent generations of scholars who typically have had to rely on old photographs and the commissioned series of facsimile paintings by Herbert J. Gute." (Now in the collection at the Yale University Art Gallery).

Sadly, satellite images give evidence of extensive destruction at Dura- Europos due to the conflict in Syria, caused by illicit digging and looting inside and outside the ancient city wall. Looters pits cover virtually the entire site.

Excavation in 1932

The excavation site at the time of discovery, Dura-Europos, in 1932

The wonderful photograph illustrated above shows the time of discovery of the site at Dura Europos in 1932, when excavations  began. It is these adventurous souls that have brought  us to a place in a museum where we can see and enjoy the fruits of their hard work - hopefully for generations to come. They have also inspired countless tales of archaeological adventurers from Hollywood directors, whose creative entities are definitely famliar with the kind of works of art we see here - adapted and turned into crowd-pleasing extravaganzas like "Raiders of The Lost Ark," and "The Mummy" franchizes and numerous other tales connected to antiquity that have engaged the attention of the youngest among us.

That can only be a good thing.
Sneering about the gaudiness or absurdity of some of these movies does nothing to engage our youth. Whatever works, is how I see it. Hopefully they will seek out the originals as they get older. Fire the imagination somehow!

Hatra, Ashur, and Northern Mesopotamia; Babylon and Ctesiphon, and Southern Mesopotamia


Walled City of Hatra

The Parhian walled city of Hatra, including the Great Iwans and the Hellenistic Temple

One of the greatest civlizations of them all is enshrined in the final gallery of the exhibition: Mesopotamia. It is possible to go back beyond 10,000 years to find some great civilization or another in this ancient terrain, often layered one on top of another like lasagne. Northern and Southern Mesopotamia together comprised a vast area with access to - and the ability to be accessed by - multiple nations via trade routes:

"Northern Mesopotamia was critical to the Parthian Empire's regional security and its control of long-distance trade routes. The city of Hatra, in particular, not only acted as an important political and religious center but also effectively controlled trade along a major land route at the western end of the Silk Road and when necessary formed a military bulwark against Rome. The date of Hatra's foundation is unknown, but there is little evidence that it was a significant site before the first century A.D. Other cities in northern Iraq were former capitals of a much earlier empire: east of Hatra near the Tigris River, Ashur and Nineveh had been capitals of Assyria. The former was the Assyrian state's ancient and traditional center, while the latter was its last and greatest capital at the height of the Neo-Assyrian Empire in the seventh century B.C. During the Parthian period Ashur in particular became an important regional center once again. Further to the east another already ancient city, Erbil (ancient Arbela), became capital of the Parthian province or client state of Adiabene..." (Exhibiton catalogue)


"Door Lintel," 2nd-early 3rd century, Limestone,  66 1/2 inches wide, Hatra, Great Iwans, The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, Joseph Pulitzer Bequest

The lintel illustrated above is from the Great Iwans, he main temple building at the heart of the Great Temple enclosure at Hatra. The animals could be winged lions or panthers, however other elements are present in their feathered crests  and long pointed ears. Composite ceatures like this have a long history in Middle Eastern art, including the Iron Age creatures with upward pointing ears of Mesopotamian lion-demons. "They became a common part of Greek imagery of griffins during the Orientalizing period (750-600 B.C.) and remained part of a cross-cultural visual repertoire of hybrid supernatural creatures. (Exhibition catalogue)

Cities like Babylon in Southern Mesopotamia had temples (some referenced in the Bible) that had functioned for thousands of years, but that now entered a new reality, "...their final phases as older urban landscapes were reconfigured, while new cities, above all Seleucia on the Tigris and later Ctesiphon, took on political primacy. As in earlier periods, the Tigris and Euphrates Rivers were critical to the commercial life of the Middle East, connecting Mesopotamia and regions to the north and west with both the land routes eastward into Iran and Indian Ocean sea routes via the Persian Gulf." This is the route most likely taken by the rubies cited multiple times in this review, embedded in the alluring eyes of the Babylonian goddess.

All great civilizations relied on mighty rivers to irrigate land that nurtured their subjects, and as navigable waters that connected them to their trading partners. Location, location, location meant as much in ancient times as it does today:

"The status of Parthian Ctesiphon, despite its position on the far western edge of the Parthian Empire, is a reflection of the strategic and economic importance of its location. Mesopotamia was at the center of the global economy. The richest agricultural region in the ancient Middle East was also located at the meeting point between land routes that led across the Zagros Mountains and the rivers that connected Syria and the Eastern Mediterranean to the Persian Gulf. For most of Mesopotamian history the Euphrates, on which Babylon was located, had been the more economically important of the region's two great rivers. However, Seleucia and Ctesiphon's location on the Tigris in central Mesopotamia meant they could meet the main caravan route leading out of the Zagros Mountains along the Diyala River, in addition to which the Tigris and Euphrates came closest to one another at this point, with a connection via an artificial canal...Ctesiphon continued as the main royal residence throughout the Parthian and Sasanian periods. Substantial excavations focused on the Sasanian period took place at Ctesiphon during the Parthian period remains unclear..." (Exhibition catalogue) 

Funerary mask

"Funerary Mask," 2nd century, Gold, 6  1/16 inches high, Nineveh, Kuyunjik, The Trustees of The British Museum

"The excavations of the English traveler Austen Henry Layard (1817-1894) at the former Assyrian capitals of Nimrud (ancient Kalhu) and Nineveh in the 1840s focused on the Neo-Assyrian palaces and their stone reliefs; however, remains from other periods were also found...In April, 1852 a group of Parthian-period burials in stone sarcophagi were found at the site...sources agree that the largest assemblage of jewelry was found  with what was believed to be a woman's burial and included a gold mask, mouth and eye covers, two sets of earrings, two rings, a number of gold studs, a Neo-Assyrian cylinder seal, and a gold aureus of the Roman emperor Tiberius along with its impression on a small piece of gold sheet. The coin of Tiberius, along with another impression on sheet gold of a coin of Trajan helped to date the assemblage." The mouth and eyes were covered to "preserve" them, so they would be able to see in the afterlife. Gold does not corrode.


"Slipper Coffin," 1st-2nd century, Glazed Ceramic,  78 3/8 inches long, Nippur,Yale Babylonian Collection, Yale Peabody Museum of Natural History, New Haven

"This coffin is one of a group found during the University of Pennsylvania's late nineteenth-century excavations at teh site of Nippur in southern Iraq - the first American excavations in Mesopotamia. Slipper coffins are a common feature of Parthian-period burials in Mesopotamia" (Exhibition catalogue)

There is a wonderful statue of Hammurabi in the Egyptian wing of the Met Museum, famous for his "Code" or extensive set of laws, which are believed to be the second oldest ever compiled - at least that we know of. Mesopotamian terrain is so ancient, yet its histories so inter-connected, that Hammurabi is referenced in this exhibition in connection to Babylon:

"From the reign of Hammurabi (r. 1792-1750 B.C.) in the eighteenth century B.C. to that of Alexander (r. 336-323 B.C.) in the fourth, Babylon had been the most important city and power center in southern Mesopotamia. Like the Achaemenid Persian kings before him, Alexander had envisioned making Babylon his imperial capital, famously beginning work on the restoration of its most prominent monument, the ziggurat Etemananki, before his death in the city in 323 B.C. From the power struggles that followed Alexander's death, the Macedonian general Seleucos I Nicator (r. 305-281  B.C.) emerged to control the eastern empire, including Mesopotamia, and founded a new city, Seleucia on the Tigris, as the capital of what now became the Seleucid Empire....Seleucia on the Tigris was intended to succeed Babylon as the capital, and a large part of Babylon's population was transplated there, apparently by royal fiat. By the Parthian period Babylon's importance had greatly diminished, and Seleucia was well established as the Mesopotamian capital..."

Reclining venus

"Statue of a Reclining Nude Goddess," 1st century B.C.-1st century A.D.,  Alabaster, glass,  7 1/16 inches long, Babylon, Musee du Louvre, Paris

This red eyes of this Babylonian goddess are not of ruby but glass, and "given that both nudity and identification with the Greek nude goddess Aphrodite were longstanding characteristics of Ishtar, it seems that the two figures from Babylon represent that goddess. The horns of the lunar crescents might also echo the earlier Mesopotamian practice of giving bulls horns to images of divinities, but this interpretation is uncertain." (Exhibition catalogue)

Standing marble figure of a woman

"Statuette of Standing Female Figure," 1st-2nd century. Calcite alabaster and stucco pigment, 18 1/8 inches high, Birs Nimrud (ancient Borsippa). The Trustees of the British Museum, London

This lady is wearing a Greek costume, and is most likely a representation of the goddess Nanaya, excavated in the late 19th century

At a time when tarrifs and trade are an ongoing topic wherever we turn, it is refreshing to learn from history that this is nothing new. Ancient and modern civilizations have exercized their power through trade: all conquerors, including the Parthians and the Romans, demanded "tribute" (tarrifs or taxes) for just about everything. The busy caravans were constantly required to pay "tribute" for "safe passage" along trade routes, which were targeted by thieves and anyone interested in making money the easy way. In this way empires amassed great fortunes to wage war, maintain peace, pay their soldiers and generals, administators - perhaps most importantly, build monuments to their empires.

The Sasanian Empire

Cameo withV

"Cameo with Valerian and Shapur I," Ca. late 3rd century (after 260); Sardonyx; H. 2 11/16 inches, W. 4 1/6 inches, D. 3/8 inches, Iran, Bibliotheque nationale de France. Cabinet des medailles, Paris.

All great Empires come to an end. The beginning of the end for Rome's dominance in the Middle East was the event depicted in the gorgeous sardonyx "Cameo with Valerian and Shapur I," illustrated above. It is a representation of Sasanian triumph over Rome, an equestrian combat in which a Sasanian ruler - King Shapur I - grasps the wrist of a figure dressed in Roman armor and military cloak, and crowned with a laurel wreath. The Roman is the Emperor Valerian at the Battle of Edessa in 260, an event of "critical symbolic importance to both empires....Beyond a simple expression of power, the use of Rome in Sasanian imperial propaganda is one reflection of how entangled the Roman and Iranian empires had become by the third century and how the images of rulers in the two empires had an impact on one another." (Exhibition catalogue)


By the early third century, the Roman empire had fractured and the Parthian Empire had ceased to exist. A succession of soldier-emperors were ultimately controlled by a new power: the Sasanian Empire, established by Ardashir I (reigned 224-241) and Shapur I (reigned 241-272).

A fascinating MetTalks symposium accompanying this exhibition, held over two days in the Grace Rainey Rogers Auditorium, provided many valuable insights from archaeologists, art historians and scholars. Their concern for the impact of war upon ancient treasures in Iraq, Syria and Yemen was a wake-up call and a reminder that lack of security in countries in flux - whether politically or because of wars - enables the worst elements in society to rise up, and makes it hard to access and protect ancient sites or visit museums there. Wars wreak havoc and destruction upon any community or landscape, but these wounds are fresh. 

There is a disturbing image in the 12-minute documentary at the show of members of ISIS hacking an ancient sculpture in an Iraqi museum - for propaganda purposes. A researcher at the Louvre, Michel Al-Maqdissi, said they do this because they know it upsets us. Professor Zainab Bahrani, Department of ancient Near-Eastern art at Columbia University - who is American of Iraqi origin - described the desecrating of these beautiful ancient artifacts and cities as "cultural genocide." It is understandable she should feel that strongly about the land of her ancestors. Mesopotamia's greatest cities - Nimrud, Nineveh and Hatra - have been oblitertated by wars in Iraq, by ISIS, and by looting. Babylon - present day Hillah - is 53 miles from Baghdad, and within sight of a former summer palace of Sadaam Husain. The beautiful alabaster goddess with the ruby eyes was created there in happier times. She will return to her permanent home at the Louvre.

On May 10th, 2019, a headline in The New York Times read: "For Sale On Facebook: 'Loot to Order' Antiquities From War Zones." According to the report there are now "90 Facebook accounts, mostly in Arabic,
connected to the illegal trade in Middle Eastern Antiquities, with tens of thousands of members."

The report states that what is disturbing about this thriving trade in Syria, Iraq, Yemen, Egypt, Tunisia and Libya is that most of the artifacts are not from museums or collections.  They are being looted straight from the earth. They have never been seen or documented. Pictures posted online are the only evidence of their existence.
A show like this takes on special meaning under these circumstances. 

I must end on an optimistic note, for all is not lost when we are able to see shows like this. There are gems in every exhibition that can often be overlooked. One such gem in the final gallery is a tiny Mesopotamian clay fragment from circa 2nd century-1st century B.C. - probably from Babylon - inscribed in cunieform script with part of an ancient lamentation song. The song is known as a balag - named after the stringed instrument that accompanied it - and the tablet is from a group that comes from a family that produced several temple singers. 

The song is written in the voice of the goddess Inanna-Ishtar as she laments the destruction of her cities and shrines. Civilizations have come and gone this little fragment seems to say, yet live on in our hearts, our imagination and memories.

Nothing can erase that.


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

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

The catalogue is made possible by The Andrew W. Mellon Foun

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

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

The catalogue is made possible by The Andrew W. Mellon Foundation

The exhibition is curated by Michael Seymour and Blaire Fowlkes-Childs, curators of The Metropolitan Museum of Arts Department of Ancient Near Eastern Art, who also authored the accompanying catalogue "The World Between Empires: Art and Identity In The Ancient Middle East," distributed by Yale University Press that can be purchased for $55 from

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