Spouted Vessel, Ceramic. H. 50 cm (19-3/4 in.); diam. 22.5 cm (8-7/8 in.) Tokat-Sanusa Hittite Old Kingdom, 17th-16th century B.C. Ankara Museum of Anatolian Civilizations, Turkey. Photo: Bruce White
NEW YORK, NY.- Four thousand years ago, trade by sea and land linked distant civilizations to one another to an astonishing degree. From Syria, Mesopotamia, and Egypt in the south to Thrace, Anatolia, and the Caucasus in the north and from regions as far west as mainland Greece all the way east to Iran, the great royal houses forged intense international relationships through the exchange of traded raw materials and goods as well as letters and diplomatic gifts. This unprecedented movement of precious materials, luxury goods, and people resulted in a total transformation of the visual arts throughout a vast territory that spanned the ancient Near East and the eastern Mediterranean.
Opening November 18 at The Metropolitan Museum of Art, the landmark exhibition Beyond Babylon: Art, Trade, and Diplomacy in the Second Millennium B.C. will focus on the extraordinary art created as a result of a sophisticated network of interaction that developed among kings, diplomats, and merchants in the Near East during the second millennium B.C. Approximately 350 objects of the highest artistry from royal palaces, temples, and tombs – as well as from a unique shipwreck – will provide the visitor with an overview of artistic exchange and international connections throughout the period.
"As Beyond Babylon shows, the origins of our global economy can be traced back at least four millennia. Extensive communication and trade in antiquity among many ancient cultures led to the development of new art forms of astonishing creativity and technical achievement," commented Philippe de Montebello, Director of The Metropolitan Museum of Art. "Because many of these works have either only recently been excavated or have never been shown abroad, the exhibition provides a singular opportunity for the public to experience the rich artistic and cultural traditions of a fascinating, seminal period."
Beyond Babylon will begin with the Middle Bronze Age (ca. 2000 - 1600 B.C.), when a rising elite class sought precious materials and objects fashioned in styles that reflected contacts with foreign lands. Mesopotamian merchants established trading centers throughout central Anatolia, exploiting its rich metal resources, and powerful kingdoms in Syria were linked through commerce and diplomacy with Anatolia, the Mediterranean, and Egypt. These contacts are evidenced in the magnificent jewelry from tombs at Ebla and sculptures and wall paintings of rulers and divinities from the great palace at Mari. International exchange also flowed through the port of Byblos on the Levantine coast, where temples housed remarkable votive objects and tombs contained the treasures of Egyptian rulers. Foreign material wealth was also carried into Egypt, as with the incomparable collection of silver vessels and seals deposited in the Montu Temple at Tôd. Other great cities and centers of the Middle Bronze Age will also be introduced in this part of the exhibition with marvelous objects from Babylon in Mesopotamia, the trading colonies of central Anatolia, and the Caucasus.
Next, the exhibition explores the movement of both people and ideas. Trade, booty, and diplomatic gift exchange provided the means for the circulation of precious goods. The emphasis in this section will be on the complexity of interaction, addressing the individuals who traveled – traders, diplomats, soldiers, craftsmen, and other specialists – and the ideas, techniques, and traditions that intermingled. The depiction of an Asiatic soldier on an Egyptian stele offers one example of the complexity of this interaction, while jewelry finds demonstrate the intermixing of imagery, styles, and techniques from various areas of the eastern Mediterranean and the Near East.
The transition to the Late Bronze Age coincides with the arrival in the middle of the 17th century B.C. of the Hyksos, a nomadic Semitic people who invaded Egypt and ruled briefly before the beginning of the New Kingdom. During their 100-year rule, new ideas were introduced into Egyptian art. A telling mixture of foreign and foreign-influenced concepts appears in an elegant gold circlet decorated with gazelle and stag heads and star-like elements. Neither the opening at the back of the crown nor the use solely of the animal's head – rather than the entire body – is characteristic of Egyptian art of this time. The unusual eight-pointed, star-like elements may be an Egyptian interpretation of a Mesopotamian motif.
The great palatial centers of the Late Bronze Age (ca. 1600 – 1200 B.C.), catalysts for the movement of people and ideas, are the focus of the next portion of the exhibition. The sites of Qatna and Ugarit in Syria are of exceptional importance, and finds from these two centers will be highlighted in order to show how they interacted with the greater Late Bronze Age world. Recent discoveries at Qatna include a remarkable royal palace and Aegean-style wall paintings, as well as royal archives and an intact royal tomb. The richness of the finds from the royal tombs makes clear that the city and its ruler enjoyed great wealth and played a powerful role on the international stage. Ugarit, near the Syrian coast, has long been recognized for its role in the bustling exchange of goods during this period. Sculpture in precious metal and ivory discovered at Ugarit and its port of Minet el-Beidha are crucial to understanding the way in which eastern and western elements merged to create new intercultural styles. In addition, much of what we know about the international relations of the Late Bronze Age comes from the site of Amarna in Egypt, where an important archive of royal correspondence from the 14th century B.C. was found. The so-called Amarna letters describe the diplomatic relationships between the Egyptian court and its counterparts throughout the Near East and eastern Mediterranean.
These far-flung connections and their artistic impact are most dramatically visible in the goods recovered from a shipwreck found near Uluburun off the southern coast of Turkey, which will form the core of the second half of the exhibition. Because all of the ship's contents sank to the seabed, the remains of the wreck are a veritable time capsule of late second millennium B.C. trade relations. The cargo included hippopotamus ivory canines and incisors, along with copper and glass ingots, golden jewelry elements, and seals from Mesopotamia, Mycenaean Greece, and Egypt – one a rare golden scarab of Nefertiti. The objects originally on the ship demonstrate the creativity fostered by the intense interaction of the great powers in the Near East and eastern Mediterranean during that period. To better illustrate the varied travelers and goods concentrated aboard the ship, representative objects from other sites related to them will radiate outward from the central Uluburun display.
The exhibition will conclude with a presentation of precious vessels of gold, glass, faience, and stone as well as elaborately carved ivories that were prized as royal gifts. In their style and imagery, these objects display the artistic impact of the complex exchanges that took place across the region during the 14th and 13th centuries B.C. The famous gold bowls from Ugarit represent just such objects, illustrating the cosmopolitan nature of the port city through the fusion of elements from various cultures. The intensity and sophistication of these interactions resulted in a true "international age," in which the exchange of luxury objects played a key role and influenced greatly the artistic legacy that would continue into the following millennium.
This exhibition follows the historical path laid out in the Metropolitan's acclaimed 2003 exhibition Art of the First Cities: The Third Millennium B.C. from the Mediterranean to the Indus.
Glazed Tiles with Asiatic Leaders. Polychrome faience Syrian leader H. 25 cm (9-7/8 in.); w. 6 cm (2-3/8 in.) b. Amorite Leader H. 29.5 cm (11-5/8 in.); w. 5.5 cm (2-1/8 in.) c. Philistine Leader H. 30 cm (11-7/8 in.); w. 5.5 cm (2-1/8 in.) d. Hittite Leader H. 16.8 cm (6-5/8 in.); w. 5.5 cm (2-1/8 in.) Egypt, Thebes Medinet Habu, Mortuary Temple of Ramesses III New Kingdom, Dynasty 20, reign of Ramesses III, ca. 1184-1153 B.C. Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, Emily Esther Sears Fund. Photo: © 2008 Museum of Fine Arts, Boston