- The Washington Times - Friday, May 23, 2003

When coalition forces invaded Iraq this spring to depose Saddam Hussein, they sent troops into what had been Mesopotamia — considered the sacred birthplace of the prophet Abraham and home of the Garden of Eden. Greeks named the legendary, once fertile area Mesopotamia, meaning “the land between the rivers,” after the Tigris and Euphrates rivers that once watered it.

Today, with memories of the disastrous looting of the Iraq Museum in Baghdad still fresh, “Art of the First Cities: The Third Millennium B.C. From the Mediterranean to the Indus,” on exhibit at New York’s Metropolitan Museum of Art, could hardly be more timely.

Though the number of antiquities now reported missing is fewer than earlier estimates, thefts at other Iraqi museums are still undocumented. Though the Met started planning the exhibit in 1997 to celebrate the new millennium, the war quickly catapulted the show to blockbuster status. Visitors have jammed the show since its opening.

Mesopotamia nurtured peoples of the third to first millenniums B.C. — the Sumerians, Akkadians and Babylonians — who reportedly created the so-called “cradle of civilization.” Until quite recently, historians conventionally attributed the components of this “cradle” — the invention of a kind of writing, recorded history, scientific agriculture, new forms of art, monumental architecture and new forms of political organization — to them.

The exhibit includes eye-popping works from these peoples and others, including a copper-alloy “Head of a Ruler,” similar to one stolen from the Iraq Museum; the “Bull-Headed Lyre of Ur,” also similar to one smashed during the Iraq Museum looting; and the rarely-seen “Standard of Ur” from the British Museum. These ancient peoples made their art to please the gods and connect the earthly with the divine.

Such stunning relics notwithstanding, the exhibit counterproductively overstates some of its claims for the historical precedence of the Fertile Crescent. “The idea of Mesopotamia as the cradle of civilization has been broadened by more recent excavations in other parts of the Middle East, Egypt, Syria and the Far East,” says local art historian Jane Griffin, citing the discovery of Hamoukar, a 6,000-year-old city in Syria, by the Oriental Institute of the University of Chicago in May 2000. Experts speculate that this find and others in Syria and Turkey show that other cities developed at roughly the same time as those in Sumeria, if not even earlier.

Mrs. Griffin also points to early forms of writing on Chinese pots dated to the fourth millennium B.C. These pots and others counter exhibit curator Joan Aruz’s thesis that writing existed almost solely in Mesopotamia at that time. (She admits to some writing developing simultaneously in Egypt.)

Historical exaggerations aside, Miss Aruz presents us with an interesting, thoughtful DNA analysis of what she believes to be the spread of Mesopotamian cities from the Tigris-Euphrates river valley, through their urban variants in Anatolia, the Gulf region, Syria and Iran, to the Indus Valley’s Harappan civilization.

She begins the exhibit with the fourth-millennium city of Uruk — the biblical Erech and modern Warka — and presents it as the most significant metropolis of early Mesopotamian times. In a telephone interview, Miss Aruz describes Uruk as the first great city in the world to have the writing, hollow-cast metalurgical techniques and monumental art and architecture to support a big population, here 40,000.

Sophisticated irrigation methods had made Uruk wealthy but in need of recording tools to manage large quantities of food and goods. The residents developed cylinder seals around 3400 B.C., cylinder-shaped pieces of index-finger width, as information storage tools. The seals provide important clues to how the now-lost cities looked. Their loss in the looting of the Iraq Museum was devastating to scholars planning to translate them.

Sumerian city-states like Ur took communication one step further with cuneiform writing, a wedge-shaped script made by converting simple pictures into signs. One example is the small “Standard of Ur” wooden box, a colorful masterpiece of craftsmanship and storytelling inlaid with shells, lapis lazuli and red limestone.

Despite its size, the mosaic panels decorate both sides and tell a complicated, entertaining story. In what must have been a battle, foot soldiers and chariots charge, donkeys trample naked enemies, prisoners and servants carry loot while the king relaxes after the battle with a feast and music. He is portrayed with a bare chest and dressed in a fleecy robe that relates to similarly dressed votive figures in the exhibit’s simulated temple nearby.

The “Standard” is displayed for the first time outside the British Museum since English archaeologist Sir Leonard Woolley found it in the 1920s. The imagery relates to the exhibit’s reconstructed lyre from Ur, which has a majestic bull’s head and intricately inlaid sound box. The opulent head, finished in gold leaf with a beard of lapis lazuli, pictures the bull as the revered Mesopotamian fertility symbol.

Mr. Woolley found the exhibit’s lyre and Queen Puabi’s headpiece and skirt in what he called “a royal burial” at Ur. The exhibit’s lively display of archival photos and instructive text illustrates Mr. Woolley’s many digs around the temple ziggurat tower. He called the 16 tombs — remarkable for their richness, elaborate architecture and evidence of ritual, including human sacrifice — “royal tombs,” as he guessed they held remains of Ur’s deceased kings and queens.

Only a single tomb had escaped looters. Excavations revealed an earthen ramp leading 16 feet down into a wide, deep pit. Mr. Woolley found the remains of 10 women, positioned in two facing rows, who evidently once had held harps and lyres. A stone-built tomb chamber nearby held four skeletons. Clearly the most important was that of “Puabi,” just under 5 feet tall and about 40 years old.

Identified by a tomb cylinder seal, she wore a headdress in the form of a blooming tree around her skull. Her followers had decorated her body with elaborately crafted jewelry made of gold, silver, lapis lazuli, carnelian and agate, materials obtained through extensive Sumerian trade with what is now northern Afghanistan. (Sumptuous as is this museum’s display, the Arthur M. Sackler Gallery showed most of the objects in its 1999 exhibit “Treasures From the Tombs at Ur.”)

The second half of the exhibit illustrates its subtitle, “The Third Millennium B.C. From the Mediterranean to the Indus,” and is not as coherent and rich as the first. Objects in several continuing exhibit rooms illustrate what Miss Aruz pictures as Mesopotamian influences on cities across Iran, the Persian Gulf, Central and South Asia and other parts of the Mediterranean. The curator has juxtaposed jewelry, human and animal sculptures and symbolic images, such as the bull, from various countries to show these cities’ similarities and differences. Exotic stones, metals and woods were supplied by extensive overland trade routes to the upward-climbing nouveau-riche elite, who demanded them.

With today’s unrest in the Middle East — it was difficult to curate this kind of exhibit, but 50 museums from more than a dozen countries in Europe, Asia and the Middle East, including Turkey, Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates, Bahrain, Pakistan, Kuwait and Uzbekistan — participated.

The challenge of designing an archaeological exhibit of this nature is not to be underestimated, either. Although photomurals of archaeologists descending into an Ur royal tomb and the display of a palace reconstruction enliven the Mesopotamian show, they don’t compare with the National Gallery of Art’s design for its 1973-1974 exhibit, “Tutankhamen.” The gallery set up an environment that re-created archaeologist Howard Carter’s discovery of the tomb and invited visitors to walk through it.

While herculean efforts clearly went into organizing “First Cities,” the exhibit’s historical scholarship is questionable and its presentation is unimaginative and often confusing.

Of course, the exhibit is timely. Given its myriad deficiencies, it had better be.

WHAT: “Art of the First Cities: The Third Millennium B.C. From the Mediterranean to the Indus”

WHERE: Metropolitan Museum of Art, 1000 Fifth Ave., New York City

WHEN: 9:30 a.m. to 5:30 p.m. Tuesday through Thursday, 9:30 a.m. to 9 p.m. Friday and Saturday, 9:30 a.m. to 5:30 p.m. Sunday, closed Monday; through Aug. 17

TICKETS: Suggested contribution of $12 adults, $7 students and seniors, free for children younger than 18 when accompanied by an adult.

PHONE: 212/535-7710

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