Beyond Mesopotamia; New York's Timely Exhibit Raises Historical Questions

Article excerpt

Byline: Joanna Shaw-Eagle, THE WASHINGTON TIMES

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. …