It’s important to remind people that the West is the new kid on the block because our narcissistic Euro centric worldview is always telling us that “we” did everything first, and everyone else is a late arrival. But that, of course, is dead wrong. One of the many virtues of the Met’s spectacular new exhibition is that it doesn’t put the ancient Near East “in its place” but shows how this region is a starting place for our culture and a mirror image for our post-modern world community, or as our Buddhist friends would say ” the idea that we are separate is an illusion, not a fact.” This is something that lots of people in our fractious and fragmented world would like to ignore, much less come to terms with.Thomas Mann couldn’t have been more on the money when he opened his 1933 novel ” Joseph and His Brothers “with “Deep is the well of the past. Should we not call it bottomless? ” And if this show isn’t bottomless it does indicate how far our pasts go which is something we need to be reminded of in our deeply cynical age.
The Met’s show, which draws from its rock solid permanent collection and loans from all over our world, places especial emphasis, as its should, on “the land between the two rivers ” Assyria, which in the eighth to seventh century BCE although the Met uses the antiquated BC instead of the now more scholarly accepted “Before the Common Era “, which controlled and administered the largest empire the world had yet known. But there’s a curious omission.The great Assyrian king Ashurbanipal II’s library at Nineveh gets zilch mention in the show, but in the catalog, yes. But that’s disturbing because it was the largest and most complete collection of cuneiform tablets and every other kind of mercantile, diplomatic, and artistic correspondence and much more three hundred years before Alexander the Great had his library in Alexandria, Egypt. Could it be that our wonderful US State Dept has managed to muscle its way into this otherwise superb show with its own not so hidden agenda? Meaning, of course, that Ashurbanipal, who was indeed ruthless as any mafioso, only had murder on his mind? Vide his military campaigns, but not the beauty of the ivories, bas-reliefs of ranked subjects giving tribute, the lion hunt, and all the other extraordinary things his artists and others achieved at this time ? Could it be that Ashurpanipal is a convenient mirror-image of the West and its American and gulf states big demon Bashir Al-Assad?
But no matter.”Landmark” is an overused and therefore meaningless word, but the Met’s show does rise to the occasion in most of the galleries here.Exquisite ivories, bas-reliefs,statues of kings,cult gods,demons, gold, jewelry you could kill just by looking at it? And who knew that elephants and not just lions were all over Syria at this time, and that the Phoenicians / Lebanese ” famed for their ships”, denuded the “cedars of Lebanon” for their trading and colonizing exploits which took them to Iberia at the edge of the known world which meant the Sraits of Gibraltar?Or that the Phoenicians, being both a practical and imaginative people, invented “our alphabet” one thousand years before our common era? Canaanite. Before the Hebrew tribes, and way before the Greeks who are the poor relations here? Begging. Borrowing. Stealing. But that’s just a tiny part of this extraordinary show which sets the ancient Near East closer and further to our own way too conflicted and under known present time
” It surpasses in splendor any city in the known world” wrote the Greek historian Herodotos, about ancient Babylon and the Met’s often deeply comprehensive show will surely set a new standard through which we see our fragile held in common place world.Here today, gone tomorrow,That’s a cliche.But it has the inevitable ring of truth, and the Met’s catalog is one of the best and most beautifully written ones I’ve ever seen. A guidebook into our collective past worlds. Miss this show at your own peril. It ain’t going anywhere but NY, NY.