Monday, March 9, 2009

Beyond Babylon... fantasy made real

Special Exhibits at museums can be extraordinary opportunities to see items that otherwise would be separated from one another by continents. The 'Beyond Babylon' Exhibit at the Metropolitan Art Museum in Manhattan was one that I was determined not to miss. It ends on the 15th of March, I believe, so time was running out for me. Fortunately, I was able to make the trip to New York to see it on Saturday.

Basically, the exhibit concerned itself with trade in the 2nd Millenium and therefore brought together items from various cultures, showing how art, religion and even entertainment were influenced in this fashion.

For me personally, however, it always is gods and goddesses, weapons and jewelry that dominate in any exhibit of this sort. It was at the 'Beyond Babylon' exhibit that I once again beheld the golden diadem of my childhood dreams and fantasies.

Ironically, many of the pieces that I loved most in the exhibit actually form part of the permanent collection of the Metropolitan Art Museum, reminding me of the incredible cultural resource the Museum represents.

The diadem is made of electrum and features the Stag in the very centre, an animal who throughout human history has represented kingship, power and indeed the very force of life itself. This particular depiction is a wondrous stag with extraordinary antlers that bring to mind the World Tree or the ziggurats of Babylon, although this diadem is Egyptian. Alternating with smaller gazelle heads are flowers in the traditional eight-pointed style that represent the Sun.

An official description of the piece describes it as a: 'circlet or Diadem of a queen or a princess, electrum. H. 8.5 cm. From Salhiya in the Eastern Delta near Avaris.

'This unique crown, consisting of a band of electrum 1.5 cm wide perforated to take tie-strings at the rear and mounted with rosettes and animals heads, appears to have been made in Egypt largely under Asiastic inspiration, if it is not an Asiatic import. In the 18th Dynasty, it became the fashion to decorate the diadems of princesses and lesser queens with the figure of a gazelle's head in place of the uraeus or vulture of principal queens. This crown with its four gazelle heads may have been part of the trousseau of a foreign princess sent as a bride for one of the Pharoahs according to the diplomacy of the age.'

To me, the diadem has great spiritual potency, and it would be a pity if it were nothing more than a fashion statement for a minor royal at the court of a Pharoah. As the official description states, it is NOT really Egyptian in style. The flowers with eight rays are very much part of the old iconography of Inanna or Ishtar, and may represent either the sun or the Evening/Morning Star, Venus, another attribute of this goddess.

The gazelle is a symbol of feminine beauty and grace throughout the Arab world and in many ancient folktales, transformations from girl to gazelle occur. The stag, of course, is a symbol of male potency as well as kingship.

The diadem was only one of many breathtaking treasures on display. Fabulous gold daggers and ceremonial axes with exquisite inlays were included in the Exhibit. Funerary sandals fashioned of pure gold were displayed as well. An interesting facet of one pair were the 'toe stalls' made of gold, intended to slip over the actual toes of the corpse.

Although Western corpses from Medieval Europe tend to be extremely small, it is evident that the people of the 2nd Millenium resembled contemporary humans in size. The sandals and toe and finger stalls easily could have been made for some one of our own time. The second Millenium was a period of extraordinary technological and cultural sophistication.

One of the exhibits that appeared to impress most of the viewers was the reconstruction of the Uluburun ship, the oldest shipwreck discovered, dating to 1360 B.C. when Tutankhamum was Pharoah. Artifacts from the wreck as well as a video of the discovery were included in the 'Beyond Babylon' Exhibit. The contents of the ship's hold demonstrated the wealth of trade that existed between the various nations across the globe in this period of history.

The famous 'Queen of the Night' was on display here as well, lending her weight to the Exhibit. Obviously a great Goddess, her identity still has not been definitively proven, although some scholars believe her to be the equivalent of the 'dark maiden' Lilitu, the original inhabitant of the World Tree with the anzu bird and the serpent. Others claim that she represents Ereshkigal, Inanna's dark sister who reigns over the land of the dead, the Otherworld. For me, any divine representation whose identity still is wreathed in uncertainty is one of the most compelling mysteries to be solved.

Another marvelous display was the Tod Treasure. In itself, it is eloquent proof of the trade that flourished between different civilisations during this period of history and would have been worth the trip by itself.

The 'Tod Treasure' was discovered in the foundation sand of an excavation in the small village of Tod not far from Luxor. It consists of four copper chests from the time of King Amenemhet II filled with silver, lapis lazuli and gold objects. Some of the lapis is uncut, but much of it was fashioned into beads or cylinder seals from various origins, dating to the third and the beginning of the second millennium BC. The silver consists of flattened ingots, ingot chains and coiled cups. Scholars have attributed some of the pieces to Minoan and Syrian creation. The lapis itself came from Afghanistan, and it is evident that the boxes are filled with foreign tribute from various nations to the ruler of Egypt.

Large objects may be the most dramatic pieces in any exhibition but the tiny exquisite cylinder seals displayed in the 'Beyond Babylon' exhibit are some of the most incredibly beautiful artifacts seen anywhere. The actual objects are small hollow cylinders carved from semi-precious stones such as crystal or lapis. Figures and text then were incised into the stones, creating a tableau when the cylinder was rolled over a soft surface such as clay or wax. The exquisite quality of these miniature tableaux can be utterly stunning.

I will include some photographs of cylinder seals in a separate post. It was when I looked carefully at some of these seals as well as some larger tablets of clay written in cuneiform that I was struck by the amazing beauty of this style of writing and the amount of skill and labour involved in any Babylonian written work, whether it consisted in content merely of a catalogue of trade goods or embodied the marvelous 'Epic of Gilgamesh'.

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