Like a trader of old, Mahrukh Tarapor has come to the Middle East seeking treasure—not gold or frankincense, but limestone. The urbane, Harvard-trained scholar from New York's Metropolitan Museum of Art has tracked a 4500-year-old statue to Saudi Arabia, to the basement of the National Museum in Riyadh.
From photographs showing the statue's shaved head, noseless face and pitted surface, Tarapor knows that this meter-high figure of a man is no great beauty. But it comes from the island of Tarut on the east coast of Saudi Arabia, and because it so strongly resembles statues from the Sumerian city-state of Ur, 650 kilometers (400 mi) north in Iraq, she also knows it is dramatic testimony to the vitality of early trade between Mesopotamia and the Arabian coast. This makes the statue a prized piece in the puzzle Tarapor is assembling, the Metropolitan's show "Art of the First Cities: The Third Millennium BC from the Mediterranean to the Indus."
Where the statue-maker's merchant colleagues once traded their carpets, wool, palm oil and grain for silver, gold, lapis lazuli and carnelian, Tarapor, as the Metropolitan's chief exhibition organizer, comes bearing prestige and worldwide exposure for Saudi Arabia's archeological heritage, in return for a six-month loan of the statue. While traders of the third millennium BC were spurred by rumors of riches in far-off lands, traders of the current third millennium like Tarapor and Joan Aruz, curator of the First Cities exhibition, discovered the existence of this statue the way they find most everything for such exhibitions these days—through scholarly journals and e-mails among colleagues.
Right now, however, the pudgy statue with the protuberant oval eyes is still tucked away, unseen. After Tarapor's initial requests to view him are politely deflected in favor of other objects, she tries humor. "You know, you really are going to cost me my job if I can't have a look at this statue," she says with her best mix of determination and charm. Sensing her seriousness, the curators lead her down to where they carefully withdraw the statue from a box. Soon after, a deal for the loan is made. Tarapor supposes that, in Saudi Arabia, it was impossible to put a nude figure, however historic, on public display.
National Museum director Saad Abdul Aziz al-Rashid lets out a broad laugh when asked if the statue was hidden on purpose. "It's nothing like that," he says. "This is a historic, scientific work, known all over the world." The museum has thousands of figures in storage, he explains, awaiting display space either in Riyadh or in regional museums.
Still, it does take several days of building mutual trust and a bit of polite arm-twisting before the National Museum accedes to Tarapor's request. Perhaps there is a trace of reluctance to lend the figure. Even between museums whose business is bridging civilizations, cultural confusions, it seems, can still arise.
Running through August 17, the First Cities exhibition can hardly have arrived in New York at a better time. The exhaustive and dazzling survey of early Bronze Age art sheds new light on the vast commercial, religious and cultural network connecting the first cities—Uruk and Ur in southern Iraq, Mari in Syria, the ancient citadel of Troy near Istanbul and the Indus Valley capital of Mohenjo-Daro in Pakistan. More than 5000 years ago, it was in lower Mesopotamia that the Sumerian people created the world's first urban civilization, inventing writing, monumental art and architecture, irrigation farming, poetry and the rule of law. All those cities were connected by the world's oldest long-distance trade routes, a thin web of proto-Silk Roads that ran from Greece to Pakistan and from the United Arab Emirates to Russia and Uzbekistan.
For its part, the Metropolitan took advantage of one of the newest trade routes to build the exhibition—a modern museum lending system that enables institutions around the world to share their respective patrimonies and permits the compilation of large-scale thematic exhibitions such as First Cities. Just as merchants 6000 years ago began to bring goods from afar to palaces and markets, so now do curators move national treasures to a new kind of cultural nexus—the museum.
For the First Cities exhibition, the Metropolitan brought together some 400 objects lent by 51 museums and private collections in the United States and 15 other countries across Europe, the Middle East and Asia. As complex as it was to organize, it is "about average" for major exhibitions these days, says Tarapor, noting that it rather pales beside the 1997 "Glories of Byzantium" show, for which she coordinated more than 100 lenders from 24 countries.
Among the spectacular pieces on display in the First Cities exhibition are an ornate burial headdress of hammered gold leaves, lapis lazuli and red carnelian belonging to a queen from Ur named Puabi; a gilt filigree, crown-shaped diadem from central Turkey; a tensed lioness-demon figure from Iran; and a sacred unicorn pendant from Mohenjo-Daro. Cylinder seals, some as small as a child's finger, deliver an impact far out of proportion to their size. Among the numerous cuneiform tablets relating the world's earliest myths is one that tells the story of the Great Flood. Relief carvings and exquisite inlay portray supernatural creatures with human heads and the bodies of bulls, scorpions and lions interceding with gods and goddesses who are shown controlling the sun, fertility and battles. In the Mesopotamian world, the gods owned the cities and humans did their bidding through the orders of kings. Seated with the floor plan of a temple on his lap, Gudea, the ruler of Lagash, is memorialized in a black diorite statue as an architect for the gods.
"A lot of people think that if it's third-millennium, it's primitive, which is emphatically not the case," explains Joan Aruz, curator of the Metropolitan's Department of Ancient Near Eastern Art and organizer of the First Cities show. "It was a very elite society with sophisticated music, art and literature."
What made this sophistication possible, she says, was the growth of commercial and cultural exchange. At the center were the Sumerians, who traded carpets, wool, cloth, palm oil, fish oil, vegetable oil, grain and other agricultural products for gold from Iran and Anatolia, for wood, copper and diorite from Magan in present-day Oman and the United Arab Emirates, for alabaster goblets and bowls from Egypt and for gray-green chlorite vases from Iran and Tarut. Traders brought raw blocks of lapis lazuli on foot and by donkey caravan from northeastern Afghanistan to Mesopotamian palaces, where artisans fashioned statuary, bowls and jewelry. Sailing across the Arabian Sea in deep-keeled ships, merchants from the Indus Valley city of Harappa converged on Dilmun, in present-day Bahrain, with cargoes of ivory combs, carnelian belts and decorated beads to trade with buyers from Ur.
Where traders of the third millennium BC had to contend with storms of sea and sand, balky camels, leaky ships and bandits, Aruz and Tarapor often struggled to persuade curators and cultural authorities and to maneuver in a stormy political climate. Acquiring the overseas pieces for the First Cities show proved a mind-boggling exercise in scholarship, patience, serendipity— and disappointment.
From the outset, they knew that borrowing objects from Iraq and Iran was out of the question because of US trade and cultural embargoes. Instead, they turned to the British Museum, the Louvre, the University of Pennsylvania and other western museums that had benefited from archeological expeditions from the late 19th century until the 1970's, when the export of local finds was generally banned. Aruz also located pieces in Bahrain, the United Arab Emirates, Saudi Arabia, Pakistan and Uzbekistan—places that had never before lent objects to the Metropolitan, and only rarely to any other institutions.
Thanks to Tarapor's persistence and charm, four museums in Syria agreed to lend some 98 works. In February, however, US government criticism of Syria precipitated their withdrawal. Faced with a staggering loss so close to the scheduled opening, Tarapor and Aruz briefly considered canceling the exhibition, but then scrambled to fill the gaps with works from other sites and a large-scale model of the palace and temple at Mari built by French archeologist Jean-Claude Margueron. Days before the opening, Syria relented slightly, allowing three pieces to travel to New York—a tiny, tantalizing sample.
"It has been the most challenging exhibition I've ever done," says Tarapor, who spent six years sending faxes and catching planes across the region to persuade ministers of culture and museum directors of the importance of the show and the security of lending to the Metropolitan. To her chagrin, museums in India, the country of her birth, did not respond. "If I had been willing to go to India a half dozen times and to sit in Delhi and knock on the right doors, then we might have gotten some objects. But I didn't have the time," she says.
"Despite the setbacks, it's also been probably the most rewarding and fulfilling exhibition I've ever done," adds Tarapor, "I suppose because of the people I've met in Saudi Arabia and Bahrain and elsewhere, in places I've had no exposure to before. You emerge with the conviction that when other doors close, at least art is still a language that matters more in people's hearts than politics. We talk about globalization so glibly today, but there was a degree of globalization going on in the third millennium BC."
Starting with large photographs of riverscapes of the present-day Tigris and Euphrates, the First Cities exhibition plunges back 5300 years with a bearded "priest-king" from Uruk, 250 kilometers (150 mi) south of Baghdad. Home to the hero Gilgamesh, this city of 40,000 was once renowned for gardens, man-made canals and sprawling limestone temples.
Subsequent galleries present gold and lapis-lazuli jewelry and statuary from the royal cemetery at Ur, excavated from 1922 to 1934 by British archeologist Leonard Woolley. The centerpiece is the Standard of Ur, a trapezoidal box measuring 50 by 21 centimeters (20 by 8") that depicts battles and banquets in mosaics of shell and lapis-lazuli inlay. For Aruz and Tarapor, this was a coup, for the Standard has only rarely left the British Museum in the past.
Other pieces from the tombs at Ur include Queen Puabi's cape and belt, festooned with gold, silver, carnelian, agate and lapis-lazuli beads, and a lyre adorned with the gilt head of a mythic horned bull sprouting a florid beard of lapis-lazuli curls.
Nearby, a dim model temple is filled with wide-eyed gypsum figures with shaved heads, hands clasped in devotion above ankle-length skirts. "These votive images served as stand-ins before the gods, to pray for the Sumerian nobility in perpetuity," Aruz explains.
Another gallery is devoted to the world's first empire, the Akkadian dynasty that federated Ur, Mari and other cities and flourished for some 141 years, from around 2300 to 2159 BC, before collapsing. Cylindrical stone seals show kneeling heroes offering vases of water to buffaloes. A stone mould used to decorate a shield shows Ishtar, a goddess of love, war and fertility, amid vanquished prisoners proffering plates of fruit.
Aruz first conceived the idea of the exhibition in January 1997, and originally she wanted it to show in 2000 to usher in the third millennium of this era. When arrangements proved unexpectedly complicated, the exhibition was postponed until late 2001. After the September 11 attacks, Aruz and Tarapor thought about scrapping it.
Five weeks later, with military jets still patrolling Manhattan's skies, the Metropolitan opened another large show, "Treasury of the World: Jeweled Arts of India in the Age of the Mughals," devoted to the Shaykh Nasser al-Sabah jewelry collection from Kuwait. "It was such an extraordinary lesson for us that Shaykh Nasser never wavered for a second to send an extremely valuable collection to New York at such an uncertain time," Tarapor recalls. "There was a message there. I saw what a healing effect that exhibition had. People were just so grateful to have something beautiful to look at from that part of the world." She decided to persevere with First Cities.
Four and a half years earlier, when Aruz originally received the green light from the museum's director to prepare the exhibition, she began compiling a "wish list" of objects. "How does one make this list?" Aruz asks. "One studies for years and years, accumulating knowledge, reading excavation reports in archeological journals, consulting museum and exhibition catalogues, visiting museums, attending conferences, talking to colleagues." For First Cities, Aruz rounded up some 50 archeologists, art historians, anthropologists, linguistic experts and other academic specialists to produce essays for the exhibition catalogue and to speak at a lecture series and a two-day symposium on urban life in the third millennium BC.
Then, with the Metropolitan's budget director, Aruz and Tarapor worked out a travel budget for visits to museums that own the objects in order to meet with local officials and make mutually satisfactory loan arrangements. For First Cities, which cost more than a million dollars to organize, the travel budget was comparatively modest, says Tarapor, who visited five Middle Eastern countries to arrange loans. Aruz paid calls principally on colleagues in American and European institutions, as well as several museums in Syria.
Invariably, Aruz turns up new material when she travels. For example, she was delighted when curators at the National Museum in Aleppo invited her into the storerooms to have a look at gold jewelry and beads that had never been on public display. Uncovered at Tell Banat east of Aleppo, the pieces bore striking similarities to jewelry found at Troy along the Turkish coast—possibly evidence of a previously unknown trade link between the cities, and a new piece in the puzzle.
At a conference in London, Aruz learned that etched carnelian beads from the Indus Valley had been unearthed on the Greek island of Aigina, near Athens, 4000 kilometers (2500 mi) from their origin. This was her first clear-cut proof of a trade route linking the Aegean Sea to the Indus Valley via Mesopotamia. "It was a shock to find them so far west," she says. "Up till then, they had only turned up as far west as the royal tombs of Ur."
Once the curator decides what she wants, it's up to Tarapor to coax reluctant museums and collectors into lending. To do this, she turns first to her own list of influential scholars, lenders, diplomats, museum officials and well-heeled arts patrons who help open doors.
Some institutions are easy to borrow from, including most US institutions and collections, the British Museum, the Louvre and others that have experience of exchanges with the Metropolitan. For them, such loan requests are routine and often reciprocal. It's those museums that are relatively new to the international art circuit that require more of Tarapor's diplomacy, and it is here that the efforts to assemble exhibitions such as First Cities actually extend the modern museum lending system.
"What happens is that an invisible network of contacts and connections arises with each exhibition," Tarapor says. "You never go into a country cold." For example, she explains, Shaykh Nasser of Kuwait helped with introductions in the Gulf states and Syria, and in Saudi Arabia, HRH Princess Adela bint 'Abd Allah ibn 'Abd al-'Aziz helped her.
Even with connections, however, it's not always easy. "You need to have face-to-face meetings to familiarize people with the significance of the exhibition," says Tarapor.
As we talk, she fans out one of the tools of her trade: a set of 30 color photocopies in a loose-leaf catalogue designed to impress prospective lenders with the exhibition's highlights, and a gallery floor plan showing the principal pieces in each room, accompanied by the names of the lenders.
"The catalogue of highlights is to give people an idea of the beauty of the show," she says. It's also very useful to show museum directors and curators who the other participants are and where their own objects will be placed. It gives them a sense of the seriousness of the project." Once lenders understand, they generally do their best to assist, she says.
According to Riyadh museum director Saad al-Rashid, the First Cities exhibition provided a welcome opportunity to introduce Saudi Arabia's archeological heritage, "to demonstrate to the outside world that we're not only exploring oil, but our hidden cultural treasures as well."
But misunderstandings still arise. Like an ancient trader scouring shops for gold but being offered only lapis, Tarapor was occasionally frustrated with some of the initial responses she received. "My biggest problem," she says, "is that you send a list of what you need and you get back a wonderfully friendly letter from museum officials that promises full cooperation—but, they say, instead of the objects you want, we propose giving you these other objects. So you've got to start over and explain again why you want this particular object and what its dialogue is with the piece that will be displayed next to it. More often than not, they propose less important pieces. That's where sitting down and having lunches and dinners achieves the results you want. It comes down to spending time to build trust. You have to get into what is in it for them.
"Eventually, they come back with a protocol, a standard contract in which they leave blank what the borrowing institution will provide them. In some cases, it could be a loan fee, or it could be staff training at the Met."
Indeed, what museums receive in exchange for their loans, which is determined by Tarapor in consultation with Metropolitan director Philippe de Montebello, can be a matter of old-fashioned barter. For example, for its help with First Cities, the Ankara Museum of Anatolian Civilization in Turkey will receive updated conservation equipment. A curator from the National Museum in Karachi will receive specialized training at the Met. More modestly, the Hermitage in St. Petersburg was content with 60 copies of the lush exhibition catalogue.
If a lender does require a fee, it varies with the specific situation. The University of Pennsylvania Museum in Philadelphia, which rarely charges for loans, is being compensated in this case, to replace revenues lost by cancellation of their own touring exhibition to accommodate the Metropolitan's request for 52 pieces from Pennsylvania's incomparable Sumerian collection.
Many smaller museums, like the National Museum in Riyadh, ask nothing for their loans: They are satisfied with the chance to showcase their holdings at one of the world's leading art institutions. Saad al-Rashid, who is also the Saudi Arabian deputy minister for antiquities and museums, views the loan for First Cities as only the first of future cooperative ventures between the Metropolitan and the museums of Saudi Arabia. "Our hope is to launch an extensive program to train and exchange researchers and objects, and to pursue cooperative archeological ventures," he says.
Other times, borrowing arrangements are just plain collegial. "We just about emptied the Louvre's Ancient Near East galleries," Tarapor explains. "But there's the tacit understanding that we'll make a sacrifice on the same scale when we lend them works in the future."
In the countdown before First Cities opened, every day seemed to bring a new crisis. When the Pakistani courier bringing the Indus Valley pieces was refused a US visa, the Metropolitan booked a ticket to Karachi for Jonathan Mark Kenoyer, a professor of anthropology at the University of Wisconsin, the Indus specialist who had negotiated the loans from Pakistan. "Without Mark going, we would have had nothing from the Indus," says Tarapor.
Fortunately, there were pleasant surprises as well. For months, Tarapor had been trying to get a response to her faxes to the Tashkent Museum requesting the loan of a black stone weight carved with two snakes in a menacing face-off. She even tried asking colleagues in Russia to see if they could help. "Nothing, nothing, nothing," she recalls. "Then, out of the blue, we got a call from the Uzbek ambassador to the US saying, 'We're sending the object.' It's a fascinating piece because it shows trade going as far north and east as Central Asia."
Once Tarapor had her tentative roster of objects, she applied for an indemnity from the Federal Council on the Arts and Humanities, a US government program that taps a pool of $500 million in insurance coverage for museums across the country. Although the federal indemnity is free, the Metropolitan and other museums have to purchase supplemental private insurance to cover the astronomical value of the pieces on loan.
A few months before the opening, John O'Neill, editor-in-chief and general manager for the Metropolitan's publications, met with Aruz to choose scholars to contribute to the exhibition catalogue. After assigning the catalogue essays, O'Neill sent photographers to the various museums across the US and abroad to shoot images of the pieces that would appear in the book. Generally, he says, stock photographs from the lending museums are not of high enough quality. "We're very fussy."
O'Neill and his staff make a preliminary design, "scream at the tardies" and digitize incoming photographs for what will turn into a 540-page book, after several hundred last-minute changes are made to the articles, photographs, captions and maps—far more than usual, due to the late arrival of so many pieces. On the day I interviewed O'Neill in mid-April, page proofs just flown in from the printer in Singapore lay scattered across his office couch. "It'll be really close," he says with an audible sigh of relief, "but in my 25 years here, we've never missed an opening."
While O'Neill was readying the catalogue, exhibition designer Michael Batista was constructing galleries. On a visit to Riyadh, Batista had been so impressed by the National Museum's tunnel-like passageway to the Islamic sections that he borrowed the concept to lead the visitor into First Cities—an example of the ways the modern museum trade route can result in exchanges of ideas as well as objects.
"Basically, the entranceway gives you the feeling that you're going down into the ground, even though the floor is level," says Batista. "We achieve that effect with the slanting walls and ceiling, so that metaphorically you are going down into the earth and back in time." The stepped ramparts lining the interior of the first gallery were also borrowed from Riyadh. "We're trying to give viewers the sense that they're entering the ruins of a walled city," he says.
As workers hammer away to erect the walls, Batista explains that the galleries are created from scratch for every show, though some of the display cases are recycled. With less than three weeks to go before the opening, objects are arriving daily and are stored in the basement until Batista and his crew begin installing them in cases.
As designer, Batista faced a balancing act in keeping the featured cities separate while still showing the connections. He worried the viewer might get disoriented, losing track of where one civilization stops and another begins, or—far worse—grow bored. "It's the same old story," sighs Batista. "How do you bring these complex themes to life—in this case, kingship, first cities, temples, burial chambers—without sinking into a merely didactic experience?"
Upstairs, Joanne Lyman, the Metropolitan's manager of jewelry reproduction, is setting up "the marketplace." Sorting through some of the pieces she's commissioned for the exhibition, she is managing a supply route of her own within the framework of the museum-to-museum system. With more than 240 reproductions for sale, from earrings and necklaces to children's puzzles, First Cities has generated triple the average number of reproductions, and rivals the 2001 exhibition of Mughal court jewelry, which generated more than 300 sale objects. All will sell not only in the shop that stands at the exit of the exhibition, but also in the museum's other in-house shops, its 17 shops in top malls across the US and its six shops abroad. Lending institutions receive a five-percent royalty on shop sales of reproductions of their objects, and 2.5 percent on mail-order and Internet sales.
The reproductions come from all over the globe—India, China, Pakistan, the Philippines, Chile—and from Manhattan. In Jaipur, Lyman spent weeks overseeing a master goldsmith who fashioned a 22-karat gold torque, patterned after a copper bull's head from Dilmun, that will sell for close to $10,000. (At the opposite end of the price spectrum is the $10 coffee mug with a photographic decal of the Standard of Ur.) Beadmakers in Pakistan and metalworkers in India drilled and polished beads and hammered gold in much the same way as the artisans who crafted the original works in the third millennium BC. Lyman's reproductions are another expansion of the First Cities exhibition's own trade routes, one that intersects with general global commerce as it generates the export of lapis lazuli from Afghanistan and carnelian from Pakistan to workshops from China to Chile.
"This exhibition has given me the most pleasure of any I've ever worked on," Lyman explains. "It goes back to the beginnings of making jewelry in metal, using beautifully simple, almost modern forms."
In her corner office overlooking Central Park, Aruz awaits the arrival of the First Cities treasures much as the merchants and royalty of Ur, Mari and Troy might have waited for them five millennia ago. If the curator who has labored six and a half years to bring this project to fruition is anxious, she doesn't show it. "It's a given that a lot of these objects are going to arrive late," she says, flashing a smile. "It's like a Broadway show—full of last-minute insanity, no matter how much you prepare."
Aruz and company needn't worry. Despite the Syrian pull-out and the mysterious non-arrival of 10 promised items from Turkmenistan, she, Tarapor and their colleagues in New York and around the world have pulled off a feat, stitching together a coalition of museums and private collections that exemplifies cultural exchange in our third millennium.
Paris-based author Richard Covington writes about arts, culture and the media in Europe, the Middle East and Asia for the International Herald Tribune, Smithsonian, Reader's Digest, the Los Angeles Times and other publications.