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monsters for apotro-

paic protection were

the rule. That’s why

the isolated domestic

tableau showing a

woman sitting on a

chair, her feet dain-

tily folded beneath her

and proudly holding

up a threaded spindle,

seems so exceptional.

Its realism and simple

humanity impart

a rare confidential

glimpse into a private domain in the distant past. Tellingly, the

bitumen relief sculpture is not Assyrian, but Elamite.

No less unusual and compelling is another ivory relief that

stopped us in our tracks: It shows a Nubian boy being mauled

by a lioness. “There’s such a

strange combination of vio-

lence and tenderness, as the

lioness cradles the boy’s head in

her paw even as she is tearing

out his throat with her teeth,”

said Aruz. In spite of its grisly

subject, there was an ineffable

compassion toward the boy’s

sacrifice, as if in it there lay

some mystical meaning waiting

to be decoded.

Among the largest items

in the exhibit, two imposing

basalt monoliths, from the

Syro-Hittite site of Tell

Halaf, attested to the persis-

tence of a restoration team in

Berlin that faced a mountain

of nearly 30,000 archeolog-

ical fragments, the remains

of some 30 sculptures that

shattered in a World War


firebombing. The splinters had

languished in the cellars of the

Pergamon Museum for nearly

six decades, East German offi-

cials having judged the works

as irretrievably lost.

Optimistic experts from the

reunified country, however,

thought otherwise. It was, essen-

tially, a series of giant, 3-D

puzzles—less complicated no

doubt than putting together the

split German nation, but monu-

mental nonetheless. Beginning

in 2001 and finishing nine years

later, the experts reassembled

more than 30 sculptures. One

scorpion-tailed bird

man with a distin-

guished beard stood

over a meter and a half

tall, and he guarded

the site’s Western

Palace much like the

better-known winged

sentinels at Nineveh

and the scorpion-men

standing watch over

the sunrise in the Mes-

opotamian epic of


Nearby was a dis-

tinctly less impressive chunk of basalt. A little larger than

a hand span on each side, the rather ordinary-looking stele

turned out to be a unique document of dramatic historical

importance. Inscribed in Aramaic, the text recounted the

“A strange combination of violence and tenderness,” said curator Joan Aruz of this ninth- or



plaque of ivory, gold and semiprecious stones, shown here nearly slightly larger

than life-size, from Nimrud’s Northwest Palace. Though Neo-Assyrian in origin, its style is Phoeni-

cian and its iconography draws from Egypt, where such images expressed royal authority over

territory, here interpreted as Nubia due to the youth’s hairstyle.

“The Near East in antiquity was, as

it is today, a diverse and complicated

milieu of distinct polities, states

and empires that cannot be fully

understood without focusing on the

cross-currents of their interaction.”

—Thomas P. Campbell, director, MetropolitanMuseum of Art