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March/April 2015

11

conquests of the ninth-century

bce

Syrian king Hazael, and

among them appears a royal descendant of the House of David.

This is the sole known mention of the Davidic dynasty outside

the Bible, the first archeological evidence of the historical exis-

tence of King David as the founder of Judah.

Among the show’s most delicate, hauntingly arresting works

were

Tridacna squamosa,

or giant clam shells, as big across as a

hand, incised with mind-blowingly detailed tableaux including

miniature musicians, lotus buds, palm trees and—rather

incredibly—men in kilts riding jauntily caparisoned horses. The

hinged knob of one shell was carved to resemble the head of a

woman, or perhaps the goddess Astarte, her long tresses mor-

phing into feathers as they streamed down the shell back that

undulates like waves. Another shell bore the incised head and

face of a bird man at its top; swooping wings etched on the shell’s

exterior protectively sheltered a pair of compact sphinxes.

Tri-

dacna

clams thrive in the warm waters of the Indian Ocean, the

Arabian Gulf and the Red Sea, and their shells were imported

over vast distances to be engraved in Levantine workshops. From

there, they were exported across the Near East and the Mediter-

ranean as luxury containers for cosmetics.

The most publicized of the show’s curatorial coups

involved, perhaps not surprisingly, gold. Aruz’s acquisition

for loan from Seville of the seventh-century

bce

Carambolo

treasure made front-page headlines in Spain. Weighing in at

a stupendous 2.4 kilograms (5¼ lb), the solid gold necklace,

bracelets and plaques were items worn by Phoenician priests

who presided over ritual sacrifices of animals to the Phoeni-

cian deities Baal and Astarte by colonists of Spal, near what

is now the modern city of Seville.

So valuable are these relics that the city’s archeological

museum displays replicas, and the originals are kept in the vault

of the national bank. When Aruz insisted that the Metropolitan

would accept only the originals, the Spanish authorities took

her to the vaults and made the New York show a rare occasion

when the public was allowed to view them.

Like any power, Neo-Assyrian domination did not forever

endure. After bringing the Near East to heel for centuries, the

once-invincible empire was fatally weakened in the mid-sev-

enth century

bce

by a civil war between jointly ruling, rival

brothers. One of them, Ashurbanipal, was portrayed in the

show on a stone stele bearing a basket of earth on his head to

symbolize his role in rebuilding Babylon after his grandfather

Sennacherib had mercilessly sacked the city some two decades

earlier. To his elder brother Shamash-shuma-ukin, named by

their father as the king of Babylon, the inscription pledged

fond wishes: “May his days be long and may he be fully satis-

fied with (his) good fortune.”

But after 16 years of sharing power, Shamash-shuma-ukin

revolted against his brother. Ashurbanipal mounted a four-

year siege of Babylon that produced a famine that drove the

city’s inhabitants to cannibalism. The defeated brother immo-

lated himself in the flames of his burning palace in 648

bce

.

Some 36 years later, in 612

bce

, Ashurbanipal’s capital city

of Nineveh was in turn sacked by vengeful Babylonians. The

Neo-Assyrian empire gave way to Neo-Babylonian rulers.

Not long after that, they too gave way, to Persians, who

brought about yet another fall of Babylon in 539

bce

.

Some 200 years later, armies under the command of

a Macedonian warrior later dubbed Alexander the Great

brought an unprecedented wave of Greek conquest that

swept from west to east, reversing the flow of culture and

exchange, setting the world stage for the rise of western

classical cultures.

In addition to contributing regularly to

AramcoWorld

, Paris-

based

Richard Covington

([email protected]

)

has written about culture, history and science for numerous

publications.

www.metmuseum.org

Related articles at

www.aramcoworld.com

Art of the First Cities: J/A 03

Roads of Arabia: M/A 11

One of some 30 Syro-Hittite sculptures that took nine years to

reconstruct after a World War

ii

firebombing, this early ninth-century

bce

basalt statue of a scorpion-tailed bird man once stood beside the

“Scorpion Gate” of a palace at Tell Halaf in northern Syria.

TOP: STEFFEN SPITZNER / BPK / VORDERASIATISCHES MUSEUM, STAATLICHE MUSEEN ZU BERLIN / ART RESOURCE; LOWER: STAATLICHE MUSEEN ZU BERLIN / VORDERASIATISCHES MUSEUM;

OPPOSITE: BRITISH MUSEUM

One of roughly 575 protective and symbolic creatures that adorned

victorious Babylon’s Ishtar Gate, built between 604 and 562

bce

after

the Babylonian conquest of the Neo-Assyrians, is a

mushhushshu

dragon, rendered in glazed and molded brick.