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March/April 2015


The kingdoms, territo-

ries and cultures were many,

but there was one major

driving force behind these

exchanges: the Neo-Assyrian

empire. At its height in the

seventh century


, it

stretched from its capital at

Nineveh in present-day Iraq

to encompass Babylonia and western Iran, northern Egypt, the

Levant and Anatolia. Heir to the less extensive—and less vora-

ciously expansive—Assyrian empires of the third and second



, it nevertheless did not project itself into the Med-

iterranean. To reach west, the Neo-Assyrians allied with the

Phoenicians, who brought back

tribute, carried on maritime com-

merce and searched for resources.

Fueling much exploration was

the search for iron, which proved

superior to bronze for tools and

weapons. Phoenician sailors and

traders established posts across

the ancient world, including the

North African coast at Carthage,

the major islands of the Medi-

terranean and along both the

southern and western coasts of

Iberia (now Spain and Portugal).

Even King Midas, who was

a real sovereign in seventh- or



Phrygia (now

Turkey), played a part in intercul-

tural diplomacy. According to the

Greek historian Herodotus, Midas

was the first foreign ruler to pay

homage to the prophetic oracle at

the Greek sanctuary of Delphi. This

journey took him across the Aegean

Sea some 800 kilometers west.

Although legend has it that every-

thing Midas touched turned to

gold—perhaps the story pertains to

an earlier king also named Midas,

but no one is quite sure—the majestic throne he bestowed on the

oracle at Delphi was made of wood and ivory. A figurine that

helped decorate this continent-spanning gift, 35 centimeters (9")

tall and bug-eyed, with his left hand resting on a tamed lion and

the right grasping a spear in a traditional “Master of Animals”

stance, stood this winter among other prize objects in the

exhibition “Assyria to Iberia at the Dawn of the Classical Age”

at New York’s Metropolitan Museum of Art.

“We think of ourselves as living in a global age, but really

you have to look far back in time to see how closely people

interacted,” explained exhibition curator Joan Aruz as she

guided me around the galleries.

The first millennium



the first era in which the arts and

goods from different cultures

were transported across three con-

tinents—much of it from western

Asia (the Near East) and Africa to

southern Europe, she said.

“You have to understand this

phase in order to appreciate what

came afterwards, but most people

are unaware of what was going

on before the Greek classical

period. They think it just emerged

out of the head of Zeus, like

Athena,” she added with a laugh.

Taking a broad measure of the

wide-ranging debt the western

classical world owes its mostly

Near Eastern antecedents, the

exhibition's focus lay not on indi-

vidual kingdoms or states, not on

life in Assyria or Phoenicia, Egypt

or Judah, Elam, Urartu, Greece,

Etruria or Iberia—the list goes

on—but on what linked them all:

artistic, cultural, economic and

religious exchanges. Over the five

years it took to develop the show,

Aruz and her colleagues selected and secured some 260 objects

from 41 museums and institutions in 14 countries. Staging a

exhibition restricted to a single civilization would have been

child’s play by comparison.

Aruz and her team brought ample experience to the chal-

lenge. “Assyria to Iberia” was the third in a series of major

The kingdoms of Assyria and the modern

state of Syria are distinct territories. 

At its peak in the seventh century


, the

Assyrian empire encompassed the whole

of the modern nations of Syria, Iraq,

Egypt, Lebanon, Palestine, Israel, Jordan,

Kuwait and Bahrain, as well as the

Turkish-Greek island of Cyprus, together

with large swathes of Saudi Arabia, Iran,

Turkey, Sudan, Libya, Armenia, Georgia

and Azerbaijan. Much smaller is modern

Syria, established as an independent state

in 1924 after the collapse of the Ottoman

Empire and bordered by Lebanon and

the Mediterranean to the west, Turkey to

the north, Iraq to the east, Jordan to the

south and Israel to the southwest.

Assyria and Syria

Found as far west as Italy and

east to Iran, intricately carved



shells made

for coveted luxury cosmetic

containers. This one, carved on

both sides, its hinge fashioned

to resemble a human head, is

dated to the seventh or sixth



, and it was found in

Assyrian house 58 in Ashur.