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exhibits telling the stories of

early arts and trade from the

Indus valley in the east to the

westernmost reaches of the Medi-

terranean. In 2003, “Art of the

First Cities” examined Mesopota-

mian and Sumerian cultures in the

third millennium


. “Beyond

Babylon,” the second episode that

followed in 2008, looked at the

dominant Babylonian empire of

the second millennium


. This

latest installation encompassed

the first half of the first millen-

nium, the early Iron Age, when

Assyria controlled the Near East

until the Babylonians and the

Medes overthrew it at the end of

the seventh century



It was a war-ravaged era,

but also one of tectonic cultural

ferment. The period brought a

deluge of Near Eastern art styles,

religious and mythic symbols

and imagery, as well as new tech-

niques for fashioning gold, silver,

bronze, glass, pottery and stone,

surging westward, carried largely

by Phoenician merchants, itinerant artisans and Greek mer-

cenaries. The Mediterranean was awash in sculptures of

snarling bronze griffins, striding sphinxes, voluptuous god-

desses, fantastic bird men and triumphant kings. Many of the

creature-images had apotropaic functions, that

is, they were talismans,

placed on wall reliefs,

furniture, cauldrons

and other objects to

ward off evil.

Like its prede-

cessor exhibits, much

in “Assyria to Iberia”

was both revisionist

and expansive, a story

writ large that height-

ened awareness of the

richness of the arts and

cultures of the Near East

and, most of all, their per-

vasive influences on the

esthetics of what later emerged

as the western classical world.

“The public at large is

more focused on current

events and doesn’t realize

what vital centers of

culture these places

were,” Aruz pointed out.

For example, she added,

the area of Mosul, Iraq,

hotly and painfully contested in

recent years, was the heartland of

the Neo-Assyrian empire.

Ambitious as it was, the exhi-

bition could not cover everything.

The presentation only touched on

the extensive and powerful Arabian

spice routes, for instance, although

intriguing scholarly tidbits surfaced

during symposia in conjunction

with the exhibition. Aruz herself

was particularly enthused about

a recent find at Megiddo in Israel,

in which traces of cinnamon were

identified inside Phoenician jars.

“When you realize this cinnamon

came from Southeast Asia, it’s just

amazing to see how far these people

were traveling along the spice

routes,” she explained.

The exhibition also brought

welcome attention to rarely viewed

artifacts from lesser-known, far-

flung local collections, including

islands such as Samos, Rhodes

and Sardinia, as well as Yerevan in

Armenia and others. In addition,

out-of-sight pieces in well-known

institutions like the British Museum and others were brought

out of storage and placed on view often for the first time in

decades, if ever. Time and again during our tour, Aruz intro-

duced an object by saying that few

people, if anyone, had seen it

before. Quite a number, she said,

she discovered by chance while

visiting a museum to inspect a

known object only to stumble,

happily, across others either

on display or languishing in

the basement. With this

exposure, these smaller

museums are likely to

attract more visitors and

scholars, she predicted.

Occasionally, Aruz’s

archeological sleuthing

had more than a whiff of

Indiana Jones. Unlike

the cinematic tomb

raider, however, Aruz

wielded neither a whip

nor a trained monkey,

but her museum’s pres-

tige. This secured more

easily the numerous

items from museums that

had lent the New York

institution objects for

previous exhibitions, and

“Assyria to Iberia” both spurred

and benefited from the raft of new

and ongoing scholarship on Assyria

and Phoenicia and their extensive

connections with Greece, Italy and

Spain. Wielding ever-better techniques,

archeologists continue to unearth

discoveries from the period on all three

continents. Last October, a month after

the exhibition opened, Aruz received

word that the remains of a Phoenician

ship had been located off the coast of

Malta. Elsewhere, a fifth-century


temple is currently under excavation in

Tyre in Lebanon, and digs in western

Iran continue to reveal evidence of the

Elamite culture conquered by Assyrians

in the mid-seventh century



TheDigs Go On

Domestic tableaux are rare for the eighth and seventh centuries



Most images of the time were devoted to gods, rulers and warfare. This

Elamite bas-relief, carved in a bitumen compound, shows a woman seated

on a chair, her feet daintily folded beneath her, proudly holding up a threaded

spindle; a servant with a fly-wisk stands behind her. Its realism and simple

humanity impart a glimpse into a private domain in the distant past.