Can a naturalist give us meaning?

A case can be made (a strong one, I think) that Edward O. Wilson is the greatest living naturalist.

His credentials are prodigious. A chaired professor at Harvard. Two-time Pulitzer Prize winner. Co-author of one of the greatest books (i.e., book qua opus) ever produced: The Ants. The world’s leading experts on one of the Earth’s largest (by biomass) and most diverse clades, one of the few that developed true social behavior. The creator of a discipline, sociobiology, which attempts to merge biology and behavioral sciences. Curator of Harvard’s insect collection. And recently, a proponent for dispensing with a thoroughly entrenched theoretical approach to the evolutionary explanation of eusociality—inclusive fitness. This last point may be the least appreciated. A central tenet of a field that one has practiced in, indeed a tenet that one has advanced in several important works, is not something that most scientists or academics would attempt to overturn late in one’s career. There is no percentage in it, except intellectual honesty, a commodity that in our day has been greatly devalued. But like all great figures from the time of heroes, Wilson thinks of little else.

In addition to all the foregoing, Wilson can add spokesman for the cause of biodiversity, promoter of evolution as a world view, mentor of younger scientists, all round charming individual and graceful writer.

If I could have done one thing on Wilson’s extensive resume, it would unquestionably be writing The Ants. The book transcends its subject matter. You need not be interested in ants at all (although only a few pages into this book would make you so) to admire the breath of the scholarship, observation and thinking behind the immense subject matter. It is the kind of book that you can simply admire for its organization, its writing, its comprehensiveness, and its ability to make you care about something you had no idea you should care about. Or you can just look at the pictures. You can use the book as a litmus test. Say, for example, you are looking for a community to move to. Simply go to the public library there and find out if it has this book. If it does, move there. If not, evaluate why you are considering that place.

I bring all of this up because Wilson has recently published a book that tackles a subject that we supposedly had become too mature to consider: the meaning of human existence. In fact that’s the name of his book, The Meaning of Human Existence (NY: Liveright Publishing Corp.: c2014).

Before examining the book, however, let me return to what I called Wilson originally: a naturalist. By naturalist I mean a person who views the living world as a process with history. Stereotypically naturalists observe, classify and speculate on the origins of living phenomena. Naturalists are thus different from mathematicians, certainly. But they are also different from physicists and chemists who look for “laws” or repeatable explanations for phenomena. For a naturalist, history is the hidden cause. Nothing is necessarily inevitable. What is now, did not have to be. Geneticists can fall on either side of the line. Originally geneticists were concerned only with the operation of replication, protein replication, etc. But with molecular phylogenetics, geneticists now also deal with history (although in a dry, mathematical kind of way). But they are still not naturalists in the same way. Naturalists observe phenotypes dealing with an environment filled with other phenotypes: Darwin’s “this view of life.” To a naturalist, natural selection operates all the time. It is visible, not a code. And Wilson’s perpective on human “meaning” is decidedly a naturalist’s one.

The fact that all life on earth descended from a common ancestor has profound philosophical implications. The simplest one is that it precludes the existence of a theistic god. On a visceral level, no sentient being, with any regard for his “creation” could have allowed natural selection to be the means of populating this or any other planet. Darwin himself rejected god’s existence for this very reason. It had to do with ichneumon wasps, which deposit eggs into other insects so that the larva have a living body to devour from the inside. He wrote Asa Gray, a Harvard naturalist (one who would have a common perspective for that very reason):

I cannot persuade myself that a beneficent and omnipotent God would have designedly created the Ichneumonidae with the express intention of their feeding within the living bodies of Caterpillars, or that a cat should play with mice.

On a somewhat different level natural selection does away with the “need” for a god. It is a mechanism that is both simple and robust. And of course it is corroborated by every discipline in the biological sciences, as no other creation explanation is or can be.

Fundamentalists are right to fight tooth and nail against the teaching of evolution. There is no more effective rebuttal to dogma than Charles Darwin and the science that developed from his powerful idea. People like Francis Collins can pretend to accept both natural selection and the existence of god, but when you ask him what he means by “god,” you find that it is not something that is worth concerning yourself over.

And there is a much more important reason why evolution makes god irrelevant. And that is the starting point of Wilson’s book.

The purpose of a belief in a creation god is to discover the purpose of our existence. Evolution, however, shows that we arose quite randomly. If there was a god whose mind conceived of natural selection, then his “creation” of us was thoroughly whimsical. At no point in the history of life was it inevitable that we would exist. In fact, there were many points at which mere contingency operated. If the Cretaceous asteroid did not destroy the dominant life form on earth while rodent-like mammals hibernated beneath the surface, gigantic bird like creatures and immense, towering herbivores probably still would dominate the planet, while mammals eked a marginal existence, if they survived it all. If the small band of humanoids making their way in Africa had encountered an environmental catastrophe or fell victims to predators or a virulent contagious disease, humanity could have been choked off at the beginning. Those are only two of the numerous contingencies that explain our existence. They are historical explanations; not explanations derived from first principles like mathematics or laws of nature like physics.

So that’s where a naturalist like Wilson begins. We are the result of innumerable, random contingencies. It is a bracing realization, and one that is entirely different from a religious explanation. But that’s where a naturalist must begin, and so does Wilson.

What then?

Here’s is where the book seems to falter or at least fails to pursue a rigorous argument to be expected of someone who is arguing about “meaning.” But here again, it is necessary to realize that a naturalist’s perspective is not a rigorous argument derived from first principles. And so Wilson seems to wonder about a number of subjects on which his storied career concentrated. We read his musings on the limitations of our own sensory apparatus, the nature of those few experiments resulting in social organisms, the kind of animals he expects might produce “intelligence,” and his reverence for humanities, except in the future with a bit more science.

Much of this is quite amusing and thought-provoking. The idea that most of the animal world perceives its environment through the sense of smell is perhaps commonplace, but Wilson offers speculations that show how different we are from much of life. Anecdotes of how the natural world is interconnected by pheromones, a connection we cannot appreciate, is illuminating. His brief canvas of the reasons to preserve biodiversity and the threats we close to it is informative but in some senses both familiar and depressing. His educated guesses about what an extraterrestrial intelligent being might be like is entertaining (although more debatable than he lets on). One point he makes is quite astute: that no extra-terrestrial has ever visited us because there is only one alternative: either, like us, they are bent on conquest, in which case they would have to sterilize the entire planet to prevent incompatibility with the microbiome of this planet or they would have realized that it is best not to make the attempt, either for “humanitarian” or practical reasons. Under the same analysis, we are unlikely ever to witness an ET encounter (or at last not for long).

In one respect the book is quite weak. It lists all the threats to our existence and suggests that as a species it is in our interest to solve them. And while Wilson knows as much as anyone that our “eusociality” is a selective adaptation fashioned in the Paleolithic era, when concerns about conservation and population control and self-imposed checks on consumption and exploitation of the environment were not at all relevant, he doesn’t explain what forces will allow us now to overcome the predisposition towards individual and group selfishness that is the hallmark of all eusocial organisms. After all, an individual driver ant cannot be expected to suggest, Hey if we had fewer eggs we might not have to devour everything in our path. But of course, it might be a bit unfair to criticize him for not solving the problem of our dysfunctional social organization in small, 200-page book. But, as I noted before, scientists have a distressing tendency to ignore the entrenched political and economic interests that will, for sheer self-interest, oppose even the simplest steps to preserve our kind. Naturalists will view, with equanimity, the extinction of a species not fit for its environments. Millions of species have gone the way of Dimetrodon. Yet when it comes to whether our social-economic-political organization has rendered us unsuited for much longer survival and if so what is the way out, they pass over the question on the ground that they are not “political.” (Wilson doesn’t use this excuse. He simply ignores the patent reality.)

In the end Wilson arrives at a rather hopeful view of our “meaning.” It is appropriately modest and depends on what we materially are, rather than what we “spiritually” wish we were. Wilson gets to this hopeful existential view in the quirky, contingent way that we got to where we are. At least, as a naturalist sees it. Given that competing visions of “meaning” all lead to perdition, it’s worth contemplating how a historically based view of the matter might provide a better solution to our existential dilemma. And his book is as entertaining as you would expect from a naturalist as accomplished as Wilson. The problem is that for those who seek a “meaning” based on fixed laws, God will always trump Chance. And without God those folk will never find Meaning. And that fact will likely ultimately lead to our own meaningless self-destruction. But that, my friends, is also an operation of natural selection. Not all, not most, species survive, and none for very long (in a geological sense), and that might be another way a naturalist could see our own species, although Wilson is far too genial a writer,  even to suggest that obvious fact.

Le Deluge

Defeat is not a calamity if the losers learn from their mistakes and change their approach for the next round. The question is whether the Democrats will do that. Their problem is a bit bigger than usual because the thrashing was so sound and the Republican gain so broad that the Democrats are going to have to learn many lessons, not one only, just to become competitive again. Here are three signs of how bad it was yesterday:

1. New England was breached. The supposed firewall for Democrats looked anything but. The loony Tea Party governor of Maine strolled to re-election. Martha Coakley once again squandered a large lead in a statewide race in solid blue (we thought) Massachusetts. Although the highly unpopular Democratic governor of Connecticut was able to squeak by the highly unpopular GOP challenger with the help of the President and Michelle Obama (where they are much more popular than any of the Democrats in Connecticut) and the entire Congressional delegation remained Democratic, both houses of the legislature flipped.

2. The Florida governor, the North Carolina senate, and the Colorado senate races showed that Obama did not “extend the map ” to these states permanently. It looks like they will be even harder to win in the future.

3. The Kansas governor race shows that there are places in this country that a Republican cannot screw up badly enough to lose. It is the GOP and not the Democrats who have the firewalls.

So what lessons should the Democrats learn? Here are a few I offer.

1. If you act like rats fleeing a sinking ship, the public is reasonable in assuming the ship is sinking.

I did not get the the thinking behind the late trend to pretend none of the Democrats knew President Obama. It is not like the public is going to forget that Obama is a Democrat. And really if you are running for U.S. Senate on the Democratic ticket and refuse to say if you voted for the Democratic candidate for president two years ago (the incumbent and party leader no less), you are rightfully going to be thought as having something to hide.

If your association with the party leader and the principles of the party are so toxic that you are going to lose if the public knows about them, then you might as well preserve your dignity and swallow the hemlock like a Greek philosopher instead of pretending you don’t know who the President is. Who knows?  Your integrity might allow you to live to run another day. It will certainly help other candidates. Because there is nothing worse that seeing the party in wholesale retreat. But we’ve seen that behavior before by Democrats. It may actually be a feature, not a bug.

2. Doing nothing while in office for the benefit of marginal candidates of your party, still amounts to doing nothing.

The Republicans in 2013 were seen by everyone, including Republicans, as the party who wanted to prevent government action. And the pubic hated them for it. The Democrats went out of their way to take that honor from them and hang it around their own necks. Harry Reid made it so that Senators in GOP-leaning states would not have to vote on things that would define them. This, however, also meant that GOP senators did not have to vote on things that would define them. But most of all, it became clear who was ensuring that votes were not taking place. So in a referendum against a do-nothing Congress, if you are the one seen as preventing things from getting done, the hammer is going to come down on you.

3.  If things seem too clever by half, they are probably not clever at all.

Let’s read the polls and see where we have an edge or listen to consultants who have a road map for victory. Women’s issues, you say? Let’s talk about absolutely noting else. This is exactly the strategy of Colorado Democratic Senator Mark Udall. It became so over-the-top that a large Democratic contributor heckled him on the weekend before the election and later referred to him as Mark Uterus.

This is just one example of how the Democrats looked as though they are the part of the political consultant, and nothing else.

4. Here’s a wild idea: Why don’t you stand for something, maybe even something noble. I remember there was a party once which stood for social justice, full employment, helping the neediest, providing opportunity to children, allowing workers to organize to partially counter the power capital has over them, giving dignity to work, and having income from capital pay in taxes at least as much as income from labor. I seem to recall that that party had a pretty good run. Maybe you might look into it and see if there is anything there that you and your wealthy contributors might be comfortable with.

At least one American industry still manufactures something here: Faux-fear

It is undoubtedly correct that its faithful is immune to irony. Nevertheless it is still striking that the gun lobby is able, evidently legally, to raffle off a brand new “Tactical CDR-15 Rifle … (valued at $2,500)!” as a GOTV effort to kick out the “gun grabbers” who have been running the country lo these many years. If I were running a gun manufactory I would be pretty comfortable with the folks who permit online giveaways of tactical rifles.

Received Election Day morning 2014.

Received Election Day morning 2014.

It’s a tempting offer but I think I would insist on the optional foregrip, silencer, and extra 30-round magazines before I sold my vote to these agents of death.

You have a chance to win this, and if the school board election doesn't turn out right and your child still has to hear about evolution and global warming, well, now you can do something about it!

You have a chance to win this, and if the school board election doesn’t turn out right and your child still has to hear about evolution and global warming, well, now you can do something about it!

P.S. In today’s Google Doodle, it looks like a coin is being dropped into a ballot box. Is that a sign of fevered imagination or as Disney puts it “a wish that the heart makes”?

The Next Two Years

Well, as they say, by tomorrow night it will be all over but the shouting. And I suppose, as a result, we can expect much shouting as Republicans in Congress celebrate their grip on two branches of the federal government and attempt to parlay it into a winning hand in 2016.

Of course much bad, very bad, public policy can be expected. The new reactionaries that run the GOP care little about governing and much about acting out their perceived grievances. Even if we thought that the President would oppose the bulk of it, he would have to be a considerably better politician and have a much stiffer spine than he has demonstrated in the past six years to pull it off.

Six years ago! Remember then? The President had control of the House and a veto-proof Senate (once Franken was seated). But we got a sneaking suspicion that that would soon evaporate within the President’s first month in office. Two blunders, one on policy and one on politics, made tomorrow’s total loss of the Congress nearly inevitable.

The policy blunder was his swallowing, wholesale, the neo-liberal economics of the Clinton era. During the campaign, candidate Barack Obama’s quick assent to the Troubled Asset Relief Program (“TARP”) made him look presidential and decisive at a time when John McCain was dithering. In retrospect, however, the decision and the method used to arrive at it seem more like a reflection of his lack of interest in economic policy-making and his instinctive deference to “elites.” TARP was unable to secure enough Republican votes first time to pass. Republicans balked at the price of the bailout to giant financial institutions. The Democrats, however, were committed to the program because of the assent by their party leader. It is no wonder that so many people believe that TARP was a Democratic rather than a Republican plan. Next, when it came time to propose a stimulus package for the economy, the President’s loyalties became apparent. Although he had the immense political capital from his landslide election and substantial majorities in both Houses, the President proposed a spending amount that liberals and leftist economist nearly universally regarded as inadequate. Even so, in order to secure Republican votes, he watered the bill down even further by making a third of the amount go to tax cuts rather than stimulating expenditure. (The bill got no Republican votes anyway.) The kicker was appointing the conflicted and inadequate Timothy Geitner to the Treasury. When the president summoned the heads of the large banks to the White House for an early meeting, they feared the worst. Instead the President and Geitner calmed their fears by assuring them that everyone was on the same side. The banks never looked back and used the TARP program for their own purposes including bonuses and acquisition of other banks, rather than commercial lending, the purported purpose of the program. Although the President never received any cooperation from any of the banks, the public hung TARP around his neck, and the Republicans were able to carve him as a “socialist.” The 2010 Tea Party assault on the House followed these policy mistakes like night does the day.

His political blunder was in filling his cabinet with Democratic politicians that would better have been left to run for Senate. For Vice-President and Secretary of State the President selected two sitting Senators (and but for the lack-of-grace of the Tea Party the Democrats would have lost a Delaware seat as a result). And crucially he selected three up-and-coming, popular Democratic governors who likely would have made a run for Senate in three important states in which they had a substantial shot of winning:  Janet Napolitano (then sitting governor of Arizona) for Homeland Security, Tom Vilsack (highly popular two-term governor of Iowa) for Agriculture and Kathleen Sibelius (highly touted governor of Kansas) for Health and Human Services. Of course today having an incumbent defend Iowa or Kansas would have been important. (The Democrats are so depleted in Kansas that they withdrew their candidate in favor of an independent who refuses to say which party he will caucus with.) And McCain had no serious threat at a time when he was vulnerable and so could continue attacking the President while sliding to his right to prevent an upset in the primaries. Moreover, aside from Vilsick (who remains Agriculture Secretary), the association with this Administration seems to have permanently damaged their political careers. (And it’s unlikely that Vilsick is destined for great things after his stint with this Administration.) Some Presidents have used the Cabinet to build future party stars. This one took current stars and cashiered them. The President also involved himself in Senate primaries, back moderates against populists and progressives. His influence to get Specter to switch parties brought into the party an ardent opponent of the unions’ number one issue, card checks. But the political gurus at the White House steamed ahead, backed Specter against a real Democrat in the next primary. While Specter  lost, the damage was done and the Democrats lost that seat to a right-winger in the general election.

So the President is at least partially responsible for the disaster that will take place on tomorrow. And I think that aside from the embarrassment, there are probably good reasons for the President not to feel overly upset about the imminent right-wing control of government.

First, the President is avowedly “bipartisan.” The only way you can convince yourself to take that position in these polarized times is to have no real deep-seated belief in policy positions. He has never been comfortable taking a leading position on any liberal or left-leaning issue. When he occasionally makes feints in that direction, he quickly trims his sails. For example, recently the President called income inequality the “defining issue” of our time. As soon as he discovered that Krauthammer and his “pundit” friends were calling this talk “class warfare,” we soon heard of it no more. The President with this new Congress will now have the luxury of taking positions, “chiding” Congress, without any responsibility of fashioning a bill or using the office to shepherd it through. This should allow for a lot more empty progressive talk. Supporters like Bill Maher happy.

As for the President, he probably will be happy about the new reality beginning next year because he won’t have any real Democratic check on two issues that might establish his legacy. And those issues will benefit the group that in retrospect our center-right president seems to have been overly solicitous from the beginning: the very wealthy, particularly the rentier class.

The first opportunity will be to implement the “grand bargain” that was once illusive. He can achieve the goal balancing the budget some time in the future (a cherished desideratum of the Beltway talking heads) by “fixing” (i.e., damaging) Social Security. The President once struck a bargain to this effect with John Boehner, before the Tea Party cabal in the House cut off Boehner’s knees. The President was then willing to reduce “entitlements” knowing that he would have resistance from a Democratic-controlled Senate. With that brake gone, so will be his inhibitions. The Tea Party made a serious mistake in scuttling that deal. It would have  been a huge success for them to get a Democratic President to take an ax to Social Security. Not only would it possibly be the first step over a slippery slope, it would have greatly dampened the view that it is the GOP who was dangerous on that issue. The Tea Party, of course, is motivated by its race-influenced personal distaste for the President to the point of irrationality. But it is possible that House leadership can now fashion the issue differently for them, particularly if the President makes the deal even more one-sided in their favor, which given his bargaining history is almost certain. As for the President’s motivation, we know that he is greatly devoted to Beltway punditry and their brand of policy-and-fact-free centrism. There is nothing better for him than to be considered “serious” or “thoughtful” or “realistic” by David Brooks or the like. To be hailed as the President who rose above party to “set our fiscal house in order” would be about the best legacy this lame-duck President could hope for. If the deal did enough damage to the social safety net, the Tea Party might hold its nose and vote for it. A GOP Senate certainly will.

The second opportunity is on a little discussed issue that will probably result in the greatest damage to this country by this Administration (which is saying something as the list continues to grow). That is the little discussed issue of trade agreements. The person least happy to talk about it is the President himself, because it represents another of his reversals from campaign promises. Those who care to remember what Candidate Obama said will recall that he claimed as president he would open up NAFTA to renegotiation. And well he it should have. The NewYork Times, once a major supporter of all-out free trade agreements, explains how NAFTA has harmed our economy and helped create that income inequality that the President once briefly decried:

“At Nafta’s core — and proposed for the T.P.P. — are investor rights and privileges that eliminate many of the risks that make firms think twice about moving production to low-wage countries. Today, goods once made here are being produced in Mexico and exported here for sale. Indeed, American manufacturing exports to Mexico and Canada grew at less than half the rate after Nafta than in the years before it.

“As a result, our trade deficit has ballooned. In 1993, before Nafta, the United States had a $2.5 billion trade surplus with Mexico and a $29 billion deficit with Canada. In 2012, the combined Nafta trade deficit was $181 billion, even as the share of that deficit made up of oil imports dropped 22 percent. The average annual growth of our trade deficit has been 45 percent higher with Mexico and Canada than with countries that are not party to a Nafta-style pact. The companies that took the most advantage of Nafta — big manufacturers like G.E., Caterpillar and Chrysler — promised they would create more jobs at their American factories if Nafta passed. Instead, they fired American workers and shifted production to Mexico.

“The Labor Department’s Trade Adjustment Assistance program, which documents this trend, reads like a funeral program for the middle class. More than 845,000 workers have been certified under this one narrow and hard-to-qualify-for program as having lost their jobs because of offshoring of factories to, and growing imports from, Mexico and Canada since Nafta.

“The result is downward pressure on middle-class wages as manufacturing workers are forced to compete with imports made by poorly paid workers abroad. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, nearly two out of every three displaced manufacturing workers who were rehired in 2012 saw wage reductions, most losing more than 20 percent.”

But once the President took up with his neo-liberal friends from the Clinton Administration he decided that NAFTA wasn’t that bad after all. The rentier class benefited, so all was well. And now he wants to increase the wealth of the wealthy even more, by negotiating a similar treaty with Pacific Rim nations, the Trans-Pacific Partnership (“TTP”), and another with Europe. But Free Trade agreements can never survive ordinary legislative scrutiny. This is because they contain things that Americans are solidly against. Things like allowing jobs to be exported to countries with low wages,, no unions, no workplace safety and no environmental regulations. Even conservatives have a hard time voting for them because they want to get re-elected. So the trick that has be used is the so-called “fast track” legislation which allows the President to negotiate a treaty that will be submitted to Congress for an up-or-down vote, no amendments permissible.  What is left of the former liberal-union alliance is adamantly against the TTP, because past history has shown how bad such treaties are for labor and the middle class of this country. So even though fast-track legislation was introduced in January, Harry Reid has prevented it from coming up for a vote. When Reid ceases being majority leader, so will the old on fast-track legislation.

Of course there is no guarantee that the Tea Partiers would want to give authority to the President, but there is probably little risk that this President would negotiate a liberal trade agreement (if there is such a thing). In any event, the Administration will probably give them enough in spending slashes or tax reductions to buy their votes.

So here are two more things to look forward to, in addition to the gutting of Obamacare through budget reconciliation maneuvers, when the anti-government party is in charge next year.

Love in the Time of Amnesia

Hiroshima mon amour by Alain Resnais

Poster for the 4K version of Hiroshima, Mon Amour, released by Rialto.

Poster for the 4K version of Hiroshima, Mon Amour, released by Rialto Pictures.

The New York Film Forum last week screened the newly restored digital version of the daring 1959 fictional film debut of Alain Resnais, Hiroshima mon amour. It’s hard to believe that a 55-year old film was an official selection of this year’s New York Film Festival, but during that half century, the film has been more talked about than seen.

Rialto Pictures has made a new 4K restoration, and the film is scheduled for a national run (opening October 24 in San Diego; October 31 in Chicago, San Francisco, Seattle and Denver, November 14 in Philadelphia; November 28 in Santa Fe and December 5 in Portland, with additional dates in other places). It is worth seeing this “file” (a term I suppose is more accurate than “print”; for that matter “film” itself is an anachronism) and especially in a darkened theater on a screen where the grey tone palette works better than from a television or computer screen. But mainly you should see it in a theater because it is one of a handful of films that define cinema as an art form and therefore deserves more formal attention than a home entertainment unit requires.

Cinema, especially the dominant form, American commercial movies, has become so routinized that seeing it used for something other than a vehicle for stars, who are there mainly for close face shots or action sequences, is somewhat jarring. Movies did not start out that way, and some especially thoughtful film makers have suggested other uses, but commercial reality, the conservative bias of financiers or some other causes seem to cause the form to constantly revert to this “normal.” Resnais several times offered an alternative to this normal, the first time being Hiroshima mon amour. Resnais, however, was not a likely candidate for so doing and the project, as an innovative art film came about almost as an afterthought. Let’s first look at what the movie is.

SHE: Like you, I have tried with all my might not to forget. Like you, I forgot. Like you, I wanted to have an inconsolable memory, a memory of shadows and stone."

SHE: Like you, I have tried with all my might not to forget. Like you, I forgot. Like you, I wanted to have an inconsolable memory, a memory of shadows and stone.”

Hiroshima mon amour is unabashedly a formal art film which announced its experimental techniques explicitly and dared the audience to rebel against the new language it was trying to form. It largely escaped popular rejection, I suspect because its foreboding background (the atomic devastation of a Japanese city) persuaded much of the public against seeing it at all. The film, however, is not really about (or, maybe better stated, not really much about) the horrors of August 6, 1945. Indeed, it is much easier to understand that fact now, half a century later. This is because in 1959 atomic (and by then thermonuclear) destruction was not only a real possibility, it was something that everyone lived with as best he could. Having lived through that era, I almost said I can remember the fear. But of course this movie is about how we never remember anything. Even those things that seem so centrally important, so key to all of human existence, will pass away from our consciousness as we adjust to the newest sensations. Those not alive in 1959 will probably have a hard time believing that we who were actually contemplated nuclear annihilation all the time. Not only did we know that our leaders and enemies held human survival no higher than about 4 on a list of things they felt important, but we also knew that we were helpless to do anything about it.

On the steps outside Sumitomo Hiroshima Bank, Kamiya-Cho, 850 feet from the epicenter on August 5, a man sat with on leg crossed ovr another. In a moment he evaoporated, leaving only a shadow. (United States Strategic Bombing Survey (USSBS) photo, December 31, 1945. Ntional Archives.)

On the steps outside Sumitomo Hiroshima Bank, Kamiya-Cho, 850 feet from the epicenter on August 6, Mitsuno Ochi (1903-August 6, 1945) sat with one leg crossed over another. In a moment she evaporated, leaving only a shadow. (United States Strategic Bombing Survey (USSBS) photo, December 31, 1945. National Archives.)

But here we are now, a half century later. The possibility of nuclear annihilation is not appreciably decreased; perhaps it has increased since no one seems to be worried about it. But the reason that no one seems worried about it is because we simply could not continue to remember what it was like. That is the central premise of the film: we are unable to remember. We are unable to remember, try as we might, the things important to the planet, our species, ourselves. It doesn’t matter about what. In Hiroshima, there was something that happened that was so breath-taking, so horrible, so contingent, so unlikely, that it should give us all pause to think. Here is one of the many things that in an instant that day happened that August 6: A small woman was sitting on the steps of a bank, an ordinary bank, 850 feet from the bomb. Within .0001 second, she was incinerated with heat of 1,700° C and left nothing but her shadow (the shadow of the oxidized organic matter that comprised her) on the inorganic rock stairs.

Memory of shadows and stone

Like you, I too have tried with all my might not to forget. Like you, I forgot.

Even that shadow, however, began to fade. To preserve it, the area was first enclosed in fence and then in glass, but eventually the bank was torn down and the stones donated to the Hiroshima Peace Museum in 1971. It is this incident that the movie, briefly, refers to with the visual of the fenced off stones and the oblique reference by SHE:

“I wanted to have an inconsolable memory, a memory of shadows and stone. For my part, I struggled with all my might, every day, against the horror of no longer understanding at all the reason for remembering. Like you, I forgot.”

Tour guide

A guide recalling memory for tourists in a bus labelled in English “Atomic Tours” in Peace Square.

The first 20 minutes of the film is a set piece. It is designed to explain the theme—forgetting. It is much like an extended version of the prologues of Elizabethan plays or the prolegomena of complex philosophical arguments or the introductory chorus of a Greek tragedy. It focuses on the Hiroshima devastation as an event that ought to be remembered. And SHE (played by Emmanuelle Riva, most recently an Oscar nominee, at age 84, for her role in Michael Haneke’s Amour) is the one insisting on the need to remember. She describes the hospital, the museum, the relics, the consequences and the statistics, all to show that we must never forget. HE (played by Eiji Okada, probably best known to Americans for playing opposite Marlon Brando in The Ugly American), her new one-off lover, denies all of her facts and even her ability to recall (“You did not see the hospital in Hiroshima. You saw nothing in Hiroshima.” “You made it all up.” “No, you don’t have a memory”). The task of maintaining memory has been handed over to museums and strangely upbeat tour directors. Perhaps they exist so we can dispense with the need to remember, so we can put them somewhere, not quite forgotten, but so that we don’t have to have them present at all times.

This extended introduction has a number of interesting techniques but before we look at them, consider that the introduction is designed not to set us up for an examination of what happened Hiroshima in 1945, but what happened there in 1957 (the fictional “present” according to the scenario by Marguerite Duras) and how that evoked another repressed memory that took place in Nevers, France in 1944 and 1945. What the movie is about is how SHE deals with a central pain in her own life—the memory of a love once had and then lost, in an instance, and the knowledge that losing the pain means losing that love, and even more, that all love ever will always be lost and forgotten.

Field hospital with burn victims in the museum's "false documentary" of the aftermath.

Field hospital with burn victims in the museum’s “false documentary” of the aftermath.

The visual composition of the film is likewise broken in two parts: the introductory section and the story proper. The introduction is made up of scenes of present-day (i.e., 1957) Hiroshima, archival footage of the aftermath of the bomb and pseudo-documentary said to have been made by the museum to portray what happened. SHE assures us that “[t]he films [by the museum] have been made as authentically as possible. The illusion, it’s quite simple, the illusion is so perfect that the tourists cry. One can always scoff, but what else can a tourist do, really, but cry?”

Museum scene

At the museum only legs are seen.

Resnais quite skillfully cuts the scenes of the “documentary” introduction. The montage is a visual poem just as much as the narration by SHE is a literary one. The scenes quite seamlessly follow, and comment on, the narration without drawing attention to themselves. The use of the “pseudo documentary” footage raises the question (which SHE alludes to) of the purpose of re-enactments and “movie history.” The scenes have a visual logic that makes one follow almost inevitably, ineluctably, from the last. Although some of the pictures of the victims are quite shocking, the visual pacing is so modulated that rather than exploitative they appear reverential or at least contemplative. All of this you would have expected, because Resnais at the time was an experienced documentary film maker. Indeed, the project when originally proposed to Resnais was conceived of as a documentary. Strangely enough, given that the film became a meditation on how we need markers to preserve our memory and the premise that the event at Hiroshima is paradigmatic subject for memorial, Resnais concluded he could not make a compelling documentary. So he sought for a screenwriter to make a fictional screenplay. He was eventually led to Marguerite Duras. Duras was in her mid-40s, had published novels for 15 years but only recently began experimenting with narrative form with the publication of her very popular novel Moderato Cantabile. That novel bears some similarities with her screenplay for Hiroshima, mon Amour (as well as her approach for her next several novels): The story arises from a “banal” situation, the development proceeds with a formal pace, characters go nameless, dialogue is often stylized and declamatory.

Radiation and hair loss

Victimized in so many ways.

Unlike other French directors of the New Wave, Resnais did not act the role of the auteur, possibly because he had never directed a feature film before. Instead he followed somewhat slavishly the scenario provided by Duras. Resnais evidently saw his role as simply bringing about the visual realization of Duras’s conception. Resnais was so adverse to making any change to the text that when Duras suggests that he chose among alternative dialogues, Resnais refused to decide and instead used all the alternatives. The scenario by Duras even has detailed descriptions of the appearance and personalities of the two main characters, almost like casting direction, and so casting and to some extent directing was taken from Resnais.

Four students await together a fraternal and legendary death.

“Four students await together a fraternal and legendary death.”

Thus in some sense the film is Duras’s work even more so than the 1971 film version of Macbeth was a work of Shakespeare (because Polanski was more than willing to tamper with the text). This view shows us how to consider the work: It is first and foremost a literary work. The introduction is a lyrical exordium by SHE in which she attempts to fix in her memory the things she needs to remember of Hiroshima. HE keeps interrupting to note that there is nothing to remember, but she continues enumerating until she begins musing on forgetting as a phenomenon. This leads her naturally to the conclusion that all of this will happen again. It is said with neither trepidation nor anguish, just matter-of-factly. And the consequences don’t have to be spelled out. Only a reference is made to the children who will once again die.

But then the ode on the desolation of Hiroshima abruptly ends, and the introduction moves on to the main story.  This is how Duras directs that transition in her screenplay:

Banal Streets

Is it banal to convince ourselves of the significance of now?

“(The incantatory tone ceases. The streets of Hiroshima, more streets. Bridges. Covered lanes. Streets. Suburbs. Railroad tracks. Suburbs. Universal banality.)

“SHE: . . . I meet you.

“I remember you.

“Who are you?

“You destroy me.

“You’re so good for me.”

And so begins the story proper, which Duras in her synopsis says is a “banal tale, one that happens thousands of times every day. The Japanese is married, has children. So is the French woman, who also has two children. Theirs is a one night affair.”

The scene cuts to a darkened hotel room where SHE and HE are lying in an embrace. (There is never mention of the characters’ names.) SHE admires his beautiful skin, and HE begins laughing “ecstatically” (as Duras puts it). There is no self-consciousness when they laugh about and admire their taught skin even in Hiroshima, where skin was melted and where even today in 1957 the museum exhibits “[h]uman skin floating, surviving, still in the bloom of its agony” (as SHE had already said in her declamation). But the business of love puts aside such painful remembrances, even transforms them, just as the opening shot, which appears as two bodies writhing in dust or ash turns out to be two lovers covered in sweat. Even “banal” love displaces the business of remembering, even important things.

Riva, a thousand women

HE spends the movie trying to find the one among the thousand women.

Banal affairs, of course, have no literary, as opposed to prurient, interest. But Resnais has no interest even in titillation, so the focus on the affair is on the significance of this chance relation to the characters. As for HE, the film gives almost no insight. We know he is an architect and has some undefined interest in politics (probably vaguely liberal), and given how he constantly corrects SHE (that she doesn’t remember, there is no need to remember, indeed there is nothing to remember) we infer that he is a modern man of the world, who probably does not want to be reminded of the days of the war and relative responsibility. As Duras specifies in her characterization of him, he comes across as highly Westernized. He speaks flawless French, and his manner is such that it causes SHE to ask him if he is “completely Japanese.” (He assures her he is.) He was not in Hiroshima on August 6, 1945, but his family was. After a moment’s hesitation, he agrees with SHE that he was “lucky” to be fighting the war at the time. He tells us later he is happily married to a beautiful wife (who is away for several days in the mountains) and is a father. Beyond that, we know nothing essential about him. We don’t even know how they met. We see that he acts urbanely the morning after, perhaps this is a habit with him.

It is SHE that the film examines. When we meet her still in bed, she is not the person we expect from her declamations. She playfully deflects his arch regret that he knows nothing about her by coyly treating it as a compliment.  She jokes about her doubtful morals: “Being doubtful about the morals of other people.” Her banter is of such a different character from the introductory opera (as Duras calls it) that it is striking when HE tells her that his family lived in Hiroshima on that fateful day, she does not ask him what happened to them. Perhaps, we think, she picks up men regularly, but she assures him it is not often: “But it happens. I have a weakness for men.”


The death of first love still haunts her.

Yet not all is playfulness. In the morning, while he is still asleep, she sees his hand twitch. Momentarily (by means of a cross-cut), we see her recall something—first a still hand, then a dead man with a girl embracing him. The moment passes, and HE awakes. But there is something to her past. She tells him that she came from Nevers, but will never return. She refuses to explain.

HE develops a need to see her again, not so much fascinated by her past, but rather aroused when he sees her in a Red Cross nurse’s uniform. (Duras writes in her synopsis: “He’s like everyone else, like all men, exactly, and in travesty there is an erotic factor that intrigues all men. The eternal nurse of an eternal war . . .”) She must, however, be off to finish the film she is acting in. It is a movie about “Peace.” (“Not at all a ridiculous film,” Duras observes, “but just another film.”) She refuses his request to see him again, even knowing that she is to leave Hiroshima the next day, and leaves him standing on the street when she goes off in a cab.

He tracks her down that afternoon when she is finished filming her part. He starts up again with talk of Nevers and her leaving. The final part of the filming is of a large public demonstration against the Bomb. The two watch, and SHE is even moved when she sees the emotionless girls in the procession. (In retrospect we can wonder if her identification is more with their youth and innocence than with the cause they go through the motions of supporting.) HE abruptly tells her that she will come with him; she does not resist.


Young, ill-advised love in war time.

They go to his house, where they make love again. During this time, he probes her on her life at Nevers. She tells him the story, which explains both her casual approach to men and her inability to commit. During the war she had fallen in love with a German officer. She was ardently in love with him—she was 18 and the German had promised to marry her and take her to Bavaria. The movie shows scenes of the young lovers, principally her racing toward him.

“SHE: At first we met in barns. Then among the ruins. And then in rooms. Like anywhere else.

. . .

“SHE: And then he was dead.”

HE keeps asking questions, probing her. She resists, wants to know why he is interested in this one, rather than the others.

They realize that they have very little time together once night begins to fall, but it’s too long for a good-bye.

“HE (very calmly): All we can do now is to kill the time left before your departure. Still sixteen hours before your plane leaves.

“SHE (terribly upset, distressed): That’s a terribly long time . . .

“HE (gently): No. You mustn’t be afraid.”

With that, the fourth scene begins, and it is really the heart of the story. It is here during a night of drinking that SHE tells of the horror that the death of her first lover entailed. And HE guessed right that “[i[t was there … that you  must have begun to be what you are today.”

The scene in which SHE wept over her dying lover (introduced as the cross-cut early on) would be the source all her grief since. Not only did she lose her first and most unsullied love, but she was also exposed as one who “aided” the enemy. The pent-up anger from the occupation would fall on her head, as well as her family’s. Her father had to close his pharmacy from the disgrace. It must have been especially difficult for her mother, who Duras tells us, “was either Jewish [or separated from her husband.]” The affair with the Nazi soldier had to burn her deeply. Nevertheless, she “treats her child with rough tenderness. But an infinite tenderness. She hasn’t given up hope for her daughter.” (The fact that Duras goes to such length to provide background never disclosed to the audience shows how even she conceives of the project as a literary, rather than a cinematic one.)

Hair shearing

SHE: “They shave my had carefully.They think it’s their duty to do a good job shaving the women’s heads.”

The town humiliates her by shaving her head. But she is too stunned by his death to notice: “I’m much too busy suffering. … All I hear is the sound of the scissors on my head.” Her loss of hair reminds us of the women of Hiroshima: “Anonymous heads of hair that the women of Hiroshima, when they awoke in the morning, discovered had fallen out.” She returned home, but could not live with people, and her parents led her into a cellar, where she lived, a madwoman, scratching the walls and screaming. In time her sanity returned, and she was let out. Her mother gave her money, and she bicycled to Paris, where the talk was of Hiroshima. Her hair was long enough now for her to join the crowds.

Love's forgetfulness

HE has accepted that this is simply one of similar adventures that will recur “from sheer habit.”

This story, told in flashbacks, not quite coherently, with much emotion, in a bar with night falling, draws them together. HE is exhilarated when he finds out that she has never told another man this story, not even her husband. It is a mark of their love. But what is the significance now?

“HE: In a few years, when I’ll have forgotten you, and when other such adventures, from sheer habit, will happen to me, I’ll remember you as the symbol of love’s forgetfulness. I’ll think of this adventure as of the horror of oblivion. I already know it.”

Amnesia again

She is old enough now to know that forgetting is inescapable.

The final scene involves the desolation of their parting. SHE must violently wretch herself from him, and HE, despite his knowledge that he will forget her, for these last hours must stalk her forlornly. He follows her to her room, through the city, to a railroad station, to another bar where another man talks to her (she does not listen), and finally back to her room. Although he had asks her to stay, she refuses and he does not press her. Duras suggests that they have something beyond love. “A hopeless love, killed like the Nevers love. Therefore already relegated to oblivion. Therefore eternal.” SHE finally names him: “Hiroshima, that’s your name.” And the film ends.

So what is to be made of this? At the time, we know, the most advanced French directors, such as Louis Malle and François Truffaut, considered that Hiroshima mon amour not only pointed the way of the future, but also was already well ahead of its time. This is no small praise given that Truffaut the same year released The 400 Blows (Les Quatre Cents Coups), generally considered the herald of the French New Wave, and Malle the year before released The Elevator to the Gallows (Ascenseur pour l’échafaud), itself displaying new narrative devices and advanced cutting and other editing techniques. But they regarded Resnais’s work qualitatively different from theirs. Since then it has firmly occupied center stage in France’s view of its own contribution to world cinema. Does it deserve the accolades and if so, for what reason?

Like love, protest is both ineffective and impermanent. But in the face of enormity, what else can be done?

Like love, protest is both ineffective and impermanent. But in the face of enormity, what else can be done?

First, I think it’s necessary to strip away some of the excess acclaim for truly undeserved aspects (knowing that a highly acclaimed work usually sweeps in its wake total approbation rather than critical thinking). The aspect that deserves the least amount of praise, in my view, is the music by Giovanni Fusco. I have never understood why so many big time directors, such as Antonioni, Viktor Tourjansky and Costa-Gavras, used Fusco to write scores for their films. The characteristic method of Fusco was to parody or mimic an established style, vaguely sounding like a known composer. The music is generally overly loud and often vulgar. It always draws attention to itself to the detriment of a particular scene.  In the first part, during the opening credits and the “opera,” Fusco attempts an experimental style. Duras thought it sounded like Stravinsky, which the flute part suggests, but I think he was attempting to mimic the piano music of the early twentieth century Viennese composers. The problem is that the twentieth century modernists hated repetition more than anything. And yet the “experimental theme” is so short that when reverted to its repetitiveness became monotonous (indeed it sounds like it is mocking what is seen on the screen). Other than that short piano-flute-horns theme, the rest of the music is cloying program music. Listen to the music when SHE is watching HE sleep in the second scene. The rather insipid theme (to suggest how happy and sated she is as she walks in her Japanese robe) turns dark in such a manipulative way that the entire scene loses both the surprise of the cross-cut and any semblance of subtlety. The final scenes at the bars and through the city are as bland as any background music in any film. (The lack of imagination of the score in this movie is in stark contrast to another French film of that year, Black Orpheus (Orfeu Negro), which won both the Palme d’Or at Cannes and the Best Foreign Language Film Oscar that year. Even Malle’s Elevator to the Gallows the year before experimented with the improvisational, admittedly American, music of Miles Davis.)

The second aspect to discount is the editing and technical features. While Resnais masterly cuts the documentary footage in the “opera” section to create a well paced visual to match the poetic declamation, there was nothing experimental about it. Moreover, the use of the cross-cut to suggest flashback goes back to silent films. The opening scene where the apparently dust-covered writing bodies turn out to be sweat-covered lovers is clever but the symbolism is not sustained in the movie. As for the shots in “present time,” they are mainly facial close-ups unremarkable, and even old-fashioned, for 1959. Resnais boasted at the time that he had “decimated” time in the movie. I really do not see what he was referring to. In fact, many more and more innovative ways of compressing time, experiencing flashbacks, comparing present to past and other narrative tricks with time were used in Citizen Kane almost two decades before.

"They look at each other without seeing each other. Forever."

“They look at each other without seeing each other. Forever.”

Yet one still comes away with the impression that there was something imaginative and “advanced” about the film. I think that goes to its literary quality, and specifically the genre of literature it flirted with. The experiments of the Nouveau Roman had been around for five years (although the term was only coined in 1957), but no one had tried to duplicate the effort on film. The literary movement was intended to carry to their logical conclusion the experiments of many decades. Instead of eliminating only plot, character, thematic development and other things that were typically associated with prose fiction one-by-one, the new French movement intended to eliminate it all and at once. The most influential of these novelists was Alain Robbe-Grillet who by 1957 had written several novels in this style, one of which achieved popularity (Le Voyeur). In these novels the approach was something like the following generalization: Take a narration by a narrator that may or may not be involved in the subject of the narration and his narrative may or may not be reliable. Reduce the narration to its simplest elements, and like the technique of Cubists reassemble the narrative in a formal, “geometric” way with repetitions and repetitions with variations that sometimes lead to a surprise (or prefigured) ending or other times leave the reader unsure about major elements including the role of the narrator.

Marguerite Duras never fully immersed herself in this movement. Her extensive background notes and expositions in her scenario showed that she was not wholly weaned from traditional narrative techniques, particularly character delineation. Nevertheless, the story is stripped to the minimum of the moment (if not to its essentials), and this affair becomes the means of understanding that affair. And if there is a lesson, it is that the unfailing contingency prevents our desires from realization.

Over the years much has been made of this film. One of the consequences of this nouveau roman-literary approach is that it contains sufficient “space” for critics (particularly academic ones) to fill the void with ideas that have only the vaguest relation to the work. This is particularly true of this film, where Resnais had not yet learned to substitute allusion and repetition for the narrative elements he had stripped out of it. That would come in his next project Last Year at Marienbad (L’Année dernière à Marienbad), where he would involve himself in the writing, together with Robbe-Grillet himself. That film would push Resnais’ experimental vision to about the limit he could take it. In that movie he would also eliminate all the traces of sentimentality contained in Hiroshima mon amour, making it a more purely intellectual experience than this film. I suspect, however, that of the two this film will remain the more popular because it attempts to reach a moral, albeit an unhappy and inconclusive one. In the end, the movie must be judged on the “truth” of this moral conclusion, and not the experimental technique used to propel the story.


Translated quotes from the film in the text are from Hiroshima mon amour. Text by Marguerite Duras for the film by Alain Resnais; translated by Richard Seaver (NY: Grove Wiedenfeld: © 1961).

Scenes from the film above are from the Janus Films version (with English subtitles), credited as follows: Argos Films, Como Films, Daiei Motion Picture et Pathe Overseas Productions. The print does not credit the English translator.

The new Rialto Pictures restoration is both warmer and sharper visually than the screen captures in this post. Its English subtitles are also translated differently than either of the two previous versions.

Dawn of the Classical Age: The Globalization of the Early Iron Age

“Assyria to Iberia” at the Metropolitan Museum of Art

Recently New York’s Metropolitan Museum of Art opened another important exhibition displaying objects gathered from international collections, selected and arranged to show the cultural interactions of a large geographical area at a critical time in human history. Assyria to Iberia at the Dawn of the Classical Age, which runs to January 4, 2015, assembles art from Mesopotamia, the Levant, Egypt, Anatolia, Greece, Crete, Cyprus and Mediterranean outposts along North Africa, Italy and Iberia at the beginning of the Iron Age.

1. Mycenaen soldier from Artemis sanctuary at Delos. (Ivory. Late Bronze Age, 14th-13th Century B.C.E. Archaeological Museum, Delos, Greece.)

1. Mycenaen soldier from Artemis sanctuary at Delos. (Ivory. Late Bronze Age, 14th-13th Century B.C.E. Archaeological Museum, Delos, Greece.) All images in this post may be enlarged by clicking on them. The photos are of objects in the Met exhibition (although not necessarily photos of their setting in the museum), unless indicated by an asterisk (*) preceding the title.

The heart of the time period covered is 900-600 B.C.E. when iron technology became pretty much universal, although the events of the previous three centuries, the cultures that made them the age of heroes to later generations and how their political and commercial hegemony was brought down ushering in a world that would germinate Western Civilization are essential to the story. This first four centuries of the first millennium B.C.E was an age of great cultural and intellectual (not to mention artistic) importance to Western Civilization. It was a time when extensive cultural interchange took place from Iran to the Strait of Gibraltar. Spurred by those two major spurs of human innovation—commerce and conquest—the interconnected societies developed a global style where theme, techniques, visions and symbols were shared among different societies, spurring new cultural expression. The museum show, of course, emphasizes the visual arts and physical culture of the people, but it was also a time of great literary importance, so much so that much of what was written is still read and discussed today.

In Canaan, the principal part of the classical Hebrew canon was finalized: the editors of the Torah were compiling and editing various myths of Mesopotamia, Canaan and Egypt to fashion the origin legends of the Hebrews, while others were trying to harmonize the monarchist and antimonarchist stories of the early states of Israel and Judah to come to some sort of foundation story from which arguments of legitimacy and authority would thereafter be framed. To the west in the Aegean sphere, Homer and Hesiod essentially invented Western literature with works that not only inspired generations up to our own time, but also provided the measure by which imaginative literature would be judged. The literary activities of the Levant and Greece harkened back to an earlier time. Hesiod saw the generation of the Late Bronze Age as peopled with ferocious heroes:

“They loved the lamentable works of Ares and deeds of violence; they ate no bread, but were hard of heart like adamant, fearful men. Great was their strength and unconquerable the arms which grew from their shoulders on their strong limbs. Their armor was of bronze, and their houses of bronze, and of bronze were their implements: there was no black iron. These were destroyed by their own hands and passed to the dank house of chill Hades, and left no name: terrible though they were, black Death seized them, and they left the bright light of the sun.” (Hesiod, Works and Days 145-55; Loeb ed.)

Hesiod was quite explicit that his current time, the Iron Age, was degenerate. His Hebrew contemporaries implicitly agreed.

Stele of Ashurbanipal, in pose used based ancient kings as temple builders. From Esagil Temple, Babylon. (Marble. 668-665 B.C.E. British Museum.) Ashurbanipal restored the major temple of Babylon, which had been destroyed by his grandfather Sennacherib, when he sacked Babylon for its rebellion against Assyrian rule.

2. Stele of Ashurbanipal, in pose used based ancient kings as temple builders. From Esagil Temple, Babylon. (Marble. 668-665 B.C.E. British Museum.) Ashurbanipal restored the major temple of Babylon, which had been destroyed by his grandfather Sennacherib, when he sacked Babylon for its rebellion against Assyrian rule.

In the East the Assyrian kings would not have conceded that the Mediterranean race of the Bronze Age loved deeds of violence more than they. They commissioned art to show that now was the most valiant times and they the most ferocious of kings, but to do so even they invoked ancient customs and standards to measure their own deeds. Ashurbanipal (#2), perhaps the king most certain of his place in history, collected one of the largest libraries of the ancient world in his palace at Nineveh. Thousands of baked clay tablets recorded his correspondence and military campaigns. But the library also preserved the history of the Akkadian people. Ashurbanipal collected not only king lists but the very best of ancient literature, including Gilgamesh, the creation epic and flood story, and the story of Adapa. Eastern tradition (probably untrue) has it that Alexander the Great saw his library and determined to create one of his own. He did not live to do so, but Ptolemy I fulfilled his dream at Alexandria. But that would be several centuries in the future.

However much literary men preferred the Bronze Age which had been swept away, it was the during the Iron Age that global interconnections were formed that would cross-fertilize new societies and provide the soil from which the Classical Period of Western Civilization would spring. The Met exhibition strikingly shows how intimately interconnected the new Iron Age world order was—a world order which basically survived until it would be rooted up and replaced with a Hellenistic one by Alexander himself.

Social and Economic Reorganization on Land and Sea

Relief inside Temple at Abu Simbel (Nubia), showing Ramesees II at the Battle of Kadesh. (ca. 1244 B.C.E.)

3. *Relief inside Temple at Abu Simbel (Nubia), showing Ramesses II at the Battle of Qadesh (see Map 2, below). (ca. 1273 B.C.E.)

During the late Bronze Age, say around 1200 B.C.E., there were three big powers on the Eastern Mediterranean: The Mycenaeans were based in mainland Greece, but had settlements on the Palestine coast as well as the islands of the Aegean and Mediterranean. They also had trading partners in Anatolia, Palestine and Egypt. In Asia, the Hittites had possession of all of Anatolia and controlled Syria and the western Levant down to where Egypt controlled from the South. The Hittites had once, 400 or so years before, been the major power in the Middle East having even sacked Babylon ca. 1590 B.C.E.  The kingdom was weakened by the expenditures of that campaign, and the Hittites didn’t even rule over Babylon, instead that fell to the Kassite, a mysterious people who were neither Semitic nor Indo-European and may have been the Hittites’ ally or their rival. The strife within the Hatti kingdom that followed tempted Egypt into the Hittites’ sphere of influence, and in 1274 B.C.E. the Egyptian forces stumbled into a Hittite chariot ambush at Qadesh in western Syria. The Egyptians rallied from near disaster and fought to a draw before withdrawing to Egypt. A decade later the two powers agreed to a détente, dividing their respective spheres of influence approximately at Qadesh (see Map 2, below).

*Detail of relief from Mortuary Temple (Medinet Habu) of Ramesees III depicting Battle of the Delta, 1178 B.C.E. (Luxor.) (Represented in the exhibit by a photograph.)

4. *Detail of relief from Mortuary Temple (Medinet Habu) of Ramesses III depicting Battle of the Delta, 1178 B.C.E. (Luxor.) (Represented in the exhibit by a photograph.)

Beginning about 1200 B.C.E. a great dark age descended on the region which obscures our understanding of the period. But by 1000 B.C.E. the Mycenaean Palace States were destroyed, the Hittite Kingdom in Anatolia collapsed and the Twentieth Dynasty in Egypt ended and with it the New Kingdom itself. These developments seem all to be related to waves of new peoples entering the region. In the case of the Mycenaeans the people Homer called Achaeans may have been the invaders that overthrew them. As Homer describes them, they seem to have been a collection of warlords and their vassals, who during this same time captured or at least sacked Ilion (Troy). For their part, the Hittites were defeated by the Phrygians from the north, possibly partly owing to the frontier’s defenselessness without Ilion’s protection. The Egyptians also faced new invaders. Ramesees III recorded three major battles with a set of mercenaries or invaders who he called the “People of the Sea.” The inscription at Medinet Habu (Thebes) says that these people despoiled the coast of Palestine, but his Egyptian army defeated them each time they met and captured many prisoners. These peoples represented a confederation of migrating groups, from Anatolia, the Aegean or even Europe. Among the peoples were the Philistines who eventually settled in Palestine (which gets its name from this people) and eventually assimilated the customs and religious practices of the indigenous Canaanites.

Mycenaean Helmet from Sparta tomb reconstructed with  boar's teeth from tomb, according to designs on pottery and description in Homer. (13th Century. From K. Demakopolou (ed.), The Mycenaean World: Five Centuries of Greek Culture, 1600-1100 BC. (Athens: Greek Ministry of Culture: 1988), p.  237.

5. *Mycenaean Helmet from Sparta tomb reconstructed with boars’ tusks found in the tomb, according to designs on pottery and description in Homer. 13th Century. From Demakopoulou (1988), p. 237. (Cf. #1., above.)

What made the three great powers so susceptible to attack by hitherto unknown invaders is a mystery. But the Hittites came to power and dominated the Near East when they had a near monopoly on iron smelting. At the end of the Bronze Age that technology was widely disseminated and so the technological advantage of the established powers was neutralized. Another hint is provided by the artifacts. The small (11.8 x 6 cm.) ivory plaque at the head of this post shows a Mycenaean soldier (#1). Aside from the fairly unwieldy 8-shaped shield, he has no other armor other than his helmet. The helmet, however, is hardly practical. According to a description in Homer (Iliad X:260-265; Loeb ed.) and designs on pottery and other plaques, the helmet is made up of rows of boars’ teeth (arranged in rows with alternating curves). The helmet in the plaque may also show cheek guards (of brass or leather). But given the helmet required the tusks of scores of boars, it must have been quite expensive to produce and therefore only available to the wealthiest of warriors. Armies led by ostentatious war lords probably start off at a disadvantage when fighting savage invaders.

*Stele of Kassite King of Babylonia Melishipak I , presenting his daughter to goddess Nanaya, consort to the scribe god Nabu. The stele is to commemorate a land grant. Above the figures are the celestial images of the three major Mesopotamian gods. (Black limestone. 1186–1172 B.C.E.  Louvre). The piece was excavated at Susa, where it had been taken by the Elamites as war booty in 1158 B.C.E.

6. *Stele of Kassite King of Babylonia Melishipak I , presenting his daughter to goddess Nanaya, consort to the scribe god Nabu. The stele is to commemorate a land grant. Above the figures are the celestial images of the three major Mesopotamian gods. (Black limestone. 1186–1172 B.C.E. The Louvre). The piece was excavated at Susa, where it had been taken by the Elamites as war booty in 1158 B.C.E.

In the east the close of the Bronze Age saw the end of the 500-year rule of Babylonia by the Kassites. The kingdom had lost much territory to Assyria, which even twice sacked Babylon itself and rendered the kingdom a vassal. Around 1200 B.C.E. during internal fighting within Assyria, Babylonia was able to recover all but the northern parts of its kingdom. The Late Bronze Age Collapse which brought down the Mediterranean powers had no effect on Mesopotamia, but by 1155 B.C.E. the Kassite Dynasty was overthrown by a combination of Assyrian invaders from the north and Elamite invaders from the east. A native Semitic regime rose up and drove the Elamites out of southern Babylonia, but could not expel Assyria from the north. Nevertheless, this dynasty lasted 200 years and then succumbed to more Kassite and Elamite invasions. It took an Assyrian invasion in 911 B.C.E. to drive out the non-Semitic peoples, and then Assyria established its rule over Babylonia for the next three centuries.

Winged guardian hand pollinating stylized date palm. From Ashurnasirpal II's Northwst Palace at Nimrud. (Gypsum alabaster. ca 880 B.C.E. Williams College Museum of Art, Williamstown, Massachussets.)

7. Winged genie (apkallu) hand pollinating stylized date palm. From Ashurnasirpal II’s Northwest Palace at Nimrud. (Gypsum alabaster. ca 880 B.C.E. Williams College Museum of Art, Williamstown, Massachusetts.) This relief was located in Room F of the palace, shown in the schematic #15, below.

Assyria itself, the land of the winged bull Ashur, lay above the flood plains of Babylonia in the hills between the Tigris and Euphrates, but they congregated mostly on the eastern part along the main branch of the Tigris. It was physically hemmed in at its east and north by mountains (the Zagros Mountains, the Armenian Upland and the Anatolian Plateau). To its west it faced the Aramaeans, who constantly harassed its trade to the Mediterranean and occasionally threatened its territory. The Aramaeans occupied most of Syria and much of the Levant, but the never united into one state. When the Hittite Empire collapsed, the Hittites moved into Syria and mingled with the Aramaean population. In the middle of the Second Millennium B.C.E. Assyria moved into the steppes to its northwest with its fertile farmlands, north of the bulk of Aramaeans and east of the Hittites. By providing fair administration of the land, the Assyrians won the allegiance of some Aramaeans living there who assimilated. Briefly Assyria also conquered Syria all the way to the Mediterranean, but was pushed back. Assyria also aggressively pushed south into Babylonia. Since Elam was also seeking the same territory, the two powers clashed, but Assyria defeated the Elamites and subdued Babylonia. Although Assyria did not succumb to the Late Bronze Age Collapse, from 1200 B.E.C. for about 270 years Assyria was subject to rivalries for the throne and instability was the rule. At least two kings were deposed by relatives, something unheard of among Assyrians. Surrounding peoples took advantage of the unrest and chipped away at Assyrian territory. Assyria shrank within its Mesopotamian borders until the reign of Ashur Dan II, which began in 935 B.C.E. This king reinvigorated the administration and began repelling the Aramaeans and other tribal peoples who had encroached on Assyrian territory and by the end of his reign (912 B.C.E.) Ashur Dan II had restored Assyria to its natural boundaries.

Thus, at the beginning of the 9th Century B.C.E. the world of the Mediterranean was no longer dominated by major powers and because those powers had dominated it, the Mediterranean maritime trade system had broken down. There was a political vacuum from Syria to Greece and throughout the Levant. And both empire and commerce abhor a vacuum. It would be Assyria that would attempt the empire and the Phoenicians who would tend to global commerce. The result was a globalization that would put its mark on modern Western Civilization from its beginning.

Map 1: The Near East in the early Iron Age.

Map 1: The Near East in the early Iron Age.

The Assyrian Empire and Imperial Art

Stele of Tukulti-Ninurta IIs defeating Araean-Hittites at Lakē from Tell Ashara Terqa on the Euphrates. Basalt orthostat. mid-9th Century B.C.E. Aleppo National Museum.)

8. *Stele of Tukulti-Ninurta II’s victory over Aramean-Hittites at Laqȗ. From Tell Ashara (Terqa) on the Euphrates. (Basalt orthostat. Mid-9th Century B.C.E. Aleppo National Museum, Aleppo, Syria.) Compare the Syro-Hittite (or Neo-Hittite) relief in #9, below.

The son of Ashur Dan II, Adad-nirari II, set Assyrian on a course of conquest that would last nearly three centuries. This new phase of Assyrian history has been named Neo-Assyria and it represents more than a rebirth of Ashur, because Assyria had never seen anything like it. Perhaps nowhere had such a thing existed. For Assyria developed into a single, unified, efficient military empire which acquired lands and disposed of peoples in nearly annual campaigns. The army became the first fully modern military: Its infantry was made up of conscripts and was divided into both light and armored spearmen, archers and slingers. The Assyrians developed cavalry (not simply ancient chariot riders), which was armored, much like the later Roman mailed cavalry. Assyria designed the world’s first siege engines, capable of battering down a city’s fortification. Organization and military intelligence was celebrated in cuneiform texts. The entire apparatus, which eventually brought down the entire known world (or at least that part that could be reached by land), must have consumed vast resources both in personnel and in materiel. Indeed, the battle monuments and royal inscriptions of the later kings suggest that the entire society was on total war footing all the time. The economy of the Empire probably derived in very substantial part from tribute and war booty. The expenditure and manpower needs for the continuous war probably required all the techniques of military dictatorships. The state became so all-encompassing that a new artistic style became uniform in the empire, one that put the King at the head, glorified Ashur above all, and celebrated uniformity, massed action and submission.

Relief of six-winged goddess from Tell Halaf (ancient Guzana in modern northast Syria). (Basalt orthostat. 10th-9th Cntury B.C.E. Walters Art Musuem, Baltimore, Maryland.)

9. Relief of six-winged goddess from Tell Halaf (ancient Guzana in modern northeast Syria). (Basalt orthostat. 10th-9th century B.C.E. Walters Art Museum, Baltimore, Maryland.)

The art of late Assyria, however, arose after total war became the defining feature of the empire. During the reign of Adad-nirari II, the army quieted the frontiers, took a large chunk of Babylonian territory and engaged and defeated Aramaeans in two battles to the west. Tukulti-Ninurta II, the son of Adad-nirari II, coninued his father’s campaign against the Aramaeans. His victory steles, however, had none of the characteristics of later (or even earlier) Assyrian art. The stele (#8, above left) celebrating the victory at Laqû, a site on the west of the Euphrates, is a work of Aramaean-Hittite art. The stele shows the West-Semitic god Adad (Hadad) striking Lakû, symbolized as a serpent. The god’s face is profiled with features characteristically West-Semitic. Compare the victory stele with the orthostat of the six-winged goddess from the Met exhibit, to the right (#9). Note that both figures have horns from their foreheads, and the goddess is even holding serpents. In the victory stele, Adad wears a Hittite helmet and his hair rolled up with one knee-length band behind in Hittite manner.

Ashurnasirpal II from Ishtar Sharrat-niphi temple, Nimrud (Magnesite on reddish stone. ca. 875-860 B.C.E. British Museum.)

10. Ashurnasirpal II from Ishtar Sharrat-niphi temple, Nimrud (Magnesite on reddish stone. ca. 875-860 B.C.E. British Museum.) Statuary in the round was not common in Assyrian art.

It was Tukulti-Ninurta’s son, Ashurnasirpal II, who would not only turn the army into an unrelenting machine for imperial expansion but also stimulate the flowering of Assyrian imperial art. That art was bold, stylized and symbolic, and designed for a very specific political purpose—to show that the god of Assyria had selected the emperor to prevent chaos on earth by use of his might, which supported his irresistible authority. Art was to celebrate the prowess of the Assyrian king, shown by his military victories, the large and relentless army under his command, his unswerving fury against rebels, and the wealth he commanded from his vassals, all of which proved in what favor Ashur held him. As bold as the new art was, however, it was a pale reflection of the brazenness and audacity Ashurnasirpal would display in his military campaigns. The art that was invented under Ashurnasirpal II would be the official court art of Assyria (and because the court ruled over everything and dominated all economic life, it was essentially the only art of Assyria). But before Ashurnasirpal turned his eyes to art, he turned his attention to military matters.

*Fertilizing guardians with date palm from Northwest Palace, Nimrud. (Alabaster relief. ca. 883-859 B.C.E. Metropolitan Museum of Art.)

11. *Fertilizing guardians with date palm from Northwest Palace, Nimrud. (Located at designation “3″ Room I on the northeast side next to Room J in #15, below.) (Alabaster relief. ca. 883-859 B.C.E. Metropolitan Museum of Art.)

Evidently the frontier tribes learned of Tukulti-Ninurta’s death and considered the time ripe to test the empire’s control. (Succession disputes had preoccupied Assyria in the past.) Ashurnasirpal mobilized the army for his first campaign which he launched into the eastern mountains. The tribal fighters fled into the mountains, but Ashurnasirpal’s forces pursued them, even though the mountain passes were not prepared for his chariots or infantry. His first “annal” inscription (in the Ninurta temple in Nimrud) tells how he descended on the Tumme people:  “With their blood I dyed the mountain red like red wool, [and] the rest of them the ravines [and] torrents of the mountain swallowed. I razed, destroyed, [and] burnt their cities.” This was just a foretaste of his cruelty.

12. *Winged, human-headed lion guardian (lamassu), which guarded an entrance from Court Y to Room G of the Northwest Palace, Nimrud (see diagram in #15, below). (Gypsum alabaster. ca. 883-859 B.C.E. Metropolitan Museum of Art.)

The Assyrian army then turned north to the land of Ḫabḫu (possibly in the foothills of Armenia). At Nishtun the defenders escaped into the mountains. But “my warriors flew like birds. I felled 260 of their combat troops with the sword. I cut off their heads and formed [therewith] a pile.” When the remainder saw the army razing their settlements, they came down and sought terms. “I imposed upon them tribute, tax, and corvée. Būbu, son of Babua, son of the city ruler of the city Nishtun, I flayed in the city Arbail [and[ draped his skin over the wall.” He then took his army westward where he brought more cities into the Assyrian orbit. On encountering a city that rebelled against Assyrian rule, he lay siege. When it finally fell “I felled with the sword 800 of their combat troops, I burnt 3,000 captives from them. I did not leave one of them alive as a hostage. I captured alive Hulāiia their city ruler. I made a pile of their corpses. I burnt their adolescent boys [and] girls, I flayed Hulāiia their city ruler [and] draped his skin over the wall of the city Damdammusa. I razed, destroyed, [and] burnt the city.” And so he went burning and sacking cities, burning the civilians and skinning the leaders. As the campaign continued even these atrocities failed to slate his blood lust. When he reached the city of Tela, he resorted to mutilations, probably because the siege was more difficult. But the city eventually succumbed:

“I felled 3,000 of their fighting men with the sword. I carried off prisoners, possessions, oxen, [and] cattle from them. I burnt many captives from them. I captured many troops alive: from some I cut off their arms [and] hands; from others I cut off their noses, ears, [and] extremities. I gouged out the eyes of many troops. I made one pile of the living [and] one of heads. I hung their heads on trees around the city, I burnt their adolescent boys [and] girls. I razed, destroyed, burnt, [and] consumed the city.”

The known royal inscriptions of Ashurnasirpal record at least one or more campaigns in each of sixteen years. The inscriptions celebrate atrocities and looting against those who resisted and tributes and taxes imposed on those who submitted. (The oppressiveness of the taxes he imposed is suggested by the fact that despite the terror that Ashurnasirpal inspired, some resisted.) He also resettled troublesome populations and took large numbers to use as conscript laborers. But the inscriptions mostly celebrate Ashurnasirpal himself:

13. *Remains of the Citadel of Nimrud and contour map, based on excavation of Max Mallowan in 1957. Note that the northern half of the Northwest Palace was destroyed by a rainwater wadi. From Crawford, et al. (1980), p. 11.

13. *Remains of the Citadel of Nimrud and contour map, based on excavation of Max Mallowan in 1957. Note that the northern half of the Northwest Palace was destroyed by a rainwater wadi. From Crawford, et al. (1980), p. 11.

“I am king, I am lord, I am praiseworthy, I am exalted, I am important, I am magnificent, I am foremost, I am a hero, I am a warrior, I am a lion, and I am virile; Ashurnasirpal, strong king, king of Assyria, designate of the god Sîn, favourite of the god Anu, loved one of the god Adad [who is] almighty among the gods, I, the merciless weapon which lays low lands hostile to him, I, the king, capable in battle, vanquisher of cities and highlands, foremost in battle, king of the four quarters, the one who defeats his enemies, the king who disintegrates all his enemies, king of the totality of the [four] quarters including all their princes, the king who forces to bow down those not submissive to him, the one who rules all peoples …”

14. *Diagram of the Northwest Palace at Nimrud after Mallowan. From Moortgat (1969), p. 127.

14. *Diagram of the Northwest Palace at Nimrud after Mallowan. From Moortgat (1969), p. 127 (with room designations added by dkf).

Those unfamiliar with the Ancient Near East will be surprised to discover that Ashurnasirpal sincerely believed that his brutality and arrogance was a form of humble obeisance to his gods. The gods rewarded his devotion by granting him the power, and he, in effect, was carrying out their rule on earth as their human agent. And of course Iron Age Middle Eastern gods were nothing if not vengeful and blood-thirsty. (Yahweh, for example, told King Saul to kill all the Amelekites, “man, woman, infant and suckling” as well as their livestock. Saul slaughtered all but one, the King, and saved the best livestock. But this disobedience, according to Samuel, made Yahweh regret setting Saul up as king. For saving this one person, Samuel advised Saul that Yahweh would deprive him of his kingdom. Samuel, Yahweh’s prophet, then killed the Amelekite king himself! See 1 Samuel 15.) And so it is not surprising that at home Ashurnasirpal devoted himself to building monuments and making offerings to the gods.

Detail of the extant remains (the southern half) of the Northwest Palace constructed by Ashurnasirpal at Nimrud. After Mallowan in Crawford, et al. (1980) p. 19.

15. *Detail of the extant remains (the southern half) of the Northwest Palace constructed by Ashurnasirpal at Nimrud. After Mallowan in Crawford, et al. (1980), p. 19.

His first regnal year, he rebuilt temples and added to the collection of temples in Ashur. Ashur had been the seat of Assyrian royal government since 2500 B.C.E. It is difficult to comprehend how long that city acted as the capital of Assyria. To make the length of time comprehensible, consider: 1617 years ago, Augustine first began to write his Confessions, the Council of Carthage had just decided which books belonged in the Christian Bible, and Jerome had not translated it yet. But despite a tradition this long, which must have had profound religious and political significance to the courtiers and priests, in the sixth year of his reign, Ashurnasirpal decided to move the capital to Kalhu, an Assyrian city built in the mid 13th Century B.C.E. (and called Nimrud by later Arabs and most archaeologists today, but Calah (כָּלַח) in Genesis 10:11-12). The location was hilly and good only for sheep-raising. It had two advantages to him, however. It was the city of Ninurta, his father’s name-sake (and guardian deity?) and it was located near ample deposits of gypsum alabaster. He would put the latter to good use for reliefs in his new and lavishly-planned palace, because it was a mineral that could be rendered in fine detail without fine steel tools.

16. *Ashurnasirpal (with conical cap) and attendants (together with king as guardian figure on left). From Northwest Palace, Nimrud (in position 13 in Room S of #15, above). (Gypsum alabaster. ca. 883-859. Metropolitan Museum of Art.)

16. *Ashurnasirpal (with conical cap) and attendants (together with king as guardian figure on left). From Northwest Palace, Nimrud (in position 13 in Room S of #15, above). (Gypsum alabaster. ca. 883-859. Metropolitan Museum of Art.)

Tribute bearers with monkeys for the King from northern courtyard leading to throneroom (D), northwestern entrance (in #15. (Alabaster gypsum. 883-859 B.C.E. British Museum.)

17. *Tribute bearers with monkeys for the King from northern courtyard leading to throne room (B), northwestern entrance (in #15). (Gypsum alabaster. ca. 883-859 B.C.E. British Museum.)

Ashurnasirpal used the labor of thousands of conscripted Aramaeans to construct a citadel in the southwest corner of Nimrud and separately walled it (see #13, above). In the northwest corner of that citadel an elaborate palace was built (schemata in ##14 & 15, above). The design of the palace recalled the traditional royal architecture of the Middle Assyrian period with a central courtyard surrounded by rectangular rooms of various sorts. But Ashurnasirpal enlarged and transformed the palace. His new palace had at least two large courtyards (Courtyard Y in #15 and whatever courts were washed out by the rain wadi in the north and west of the palace (see ##13 & 14)). In addition there was a smaller court (AJ in #14) and possibly a similar one to the east (and possibly a similar arrangement in the washed out northern part of the complex). The small court AJ seems to be in the center of smaller domestic and residential rooms. All of the other courts are surrounded by rectangular rooms at least two rows deep. The two major parts of the palace are separated in the middle by a long narrow room (it is in fact the longest room in the palace), which served as the throne room (Room B in both ##14 & 15, above.) This basic plan would be used in all palaces for the rest of the Neo-Assyrian period, no matter how much larger and more lavish they would grow: A throne room surrounded on one side by a forecourt or gate-court (called bābānu in Akkadian); the second other part (the bītānu) contains the inner courtyard with its reception and residential rooms.

Attendant from Room L of the Northwest Palace in Nimrud (location 4 in #15, above). (Gypsum alabaster. ca. 883-859. Metropolitan Museum of Art.)

18. *Attendant from Room L of the Northwest Palace in Nimrud (location 4 in #15, above). (Gypsum alabaster. ca. 883-859. Metropolitan Museum of Art.)

But what made this a strikingly innovative monument of Assyrian art were the rows upon row of wall friezes of gypsum reliefs. Granted that the figures are highly repetitive. Not only are the same figures repeated, seemingly endlessly, but the figures themselves are executed in nearly exactly the same way. Faces (and feet) are shown in profile, while the bodies are turned about a quarter of the way. Muscles of the arms and legs are massive and highly defined. Beards and hair are rendered in like manner on all figures. Yet the impression must have been astonishing and drove home the point to be made: The King was the master of order. He was a favorite of the gods, and as such not only mastered the mysterious relations with things supernatural, but bestowed the benefit of it on the population. The rows of winged genii, both human and bird-faced (e.g., #11) had to have instilled in the viewer a sense of the wonder and dread of things unseen (see arrangement on one wall in Room I, for example, #22, below). Other scenes showed the deference accorded the king by both man and deities. And the sheer number of these massive works must have been daunting. There are literally miles of such relief and they are now held not only in the British Museum (which got the pick of the lot) and the Metropolitan, but numerous other museums in North America. The Brooklyn Museum, for example, bought the reliefs that the Metropolitan had no use for. The Met exhibition has the first such relief that arrived in the United States, the one now owned by Williams College (of a bird-faced guardian, #7, above). In all, at least 18 museums outside of Iraq possess reliefs from this palace.

Tile fragment of King (Ashurnasirpal II?) with attendants from Northwest Palace, Nimrud. (Glazed ceramic. 9th Century B.C.E. British Museum.)

19. Tile fragment of King (Ashurnasirpal II?) with attendants from Northwest Palace, Nimrud. (Glazed ceramic. 9th Century B.C.E. British Museum.)

The effect was enhanced in ways that we now are unable to fully experience. Pigment remains on the reliefs show that they were painted in bright colors originally. While reconstructing the colors now is conjectural, there are fire-glazed ceramics of the time that show how artists of the time used color. One is a a rendering of the king with attendants (#19). The tile shows the King holding a bowl in the same manner he does in the relief above (#16). He wears a ceremonial robe with rosette figures. (The rosette as a design element seems to have been invented in Mesopotamia and became widespread later in Greece.) The attendant behind the king is beardless, just as are the attendants in the reliefs (see ##16 & 18), but wears a floral patterned robe as well. Perhaps this attendant is a eunuch (because beardless), in which case he would be bearing ceremonial arms or maybe he is simply the king’s arm bearer. The attendant second behind the king wears a helmet, has a beard and carries a spear and shield. He thus is probably a real soldier, maybe the king’s bodyguard. The figures are outlined in black and the pigments, green and yellow are painted within the boarders. The green in the fabric, however, was probably originally a shade of red because it was made of a compound with copper, which when oxidized turns green over time.

Vessel fragment with goat from Ashur. (Glazed ceramic. 8th-7th Century. Staatliche Mussen zu Berlin. Vorderasiatisches Museum.)

20. Vessel fragment with goat from Ashur. (Glazed ceramic. 8th-7th century. Staatliche Mussen zu Berlin. Vorderasiatisches Museum.)

The ceramic of the leaping goat (#20) is quite compelling in its own right. it comes from a slightly later time and different place (Ashur), which probably explains how it captures a kind of capriciousness not seen in Ashurnasirpal’s formal art in Nimrud. Because it doesn’t follow the strict composition rules of the art in the Northwest palace it almost looks expressionistic. The ceramic is a fragment of a large beaker. It is possibly an object for domestic rather than ceremonial use, which might explain its somewhat whimsical look. In any case background in this case is probably true, because it was originally copper oxide mixed with ferrous oxide. The other two pigments were white and yellow. The figures were all outlined in black (as in #19), before being colored in.

Using the known colors available and pigment remains on various reliefs, the company Learning Sites Inc. has reconstructed a possible color pattern for the Williams College relief (#7), which you can see by scrolling down to the bottom of this linked page.

The so-called Banquet stele from Nimrud, which was located in a recess locatd just outside the throneroom. (Sandstone. ca. 877 B.C.E. Mosul Museum, Iraq.)

21. *The so-called Banquet Stele from Nimrud, which was located in a recess locatd just outside the throne room. (Sandstone. ca. 877 B.C.E. Mosul Museum, Iraq.)

Ashurnasripal left no doubt that he himself understood how important the art and architecture of his new palace was. For in an unusual stele at the site (unusual because it was mostly text, unlike the other reliefs and because its relief was inset in sandstone rather than gypsum block), the king describes a lavish 10-day long feast, which the text claims was attended by 69,574 guests, including 5,000 foreign dignitaries. The text also gives a list of the fare consumed: thousands of sheep, oxen and deer, tens of thousands of birds and fish, eggs, hundreds of containers of grains, vegetables, bread, cheese, nuts and fruit, garnished with hundreds of jars of honey and spices, as well as 10,000 jugs of beer and 10,000 skins of wine. All of this was designed to honor the gods of Assyria, because the figure on the “Banquet Stele” (#21) was the king himself standing in association with their avatars: The twin horns for the supreme god Ashur on his helmet; the disc of the sun god, Shamash; the crescent of the moon god, Sin; the fork of the storm god, Adad; and a star, representing the planet Venus, for Ishtar, goddess of love and war.

Drawing of the reliefs as (intended to be) mounted in Room I). From Crawford, et al. (1980), p. 17.

22. *Drawing of the reliefs as (intended to be) mounted in Room I. From Crawford, et al. (1980), p. 17.

In fact, setting aside the immense human suffering he inflicted to achieve it, Ashurnasirpal’s pride in the achievement he oversaw was justified, and this palace then was a fitting place for the world’s first gallery opening party. Whatever the painting on the reliefs may have added and however else the lavish setting of furniture, gold and silver works and ivory objects enhanced them, the reliefs themselves must have been astonishing to the ancient viewer. First, the composition of each individual block adhered to standards never before seen in the ancient world. The figures and other objects are arranged in a coherent manner not only with respect to each other but also in relation to the border of the blocks. This may seem like an elementary virtue, but it characterized art works before that time (even arguably great ones) only by accident. Frequently in Near Eastern steles, images aren’t even confined by the edges and spill over the sides (see #8, above). Placement within frames or borders was often haphazard (see #9, above), especially because of the convention not only to make the king larger than everyone else, but also to make him the center of the work. But in Ashurnasirpal’s palace reliefs the scenes are conceived as compositions within the confines of the block (or as parts of matched sets, as in the running series of patterned mythical figures, as in Rooms C, G and I).

King receives prisoners. From the Throneroom of the Northwest Palace in Nimrud. (Gypsum alabaster. 883=859 B.C.E. British Museum.)

23. *King receives prisoners. From the Throne room of the Northwest Palace in Nimrud. (Gypsum alabaster. 883=859 B.C.E. British Museum.)

More importantly, the compositions are designed in such a way that the are visually interesting, give a hint of perspective and provide the illusion of “movement” even though the figures are carved flat with the same body orientation. Take the two prisoner reliefs in the throneroom (##23 and 24). In the block showing the king (#23), the convention that the king be larger than all other figures is observed without detracting from the authenticity of the picture. The charioteer’s head is actually slightly higher than the king’s but it’s clear that he is smaller, which contributes to the view that the artists intended to show a receding background. The vertical arrangement of heads, moreover, gives the impression of movement (“rhythm,” Moortgat calls it). That movement is all accomplished by the king’s men; the prisoners themselves, when in the presence of the king, prostrate themselves, so that their heads are at the level of the king’s feet.

23. *Train of Prisoners from Throneroom of Northwest Palace in Nimrud. (Gypsum alabaster. 883-859 B.C.E.)

24. *Train of Prisoners from Throne room of Northwest Palace in Nimrud. (Gypsum alabaster. 883-859 B.C.E.)

The column of prisoners, with the soldiers parading them, shows the same movement. The prisoners themselves are tied at the elbows and are indistinguishable except for the one pulled up abruptly by the guard at the center with the bow. The “bobbing” heads of the guards and the level heads of the prisoners suggested the monotonous march to the king, where the prisoners would beg for their lives. One can only wonder what additional effects painting would have on the scene.

High relief from Khorsabad from the throneroom of the palacee of Sargon II. (Gypsum alabaster. 721-705 B.C.E. The Louvre.)

25. *High relief from Khorsabad from the throne room of the palace of Sargon II. (Gypsum alabaster. 721-705 B.C.E. The Louvre.)

Ashurnasirpal’s reign would mark the high point in relief work for some time. His son, Shalmaneser III, concentrated on conquest. Although he made a palace twice as big as his father’s (see #36, below), his artists did not seem to have any ideas beyond those pioneered by Ashurnasirpal’s. He did however expand the empire well beyond anything that had been seen previously, but his last years were marked by the civil war that resulted from the succession pretensions of his sons. Vassal states, of course, use occasions like civil wars to assert their independence. It took much time to recover the empire Shalmaneser put together. It wasn’t until Tiglath-Pileser III seized the throne in 744 B.C.E. that the empire was reorganized in such a way that it became, once again, a unified, strictly disciplined military state. From then until the end, the empire was always at war, constantly seeking to subjugate everyone. Sargon II seized the throne in 721 B.C.E. and established the last and most vigorous dynasty. Sargon, who died in battle, was progenitor of a line of warriors: Sennacherib (705–681 B.C.E.) who moved the capital to Nineveh, Esharhaddon (681–669 B.C.E.), who took Memphis and expanded the empire into Egypt, and finally Ashurbanipal (668-ca. 627 B.C.E.), the last of the great Assyrian kings. He was called “the great and noble Asenappar” in the Bible (Ezra 4:10) and Sardanapalus by Roman historian Justin (Historiarum Philippicarum, Book III), who said this “last king” was “a man more effeminate than a woman,” who spun “purple wool with a distaff” in a woman’s dress among the concubines. It’s impossible to ascertain how Ashurbanipal earned this reputation first attested eight centuries after his death, but perhaps it had something to do with the fact that he remained in Nineveh while his army completed the conquest of Egypt.

To us, Ashurbanipal seems the most cultured of all the Assyrian kings, at least since Ashurnasirpal. He scoured the Near East for matters of literary interest and had a stable of scribes who rendered them into Akkadian, even though by then most of the Empire spoke Aramaean. He regarded himself as a servant of the gods and had himself so depicted (#2, above), when he restored the temple to Marduk, Babylon’s chief deity, which had been razed when Sennacherib sacked Babylon years before. The Met exhibition shows the three items he is most famous for in terms of art; items that rivaled the achievements of Ashurnasirpal: three reliefs in his palace, one of a lion hunt, one of the battle of Til Tuba and one of a banquet with a queen.

Reilief of lion hunt from North Palace, Nineveh. (Gypsum alabaster. ca. 645-640 B.C.E. British Museum.)

26. Relief of lion hunt from North Palace, Nineveh. (Gypsum alabaster. ca. 645-640 B.C.E. British Museum.)

Like other kings, Ashurbanipal staged lion hunts to prove his prowess. A three-panel relief in this show visually explains how these hunts work: In the top panel an attendant, protected inside his own cage, opens the door of a lion cage below. The lion leaps at the king, who is aiming a bow and arrow at him, while attendants stand around him to support him. A second panel shows the king holding a lion by the tail as he is about to strike it with his mace. He was apparently able to sneak up on the animal because it was being harassed by a chariot and a man wielding a spear on horseback. The bottom panel shows the king offering the bodies of four lions in some sort of ritual involving the pouring of liquid over their heads in front of a table with an incense burner. Behind the king are musicians playing harps.

This is but one of Ashurbanipal’s lion hunting reliefs. The scenes are rightly lauded for the sympathetic naturalism with which the lions are rendered. Some scenes show the agony of the lion in its death throes. The block at the Met’s show shows another innovation: the use of multiple figures to simulate the movement of the animal. In the top panel of #26 a lion is seen first cautiously leaving the cage, then running toward the king and finally leaping towards him. The king is shown with bow drawn, but the representation does not make the king more valiant than realistically possible—one other archer is also aiming at the lion and another attendant hold a shield.

Battle of Til Tuba from the North Palace, Nineveh. Limestone. ca. 660-650. British Museum.)

27. Battle of Til Tuba from the North Palace, Nineveh. (Limestone. ca. 660-650. British Museum.)

The relief of the battle of Tel Tuba, the second relief, describes a victory over the Elamites in 653 B.C.E. when the Assyrian army blocked the attempt to rest Babylonia from it. This large and intricate work attempts to show different aspects of the battle. Overall the Assyrians are charging from the left and driving the Elamites down a bank into the river. The overrun Elamites are depicted fleeing in utter confusion, offering only occasional resistance to the spear-carrying infantry, archers and calvary in hot pursuit. Bodies lie in profusion underneath the frantic soldiers. As a depiction of battle it has a sense of immediacy like noting before it, including Egyptian battle scenes (cf. 3 & 4, above). The work is intended as history and includes cuneiform descriptions of particular scenes. But because the Assyrians lacked the literary scribal tradition of the Hebrews and the epic poetry tradition of the Ionian Greeks, Assyrian history is largely pictorial.

King and Queen at Banquet. (Gypsum alabaster. ca. 645-635. British Museum.)

28. King and Queen at Banquet. (Gypsum alabaster. ca. 645-635. British Museum.)

The third of the three reliefs on loan from the British Museum is in some ways the most curious. Breaking from the established tradition of showing the king only in ritual roles or battle array, this work (#28) shows the King reclining on a couch with a queen in a chair at his feet. Both are drinking from shallow bowls while attendants surround them, fanning, brushing away flies and playing music. The queen holds a cone-shaped object, and the king holds a lotus blossom. Their clothes are richly embroidered. Birds can be seen in the trees, as can as well the head of Teumman (in the tree to the left behind the harp player). Originally this relief was part of a group that depicted a large banquet celebrating the defeat of the Elamites (of which the beheading of the king was one part). When Nineveh was sacked by the Medes in 612 B.C.E., Ashurbanipal’s authority was expunged from this work by looters who literally defaced him.

The reliefs and statuary of the kings was the official art of Assyria for the entire empire. The last relief shows a couch that is arguably (although not definitively) Phoenician (especially given what looks like an ivory tusk). There is some dispute whether Assyrian kings (or even wealthy subjects) actually enjoyed the art of Phoenicia and other lands they looted or obtained tribute from. Since much foreign art was found stored in warehouses, some have thought that the Assyrians simply took the fine arts and luxury goods from lands that they subdued or made vassals simply to show their dominance. Whatever the truth of that (and it seems implausible to me), there is ample evidence that luxury goods circulated around the Near East and the entire Mediterranean, and that circulation was largely due in the Iron Age to the Phoenicians.

The Phoenicians and the Iron Age Global Trade Network

From all that is apparent the rise of the Iron Age Assyrian Empire came about from internal organic causes. Its growth resulted in directed and forced diffusion of Assyrian culture (including material culture). Likewise, Assyria itself also was enriched by contact with foreign societies and this is particularly noticeable in the non-imperial arts and other material culture. But Assyria also contributed greatly to the mixing of cultures over long distances. This is because as the empire grew in size and wealth (much of it plundered or from conscription labor), its demand for raw material (timber, metals, ivory, precious and semi-precious stones) and manufactured goods grew as well. The various sources of raw material, however, were scattered across the Middle East, into Africa, along the entire Mediterranean and throughout Europe, and possibly even Asia but Assyria was no naval power and it had no merchant marine.

Map 2: Eastern Mediterranean during the Early Iron Age.

Map 2: Eastern Mediterranean during the Early Iron Age.

Detail of a figure with feathered headdress, presumably one of the Sea People, likely a Philitine. Relief on the side of a Game Box found in a tomb at Enkomi in Cyprus (betwen Kition and Salamis on Mapy 2, below). (Ivory.1250-1100 B.C.E. British Museum.)

29. Detail of a figure with feathered headdress, presumably one of the Sea People, likely a Philistine. Relief on the side of a Game Box found in a tomb at Enkomi in Cyprus (see Map 2, above). (Ivory.1250-1100 B.C.E. British Museum.)

There had been a maritime trade network in the Bronze Age in which goods were exchanged among the triad of the Levant, Cyprus and the Mycenaean states with such regularity that a distinctive international art mixing Canaanite and Mycenaean styles was discernible.  Moreover, the ivory carving and metalworking practiced both in Cyprus and the Levant eventually spread throughout the Mediterranean. Beginning around 1200 B.C.E., however, the Mycenaean palace  states disappeared. Whether this was caused by the Dorians, the “Sea People,” insurrection or a combination is unknown. According to Rameses III, however, it was without doubt the Sea People who were responsible for the collapse of the Hittites (Hatti and other Hittite federations in Anatolia) and Mitani (in Syria) kingdoms, as well as the city-states Ugarit, Carchemish, Hazor and Ashkelon. All of this, according to the Pharaoh, took place before 1175 B.C.E. when vast numbers of the invaders had resettled along the Palestine coast and drove out the native Canaanite population.

Archaeology has confirmed the destruction of these and other Levant cities at the beginning of the Iron Age. But the Phoenician cities appear not to have shared in the destruction. Perhaps they purchased a reprieve. Or maybe it was just luck. But they survived to become a major factor in the globalization of the early Iron Age. The group of “Sea People” called Philistines in English versions of the Bible (פְּלִשְׁתִּים, Pelishtim, in the Masoretic text of the Hebrew Bible (Genesis 10:14), Φυλιστιιμ, Phylistiim in Septuagint Greek (Genesis 10:14) and Παλαιστῖνοι, Palaistinoi by Josephus (e.g., Antiquitates Judaicae, V:275; Neise ed. (Samson story)) swept down the coast of Palestine (which was named after them) and settled in the southern coastal region, the famous pentapolis of Gaza, Ashkelon, Ashdod, Ekron, and Gath (Judges 13:3). At the same time, taking advantage of the disruptions, the Aramaeans spread northward and eastward from southern Syria to the foothils of Anatolia across to the western borders of the Assyrian kingdom. The Hittite elite left Anatolia and joined with the Aramaeans in the west to form what some historians call (based on the surviving material culture) the Neo-Hittite or Hittte-Aramaean peoples. Egypt’s political influence in the Levant disappeared.

There is not enough evidence to ascertain how it was that the Phoenician cities, all acting more or less independently, became the maritime leaders of the early Iron Age. They were Semitic people, probably Canaanites, maybe from the Persian Gulf area as both Herodotus and Strabo attest. But inadequate seafaring know-how for long distance shipping and the absence of near maritime trade partners make the Persian Gulf then an unlikely place to learn maritime arts. Perhaps, once they found themselves on the Mediterranean a combination of necessity and opportunity caused the Phoenicians to engage in maritime trade. As for necessity: There simply wasn’t ample farming spots around Arwad, Byblos, Sidon and Tyre. On the other hand, those cities had naturally protected harbors, and there were ready-made near maritime partners on Cyprus, where Kition, Enkomi and Hala Sultan Teke would soon undergo major harbor constructions (see Map 2, above).

And so the Phoenicians, who were inheritors of the Canaanite traditions in ivory carvings, metalwork, jewelry and glass works, and added to it the production of a purple dye made from the mucous of certain local snails (in ancient times called Murex), which became internationally sought after. (A folk etymology associates their name with Greek φοινός, phoinos = “crimson,” supposedly for their expertise in the art of purple production, but it is more likely the name ultimately comes from the Egyptian reference to Canaan.) They began trade first with neighbors and then ventured upon the seas. Phoenician craftsmanship became legendary, so much so that the Hebrew Chronicler writing in the fourth century B.C.E., had this to say about a master craftsman from Tyre: “skilful to work in gold, and in silver, in brass, in iron, in stone, and in timber, in purple, in blue, and in fine linen, and in crimson; also to grave any manner of graving, and to devise any device; to do whatever may be set before him …” (2 Chronicles 2:13.)

From manufactory the Phoenicians sought complete vertical integration in their commercial empire. First, they became master traders. The swineherd Eumaeus (“leader of men”) calls the Phoenicians “greedy knaves” (Odyssey XV:416, Loeb ed.; τρῶκται, a word used by others to refer to a “sharp toothed fish” and the “hands” of a usurer), who bring “countless trinkets in their black ship.” The ships themselves were the key to their success.

Fragment of embossed band from gates at the royal palace of Shalmaneser III in Balawat. (Bronze. ca. 848. The Louvre.)

30. Fragment of embossed band from gates at the royal palace of Shalmaneser III in Balawat. (Bronze. ca. 848. The Louvre.)

A bronze ornamental band that decorated an Assyrian gate in Balawat (ancient Imgur-Enlil, 16 miles southeast of modern Mosul) shows a Phoenician vessel of the mid-eighth century B.C.E. (#30). The scene depicts Phoenicians of Tyre and Sidon delivering tribute to Shalmaneser III. The ship in the center has the characteristic stem- and stern-posts terminating in horses heads, the features which caused the Greeks to call the boats hippoi (“horses”). These vessels were relatively small and used mainly for short-distance hauls, particularly of lumber—the famous cedars of Lebanon, for example. (The Hebrew monarchist historians describe how Hiram I of Tyre provided Solomon with the cedars to construct the Temple in Jerusalem. From this arrangement the two monarchs developed a cordial commercial relationship during which they opened up new trade routes. See I King 5.) The Balawat band possibly shows the use of hippoi to transport lumber from a site south of Tyre northward on the Mediterranean to a place at the mouth of the Orontes River (approximately at the latitude of Aleppo) for overland transportation to Assyria.

Relief of Phoenician warship in Southweest Palace of Sennacherib, Ninevh. (Gypsum alabaster. ca. 700 B.C.E. British Museum.)

31. *Relief of Phoenician warship in Southwest Palace of Sennacherib, Nineveh. (Gypsum alabaster. ca. 700 B.C.E. British Museum.)

The Phoenicians also used a round-bottom ship for heavy cargo hauls, their stout shape earning them the Greek name gauloi (“tubs”), but they were called “ships of Tarshish” by the Phoenicians, indicating that they sailed as far as southern Iberia. These vessels were shown on Assyrian relief as employing oarsmen for maneuvering. The Phoenicians also invented a warship, used by Assyrians in the days of Sennacherib, with double rows of oarsmen and a shielded row of fighters (#31). The bow was formed into a large point, which enabled the warship to “spear” other vessels. The stacked rows of oarsmen was the origin of the famous bireme, which revolutionized ship construction. The Greeks would later improve on the concept allowing it to deploy a naval force that was swift and could out-maneuver larger naval transports or warships, which more than once allowed Athens’ navy to defeat larger forces, most famously the Persians.

Nora Stele from Pula, Sardinia. Discovered in 1773. (Sandstone. ca. 850-740 B.C.E. Museo Archeologico Nazionale, Cagliari.) An obscure Phoenician inscription, not because alphabets don't work, but mainly because Phoenicians didn't inscribe vowels. It is likely a votive inscription to the god Pumay, as the inscription seems to read (from left to right): bt rš  š ("temple of the cape, which ...").

32. Nora Stele from Pula, Sardinia. Discovered in 1773. (Sandstone. ca. 850-740 B.C.E. Museo Archeologico Nazionale, Cagliari.) An obscure Phoenician inscription, not because alphabets don’t work, but mainly because Phoenicians didn’t inscribe vowels. It is likely a votive inscription to the god Pumay, as the inscription seems to read (from left to right): bt rš
(“temple of the cape, which …”).

The Phoenicians made an additional contribution that probably was not full appreciated at the time: They invented the alphabet. Previous methods of writing were not based on symbols for individual phonemes. The cuneiform script of the Assyrians and Babylonians, for example, used a large number of symbols to represent entire syllables (as well as complete words, unrelated to the syllable but rather the ideogram of Sumerian, a different language, from which the Akkadian cuneiform system was derived). Other cultures, such as the Egyptians and Sumerians, used symbols for entire words, not based on the sound at all. Using symbols for phonemes, syllables could be made up of a combination of thee symbols. Since there are fewer phonemes than possible syllables, the alphabet was both easier to learn and more flexible than a syllable-based system, and much more so than one based on ideograms. The Phoenician alphabet was adopted by the Greeks (once they began writing again in the 8th century B.C.E.). From there it was adopted by the Latins and others, and proved so flexible and enduring that it is being read by you at this very moment.

With the foregoing advantages the Phoenicians not only probed the farthest reaches of the Mediterranean for trade but also set up posts for that purpose and even settled colonies. The most famous (and successful) of these was Carthage, which, it turns out, was not so much a frontier, but rather a planned city for certain Phoenician elite. Nevertheless, it would be the longest living of all Phoenician settlement endeavors and would itself become something of an empire, sending out its own colonists over time. As for the others,  artifacts show the reach of Phoenicia’s commercial activity, which became a “soft power” much more extensive than Assyria’s iron fist.

Map 3: The Western Mediterranean in the early Iron Age.

Map 3: The Western Mediterranean in the early Iron Age.

Male figure from Islote de Sancti Petri. (Bronze. ca. 710-640 B.C.E. Museo de Cádiz.)

33. Male figure (Melqart/Herakles) from Islote de Sancti Petri. (Bronze. ca. 710-640 B.C.E. Museo de Cádiz.)

Substantial Phoenician influence was early pushed west of the Strait of Gibraltar. Gadir (modern Cadiz) was founded by Phoenicians, who constructed a temple and brought other aspects of their Canaanite religion. Before the Late Bronze Age collapse in the Levant, the Canaanites were dominated by the Egyptians, politically and culturally, which was reflected in their art and religion. Long after Egypt withdrew from Palestine it still remained a presence in Phoenician religious symbolism and that influence was carried as far as Iberia in their statuary and ornaments. The male figure (#33) found in the waters off Sancti Petri island, where a temple complex existed. That temple was for worship of both the Melqart and Herakles Gaditanos. Melqart was a Phoenician god—he was in fact the tutelary god of Tyre, whereas Herakles was pan-cultural. Herodotus maintained that this Herakles was an ancient god, earlier and separate from the hero Herakles. The figurine wears the atef crown worn by Osiris. (Herodotus equates Herakles with Shu, not Osiris, but his treatment Egyptian gods seems to have been driven by a rather hopeless attempt to find a one-to-one match between the twelve Olympian gods and a grouping of twelve Egyptian gods, a groping found in no other source. See Charlotte R. Long, The Twelve Gods of Greece and Rome (Leiden: E.J. Brill: 1987).) This association of Osiris with both Melqart and Herakles Gaditanos emphasizes that all three gods possessed redemptive powers over life and rebirth. This Phoenician figure and others like it were perhaps votive offerings. This one may have ended in the sea after being cast into a sacred well as part of a ritual. In any event, it seems to draw from the tradition, well established in Canaan in the Bronze Age, to associate a local Semitic god with the attributes of an Egyptian one. Many such figures took on the pose of the “striking god,” such as one found elsewhere in the Met’s collections. Those figures also wore the atef crown of Osiris.

Statuette of Astarte from El Carambolo (?), near Seville. (Bronze. 8th-7th Centures B.C.E. Museo Arqueológio de Sevilla.)

34. Statuette of Astarte from El Carambolo (?), near Seville. (Bronze. 8th-7th Centures B.C.E. Museo Arqueológio de Sevilla.)

A seated nude female figure (#34), possibly from El Carambolo, a site around two miles west of Seville that contained ancient gold jewelry also of Phoenician origin, likewise has an Egyptian headdress, in this case a wig which falls down to her shoulders. The pedestal she sits on is missing, but her feet are atop a foot rest, which has Phoenician script on its front side that explains that the work is a votive offering to Astarte, the goddess of love and war. Astarte herself was a transcultural figure. She was known in Babylonia and Assyria as Ishtar, who corresponded to Sumerian Inanna, and was also known to the Hebrews (as Ashtoret, using the same consonant roots as in Phoenician: ʻštrt = עשתרת). Although she wears an Egyptian wig, nudity was not a trait of Egyptian divine representation (as it was in the Near East). She would become Aphrodite in the Greek world and from there become an important fixture of the Classical Cosmos. In this figure, she is one of the earliest of the international Near Eastern gods in the Western Mediterranean.

Goddess with Hathoric Headdress. (Silver-plated bronze. ca. 8th Century B.C.E. The Louvre.)

35. Goddess with Hathoric Headdress. (Silver-plated bronze. ca. 8th Century B.C.E. The Louvre.)

The Egyptian affectation of the figure from Seville is probably nothing more than a holdover from centuries of artistic habit. Or it might have become part of Phoenician sensibilities or commercial worldview as a people whose outlook was global. But it falls in line with the observation of Henri Frankfort that “The hallmark of the Phoenicians is the lavish use of bungled Egyptian themes.” By this he meant that the use of Egyptian symbols, gods and motifs in a ways that Egyptians would not is a fairly good indicator that the object was of Phoenician origin. This is because the other cultures in the Near East never used Egyptian symbols. The Aramaeans grew closer culturally to the Mesopotamians (particularly once Assyrian conquered their principal cities). There in no trace at all of Egyptian motifs in Urartu around Lake Van (see Map 2, above). And of course the Assyrians themselves had a fairly rigid orthodoxy, at least since Ashurnasirpal II, and adhered to the imperial style without any international embellishments. Thus if a statuette designed for ritual purposes has a mixture of Egyptian symbols and other influences, it is a good bet to conclude that it is of Phoenician manufacture.

The goddess with the Hathoric headdress (#35), for example, wears the Egyptian horns and orb. In Egyptian depictions of Horath, the horns grow out of a base on top of the goddess’s head. In the Phoenician statuette the horns sprout from a palmette, a common Phoenician ornament. The use of divine headdresses in Phoenician ceremonial objects probably was only meant to signify that the figure represented was a divine being and no specific association with the symbols of the headgear was intended. One figurine, for example, had a globe and horns of Hathor sitting on top of an atef crown of Osiris. In #35 the face is silver-plated and perhaps her horns also once were. The orb between the horns might have been gilded and the rings that would have been attached at the holes near the ears might have been gold as well. All of that would have greatly improved the impression conveyed by this statuette. As it is, it is simply another nondescript form (we don’t know enough to even speculate what goddess this is supposed to represent), from a mold, and probably mass produced.

36. *Layout of Fort Shalmanezer, the court and residential palace of Shalmanezer III in southeastern Nimrud (see schematic of the city in #13, above). From Hermann (1992). Room numbers show rooms in which ivories below were located.

Phoenician style glass pendant. (Glass; rod-formed and trailed, mid-4th to 3rd Century B.C.E. Metropolitan Museum of Art.)

37. *Phoenician style glass pendant. (Glass; rod-formed and trailed, mid-4th to 3rd Century B.C.E. Metropolitan Museum of Art.)

The one area that Phoenicians excelled in artistic production was in luxury goods. Homer, for instance, has Achilles offer as the prize for a footrace a silver Phoenician mixing bowl “richly wrought; six measures it held, and in beauty it was far the goodliest in all the earth, seeing that Sidonians, well skilled in deft handiwork, had wrought it cunningly” (Iliad, XXIII:740ff, Loeb ed.). The Met exhibition has numerous examples of Phoenician (and others’) metalwork. But more than even their metalwork and  glass production, Phoenician ivory carvings stands out. Two large caches of Phoenician and Syrian ivory objects in Assyrian palaces have been found. Because these objects were tribute or booty, it’s not possible to date or locate their manufacture precisely. One of the caches was found at Arslan Tash (see Map 2, above), which we will look at in the next section. The earlier of the two large finds of Phoenician ivory work is in Nimrud, mostly in Shalmaneser III’s palace there, the so-called Fort Shalmaneser (#36; for location, see #13 inset, above). Many ivories were found in the principal residence of the palace and a smaller number in the palace’s workshop. Since some of the latter are done strictly in the imperial Assyrian style, presumably Assyrian artists were also carving ivory and perhaps studying the Phoenician examples.

Ivory fragment with incised banquet scene from Fort Shalmanezer, Nimrud. (Ivory. mid 8th century B.C.E. Metropolitan Museum of Art.)

38. *Ivory fragment with incised banquet scene from Fort Shalmanezer, SE 9, Nimrud. (Ivory. mid 8th century B.C.E. Metropolitan Museum of Art.)

Ivory openwork plaque  of sphinx in low relief from Fort Shalmaneser, Nimrud. (Ivory. ca. late eighth century B.C.E. Metropolitan Museum of Art.)

39. Ivory openwork plaque of sphinx in low relief from Fort Shalmaneser, N.E. 21, Nimrud. (Ivory. ca. late eighth century B.C.E. Metropolitan Museum of Art.)

The incised relief of a banquet (#38) gives an example of the imperial style (also of the fairly unsophisticated style of Assyrian ivory workers one generation after Ashurnasirpal’s artists). The work focuses on the king (center left). Facing him is an attendant with a flywisk and a spoon or scoop. Behind the king are his attendants and behind them is the cook fanning pots of food. The drawing is crude and this perhaps suggests that during the reign of Shalmaneser III Assyrian artisans were only beginning to work with ivory. By contrast both Syrian and Phoenician artists had mastered intricate carving techniques. The Sphinx which was broken off from an openwork plaque (#39) is thought to have been part of a workshop in Northern Syria perhaps somewhat west of Tell Halaf (see Map 2, above) which operated until the end of the eighth century B.C.E. This school seems to have produced openwork plaques mainly of two types: sphinxes in profile with face forward and plaques of “a lady at the window” (a female head framed in rectangles, perhaps representing Astarte). These two subjects with similar style were found in a temple at Khorsabad and their association at both places provides the basis for the conclusion that they were fashioned by the same workshop. The Sphinx (#39) is expertly carved low relief. The beast wears a sun disk (broken off) surrounded by the uraei (sacred serpents symbolizing supreme power) on top of an Egyptian-style wig.

Tribute Bearer with Oryx from Fort Shamaneser, N.E. 2, Nimrud. (Ivory. ca. mid-8th century B.C.E. Metropolitan Museum of Art.)

40. Tribute Bearer with Oryx from Fort Shamaneser, N.E. 2, Nimrud. (Ivory. ca. mid-8th century B.C.E. Metropolitan Museum of Art.)

Unlike the Egyptian religious symbolism in votary offerings, many Phoenician ivories at Nimrud carried African themes that were not mythological (at last overtly).  There is a group of statues all portraying men carrying animals and other goods, probably as tribute (although to whom is not clear). Four of the men appear African and two appear Asian. In one (#40) a Nubian is walking to the right (head facing forward), leading a gazelle by the horns and carrying a monkey on his shoulder. The monkey is playing with the man’s hair. On the other shoulder the man carries a leopard skin. The cat’s head hangs down, but the right hand of the man is missing. The pattern of the robe’s fabric, the leopard’s spots and the texture of his hair are rendered by incisions. The five similar carvings, known as the “Room 2 Group,” have other combinations of animals including two non-specific animals, a lion, a goat and an ostrich. The eyes and eyebrows of the figures were excised by looters for inlay. Two of the figures were burnt and lay in the fill on the rooms floor but four still were lined up in a niche in the wall.

Plaque with lioness mauling young male from Northwest Palace, Room MM, Nimrud. (Ivory, gold, semiprecious stones. 9th-8th Centuries B.C.E. British Museum.)

41. Plaque with lioness mauling young male from Northwest Palace, Room MM, Nimrud (see #14, above). (Ivory, gold, semiprecious stones. 9th-8th centuries B.C.E. British Museum.)

In Ashurnasirpal’s Northwest Palace in Nimrud an ivory carved plaque with similar aesthetic sensibilities but much more dramatic was found in the mud at the bottom of a well in the palace, which accounts for its good state of preservation (#41). The object’s exact pair was also discovered in the same location, but has since disappeared when it was stolen from the Iraq Museum during the looting which followed the American occupation of Baghdad in 2003. Nigel Tallis of the British Museum suggested that the item were stripped of valuable overlay (although the lapis lazuli inset still remains in the lion’s forehead in the surviving piece) and dumped during the sack of Nimrud by the Babylonians and Medes in 612 B.C.E. The pieces were probably part of an elaborate piece of furniture, perhaps a throne, because there are two mortice holes on the top with an incised letter aleph and two rectangular holes on the base also with the letter aleph, suggesting woodworkers’ notations.

Open work panel, one of the "Ornate Group" from Trench X of the Resodency of Fort Shalmaneser. Ivory. ca. ____. Iraq Museum, Bagdhad.)

42. *Phoenician open work panel, one of the “Ornate Group” from Trench X of the Residency of Fort Shalmaneser (see #36, above). (Ivory. ca. mid-8th century B.C.E. Iraq Museum, Baghdad.)

The meaning of the iconography is not readily apparent. Tallis suggests it represents Egypt’s domination of Nubia. The lioness not only is mauling the youth but is embracing him with its left forearm. Some have thought the youth exhibits an acceptance and that therefore the scene is something of an exorcism. Whatever the larger meaning, the piece must have presented a stunning appearance when in tact. The background of carved lotus and papyrus was covered with a layer of gold sheet and the recesses were filled with lapis lazuli and carnelian. The stones were fastened by a mortar that itself contained a blue pigment. The result was a background of colorful reflective flowers appearing out of gold leaves with a bluish base. In addition to being perhaps the most successful of the Phoenician uses of cloisonné, the piece is an elegant expression of the global culture of the time: excellent Phoenician artistry employing luxury items from around the world, employing Egyptian iconography and displayed in an Assyrian palace to proclaim the empire’s cultural superiority. The congruence is all the more remarkable when one considers that the raw material was imported not only from around the Mediterranean but also from Asia, where lapis lazuli mining had an ancient history and where the ivory likely came from, at least since the extinction of the Syrian herds in the early 8th century B.C.E. Given that the eastern border of Assyria was lined with mountains and the eastern border of Babylonia was facing the hostile Elamites, the trade from India must have gone either by means of the ancient lapis lazuli routes through Iran or along the coast of the Arabian Sea by ship to Arabia and by Arabian traders who worked in conjunction with the Phoenicians.

Phoenician crafts by themselves show that the world of the early Iron Age extended from the Tigris to the land West of Gibraltar. It was a world made up of commercial ties driven by the demand of the great empire and executed by the efforts of the great mariners. But cultural exchange was also the result of direct geographical contact. And given the expansion of Assyria and therefore the westward progress of the peoples in their way, the known world would soon be in physical contact with one or more eastern people and the result would be the “Orientalization” of this world.

The Rest of the World: The West becomes Eastern

Spinner with Attendant from Susa. Bitumen compound. ca. 8th-7th century. The Louvre.)

43. Spinner with Attendant from Susa. (Bitumen compound. ca. 8th-7th century. The Louvre.)

Two kingdoms on the eastern borders of Assyria played minor roles in the new Iron Age order: Elam and Urartu.

Elam, in southern Iran (see Map 1, above), directly faced Babylonia. At times it sought to conquer Babylonia, at others it allied itself with Babylonia against Assyria. Assyria resisted both Elam directly and its attempts to meddle with Babylonia. Eventually Ashurbanipal directed an army into the heart of Elam. The relief celebrating Assyrian victory at Tel Tuba (#27) presaged the end. In 646 B.C.E. the Assyrians sacked Susa.

Elam in its day participated in a trade route from southern Iran through Babylonia to Arabia, but does not seem to have much participated in the main cultural interchange from Assyria to the Mediterranean. The relief fragment of the spinner and assistant (#43) shows no traces of Assyrian or Babylonian influence. In fact, there appears to be no other contemporary visual depiction of a spinner, although of course there were literary ones (e.g., Penelope sits before her son Telemachus, “spinning fine threads of yarn” while the suitors sate themselves with food and drink, Odyssey XVII:96-97; Loeb ed.). The posture, headdress and object on the table are unknown from other depictions. Is it a domestic scene (as in Homer) or are they threads of fate? This is a wholly Elamite mystery.

Griffin from Karmir Blur. Bronze with gold foil. 8th-7th century B.C.E. Staatliche Museen zu Berlin. Vorderasiatisches Museum.)

44. Griffin from Toprakkale. (Bronze with gold foil. 8th-7th century B.C.E. Staatliche Museen zu Berlin. Vorderasiatisches Museum.)

Urartu, the land of Mount Ararat, was considered, from the beginning of the empire, a source of vexation, brigandry and insurrection. Ashurnasirpal II, you will recall, began his first campaign to put down an uprising there. But his father and grandfather had also conducted campaigns there. It would take years and more than one king to finally “pacify” Urartu. The mountains posed a large problem for Assyria’s professional army with its armored infantry,  chariots and engines. The defenders could always slip into the hills and disappear, but the Assyrians had to make way through the inhospitable ground and also maintain supply lines. It was not until 842 B.C.E. that Urartu was made a province of Assyria by Shalmaneser III. But Assyrian looked at their possession there as the base for operations elsewhere, and therefore there remained little concrete evidence of Assyrian presence. And for their part the Urartuans had little interest in assimilating, so their own art and material culture shows no influence of Assyria or anything east of it. It is as though the dividing line between East and West that became so prominent in Classical Greek times had already been marked and this area was firmly already Persian.

You can almost imagine the origins of Persia in the griffin (#44) from Toprakkale (see Map 1, above). And while it contains some of the elements of Assyrian guardian lamassu (#12) or genii apkallu (#7) (bird head, winged-body, cat or bull body), the griffin clearly does not assembly the parts in the same way. The bird heads of both the griffin and the genie are raptors of some sort, but the griffin has the expression of a predator, while the genie is a bird of protection. (Perhaps this is because moutain people saw predators in action, while those in flatter lands only saw them hovering above.)

Scorpion Bird Man from Tell Halaf. (Basalt. Early 9th century B.C.E. Max Freiherr von Oppenheim-Stiftung, Cologne.)

45. Scorpion Bird Man from Tell Halaf. (Basalt. Early 9th century B.C.E. Max Freiherr von Oppenheim-Stiftung, Cologne.)

The peoples who absorbed Assyrian influence, thus, were to the west, and the largest and most influential were the Aramaeans. They were a tribal people who, even as late as the Iron Age congregated around solitary cities and had no aspiration for a unified state that would control contiguous territory. They had no discernible art tradition of their own, and for the most part their artists were unskilled. Their mythical system seems to have come largely from the Akkadians, and they had no scribal or other literary tradition. But it seems their very nondescriptness allowed for their great contribution to the Near East—a common language. Perhaps because they assimilated so readily into the empire, their language seeped into the empire itself. Eventually it was spoken all through the Levant and in much of western Assyria. When the Persians conquered Mesopotamia in 500 B.C.E. it would become the official language of the Persian Empire. The process by which it became the koine of the Near East is mysterious, but probably not any more so than how any other cultural artifact spreads and is assimilated. It was a time of globalization, and language was one of many things transmitted. Aramaic, however, lasted longer than most artifacts. After the koine dialect broken into regionalisms. one form became Syriac, a language used by religious specialists (much like Latin would later become) in Eastern Christianity and Jewish Talmudic scholars. But that’s too far ahead of the story.

Head detail of Scorpion Bird Man in #)). The sculpture has been reconstructed since its destruction in bombing during World War II.

46. Detail of Scorpion Bird Man in #45. The sculpture is a reconstruction, it having been extensively damaged in bombing during World War II.

The Aramaeans were the peoples most exposed to the Assyrians and therefore the ones most dependent on their favor.  Tell Halaf (ancient Guzana; Maps 1 & 2), the most eastward of the Aramaean cities, tells the tale. In 894 B.C.E. Tell Halaf chose to pay tribute to Adadnirari II rather than confront Assyria. From that time until 808 B.C.E., when it joined a confederacy who rebelled, the city flourished. In 808 B.C.E. it was burned to the ground for its insurrection. At the beginning of the city’s vassalage to Assyria, its notable art works consisted of large sculptures which appear barely to have escaped the block they were carved from. The best of these works is the Scorpion Bird Man (#45), a mythical guardian (girtablullu) in Aramaean belief with the head of a human, the body of a bird and the stinger of a scorpion. In Tell Halaf this figure with another (slightly different as though by another hand) guarded the entrance to an inner citadel of the palace. The palace complex was illustrated by sculpture of animals and animal deities. (The Scorpion Bird Men have four horns on their foreheads (see #46), indicating their divinity.) Some of guardian figures were carved into the column support of the palace. The Scorpion Bird Men, however, were the best rendered of the lot.

Max von Oppenheim with Seated Woman from Tell Halaf in 1930, before the bombing. The Met exhibit has the reconstructed statue.

47. *Archaeologist Max von Oppenheim with Seated Woman from Tell Halaf in the Tell Halaf Museum Berlin, 1930, before the bombing. The Met exhibit has the reconstructed statue.

More block-like and less competently rendered was the Statue of a Seated Woman (#46). The figure probably represents a V.I.P. because of the footrest. The hair suggests the figure was of a woman. A cup rests on the table which hides the legs in the block of the rock. The head is slightly upturned. Considerable technique was required to render the hair locks from the hard basalt. But although the sculpture is fully in the round, the side view shows that the modeling was incompetently done. Clearly the sculptures of Tell Halaf at the time (and this piece, like the Scorpion Bird Men, was completed at the beginning of the vassalage to Assyria) had no tradition to work from.

As time went on, statuary became less common and the artists took up relief on orthostats, just like Assyrian artists were doing. But the Aramaean artists had not gained nearly the competence and in any event chose subjects, not from the Assyrian reliefs (which they likely never saw) but from designs and representations on Assyrian bowls and pottery. Eventually the more “imperial” themes were drawn, such as the lion hunt (#48), a relief depicting a subject almost certainly having no reference in the life of any Aramaean. And although the subject and figures (such as the chariot, charging horses and lion) come from Assyrian royal reliefs the composition of the picture, execution of the relief and the features of the individuals are purely Aramaean. It is especially interesting to see the difference between the careful use of space by the Ashurnasirpal artists (e.g., ##16, 23 & 24) and the apparent need by Aramaean artists to fill all available space with figures (as in #47).

47. *Relief of lion hunting scene from Tell Halaf. (Basalt. ca. 9th century. Metropolitan Museum of Art.)

48. *Relief of lion hunting scene from Tell Halaf. (Basalt. ca. 9th century. Metropolitan Museum of Art.)

Plaque representing the birth of Horus. (Ivory and gold. 8th century B.C.E. The Louvre.)

49. Plaque representing the birth of Horus. (Ivory and gold. 8th century B.C.E. The Louvre.)

Farther west Aramaean art fell under the influence of the Phoenician artisans. At ArslanTash (see Map 2, above) a second large cache of ivory carvings was discovered. These were unearthed in a less than scrupulous manner and their exact provenance is uncertain. Most of those certainly from the site are held by The Louvre; others probably from the site were acquired by institutions (including the Met) from antiquities dealers. The group shows the “Egyptianizing” features that Phoenician ivory (and other artworks) exhibit. But the human-like figures (e.g., #49) are squatter than Phoenician ones and exhibit the characteristic facial features of Aramaean reliefs (e.g., ##8 & 9). For these and other reasons, many (if no all) of the Arslan Tash ivory are thought to be from a Syrian school west of Tell Halaf.

Ivory open work cow with calf from Arslan Tash. (Ivory and gold. 8th century B.C.E. The Louvre.)

50. Ivory open work cow with calf from Arslan Tash. (Ivory and gold. 8th century B.C.E. The Louvre.)

There are non-human ivories from Arslan Tash that are so “naturalistic” and well executed that they look, to me, as though they are from another school entirely and a Phoenician one at that. An open work plaque (#50) of a calf feeding from a cow which turns back to lick the calf at once looks both realistic (in the sense that the features appear in proportion and the animals are acting normally) and at the same time stylized, because of its flatness and therefore thendesign-like elements it is composed of. (The pattern-like effect would be more marked when a number of the plaques are lined up in a row, which is how they evidently were intended to be exhibited.) Whether or not these ivories are in fact Phoenician, the similarity shows how exceedingly close the material cultures of separate societies had become in the 8th century B.C.E.

Ritual Offering Figure from En Hazeva. (Ceramic. late 7th-early 6th century B.C.E. Israel Museum, Jerusalem.)

51. Ritual Offering Figure from En Hazeva. (Ceramic. late 7th-early 6th century B.C.E. Israel Museum, Jerusalem.)

The Met exhibition continues society by society from the Levant westward. Those interested in Biblical archaeology can see the famous Victory Stele of King Hazael of Aram-Damascus, the only source outside of Hebrew sacred literature to mention the “House of David,” the even more well known prism-shaped Annals of Sennacherib, which describes how Hezekiah and Jerusalem were blockaded “like a bird in a cage” before taking control of the city (a version which markedly differs from the account in 2 Kings 18 & 19 and 2 Chronicles 32), as well as items that shed light on Ahab, king of the northern kingdom and his Phoenician wife Jezebel. To me of most interest was the ritual objects found at En Hazeva some time in the early to mid 9th century B.C.E  on the southern frontier of Judah (see Map 2, above). The anthropomorphized urn-like figures (e.g., #51) have an oddly compelling appearance. The “primitiveness” of the composition almost appears modern. The fact that their ritual purpose, or indeed what god was being worshipped, only adds to their mysterious attractiveness.

The exhibition examines, in more detail than one visit can take in, how this new global culture affected Midas, Croesus, Anatolia, Cyprus, Egypt and especially Carthage. Surprising confirmations of how the Assyrians projected power are steles far from Mesopotamia. Most surprising was a stele of Sargon II at Kition in Cyprus (see Maps 1 & 2), a place that the Assyrians could not bring physical force to bear. But then again this new order was not entirely about physical force, for how otherwise would Egyptian gods be found in royal Assyrian palaces?

The End and the Future

Relief of Lion from the Temple of Marduk, Babylon (ca. 604-562 B.C.E. Glazed Brick. Staatliche Museen zu Berlin, Vorderasistisches Museum.)

52. Relief of Lion from the Temple of Marduk, Babylon (Glazed 604-562 B.C.E. Staatliche Museen zu Berlin, Vorderasistisches Museum.)

The exhibit ends with the rise of Neo-Babylonia which destroyed Assyria. The great achievements of this new power were all destructive: They destroyed Assyria as well as Jerusalem (and Solomon’s Temple) and took many, including the elite of Israel, into captivity. This empire would not last a century and when it fell it was destroyed with fury. Nevertheless, it did create one of the iconic visuals of the ancient world: the gate of Ishtar, along a processional of outstanding painted relief. Two of the most famous reliefs from Babylon’s Processional Way (e.g., #52) from the State Museum of Berlin are included in the exhibit and are as astounding as you might expect.

When Cyrus the Great and his Persians in 539 B.C.E. ended the Babylonian pretensions to lead the world order, it represented the end of the period of Near Eastern hegemony in the Iron Age. But in fact, a new beginning had already begun to the East. It would be the Greek city states in the Aegean that would head a new Western world order, one that would confront the Persians more successfully than the Babylonians did. But the new order would be one radically different from the old because geographical empire and political domination would not be the sole criterion of civilization.

A substantial part of the Met exhibit involves the inception of this phenomenon and the question of how much of what would become Greece could be found in the East. The objects collected provoke interesting thinking about the “Orientalizing” influence on Greece. This subject, however, is far too interesting to relegate to a footnote here and will require a separate post.

Relief plaque of Huwawa from Gortyn, Greece. (Ceramic and paint. ca. 7th century. Archaeological Museum,, Hraklion, Greece.) The trip from Gilgamesh to Aeschylus has many routes.

53. Relief plaque of Huwawa from Gortyn, Greece. (Ceramic and paint. ca. 7th century. Archaeological Museum, Heraklion, Greece.) The trip from Gilgamesh to Aeschylus has many routes.


* = Object not shown in the Met exhibition. (Objects belonging to the Metropolitan Museum’s permanent collection, but not included in the Met exhibition, are found in the Ancient Near Eastern collection on the second floor on the east side of the building.)


John Arzuz, Sarah B. Graff and Yelena Rakic, Assyria to Iberia at the Dawn of the Classical Age (New York: Metropolitan Museum of Art: 2014).

John Boardman & I.E.S. Edwards, The Cambridge Ancient History, Volume III, Part I (The Prehistory of the Balkans, The Middle East and the Aegean World, Tenth to Eighth Centuries B.C.) (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press: 2003). 

Vaughn E. Crawford, Prudence O. Harper & Holly Pittman, Assyrian Reliefs and Ivories in the Metropolitan Museum of Art: Palace Reliefs of Assurnasirpal II and Ivory Carvings from Nimrud (New York: Metropolitan Museum of Art: 1980).

K. Demakopoulou (ed.), The Mycenaean World: Five Centuries of Greek Culture, 1600-1100 B.C. (translated by M.E. Caskey & D.A. Hardy) (Athens: Greek Ministry of Culture: 1988).

Tamás Dezső, The Assyrian Army: I. The Structure of the Neo-Assyrian Army as Reconstructed from the Assyrian Palace Reliefs and Cuneiform Sources: 1. The Infantry (Budapest: Eötvös University Press: © 2012). 

Henri Frankfort, The Art and Architecture of the Ancient Orient (from the series The Pelican History of Art ed. by Nicolaus Pevsner) (Baltimore, Md.: Penguin Books Inc.: 1970).

Albert Kirk Grayson, Assyrian Rulers of the Early First Millennium B.C. I (1114-859 B.C.) (The Royal Inscriptions of Mesopotamia, Assyrian Periods, Volume 2) (Toronto: University of Toronto Press: © 1991).

Georgina Hermann, The Small Collections from Fort Shalmaneser (London: Butler & Tanner Ltd. for The British School of Archaeology in Iraq: ©1992).

Austen H. Leyard, The Discoveries at Nineveh and Babylon (London: John Murray: 1853) (at the Internet Archive).

Anton Moortgat, The Art of Mesopotamia: The Classical Art of the Ancient Near East (translated by Judith Filson) (London: Phaidon Press Ltd.: 1969).

Joan and David Oates, Nimrud: An Assyrian Imperial City Revealed (Norfolk, U.K.: Bindles Ltd for the British School of Archaelogy in Iraq: 2004).

A.T. Olmstead,  “The Calculated Frightfulness of Ashur Nasir Apal,” 38 Journal of the American Oriental Society 209 (1918).

Julian Reade, “The Evolution of Imperial Architecture: Political Implications and Uncertainties,” 46 Mesopotamia: Rivista di Archeologia, Epigrafia e Storia Orientale Antica 109 (2011).

Confronting the Minotaur in Manhattan during Sandy

Mark Dendy: Labyrinth

Mark Dendy, Stephen Donovan, Matthew Hardy (l to r) and Heather Christian in Mark Dendy: Labyrinth.

Mark Dendy, Stephen Donovan, Matthew Hardy (l to r) and Heather Christian in Mark Dendy: Labyrinth.

The next two weeks will close out the premiere run of Mark Dendy: Labyrinth at the Abrons Arts Center’s Underground Theater in Manhattan. Those interested in post-modern, multimedia experimental theater are well advised to attend this event in the intimate venue at the Henry Street Settlement.

The performance is part stand-up confessional, part dance, part cabaret with skits. It is the semi-fictionalized autobiography of Mark Dendy or at least the story of how artistic dread over selling out by choreographing the Rockettes at Radio City Music Hall together with an overdose of anti-psychotic pills and absinthe landed him at Bellevue where he worked out his past demons (one in particular) during the ravages of Hurricane Sandy. Dendy (in “real life,” as they say) is an OBIE and Bessie Award-winning choreographer, and I suspect this play itself is further penance for the Rockettes gig, but it is highly entertaining and not a little profound.

Mark Dendy (Publicity photo).

Mark Dendy (Publicity photo).

The story is told loosely within and regularly referring to the classical story of Athens’ founder Theseus, who, if you know anything at all about him, you know this one thing: he was forced to enter King Minos’s fearful labyrinth, where none ever emerged because the journey was too complicated for the human mind and in any event lead to a ferocious demon, the bull-god Minotaur. Theseus was given a string to allow him to re-navigate the journey and once confronted with the demon used his strength and will to destroy it. And that is the journey, refashioned into a psychological journey undertaken by Dendy, who begins talking directly to the audience, telling us that he is from Athens … Georgia. The conceit, stated starkly, sounds somewhat pretentious to postmodern sensibilities so it is appropriately given a thoroughly postmodern treatment.

Matthew Hardy in rehearsal for the number "Me and My Shadow." (Photo: Marisa @RockPaper.)

Matthew Hardy in rehearsal for the number “Me and My Shadow.” (Photo: Marisa @RockPaper.)

Denby (who plays himself as Theseus) begins his journey confronting the usual irritations one encounters just walking down the street in Manhattan. With him is his superego (the “Shadow,” played by Stephen Donovan), who spews forth the hateful thoughts that goes through his mind when he sees black males, Muslims, the homeless, theater professionals that Dendy does not respect. Dendy tries to repress the thoughts and consciously repudiates them but cannot rid himself of this aspect (among others) of the demon that haunts him. Consciously Dendy tries to justify his career trajectory by acknowledging the competitive and business realities of art in corporatized New York, especially after the financial crash. But he is unconvinced himself. Dendy and his companion are occasionally joined by The Dark Companion (played and danced by Matthew Hardy), who stands in for the unknowable, variously explained as the dark matter which holds the universe together while it is flying apart or what was before the Big Bang and other unknowables. But this presence is not entirely lugubrious, as shown by the dance that introduces him—a clever duet of sorts between Handy and the shadow on the wall created by a horizontal floodlight to the Tin Pan Alley favorite “Me and My Shadow.”

Heather Christian and Stephen Donovan (Photo Marisa @RockPaper.)

Heather Christian and Stephen Donovan (Photo Marisa @RockPaper.)

In lieu of a Greek chorus is the Still Small Voice, sung by Heather Christian, who wrote the original music, sings the commentary and plays other roles, notably the therapist who tries to focus Denby on his past to root out the cause of his “psychosis.” Along the way, Dendy himself play among others a Times Square prostitute who overdoses on cocaine, his own grandmother and his father. Dendy as Theseus/himself also experiences an overdose which lands him in Bellevue. There he is administered therapy he believes he doesn’t need because as an artist he has already thoroughly examined his past and his own family and even exhibited it on stage. Meanwhile, alone he is wracked by guilt, among other things, for not dying during the 1980s AIDS crisis (although he had engaged in numerous unprotected anonymous couplings) and especially for not mourning those who did.

The therapy is somewhat ham-fisted. Rather than pursue something of a break through, the therapist adheres to her schedule and instead gives Dendy a form to fill out. The form is designed to discover how psychotic the patient is, but the questions are such that they would elicit mostly solid affirmations by any New Yorker, such as “I try very hard to please other people in order to avoid conflict, confrontation or rejection” or “Equality doesn’t exist so it’s better to be superior to other people.” (The audience is given the questionnaire in their programs.) But with the crisis of Sandy bearing down on the city and Dendy/Theseus trapped in Bellevue, he is forced to set off alone (with only the therapist’s little string) into the Labyrinth. The journey is into his past, where he again meets the grandmother who raised him, the right-wing antisemitic grandfather Baptist minister married to her and eventually his own Daddy. The trip is not altogether grim, especially because the grandmother is appealingly quirky and discloses truths ironically. The older Theseus visiting her in her mental decline discovers that she really hates green jello with marshmallows. She warns him of the dangers of lying: She has been forced to eat this for 37 years because she once utter the white lie of saying how delicious it was. Imagine, she says, what a great lie could do. But Theseus has discovered her great lie and it eventually leads him to his own Minotaur, his father.

The cast in some of their costumes. (Photos by Marisa @RockPaper.)

The cast in some of their costumes. (Photos by Marisa @RockPaper.)

Dendy’s characters are quite engaging, the scenes are brief and intercut with movement and cabaret songs and rap. Heather Christian is a quite talented theater singer. He voice is a pure soprano but capable of carrying styles from r&b to rap to “classical” commentary on Debussy and Schubert. The musical selections are one of engines that propel the piece. The other is the movements designed by Dendy as choreographer. Never lasting long enough to become cloying, they illustrate without belaboring such things as erotic writhing, psychotic despair, childhood terror.

The climax takes play as the storm (internal as well as external) reaches its crisis. But true to the postmodern sensibility it ends with a rousing finale. There may be no new truths in postmodernism but as this performance shows old truths can be repackaged in original and captivating ways. And perhaps that’s all we are left with anyway nowadays.


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