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 at the beginning of the Bronze Age.

Map 1: The Near East at the beginning of the Bronze 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 brick.ca. 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 with 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.


Asturias, October 1934

This week marks the 80th anniversary of the miners’ strike in the northern Spanish province of Asturias, which represented the first attempt to resist fascism in Spain specifically and in Europe generally. The incident played out in miniature themes that would be played over and over in Spain and elsewhere in Europe as reactionary forces used much the same script and the response of the Left followed a predictably tragic pattern.

Popular acclaim in Madrid as the Republic was proclaimed on April 14, 1931.

Popular acclaim in Madrid as the Republic was proclaimed on April 14, 1931.

Briefly stated, in April 1931 the profoundly conservative country of Spain woke up a republic after King Alfonso XIII fled the country following municipal elections that returned a wave of republican candidates to office. The election was a sharp rebuke to the seven-year rule of military dictator Miguel Primo de Rivera. The Depression had proved beyond Primo de Rivera’s ability to manage: Much of the country was in the midst of crushing poverty, but the conservatives blamed the government for too much spending on infrastructure and condemned the budget deficits that resulted. Student uprisings portrayed Alfonso as Primo de Rivera’s lap dog. Shocked, the king began distancing himself from the dictator. What caused the latter’s resignation, however, was the military’s loss of confidence in him. Primo de Rivera had been manipulating promotions in a way that alienated key blocks. In January 1930 the army signaled its lack of support, and Primo de Rivera resigned. Rather than placate the population, the resignation galvanized the anti-monarchical sentiment. Even Alfonso could not deny after the April 4, 1931 election that the worm had turned against him. Great popular demonstrations celebrating the landslide in favor of the republican coalition greeted the event. On April 14, the Second Spanish Republic was proclaimed.

One of the churches set ablaze on May 11, 1931 in response to the Church's support of the departed King and in defense of its political privileges.

One of the churches set ablaze on May 11, 1931 in response to the Church’s support of the departed King and in defense of its political privileges.

Rightly fearing that its favored position was about to be undermined, the Church signaled its disapproval of events. In May Bishop Gomá of the archdiocese of Tarragona, a right-wing proponent of the “Confessional State” (who would later be rewarded with the office Cardinal for his work in defending the establishment of the Church) issued a pastoral letter condemning the republic and avowing outright monarchical principles. Public outrage led to a rash of church burnings in Madrid, Andalusia and Valencia. Although the Confederación Nacional del Trabajo (“CNT”), the most radical of the union organizations, advised against violence, it remained on guard of the possible co-option of government by conservative forces. An interim government was formed, which set elections for June for a constitutional assembly. By December a new constitution was framed. The Constitution established a variety of liberal principles including freedom of speech and assembly. It responded to popular discontent over the Church’s entrenched and reactionary role in public life by disestablishing it and barring its role in public education. Resistance by the Church resulted in predictable public reaction, and churches were set aflame from time to time over the next several years. Nonetheless, the political party that represented the Church, the Acción Nacional, later renamed the Acción Popular, remained overtly anti-republican, expressly sought a return to the monarchy and aligned itself with the most notoriously right-wing political elements of Spain.

From the English languag anti-Fascist pamphlet Spain October 1934 a Spanish farm worker, who was one of "thousands" who lived in "holes in the ground."

From the English languag anti-Fascist pamphlet Spain, October 1934 a Spanish farm worker, who was one of “thousands” who lived in “holes in the ground.”

Great public expectations were invested in the Republic. In addition to a religious establishment, Spain still retained feudal privileges for the aristocracy. Monopolies prevailed. Wealth was highly concentrated. Over half of land was held by 0.2% of the population, while most farm workers (a group representing about 20% of the population) lived in dire poverty. Large fortunes were controlled by old nobles and new industrialists, the former seen as debauched leeches and the latter as rapacious predators by the popular parties. For the first two years the Congress of Deputies (the new unicameral legislature) enacted liberal social and political reforms: women were granted the suffrage, divorce was legalized, the army was reduced and even a mild agrarian land reform law was enacted. But although the constitution provided means by which certain monopolies could be nationalized (banks, railroads and the like), no such steps were taken. Prime Minister Manuel Azaña cashiered the worst of the Catholic army officers and expanded secular schools but temporized on any fundamental reforms. CNT distrust of the liberal parties proved well-founded when the center right parties came to power in 1933.

Characiture of Alejandro Lerroux on cover of Gracia y Justicia (1931) by  Areuger (Wikipedia).

Characiture of Alejandro Lerroux on cover of Gracia y Justicia (1931) by Areuger (Wikipedia).

Although the Radical Party had once been anti-monarchical and indeed originally part of the coalition to overturn the monarchy and although it participated in the interim government following Alfonso’s escape from Spain, in the Congress of Deputies it proved to be a center-right party. Even though Manuel Azaña was at best mildly republican, the Radical Party became government’s chief opposition party. In the 1933 elections (one seen as corrupt by the U.S. Council on Foreign Relations) a coalition of conservatives won the largest number of seats and the Radical Party was given the right to attempt to form a government, but it had no majority. It tried three times: in November 1933, April 1934 and October 1934. All of which failed.

The Radical Party was founded in 1909 and still led in 1933 by Alejandro Lerroux, who was a man of no fixed principles. As the centrist Foreign Affairs noted in January 1935, Lerroux was “dominated by senile vanity and ambition” and “it was all the same whether it was a republic or a more or less disguised monarchy, provided only he were in power.” After three governments were rejected by the Congress (in one of which he himself was proposed as the prime minister), Lerroux decided to reach out to a coalition partner that everyone knew was toxic—the Acción Popular.

Gil Robles: "Society has only one enemy ... Marxism. Only when the conservative classes seize the opportunity will a better day dawn." (From  by Henri Barbusse (Paris: S.R.I.: 1934).

Gil-Robles: “Society has only one enemy … Marxism. Only when the conservative classes seize the opportunity will a better day dawn.” From by Henri Barbusse,  Spain, October 1934 (Paris: S.R.I.: 1934).

The Acción Popular Party was led by reactionary ideologue and ardent fundamentalist Catholic Gil-Robles. Gil-Robles was secretary of the Catholic-Agrarian National Confederation during the dictatorship of Primo Rivera. He joined the writing council of El Debate, a very conservative clerical journal, which was conducted in a modern, racy, popular style. (It was the first Spanish newspaper with a sports section, for example.) From the very beginning of the Second Republic Acción Popular (under its original name Acción Nacional ) (and El Debate as its mouth-piece) made no attempt to disguise its anti-Republican programme. It represented the interests of the Spanish church and was funded by the right-wing money. In 1931 it voted against the adoption of the Constitution and made no bones about accommodating republicanism. It represented everything that liberals and leftist groups feared: naked, iron-fisted reaction. And 1934 was a year in which liberals and leftists had good reason to fear the forces of reaction. In Austria, for example, the fascist government, long in alliance with Mussolini, began a crack-down on the Social Democratic Party and suspended basic civil liberties and created a one-party state by a new constitution.

Acción Popular election poster 1933.

Acción Popular election poster 1933: “Socialism destroys our economy. Vote for the Right. Vote against Marxism.”

Before the 1933 elections Gil-Robles formed the Confederación Española de Derechas Autónomas (the Spanish Confederation of the Autonomous Right “CEDA”) as something of an umbrella group for conservative, right-wing and anti-republican interests. The coalition gained a plurality of votes, but President Alcalá-Zamora hesitated to give Gil-Robles the chance to form a coalition. Alcalá-Zamora himself was a lawyer and conservative. He was profoundly Catholic and had no great attachment to republicanism. But he knew that the country was a tinder box and Gil-Robles was a match. So the task was given to Lerroux. By summer 1934 Lerroux was so frustrated that he decided to do what no other republican party would consider—make Acción Popular a coalition partner. He obtained a vow from Gil-Robles to respect the republican constitution, probably a fig demanded by Alcalá-Zamora, and then agreed to give three portfolios to Acción Popular members. Gil-Robles had undoubtedly persuaded Lerroux that the threat of Socialists in Congress (that such action would result in a national uprising) was a bluff or at least would result in at most a transitory protest and then everyone would accept the inevitable. El Debate said so in an editorial on October 3. Even Alcalá-Zamora was convinced. When a banker warned against allowing Acción Popular participation because of the threat of an uprising, Alcalá-Zamora said: “Who will call it? The Socialists? They never make revolutions.” So the deed was done on October 4.

The President proved prophetic. None of the national republican parties lifted a finger, other than distancing themselves from government. The matter was left to a coalition of local radical working class groups.

Poster appealing for proletariat solidarity with the uprising in Asturias.

Poster appealing for proletariat solidarity with the uprising in Asturias.

Back in March 1934, as a result of the election of right-wingers in the November polls, a Workers’ Alliance was formed. The two labor groups, the CNT (largely anarcho-syndicalists) and the Unión General de Trabajadores (“UGT,” the trade unionists), had long concluded that radical action was necessary. After the November election even the socialists, the Partido Socialista Obrero Español (“PSOE”), were talking about insurrection, although as it later turned out, this talk was largely a sop to their constituents. On March 28, 1934, despite the wariness of the CNT, a Workers’ Alliance was formed among these three parties and the Bloc Obrer i Camperol (BOC). The Federación Anarquista Ibérica (“FAI,” the Iberian Anarchist Federation), however, refused to join, not believing that any of the parties would follow through on their commitments. The concept behind the alliance was to organize local revolutionary committees, which would retain independence but coordinate with the national groups. The hope was to initiate strikes and other insurrections much like the successful ones called by FAI in 1933. In December 1933 the CNT had also called a strike which resulted in attacks on right-wing forces around the country. In response Acción Popular held a rally in Covadonga, the place sacred to Catholic reactionaries because it was where the expulsion of the Moors was first begun. The Acción Popular rally was the beginning of its organizing of paramilitary groups.

Protestors violently dispersed in Madrid after the State of Siege was proclaimed. From Spain October 1934.

Protestors violently dispersed in Madrid after the State of Siege was proclaimed. From Spain, October 1934.

When the coalition with Acción Popular was announced on October 4, the PSOE, with the rest of the organized Left, considered it a “fascist coup.” It was now time to decide. Largo-Caballero, the head of the socialist PSOE, was far from a revolutionary. During the Primo Rivera dictatorship he came to an entente with government which permitted the UGT to exist (but not strike), and he was not constitutionally a decisive man. Nevertheless, in the crisis, according to vice secretary of the PSOE Juan Simeón Vidarte, although he was pale, his voice was steady: the comité insurreccional of the PSOE would unleash civil war.

At the same time in Catalonia, the local government used the event to pull the trigger on its long planned goal of declaring independence. In Madrid, the government was more interested in responding to the workers. Under the prodding of Gil-Robles, the Guardia civil was brought out to break the strike, and the government declared a state of siege. In Madrid, the police fired on protesters, and the streets were filled with uniformed men. In the face of violent repression most of the actions melted away. But in Asturias in Northern Spain the workers had prepared themselves for a real, rather than imagined, insurrection.

Asturian miners in the trenches in October 1934. (Photographer unknown.)

Asturian miners in the trenches in October 1934. (Photographer unknown.)

The miners of Asturias were the only ideologically disciplined group, and their sympathizers were a large segment of the population. Moreover, they had firmly united with the UGT, which was whole-heartedly behind insurrection rather than “reform.” When the event came, the FAI and eventually the small group of local communists joined the uprising.

On October 5, the barracks of the Guardia civil throughout the villages of Asturias were approached, and the workers demanded that they surrender. When they balked, the workers attacked and subdued them. Revolutionary groups were set up, and an attack on Olviedo, the provincial capital, was planned. On October 6, Olviedo was taken, the “Model Prison” there was opened, but although it contained a cache of weapons, it had no ammunition.

Olviedo after the Moors, October 14, 1934. (Printed card. Photographer unknown.)

Olviedo after the Moors, October 14, 1934. (Printed card. Photographer unknown.)

The general government on the recommendation of  Gil-Robles, sought the advice of Generals Manuel Goded and Francisco Franco, both of whom were experienced in brutal counterinsurgency: Goded had fought in the Rif War against the Morocco insurgents and Franco had put down a strike in Asturias in 1917. Both agreed that the regular army was unreliable. They recommended a combination of the Guardia civil, the Spanish foreign legion, and colonial troops of Morocco. Ironically, the right wing movement which celebrated the Expulsion at Covadonga would now depend on the Moors and mercenaries to save  Christendom. The 25,000 foreign troops were soon landed and their ferocity, legendary in Africa, was unleashed. I won’t go into detail on individual battles, except for two observations. First, the efficiency of the Guardia civil was debunked. Workers had taken them on and won. Second, the CNT fear of bourgeois liberal parties in the crunch proved true. When workers in Catalan supported the declaration of independence (evidently thinking it would bring revolutionary improvement in its wake) the Catalan government balked at arming them and the “Catalonia Republic” collapsed in 10 hours. It didn’t take resort to Engels (who had shown how German liberals acted in similar circumstances in 1849), because Foreign Affairs saw the historical verity plainly:

“What history has frequently demonstrated was proved once again, namely, that a petty bourgeois party, placed between the power of the upper middle classes who control the state, and the mass of the class-conscious workers, is ineffective in revolution and always surrenders to the strongest side.”

Women and children driven from their homes by the troops under General Ochoa. From Spain October 1934.

Women and children driven from their homes by the troops under General Ochoa. From Spain, October 1934.

In the end the miners and civilians suffered at least 3,100 casualties including 1,100 dead. The government took between 30,000 and 45,000 prisoners, including Largo Caballero (who from the experience would gain the prestige that would allow him to become Prime Minister in the crucial years of 1936-37). There would be large-scale dislocations of insurgent families and sympathizers. And while some pockets held out for several months, ultimately the insurrections was snuffed out.

Franco of course benefitted by having a dry run for the maneuver he would use two years later to roll up the entire country. Then it would be the Spanish Government itself that sought assistance from bourgeois governments on the plea that republicanism was facing down fascism. Once again liberal bourgeois democracy turned a deaf ear. Throughout Europe, the Popular Front would replay the same sad denouement that the Workers’ Alliance did in Spain. You can develop your own analogies to other aspects of this story for our own time.

Despite the brutal defeat and repression, workers took heart from the event. They were not crushed by valor or by conviction, but only by lack of preparation and matériel. Next time it would be different. They all knew this.

For those interested in hearing from participants (or closely interested contemporaries), the following documents are available:

  • La Revolución de Octubre 1934 by anarchist and journalist José Muñoz Congost was last month digitized by ting Cultural de Estudios Sociales de Melbourne y Acracia Publications, a group related to Spanish emigrants to Australia, and is available as a PDF here.
  • A fascinating collection of contemporary English trade union documents (pamphlets, correspondence and reports) in the collection of University of Warwick have been digitized and can be seen here.
  • The text of the Workers’ Alliance can be found here.
  • An interesting Spanish TV documentary entitled “Asturias, La Ultima Revolución Obrera” can be viewed on Youtube here.



Basie, the Sophisticate

Although Count Basie came from New Jersey, he came to prominence as the pianist of Bennie Moten’s Kansas City band. And so, when he took over that band, and for many years after, he was not considered in the league of eastern bands, like Ellington’s or Fletcher Henerson’s, because the swing of the American midwest was not considered either original, like the stultified stuff then coming from New Orleans, or new enough, like the music then played by the musical diaspora in Chicago, or sophisticated enough, like the bands in New York.

None of this seemed to rile Basie, or his new champion John Hammond, the A&R savior of Columbia records, who brought Basie’s band to New York City.

But Basie proved more resilient than an ordinary regional novelty. Basie proved as sophisticated as the New Yorkers. He commissioned arrangements and took aim at the smartest Tin Pan Alley favorites. And so with a chart written by Jimmy Mundy, Basie recorded Cole Porter’s “My Heart Belongs to Daddy” with Helen Humes (and a beguiling muted solo by Buck Clayton), not for Columbia, but for Decca on January 5, 1939:

Note the witty bass comments before and during the vocals. Unfortunately, the ending was poorly conceived and abrupt. Perhaps that could be explained by the technological limitations of recordings of the time. Whatever the explanation, in the next decade (and more) that problem would be fixed.

Stoner by Williams and Children of the World by Stephens

Two American novels of the second half of the twentieth century reveal startling truths about the existential aloneness at the heart of the American middle class family. Although they were written about a generation apart, they form something of a complementary set and are the perfect antidote for those who made the mistake of spending their summer with books foisted on us by the entertainment complex as “beach reads.” These novels are: Stoner by John Williams (NY: Viking Press: 1965; reprinted NY: New York Review Books: [2006]) and Children of the World by Martha Stephens (Dallas: Southern Methodist University Press: © 1994).

stonerThe novels can be read together because they share similar themes and shine lights on the same dark places, although in many ways, particularly structure and technique, each is the converse of the other. The central character in each book is part of a destructive marriage that consumes their energy and thwarts their aspirations (especially the ones they never admitted to themselves), although Stoner is about the husband and Children of the World about the wife. The central pain of their relationships radiates through all other aspects of their lives threatening to overwhelm everything else. How they cope is the mystery each tries to discover, although the method of detection is different.

Stoner is the story of William Stoner, an English professor who never rose above assistant professor and at the end was barely remembered by his colleagues and not at all by his students. So we learn at the beginning of this austerely written novel. The novel then proceeds in a chronological way from about the time Stone unexpectedly finds himself on his way to college. Stoner was not destined to be a teacher; in fact, his destiny, to work the dirt farm of his parents, was deflected only because the county agent suggested to his father that at the College of Agriculture he might learn techniques to assist on the farm, which even the father conceded “[s]eems like the land gets drier and harder to work every year …”

When Stoner first sees the University his feelings of intimidation and awe are much like of Jude when he first saw the lights of Christminster in the distance. (It would be interesting to list the other parallel’s with Hardy’s novel.) But Stoner soon settles in and treats his school work with the same plodding duty that he had applied to his chores at home and the farming duties he has in Columbia to pay for his room and board at his mother’s cousins’. All of this changed when he took Sophomore Survey of English Literature and had a sudden dumbfounding and overwhelming experience when he was asked what Shakespeare’s 73rd sonnet meant. He was transfixed with a feeling that made everything else unreal. And from the experience the next semester he took more English courses, interrupting the sequence necessary for a degree in Agricultural Sciences. When his adviser reviewed his record near the end of his senior year, he was surprised that Stoner had mostly literature courses and that he had done well in all of them. He reveals to Stoner what happened to him; namely, that he had fallen in love and that therefore he was destined to become a teacher. This love would not remain white hot all his life, but at least literature was the one thing he found that never betrayed him. The adviser set Stoner on his way to becoming a teacher at that same school.  It would be where he spent the rest of his life. And all the drama of this book takes place there.

The heroine of Children of the World, Margaret (Stovall) Barker, never even reached the status of assistant professor; in fact, it would never have occurred to her to aspire to it. At the time we meet her, she is a widow, with three grown (and departed) children, and she is about to go to her job as a secretary/administrative assistant of a juvenile court in Waycross, Georgia. The entire novel takes place in two days of “real” time (on a Friday and Saturday in August  1979), but it is really the story of Margaret’s entire life, and her quest for meaning throughout, rendered in the form of recalled memories, which are triggered by the events of those two days.

The book is nearly entirely an interior monologue. But it is not the kind of stream-of-consciousness that Joyce or Broch practiced. Despite Margaret’s constant worry that she “was prey to galloping thoughts of every kind,” her memories are articulately expressed, directly relate to what she sees about her and eventually form the argument—provide the verbal directions—to the “answer,” or at least the heart of the problem of where we are going and why. Margaret’s interior monologue is too self-conscious to be stream-of-consciousness. She fears the apparent chaos of her thoughts almost as much as she dreads disorder, however trivial, in her surroundings. But in fact her interior monologue (or the sets of them, for they are occasionally interrupted by events taking place in August 1979) proceed almost musically, with the first chapter providing the motifs that are developed one by one and then intertwined with each other.

Martha Stephens (Photo by Steven M. Herppich, 2002 (?). Cincinnati Enquirer.)

Although the resulting structure is far from chronological (even when treating specific period’s of her life), Margaret’s life unfolds in layers and we learn her history almost intuitively. It doesn’t take long to discovery the outlines of her life: Margaret was born in 1918 and raised in Jacksonville, Florida. She was the first child, and the darling of her father, who let her buy her dresses at a shop with “plump, friendly, cheerful clerks who always made a little to-do about things …” Her father would sit contentedly, cigar in hand, trouser legs hiked up and would wait for the clerks to display her again in a new dress. The experience went beyond the need to buy a dress. And it remained with Margaret even in her 60s.

Her parents would have three other children: Riley, Barba and George. All of them severely developmentally disabled. And the strain was too much. When she was 12, her Jacksonville world broke up, and her father attempted to save Margaret from the squalor and delivered her to her (maternal) grandmother, who owned a dairy farm in Waycross, Georgia. Although this was the first year of the Great Depression, there was no signed of economic hardship in her life there; quite the contrary. To Margaret the dairy was an entrance to a new world, one where “symmetry and order” predominated. She says that she would not have been surprised if someone had told her: “This is heaven and you are an angel.”

That heaven, however, was dominated by a malignant deity. Margaret was reluctant to consider her grandmother in an unfavorable light. But many sessions with her aunt Nora (her mother’s sister-in-law), which took place when she was escaping from her abusive husband, caused her to reflect on the self-centered, despotic and heartless actions taken by the woman who, at the same time, opened up a world to Margaret she otherwise would not have known. Nora was abandoned herself by Granny Culp’s son, and she is left on the dairy as a hand, with no affection from her mother-in-law. The conclusion she earned: “Families are not something I care for … I think the whole idea of family life is this: ‘Let’s all face along together, but if one of us falls down—too bad. …. I don’t think families have that much to give, real help is not something they think they can spare each other, although they might feel they can spare a little advice. And you know what that would be: don’t fall.'”

Margaret never subscribed to this philosophy, but another evidence for it came when with her own marriage. She married Leonard Barker in her teens, and he took her into his own family. Here Margaret sees the effects of the Depression first hand. The Barker family had been thoroughly broken. Leonard’s father, Will Barker, once had a successful dry goods store. But it was lost in the downturn and boarded up, and Will Barker was now reduced to selling ice from a little shack that he sat in front of. But their real tragedy pre-dated that, and accustomed them to tragedy. Their youngest daughter died at the age of 10 of Bright’s Disease. Will Barker took to drink; Leonard’s mother took to exposing her grief to strangers. All of this made them “sad and woeful people,” in Margaret’s mind. “Their feelings had stuck out all over them and they were not even ashamed of them.”

Margaret attributes Leonard’s “cringing cowardice and fear” to his parent’s lack of fortitude, and in this she has taken on some of the character of her grandmother. But she later recognizes that it was the financial collapse, and its but for cause, debt that paralyzed him. “[O]h she hated to remember the debts creeping back, Leonard’s fear of ruin growing on him again, so that even the smallest debt, the most obviously manageable debt, tormented him, frightened him to death, as if it might of itself grow and destroy them.” Sometimes the terror would grip him when he saw groceries brought into the house. But the uncontrollable rage and mindless fury was unleashed on three occasions that defined the prison that remained their marriage. One was when he discovered that Margaret was sending her mother $5 a month. A second occasion, when Leonard discovered that his wife had been investigating the purchase of a house so they could move from their parents. But the ultimate explosion came in 1953 when Margaret decided to get a job to help pay for their first daughter’s college tuition. This event not only triggered the desperation that spending money always caused but also utterly emasculated him. Thinking of the humiliation, he conjured up fantasies of people gossiping about his inability to provide for his family and his menial salary. The fantasy took over him and caused an abusive outbreak that became a violent scene never to again be equaled and which caused their children to resent him for the rest of their lives.

Martha Stephens. (Photo by David Logan and Dale Hodges. From Children of the World.)

Martha Stephens. (Photo by David Logan and Dale Hodges. From Children of the World.)

And yet, despite his threats and violence, Margaret got the job at the small law firm (mainly because the young lawyers had so little work that they did not need much stenographic or clerical help), and eventually followed one of the partners to the family court where he pursued the business of runaways and minor juvenile misdemeanors. Her three children (Ruth, Laney, Richard) all went to college, and all went their ways without any damage by her. She assures herself at the beginning of the “wonderful truth” that “all her children had loved her and they were all lovable children.” After the abusive blowup in 1953, she seems to have developed a détente with Leonard, who in any event died in 1978. And she had to admit to herself that materially she was well off, better than she ever expected to be, indeed, like “an immaculate Granny.” Her daughter Ruth assured her that without the constant torment and retirement only a few years away (when she could more frequently visit her children and grandchildren) “Mother, you are better now … I believe you can be happy now.”

But Margaret had so little experience in that and she could never come down on one side or the other on such things. She couldn’t admit that a woman who killed her own infant was entirely evil. She could see the point of view of an old couple who had shot themselves, simply out of boredom. She couldn’t even come to a conclusion about the significance of her husband’s last words, at a time he knew he was dying: “Remember. I love you.”

And so here is Margaret Barker, who admits that she ought to be happy, perhaps, constantly on edge, depressive, so much so that “some days she had to take fifty milligrams of Sinequan and twenty of something else, sometimes a sleeping pill besides that, and many shots of B-12 … and still suffer days in bed when she could not move her neck … still have to endure bizarre reactions to things she read in the newspapers.” In this state, in the “real time” of the novel, on a Friday in August 1979, Margaret finds a telephone message at work that a woman from Jacksonville called and promised to call again. The message is what causes her to relive all the memories she has for years (perhaps since her mother died in 1961) repressed. All of those memories are permeated with shame. Shame over the life-style of her former family, their treatment by her grandmother, the betrayal of her father, her hatred of him and even her inability to love her mother and siblings with simplicity. She is, however, forced to confront all these feelings as she responds to the call in the next two days. (I will not describe what happens because the narrative’s pace depends on the uncovering of the repressed memories.)

All of this is propelled by a rich ensemble of characters of her past (and some in the present), which are delineated with fine detail (most of which I have not touched on or touched on with adequate detail here). Although the novel is driven by Margaret’s interior equivocation, it nonetheless provide a full portrait of the woman, and women much like her, of a generation or two ago, who grew up in the Depression and found their roles, although not necessarily their inner life, circumscribed. The mental journal Margaret makes is to test whether her vague belief is true: “We are all sliding. Sliding towards death and no one can help anybody else, all we can do is to hold together as we go.” And while Margaret was never educated in Great Thoughts, her reflections and self-examinations are nearly lyrical and always piercing and ultimately universal.

John Williams (date and photographer unknown; from The New York Review of Books.

John Williams (date and photographer unknown; from The New York Review of Books).

Martha Stephens and John Williams taught literature at universities. (Stephens taught at the University of Cincinnati; Williams at University of Denver.) Stephens wrote of an uneducated woman in a nontraditional narrative style. Williams, however, writes of an educated man, in fact a professor (at the school Williams himself obtained his Ph. D. from) in a seemingly straight-forward, omniscient third-person narrative style. The style is not really as artless as all that, however. In fact, its hard, cold, affectless manner reflects the life Stoner came from and the only way he could see others. Stoner’s parents were dirt farmers who expended themselves to acquire the little they had (and that little itself getting less). They were not used to communicating subtle ideas. The hardness of life made the few choices that presented easy enough. Young William never had need to expect much from life, never had to make any choices and so learned to accept what was set before him. The first and probably hardest choice he ever saw made was his father’s decision to send him to college. The terse dialogue written by Williams expresses not only the simplicity of this family, not only how deeply sad separation was to them, but also, and especially, how they carried on stoically under all sadness, because, they knew, it was their lot in life.

William Stoner was raised to expect hard, dull work as his lot. When he discovered literature, he must have regarded it as something forbidden, or at least as an indulgence above his station. That explains why he never told his parents that he was neglecting his agricultural program, and why he waited until it was no longer possible to deny it to inform them of his decision to go to graduate school rather than return to the farm. His parents came by horse and buggy to see his graduation and bring him back to the farm. But he had to inform them that he was not returning and instead would go to graduate school. His parents did not flinch but agreed with his decision. But the scene is rendered with such spare precision that we know that his father is deeply pained and only agrees (without opposition) because all terrible fates must be accepted without cavil, because that is how he understood life.

The scene leaves an indelible imprint on the reader not just because of the spare language, but also by reason of the selection of details. Williams never tries to give a brightly lit photograph of a scene, instead it as if every memorable scene is in black and white, with the characters illuminated by only a light from one source on the side. This approach gives only a particular perspective of a person in action, but it is nevertheless a three-dimensional portrait, shadows of various tints make out the contours of the physical and emotional makeup of the character.

Stoner does not directly examine the inner life of William Stoner and is not filled with interior monologue as Children of the World is. Williams almost never tells us the emotions of Stoner and never explains the words that go through his head. And when he says anything about the emotional or intellectual life of his hero, it’s in a brief conclusory way, as though it were necessary for reasons of transitions or to set up the context of a scene. And Stoner is a novel made up of scenes rather than narrative or even character. Given the “monochromatic” style of Williams, characters on first view seem merely types. Stoner’s wife, Edith, is self-centered, shallow and cruelly, abruptly assured. Even less ground is given by the narrator of Stoner to see some redeeming feature in Edith than Margaret’s memories allow her to see in Leonard. But neither one is a melodramatic stereotype, because in each case the implacable cruelty of the spouse is not shown by th feelings of the central character but by the actions of the spouse, which are what convinces the reader. Edith, for example is doted on by her father who provides her with all the frills that a St. Louis society girl should have to allow her to become an ornament. We assume that she adores him for his generosity. But after his death she returns to St. Louis, locks herself in her room, gathers all the toys and letters and memorabilia of her life there, and burns them. Nothing more is needed to be said about her implacable resentment, and we can foresee how her life with William will play out.

Stoner’s life with his wife from the start was suffocating.  Though Stoner tried to sublimate through his scholarship, he was only able to produce a mediocre book from his Ph.D. thesis, even though he put himself wholly behind the work. Edith hampered his efforts by turning his home office into a room for herself. Soon the difficulty of working at home caused him to lose interest in further publication.

John Williams served as sergeant in the U.S. Air Force in Asia during World War II.

John Williams served as sergeant in the U.S. Air Force in Asia during World War II.

One benefit was produced by his marriage—his daughter Grace. She was the result of a seeming impulsive decision by Edith and the only intimacy of their marriage. But Edith soon abandoned the family on the death of her father and stayed for a considerable time with her mother in St. Louis. Stoner took care of Grace himself and they developed a bond as he did his work from home and she from a little desk by his side. Grace played while Stoner worked and a quiet sympathy and happiness grew up between them. This was not disturbed when Edith returned for she still had no interest in raising Grace and threw herself into a local theatre group. But her interest in that flagged as well, and eventually she returned to the house full-time and flung herself into Grace’s upbringing. Her first decision was to impulsively remove her from her father’s office on the ground that she needed to develop friends her own age. Edith herself cultivated the mothers of Grace’s age peers. At one get together at the Stoner house, Stoner overheard her tell the other mothers how her father did not have enough time for Grace. I’ll quote the scene at some length because it shows how Williams can depict strong emotion by only describing action.

“No Edith’s visitors were neighborhood mothers. Thy came in the mornings and drank coffee and talked while their children were in school; in the afternoons they brought their children with them and watched them playing games in the large living room and talked aimlessly above the noise of games and running.

“On these afternoons Stoner was usually in his study and could hear what the mothers said as they spoke loudly across the room, above the children’s voices.

“Once, when there was a lull in the noise, he heard Edith say, ‘Poor Grace. She’s so fond of hr father, but he has so little time to devote to her. His work, you know; and he has started a new book …’

“Curiously, almost detachedly, he watched his hands, which had been holding a book, begin to shake. They shook for several moments before he brought them under control by jamming them deep in his pockets, clenching them, and holding them there.”

The scene ends there but there is no doubt of Stoner’s emotional reaction. Williams goes on to show how Edith continues her campaign to separate Grace from Stoner:

“He saw his daughter seldom now The three of them took their meals together, but on these occasions he hardly dared to speak to her, for when he did, and when Grace answered him, Edith soon found something wanting in Grace’s table manners or in the way she sat in her chair, and she spoke so sharply that her daughter remained silent and downcast through the rest of the meal.”

And thus economically Williams portrays the icy stratagems of Edith to  cut him out of the family. These seeds would pay handsomely later.

Stoner makes two other attempts to make some other existential meaning for his life. The first was a rededication to teaching, especially of his graduate students. This gives him a genuine sense of purpose and satisfaction. But as it begins taking his profession seriously, treating it as a calling, he runs up against his other great opponent, the English Department’s new head, Hollis Lomax. Lomax is drawn in silhouette; we see only so much of him as relates to Stoner, and so superficially, he seems another “type”—the pretentious academic turf battler, who sees his own importance in the submission of others. But we see enough to know that the battle between Stoner and Lomax, which is joined over an issue of admission to the graduate program of a protégé of Lomax, was not a battle that either Lomax or Stoner should have made into one of principle. But Stoner takes his position so dispassionately, so deliberately, so uncharacteristically that he can’t be faulted. Nevertheless, he eventually loses the point and is ultimately punished far beyond any affront Lomax could reasonably believe he suffered.

At the same time Stoner finds himself in an affair with a graduate student. The relationship is intense and tender. But they could not keep the matter secret and the threat of scandal causes Stoner to lose the last thing that means anything to him. His eventual ruin is sealed. This does not come as a surprised, we are advised of it at the beginning. The needless suffering (from out perspective) meted out by small time autocrats makes the ruin pitiable. But through it all Stoner maintains his dignity and his unwillingness to verbalize a protest. This ultimate gift, or curse, from his parents makes his life seem worthwhile, perhaps noble, even if no one will ever know it.

Stoner and Children of the World end ambiguously. But of course given the questions they pose, they could end no other way. But each suggest a certain importance in lives that are “well spent.” The best literature makes an argument about the meaning of life that can’t be made by the tools of philosophy. We understand the argument through stories (which is way they have been told throughout history). These two novels each leave the reader with an inarticulable sense of the human worth, especially when the individual makes the effort to get it right, despite all the evidence to the contrary.




Jodorowsky’s Dance of Reality

Publicity photo of director Alejandro Jodoworsky with Jeremias Herskovits, who plays his doppelgänger as a young boy. Actress Pamela Flores, who plays Jodowrsky's mother, is obscured behind them.

Publicity photo of director Alejandro Jodoworsky with Jeremias Herskovits, who plays his doppelgänger as a young boy. Actress Pamela Flores, who plays Jodowrsky’s mother, is obscured behind them.

Trinity College’s Cinestudio tonight showed Alejandro Jodorowsky’s latest film La danza de la realidad (“Dance of Reality”). This film. made last year, is the 83-year-old director’s first film in 23 years (The Rainbow Thief (1990), which was only theatrically released in France (in 1994)). The current film is based on (the first part of) his self-described “psycho-magical” autobiography of the same name. With all of this going for it, it is no wonder that critics hailed its emergence. After all, who wouldn’t want a triumphant Schwanengesang?

After 2 hours and 10 minutes of running time, my two physical states were exhaustion and astonishment. The astonishment was that the film so under-delivered on the considerable hype that I wondered whether I missed some (very) secret hidden message or technique. The exhaustion resulted from watching a series of scenes, painfully drawn out, that seemed to have no other purpose than to demonstrate so sort of cinematic magic, without the foundation necessary for successful magic—offering a reason that the audience wants to believe.

The family reunited: Herskovits, Flores, Brontis Jodorowsky. Still from the film.

The family reunited: Herskovits, Flores, Brontis Jodorowsky. Still from the film.

The movie is such a self-indulgent chaos that the charitable thing to do would be to pass over it in silence. Of course all attempts at autobiography is self-indulgence as a matter of definition. To sell an autobiographical project, it is necessary to offer the audience a reason to forgive the self-indulgence—for example, to gain an insight into the mind of a thinker, to find a new way of thinking, to understand the historical context of the author, for examples. None of these are readily evident here, particularly because this autobiography is “magical” rather than factual. It’s not that it takes liberties with past events; it is a wholesale invention of the past. Jodorowsky has said in connection with this film that the past can be changed. And indeed it can. If it is drastically changed, it is not normally packaged as autobiography, however magical.

They came as though it were the "Night of the Living Dead" except there was no explanation, except later. Why the umbrellas? It's all a magical mystery.

They came as though it were the “Night of the Living Dead” except there was no explanation, except later. Why the umbrellas? It’s all a magical mystery.

All of this would be a mere quibble if the film (I have not read the book) made some sort of point, whether moral, historical, aesthetic or otherwise. As far as I can tell (and I watched it a second time to make sure), it does not. In fact, it seems to supply the definition of something I have long tried to understand: post-modernism, which seems to be unstructured rejection of modernist (or any other movement’s) principles, without supplying anything in return other than self-promotion (where the “genius” really centers). Indeed, this film offers bits of modernism without any sort of unifying theme or vision. It seems nothing more than a pastiche, or perhaps a series of pastiches not connected even by an underlying motif. Narrator Jodoworsky tells us early on his relationship with his younger (movie) self: “All you are going to be, you already are. What you are looking for, is already in you.” This would be a more compelling philosophy if there were more devotion to literal truth to prove it. Instead Jodoworsky uses clichés and references (visual and musical) to other film makers and artists to make a point that he himself doesn’t even attempt to make in this film. I’ll return to the derivative nature of the parts in a moment. But I’ve put off explaining what the film does do long enough.

Fellini anyone? Except in pastel and never part of the fabric of the film.

Fellini anyone? Except in pastel and never part of the fabric of the film.

The film is evidently the current Jodowrsky’s vision of what his childhood would have been like, if he could have devised it himself right now. Not to make it better, certainly. But to explain his current philosophy, which is a jumble of mysticism, judgmental apolitical jargons and above all the belief that his creation of “magic” can cover the t deficiencies. He tells of is coming of age in the small coastal town of Tocopilla, Chile, the son of Ukrainian Jewish emigrants. His father (played by Jodorowsky’s son, Brontis Jodorowsky) is an authoritarian Communist, who runs a small dry goods store, Casa Ukraine. He has no sympathy for the proletarian rejects of the copper mines, the men who owing to mining accidents lose their limbs and their livelihood. He is, really, a petit bourgeoise, who looks to Stalin as a model, not so much for his desire to advance the dictatorship of the proletariat, but simply for his status qua dictator. Unless we miss this point, at the end of the film his wife (played by Pamela Flores) shows him blown up pictures of Stalin, Carlos Ibáñez del Campo (Chile’s fascist dictator) and Jaime Jodowrsky. Jaime shoots his own portrait and all three pictures catch fire. This is not a “spoiler.” Did anyone not see this ending coming?

The movie begins as a coming of age story, where Jodoworsky must endure the abusive rearing of a father, who believes he must make a man of his son. I am not trying to shoehorn this part of the movie into some “genre.” The film itself does the shoehorning. It is so filled with cliches in this regard that it could have been made in Hollywood. But then it veers off into a spiritual/political journey of Jaime himself. That journey is remarkably unconvincing. He begins as a brutal husband, with a Fellini-esque prostitute/mistress. Meanwhile the wife/mother has spent (and will continue throughout the film) singing her part. This is inexplicable, unless we have seen some of the commercial material that comes with the movie. It turns out that Jodoworsky’s mother was a frustrated opera singer. So maybe reality is supposed to supplement this magical autobiography? And maybe postmodern art is not self-contained; it requires the commercial apparatus to explain it. But the father’s quest continues. For reasons that are not explained, Jaime decides to aid a group of poverty-stricken plague victims by providing them water. (We know only of this group because them come en masse from the desert. When he delivers the water they demand (his firefighters are too cowardly to do so), the victims rip his donkeys apart for meat. When all of this is over, Jaime contracts the plague. On his return home, everyone shuns him, except his (abused) wife, who cures him, by (I kid you not) urinating on him and invoking God in the process.

Now cured, Jaime decides to assassinate fascist Ibáñez. I won’t go into this. If you are still paying attention at this point, you will see an unbelievable story about a partisan’s dedication to deliver his country from fascism. It doesn’t work, of course. For reasons that are equally unbelievable. And so Jaime must bear the burden of being a Stalinist unable to pull the trigger on a fascist. But after a religious pilgrimage (of sorts) Jaime gets to make atonement by being tortured by the fascists. And we get to see it: Jaime has his testicles shocked (with a close-up) until the partisans release him as a hero and take him home.

In any Christian parable there must be a widow figure who just needs a good man, no matter how deformed.

In any Christian parable there must be a widow figure who just needs a good man, no matter how deformed.

While Jaime is having his adventure, little Jodorowsky actually worries that his father has forgotten him. There is no psychological reality in this film, perhaps because it is “magical.” But that’s a hard debate to undertake on the basis of a movie. What is not disputable is that this film is made up of derivative parts of other movies. The early scene with the seagulls attacking young Jodorowsky is only one example. The music is an easier example (for me).

The film opens with Louis Prima’s “Sing, Sing, Sing.” (It sounds to me like Benny Goodman’s Carnegie Hall version.) The auteur equates money with life, then with Christ, then with Buddha. And then Jodoworsky himself (as narrator) equates money with conscience and conscience with death. And so you would be excused for thinking that there would be some point about money that might be made in this movie. You would be wrong.

It's hard to understand how this happened. But the petit bourgeoise Stalinist was  circus performer in the past.  When, where, why? It is a metaphor I guess.

It’s hard to understand how this happened. But the petit bourgeoise Stalinist was a circus performer in the past. When, where, why? It is a metaphor I guess.

But the big problem of the movie is that it looks like a bad copy of Fellini. The music, the tropes (massed groups, parades, the “freaks”). You would be excused for wondering why the amputees had a brawl, if you never saw a Fellini movie. But the difference is that Fellini had a consistent point of view in each movie. Plus Fellini had a joie de vivre that Jodorowsky eschews for other music: Bach, Strauss, even Irving Berlin. It’s all a big pastiche, governed by promotion.

See it for yourself. You might lose patience (around the one hour mark). But however much you want it to be a good movie (and I did), it won’t happen. It is all self-promotion. Maybe that is all art is in our time. I am still optimistic that that is not the case. But this is not evidence in my favor.

I see your face in every flower

A genius once wrote:

If I could write the beauty of your eyes,
And in fresh numbers number all your graces,
The age to come would say, “This poet lies,
Such heavenly touches ne’er touch’d earthly faces.”

Isn’t it more economical to just sing?:

Billie Holiday (vocal), Buck Clayton (trumpet), Dicky Wells (trombone), Lester Young (tenor saxophone, clarinet), Margaret Johnson (piano), Freddie Green (guitar), Walter Page (bass), Jo Jones (drums). September 15, 1938.

Dicky Wells’s trombone solo is almost as reverential as the President’s clarinet.


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