Sunday, November 23, 2008

Middle Eastern luxury, circa the second millennium B.C.

The Metropolitan Museum of Art has assembled another spectacular examination of Middle Eastern history, this one filled with some 350 objects made of gold, silver, lapis lazuli and other precious materials, including a haul of 3,400-year-old luxury goods found in the wreck of the oldest seagoing vessel ever discovered on the bottom of the Mediterranean Sea.

The museum has even recreated the vessel's hull, complete with fore- and afterpeak, around the gallery holding the find. Museum design rarely goes farther to set the scene.

"Beyond Babylon: Art, Trade, and Diplomacy in the Second Millennium B.C." is more than just a treasure show, and the boat is more a symbol than a stage set. For the theme of this show, like that for a number of recent exhibitions set in the ancient history of the Islamic crescent (which stretches from Lebanon and Turkey across the lower continent of Asia to India), is the long historical record of internationalism in the region. And the sunken ship, which dates to the 14th century B.C. and was found off of Uluburun in southern Turkey, is in fact a perfect illustration of the trade that made this multicultural world swim.

Among its 17 tons of cargo were ten tons of copper ingots, and one of tin (tin and copper melted together give you bronze, and this was, after all, the middle Bronze Age), both represented here by examples. There were also glass ingots for industrial use, and ivory and ostrich eggs from Egypt, ebony from Nubia, and Canaanite jars filled with resin for cosmetics. Altogether there were products from 12 separate cultures stretching from Sicily to the Baltic to Central Asia, not to mention the polyglot passengers, who included (judging from their weapons and jewelry) Canaanite merchants, two noble Mycenean envoys on their way back to Greece and an elite mercenary to oversee the cargo.

Beyond Babylon: Art, Trade, and Diplomacy in the Second Millennium B.C. is at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, through March 15.

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