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NY Museum Displays Ancient Mesopotamian Art - 2003-06-03

Experts may never be able to determine how many antiquities were looted from Iraqi museums and cultural sites as the U.S.-led war in Iraq ended. But some important examples of ancient art and architecture from the region are currently on display in New York's Metropolitan Museum of Art.

The land between the Tigris and Euphrates Rivers has long been considered the cradle of civilization.

In the third century B.C., that fertile crescent was called Mesopotamia. It was home to the first cities where art and architecture, writing and law developed.

Today, Mesopotamia is part of Iraq.

Metropolitan Museum of Art Director Philippe de Montebello says the exhibit was first conceived in 1997 for the new millennium. But he says it has taken on new and dramatic meaning since the post-war looting of antiquities in Baghdad.

"From our point of view, it is beyond comprehension that an exhibition, that began as an important one for educational purposes, to educate and bring to a broad public more information illustrating this crucible of civilization in that part of the world, has suddenly become an exposition, whose poignant and tragic timeliness is simply astonishing," he said.

The antiquities on view in the Art of the First Cities demonstrate the wealth and rituals in the 5,000-year-old urban centers of Ur and Uruk.

The collection features about 400 rare pieces of sculpture, jewelry, cylinder vessels, weapons, seals and tablets.

One of the most famous works on display is an elaborate wooden inlaid box called "Standard of Ur," on loan from the British Museum. Decorated with blue lapis lazuli, and red limestone and recovered from a royal cemetery, the box shows a detailed depiction of battle and its aftermath. The role of the king as a military leader and mediator between humans and the gods is illustrated, too.

Curator Joan Aruz says the exhibit reveals an emerging combination of realism and abstraction, while exploring the impact of Mesopotamia on the surrounding region.

"I did not want to show Mesopotamian developments in a vacuum, because civilizations arise in contact with other civilizations," explained Ms. Aruz. "And, I wanted to demonstrate in this show how civilizations flourish and stimulated one another all of the way from the Mediterranean to the Indus."

Many of the most important materials originated from a network of trade routes, including the gold for an elaborately designed queens' headdress of intricate flowers, leaves and hoops; the stones for colorful mosaics on decorated columns; and the precious material for sculptures of animals, humans and gods.

That extensive network spanned the Aegean and Eastern Mediterranean, across Central Asia and along the Gulf to the Indus, the chief river in present-day Pakistan.

Planning for the exhibition was complicated by U.S. relations with Saddam Hussein's Iraq and neighboring Iran. So, curators sought loans of art from about 50 museums in about a dozen other countries.

The British Museum, the Louvre in Paris and the Hermitage in St. Petersburg all loaned antiquities.

The September 11, 2001 terrorist attacks brought preparation to a temporary halt. But associate director Mahrukh Tarapor says an unprecedented international exchange followed.

For the first time, the New York institution collaborated with museums in Bahrain, the United Arab Emirates, Saudi Arabia, Pakistan and Uzbekistan.

"Exhibitions, important though they are, they are fleeting," said Mahrukh Tarapor. "They last for three months, and then it's gone. The catalogue remains as tangible evidence. But also what remains and what is terribly important, is that new relationships are established, new collaborations."

Kuwait and Turkey loaned antiquities, too. And despite sharp political differences with the United States over Iraq, Syria loaned three pieces, days before the opening. One work from Syria, an exquisite lion-headed eagle pendant, sculpted out of hammered gold and decorated with precious stones, is a highlight of the exhibition.

Curators and government officials from all over the world gathered at the Metropolitan Museum of Art for the opening of Art of the First Cities in the weeks after the Baghdad looting.

Metropolitan Director Philippe de Montebello laments that the exhibit is not the celebration of Mesopotamia originally intended. Instead, he says, it has become an homage to what remains of civilization's birth.

"Today, the statement that we are compelled to make is that, what we have on display here at this museum, at this moment, may well turn out to be the bulk of what has survived from these great civilizations," he said. "I hope fervently that these words turn out in time to sound like melodrama, rather than truth."

As the art world unites to promote international efforts to recover Iraqi antiquities, Art of the First Cities serves as a timely reminder of the importance of Mesopotamia. The exhibition opens with a large photograph of an ancient vase now missing from Iraq.