Assyria to Iberia at the Met by Sihame Bouhout

Assyria to Iberia at the Met Perhaps only the Metropolitan Museum of Art has the resources to gather together the most unique works of art from all over the world and invite you to explore the art of the near east.

You enter the exhibit and are amazed by its beauty: delicately-carved ivories, sumptuous jewelry, sculptures, bronzes and far more that defy you to understand how they were made, and by whom, and why. Each is an invitation to travel through time.

In one of the main rooms of the show, in the Raymond and Beverly Sackler Gallery you will be seated in the middle of what was the main audience hall of the ninth-century B.C. Assyrian palace of Ashurnasirpal II at Nimrud. The reliefs that line the walls come from different rooms in the palace; guarded by a colossal winged, human-headed lion and bull, wearing the horns of divinity, the reliefs evoke the king performing a ritual, surrounded by attendants and supernatural creatures. The Inscription of Ashurnasirpal, which records his achievements, runs across each relief panel.

I sit in the magnificence of what was once a palace and I start to look more carefully and I begin to notice things: cracks, patina, missing pieces, restoration, images of war, a king’s propaganda...All of those details that tell you that you are facing the past and that things are not so perfect (if such a thing can ever exist).

And the first word that comes through my mind facing this past is “fragile.” Fragile is this art work and fragile is our world. I see a map in another room with borders and name of countries that have been reshaped a million times. Assyrians, Phoenicians: many gods become God and one can kill under his name. Many have. What a contradiction.

I am surrounded by vulnerability when the main message of this show is very powerful: The Iron Age. Iron: what a strong dominant material, a material that is able to produce the best and the worst of humanity. Mastering the manufacturing of this material helped to develop tools for agriculture and weapons to kill and conquer.

Joan Aruz, curator of this exhibit, observed that the show is really “about the interrelations between east and west that were fundamental to the development of civilizations – expressed by the adoption of the alphabet, the mastery of metalworking and ivory carving, and the spread of ideas across three continents.”

I meditate on her quote and can’t stop thinking of what the Iron Age was and meant and somehow try to compare it to what is happening today. “The mastery of metal working” is the beginning of the formalization of war that unfortunately never finds an end in mankind.

The Iron Age was an era of perpetual wars that perfected the social structures and organization of military forces, that sadly shaped the model that still exist today with things like: conscription, a national army based on citizen service, and the professionalization of military establishment.

Above all these structures began to be deeply embedded in our society and in human consciousness; the result is a normalization of war. War, warriors, and weapons became an accepted part of human existence.

The desire to control natural resources is in part at the heart of warfare, armies and a militaristic ideology are still part of our lives, and will probably only become more so in the future considering the dramatic climate change our world will have to face.

But even negative events can lead to positive outcomes and even the imperialistic desire to conquer can result in the spread of ideas. Through their maritime trade, the Phoenicians spread the use of the alphabet upon all major modern phonetic alphabets are derived.

The sublime tool has been given to the world but we are still struggling nowadays to develop and share this knowledge. There has been an evolution, and literacy rates for adults and youths continue to rise, but despite these gains, according to Unesco 774 million adults (15 years and older) cannot read and write.

As I left the Met a question distilled in my head: What will take humanity to the next level beyond war?

Sihame Bouhout.