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At The Met: A Middle East Transition, Centuries Ago

The yearlong tumult of the Arab Spring has reached all the way to the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York.

A stunning and timely new show, "Byzantium and Islam: Age of Transition," covers exactly the places caught up in modern day revolts, and many of the developments from more than a millennium ago are closely linked to the events of today.

The Met show examines a much earlier shift in power, as the Orthodox Christian rulers of Constantinople (now Istanbul, Turkey) gave way to the new Islamic order in the southern regions of the empire from the seventh century to the ninth century.

Today's newspaper headlines have everything to do with what is on display — and what is missing.

A Project That Preceded The Arab Spring

Helen Evans, the Met's curator of Byzantine art, started planning the show back in 2006.

By 2009, the Met had agreements in place so it could receive items on loan from, among other places, Egypt's Department of Antiquities. But last year, Evans watched anxiously as street protests brought down governments in Tunisia, Egypt and Libya.

"The last thing that happens, the head of government signs the loan papers," explains Evans.

After longtime Egyptian leader Hosni Mubarak was ousted, the Met couldn't find anyone in the new Egyptian leadership willing to sign the agreements to loan the pieces to the Met.

"It was a disappointment. We never had a rejection; we had inertia," says Evans. Libya was in chaos. Syria fell under broad international sanctions. In a region where the past is never really the past, the politics of the latest transition overshadowed the display.

A Mixing Of Cultures

Despite the missing pieces, there are plenty of dazzling objects to tell the story of a great moment in history, a "clash of civilizations." As it turns out, that clash was less disruptive than once thought.

After the Prophet Muhammad established Islam in the seventh century, Muslims began expanding out from Mecca and Medina, cities that are now part of Saudi Arabia. They rapidly swept across the broader region and encountered diverse ethnic and religious communities.

"Within religions, hugely different communities are bumping into each other. Karaite Jews and Rabbinical Jews, Samaritans," says Evans. The Christian sects included Syriac, Orthodox, Coptic and Church of the East.

Constantinople's Orthodox Christian rulers had tried to stamp out schisms. The newly minted Muslims were more tolerant of variety. These varied religious communities thrived under Muslim rule.

"Christians served the new polity quite well. And the Christian churches and the Jewish community were given more rights," says Evans.

It's not just on Monday there was a Christian-Judaic classical world, and on Tuesday [Muslims] came and destroyed all of that. They came and absorbed learning and science and are more woven into it, more than we think.

This was also a wealthy community, explains Evans. The silk trade was the economic equivalent of crude oil today. As the show's catalog explains, "The trade routes so important to the Byzantines became part of the new Islamic order." Deluxe fabrics and tunics of the period display Christian iconography, Arabic script and classical hunting scenes.

"You have the good life. Everyone is wearing this stuff; they are simply what rich people wear to impress each other," says Evans.

A Time Of Transition

The cultural facts on the ground showed a tradition of tolerance, acceptance, even mimicry by the Islamic overlords as they gradually assumed power. It was a time of transition for Islam, too, the newest faith in the religious mix.

"It is also in this period that you begin to write down the Quran," says Evans, "transforming an exclusively oral tradition into a written sacred text. There is a generation that disapproves and believes it should continue as an oral tradition. But the counter-argument is, those who heard the prophet [Mohammad] are dying. If you don't write it down, you will lose it."

Two ancient texts show the influence of one age upon another, an artistic continuity despite invasions and conquests.

The exhibit opens with an exquisite Byzantine Bible, written in gold on pages dyed imperial purple. In the last gallery, a Quran, produced 300 years later, is written in gold on pages dyed dark indigo — an example of the newly arrived adopting the opulent style of faded glory.

The turbulence and bloodshed of the current Arab Spring overshadows these quiet galleries.

A display of silver chalices hammered out by Christian artisans in Damascus is a reminder of current events. Christians remained a majority there until the 13th century, says Evans: "They work for the power structure."

Silver chalices made in Syria in the sixth or seventh century. They are known as the Attarouthi Treasure, named after the prosperous Byzantine merchant town of Attarouthi.
/ The Metropolitan Museum of Art
The Metropolitan Museum of Art
Silver chalices made in Syria in the sixth or seventh century. They are known as the Attarouthi Treasure, named after the prosperous Byzantine merchant town of Attarouthi.

Today in Syria, the embattled Christian minority sides with the current rulers of Damascus against revolutionaries that aim to overthrow the regime of President Bashar Assad.

Adapting To The Recent Changes

The transition more than a thousand years ago is the context for today. But it is the larger themes of the 21st century Arab revolts that will have a more profound affect on the Metropolitan Museum.

Evans has looked at the Arab Spring from the viewpoint of having developed this exhibition before and during the latest political transition.

She is already planning future shows, but will wait for the political dust to settle. Large anthropological exhibitions require intricate cultural diplomacy that will be negotiated with new power elites that have yet to fully emerge.

As the Muslim Brotherhood assumes greater power in Egypt, it has yet to make clear a cultural policy. But Evans believes it, too, will want to share this rich heritage with a larger audience.

"They want to be sharing in a way that they feel they are adequately respected," she says. "I think what we are not going to have is 'look at the interesting exotic people at the edge of nowhere.' That's not the way to look at them."

It is the message she hopes is conveyed in the Met's exhibit. This portrait of a transition conveys a shared civilization rather than a clash. The Islamists of the time were already immersed in a Mediterranean culture even before they arrived; the connections were well-established.

"It's not just on Monday there was a Christian-Judaic classical world, and on Tuesday 'those people' came and destroyed all of that," she says. "They came and absorbed learning and science and are more woven into it, more than we think."

"For this time frame, they are very central to what the world is doing," says Evans. And in many ways, they still are.

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Deborah Amos covers the Middle East for NPR News. Her reports can be heard on NPR's award-winning Morning Edition, All Things Considered, and Weekend Edition.