Their second theme is preservation, and their urging of museums to protect, document and contextualize vulnerable work carries special weight at a time when questions around the restitution of cultural property are in the air. Should objects be returned even when the return might place them in danger? The issue is ethically many-sided and emotionally complicated, but at least one reaction feels clear looking around the show: You can’t help but feel relief that what’s here is safely here.
And there are magnetic things. One is a tiny Babylonian Venus, her nude body carved from milky alabaster, her eyes set with rubies, a gold crescent moon in her hair. A tomb relief of a young Palmyrene woman named Bat’a is another; traces of original paint intensify her riveted, direct-address gaze. And there’s a marvelous life-size carving of an eagle from Petra. Possibly conceived as a protector of the dead, it stands alert, wind-tousled and spread-winged, as if braced for a storm.
And a singular piece that ends the show, a late-third-century Sardonyx cameo, marks the start of a new Middle East history. Two decades or so before the cameo was carved, the Sasanian Empire rose to power in what is now Iran. Its first ruler, Ardashir I, vanquished the Parthians. His son, Shapur I, triumphed over the Roman army and, shockingly, captured its emperor Valerian.
This is the event etched in the cameo, which, like so much art in the show, sends complex political and ideological messages echoing back and forth through time. The cameo form itself was one anciently associated with the celebration of Greco-Roman imperial rule, but here, adapted for use as Sasanian propaganda, it advertises the ignoble defeat of that rule. And although the event depicted is grim — Valerian died in captivity — the object that records it is a thing of unusual beauty, with colors dark as the sea, bright as the sky.
The World Between Empires: Art and Identity in the Ancient Middle East
March 18 through June 23 at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, Manhattan; 212-535-7710, metmuseum.org.