The Middle East and Its Pasts

5 November 2008

A Magian. Relief from the Museum of Anatolian Civilizations.

A Magian. Relief from the Museum of Anatolian Civilizations.

As it happens, I was able to visit some of the most beautiful museums of the Middle East in just over one year. About a year ago, I visited the Museum of Anatolian Civilizations in Ankara; in January, I was in the National Museum in Cairo; and right now, I am in Syria, where I have been to the two national archaeological museums at Damascus and Aleppo.

The Egyptian museum, which offers objects from everywhere in Egypt, was a bit of a disappointment. Oh yes, the objects were beautiful, but I felt dissatisfied, and it took some time until I realized why: because there had been hundreds of objects illuminating the Old, Middle, and New Kingdoms, but the Late Period had been treated – well, to be honest, it had hardly been treated. Two centuries of Persian domination received one room – not very much, compared to the many rooms devoted to, say, Tutanchamun.

It is the same here in Aleppo. Ther museum has an extremely interesting collection of finds from the Bronze Age: Ebla, Mari, Ugarit, and Tell Halaf are represented with dozens of fine objects, all shown in nice displays with good explanatory signs. Especially the recently redesigned Tell Halaf rooms are splendid. But after the Early Iron Age, it stops. I saw 1 (one) Achaemenid cup from Tell Ahmar, and – except for some coins – no Seleucid finds whatsoever (although Aleppo is a Hellenistic town, once known as Beroea). There is indeed a department of Roman and Byzantine art, but it is comparatively small; and still, this is close to the ‘Dead Cities’ and one of the thirty or so main military settlements of the Roman Empire, the legionary base of Cyrrhus.

This is not to say that Aleppo is a bad museum – on the contrary. We could spend a full day taking photographs, even though we had forgotten to ask for a permit. The director personally arranged that we could do our job, for which I am very grateful – where on earth is a museum director so concerned with the visitors’ well-being?

The point is that the museums of Aleppo and Cairo, or the ministers of education in Syria and Egypt, have chosen to highlight the ‘national’ part of the past, when their countries ruled themselves. There is also a difference: that Egypt’s national past is absolutely monocultural, whereas Syria’s national past is pluriform: the sites I mentioned above were open to influences from Babylonia, Anatolia, and Egypt. The same can be said about the Museum of Anatolian Civilizations: Turkey is a palimpsest of older cultures.

What these national archaeological museums have in common, is that they ignore that part of the past in which the countries had lost their independence. You will find few Assyrian or Persian objects in those museums, although the Greek and Roman periods are not completely forgotten. We may regret this, but at least it is a choice: it is better than displaying everything without any thought at all – any museum must make a selection, always.

Still, I regret that the periods in which these countries were ruled by foreign masters, are so poorly covered. The Achaemenid period – two century – is too important to ignore. Besides, interaction between civilizations is interesting, and it gains significance when it is not just cultural cross-fertilization within a region (so well-illustrated in Ankara and Aleppo), but when a political dimension is added. This is not to say that these museums have not made me enthusiastic, but a different – more relevant – approach is possible.