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Art of the First Cities: The Third Millennium B.C. from the Mediterranean to the Indus

Exhibition dates: May 8 – August 17, 2003
Exhibition location: Iris and B. Gerald Cantor Exhibition Hall

The remarkable flowering of the world's earliest civilizations in Mesopotamia some 5,000 years ago will be the focus of a landmark exhibition opening at The Metropolitan Museum of Art on May 8. Art of the First Cities: The Third Millennium B.C. from the Mediterranean to the Indus will survey the evolution of Mesopotamian art and culture and its impact on the cities of the ancient world – stretching from the Aegean and Eastern Mediterranean across Central Asia to the Indus Valley – during one of the most seminal and creative periods in history.

The exhibition is made possible by Dorothy and Lewis B. Cullman.

Additional support has been provided by The Hagop Kevorkian Fund.

The exhibition will feature approximately 400 rare and outstanding works of art –including sculpture, jewelry, vessels, weapons, inlays, cylinder seals, and tablets – selected to demonstrate the quality of the art of Mesopotamia, its distinctive iconography and style, and the breadth of its influence during the thousand years in which the world's earliest cities were transformed into the world's first states and empires. Fifty-four museums from more than a dozen countries in Europe, Asia, and the Middle East will participate in this exhibition, lending national treasures that have rarely, if ever, been sent outside the walls of their art institutions.

"Although the roots of our own world can be traced back to developments that took place in and around Mesopotamia during the third millennium B.C., the art produced in that distant place and time is little known by the general public," commented Philippe de Montebello, Director of the Metropolitan Museum. "With this exhibition and its multitude of important loans from some of the greatest collections worldwide, we will present to the modern public some of the oldest expressive art in the world. Because many of these masterpieces have never traveled beyond their respective museums, their display here signals a watershed moment in our appreciation of ancient civilizations."

Arranged thematically within a chronological framework, the exhibition will feature the remarkable art of Syria and Mesopotamia – the "land between the rivers" Tigris and Euphrates – where, at cities such as Uruk, Ur, Mari, and Ebla, monumental architecture made its first appearance, writing was invented, and a remarkable combination of realism and abstraction emerged in the depiction of human and animal forms. The essence of these early urban centers will be conveyed through superb objects made for temples, households, and the royal court. Exquisite jewelry and other precious objects found in spectacular burials – such as those at the Royal Cemetery at Ur – will attest to the wealth of the cities and their inhabitants. One of the most important works from this Early Dynastic period (2900-2300 B.C.), the world-famous Standard of Ur – which portrays, in glorious mosaic, themes of Sumerian kingship – will be exhibited for the first time outside the walls of the British Museum since they acquired it in the 1920s.

From the splendor of the Early Dynastic world, the exhibition will explore the succeeding Akkadian period (2300-2100 B.C.), named after a dynasty of kings then ruling Mesopotamia, in which artistic achievement reached even greater levels of realism and quality. This will be exemplified by beautifully modeled figural imagery such as found on the extraordinary cylinder seal of the scribe of king Sharkalisharri, lent by the Musée du Louvre.

A unique aspect of the exhibition is the special emphasis it will place on the interconnections between Mesopotamia and other contemporary cultures across the broad expanse of the ancient world. Luxury objects fashioned from gold, lapis lazuli, and carnelian will attest to the extensive diplomatic, trading, and military activities that brought Mesopotamia into contact with other regions extending from the Aegean and Anatolia to Central Asia and the Indus Valley. Each of these regions – centers of civilization in their own right – produced astonishing and dynamic art, including elaborately carved chlorite and plain alabaster stone vessels and stone sculpture. The finest of these works, including the celebrated Priest-King from the City of Mohenjo-daro in the Indus Valley, will be presented in the exhibition with comparable works of Mesopotamian art to highlight the artistic traditions that unite Near Eastern art over much of western Asia.

After the fall of the Akkadian Empire around 2100 B.C., political power within Mesopotamia shifted once again to the city of Ur. Some of the finest art of this period, however, comes from the city-state of Lagash, under the rule of the king Gudea. Magnificent images of this king, such as the renowned, seated figure of Gudea holding a plan of a temple, lent by the Musée du Louvre, reveal the extraordinary skill and imagery of the Mesopotamian world at the close of the third millennium B.C.

The exhibition will be accompanied by a fully illustrated catalogue that will include essays on the history and archaeology of the palaces, temples, and tombs where many of the works were discovered. Published by the Metropolitan Museum and distributed by Yale University Press, the book will be available in the Museum's Book Shops.

The exhibition catalogue is made possible in part by The Hagop Kevorkian Fund and The Adelaide Milton de Groot Fund, in memory of the de Groot and Hawley families.

The Web site for the Metropolitan (www.metmuseum.org) will feature the exhibition. The Web feature will be available on computer terminals in the exhibition's reading room.

In conjunction with the exhibition, a variety of educational programs will be scheduled. These will include lectures, gallery talks, and a documentary film series for general visitors and activities for families. At an international symposium taking place on May 7-8, scholars will discuss recent findings in the field.

The exhibition is organized by Joan Aruz, Curator in Charge of the Department of Ancient Near Eastern Art.

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