Exhibitions/ The World between Empires: Art and Identity in the Ancient Middle East/ Exhibition Galleries

The World between Empires: Art and Identity in the Ancient Middle East

At The Met Fifth Avenue
March 18–June 23, 2019

Exhibition Galleries

Following a journey along ancient trade routes across the Middle East, the exhibition explores how local life and culture were shaped by diverse cities and communities, and how identities were expressed through art.

The journey begins in southwestern Arabia, along caravan routes famous for incense and spices, then moves north along the eastern Mediterranean coast before crossing east through the Syrian Desert and ending in Mesopotamia (present-day Iraq), traveling through storied cities such as Petra, Jerusalem, Sidon, Baalbek, Palmyra, Hatra, and Babylon. Each had distinctive traditions, but they were also deeply interconnected, and their art often reveals the ways in which they influenced one another.

This gallery introduces themes shared across the region: images of gods and goddesses, portraits of people, valuable commodities such as incense and textiles, luxury vessels for banqueting, and armor for war, all set against the backdrop of global trading networks and the struggle between the Roman and Parthian Empires for regional control. Rome, in the west, aimed to enhance its wealth through eastward expansion, while Parthia, in the east, sought to protect the western half of its empire against Roman incursions.

Selected Artworks

Frankincense, the fragrant resin offered to gods and burned in temples, palaces, and private houses across the ancient world, was harvested in southwestern Arabia and transported north by camel caravans, along with myrrh, spices, and other commodities that came via Indian Ocean trade.

The kingdoms of southwestern Arabia were never conquered by either the Roman or the Parthian Empire and were separated by desert from both. However, commercial ties to the two empires were strong. Prosperity from the incense trade led to flourishing artistic traditions that encompassed abstract and cuboid forms alongside elaborate Hellenistic-style figures. Funerary and religious sculptures were carved in translucent calcite alabaster or cast in bronze. Each kingdom's religious pantheon was distinct, and similar celestial or animal symbols were used to evoke different deities in different kingdoms.

Selected Artworks

Petra, in present-day Jordan, was the capital of the kingdom of Nabataea. The city was built among steep hills, and its dramatic setting is marked by hundreds of tombs carved into the red sandstone cliffs.

Large temples dedicated to Nabataean gods and goddesses lined a colonnaded main street in Petra's center. Sculptures of these deities reflect multiple religious and artistic traditions: Graeco-Roman-style busts were created alongside highly schematic images of gods. The actual cult images inside the temples were frequently plain stones, called baetyls.

Nabataea's wealth was gained through control of the trade of incense, spices, and other goods brought by caravans from southwestern Arabia that continued onward to the Mediterranean coast and overland across Syria. Sophisticated water engineering allowed Petra to thrive despite its desert location, bringing water from several miles away for the gardens, fountains, and pools that surrounded temples and palaces, as well as for drinking and agriculture.

Selected Artworks

Some of the most serious rebellions against Roman rule occurred in Jerusalem and the province of Judaea, and the evocative imagery that developed around Jewish resistance to Rome continues to resonate today.

The Roman province was formed from the client kingdom of Judaea, ruled by Herod the Great (r. 37–4 B.C.) and his descendants, and kingdoms to the north and south. The province proved difficult for Rome to control, with religious practices among the causes of conflict. In particular, the Roman requirement that subjects of the empire participate in the imperial cult—the worship of the emperor as a god—contradicted the core tenets of Judaism.

The First Roman-Jewish War, or Great Revolt, in 66–73/74 led to the destruction of the Jerusalem Temple. Another major revolt, known as the Bar Kokhba rebellion (132–35), was suppressed by the emperor Hadrian (r. 117–138), who expelled the Jewish population from Jerusalem and merged Judaea with the province of Syria to form a new province, Syria-Palaestina. This gallery includes discoveries from the Cave of Letters that offer a rare glimpse into the lives of people who sheltered there during the Bar Kokhba rebellion; other objects feature symbols of the Jerusalem Temple and expressions of Jewish identity within the Roman Empire.

Selected Artworks

Expensive purple dye, luxury clothing, perfumes, and cosmetics were at the core of Tyre and Sidon's prosperity during the Roman period.

The thriving Phoenician cities along the eastern Mediterranean coast also exported cedar, olive oil, wheat, and wine, and they imported linen, jewels, and silk. Both had been major ports for many centuries, but their maritime trade was now enhanced by harbors greatly expanded with concrete breakwaters built using Roman engineering techniques.

Sidon was renowned as a bronzeworking center. Luxury glass vessels were produced at multiple cities in the eastern Mediterranean, but Sidon's sand was reputedly the best quality for glassmaking. Its name carried a particular cachet: several ancient glassmakers identify themselves as "Sidonian" in signatures on their vessels. Funerary monuments from Tyre and Sidon combine local trends and Roman influences, expressing both strong civic identities and connections to the wider world.

Selected Artworks

Worshippers traveled to the colossal sanctuary at Heliopolis-Baalbek, in the Beqaa Valley in present-day Lebanon, to offer dedications to the god Jupiter Heliopolitanus, to consult his oracle, and to celebrate festivals.

Jupiter Heliopolitanus was a powerful god of agriculture and the cosmos. His appearance is revealed by bronze and stone sculptures that are probably small-scale versions of the cult statue that originally stood in his main temple. His consort, Venus Heliopolitana, shown seated on a throne flanked by sphinxes, resembles the ancient Phoenician goddess Astarte. A third god, Mercury Heliopolitanus, was a protector of flocks.

The sanctuary was built in stages between the late first century B.C. and the early third century A.D. Its innovative design combined Graeco-Roman features, such as Corinthian column capitals, with distinctively Middle Eastern elements, including bull and lion protomes. Many of the worshippers and priests were descended from Roman military veterans who settled at Heliopolis when it became part of the newly established colony of Berytus (Beirut) in 15 B.C.

Selected Artworks

The cosmopolitan oasis city of Palmyra gained immense wealth by levying tariffs on silk and other goods in return for protecting caravans crossing the Syrian Desert.

Palmyra maintained a highly distinctive local identity despite being annexed by the Roman Empire, most likely in the first century A.D. A powerful elite dominated commercial, civic, and religious life, and these families were commemorated in lavish tombs on the city's outskirts, where their funerary portraits were displayed. They financed the construction of civic monuments and sanctuaries, including the most important one, the Temple of Bel, and served as priests responsible for the rituals and banquets that were central to Palmyrene life.

Palmyra's deities were unique to the city: some were specifically local, while others were adapted from Mesopotamian, Arabian, and Phoenician gods. Their representations in sculpture reveal the multifaceted cultural identities of the people who worshipped them.

Selected Artworks

Dura-Europos, in eastern Syria, provides a vivid picture of how diverse religious communities coexisted in an ancient Middle Eastern town.

Polytheistic and monotheistic religions were practiced alongside one another, as the wall paintings, sculptures of gods, and ceiling tiles in this gallery illustrate. A house repurposed in about the year 232 as a space for Christian worship is considered the world's oldest surviving church, and its decoration included the earliest known images of Jesus. The city's synagogue, also dated to the third century, is famous for its wall paintings depicting biblical scenes. Both buildings were located near multiple temples where many deities of different origins were worshipped in the form of cult statues or reliefs.

The city was located on the Euphrates River at the border of the Roman and Parthian Empires. It was a regional capital under Parthian control for more than two centuries until around the year 165, when the Roman Empire gained control of the area and the city became a Roman military outpost. Archaeological excavations in the 1920s and 1930s uncovered at least nineteen religious buildings, as well as a military camp, baths, shops, and more than one hundred houses.

Selected Artworks

Mesopotamia, present-day Iraq, was strategically critical to the Parthian Empire. Located near the frontier with Rome and agriculturally rich, it also formed the meeting point of overland and maritime trade networks.

The city of Hatra, dominated by a giant temple complex, was an important religious center and effectively controlled commerce along a major route. When necessary, it also served as a Parthian bulwark against Roman military campaigns. Ctesiphon, a city on the Tigris River in central Mesopotamia, was the main royal residence of the Parthian kings. Elsewhere, temples that had functioned for thousands of years in cities such as Babylon entered their final phases. The last texts written in cuneiform script were produced in their libraries, and images of their gods and goddesses changed as they incorporated Graeco-Roman forms.

Selected Artworks

Enormous political changes took place in the Middle East during the third century as a new empire emerged. The extraordinary cameo in this gallery is a unique visual expression of the shift in power.

Ardashir I (r. ca. 224–241), a local ruler of the region of Persis (Pars) in southern Iran, overthrew the last Parthian kings and established the new Sasanian Empire. His son, Shapur I (r. ca. 241–272), almost drove Rome out of the Middle East. In conflicts with a series of Roman emperors, Shapur defeated Roman armies and exacted steep tributes in exchange for peace, culminating in his capture of the emperor Valerian (r. 253–260) in battle, the only time a Roman emperor had ever been taken prisoner. These events were celebrated in Shapur's propaganda, including depictions in rock-cut reliefs on cliffs in Iran, as well as on the cameo here. From this point forward, the Sasanian and Roman Empires began a new struggle for control in the Middle East.


Monuments, museums, and archaeological sites are vulnerable during periods of political instability and conflict, and the destruction of cultural heritage is often linked to attacks on people. The next galleries focus on Palmyra and Dura-Europos in Syria, and Hatra, Ashur, and other cities in Iraq. In both countries, damage to cultural heritage is intertwined with larger humanitarian crises.

Between 2014 and 2017, ISIS (the so-called "Islamic State" of Iraq and Syria) controlled parts of Syria and northern Iraq. The group destroyed ancient buildings with explosives and machinery. Some of these actions were filmed for propaganda purposes. Others occurred alongside attacks on ethnic and religious minorities, attempting to erase both people and their history from the landscape.

These events form one part of a broader story. In Syria, civil war has resulted in looting and destruction by multiple groups since 2011. In Iraq, the 1990–91 Gulf War, economic sanctions, and conflicts following the U.S.-led coalition invasion in 2003 caused severe damage, including the looting of the Iraq Museum.

The interviews shown in this gallery reflect on the meaning of damage to cultural heritage in Syria and Iraq, discuss some current responses, and offer ideas for the future.

Statuette of a goddess (detail), 1st century B.C.–1st century A.D. Babylon. Alabaster, stucco, gold, and rubies, H. 10 1/4 in., W. 2 in., D. 2 in. (26 x 5 x 5 cm). Musée du Louvre, Paris (AO 20127) © RMN-Grand Palais / Art Resource, NY