Egypt and Mesopotamia — Visiting “Beyond Babylon” Exhibition at Met

Without too much background in Near East culture, Geo and I visited “Beyond Balylon” with fresh (or naive) eyes. But because of the close trading relationship between Egypt and Babylon, not all objects look remote and strange. Some juxtapositions of objects of similar subjects from different cultures visually illustrate intangible sensual effects which words may fail to deliver.

Narmer Palette From Wikipedia Commons
Narmer Palette From Wikipedia Commons

Scholars have disproved that the early Naqada culture was imported from Mesopotamia, but there has been evidence to show that intensive cultural and goods interchange began as early as predyanastic period. The famous Narmer Palette shows two longnecked animals checked by people. Such eccentric animals are more likely from Mesopotamian culture. In this exhibition, I have seen a beautiful dagger made of gold with ivory inlay. The handle has intricate decoration and a pair of similar-looking (but slightly different) longnecked animals exemplifies the craftsmanship and can probably be related to the Narmer Palette.

Compared to Egyptians, Mesopotamian of the same period (from 2000 BC) seemed more advanced in metalsmith techniques. In particular, Some of the silver objects are large and fairly complicated. Metallurgy didn’t evolved to the extent of great intricacy in Egypt until the Third Intermediate Period, not to mention silver is not abundant in Egypt thus even rarer than gold.

Being used to the canon of proportion, everything compared looks exotic to me. Mesopotamian metal works have a strong sense of three dimensional exploitation that requires one to look around to full appreciate them. The common adoption of curvature and asymmetry made me feel a desire of movement and a sense of instability. This contrasts greatly with stable, symmetric, calm and eternal gestures throughout the Egyptian galleries on the first floor of Met: No wonder Egyptians thought they are part of chaos which are subject to be conjugated by the divine kingship to keep the Ma’at.

I was impressed by the objects which belonged to the foreign wives of the Pharaohs. Those gold sandals, with straps on the top and rosette flower decorating the heel part, were probably extremely uncomfortable to wear. At least I would not wear this walking around the Met. But those gold toe caps which were used only in their tombs demonstrates the most powerful weapon of ancient Egypt to maneuver the more weapon-advanced Mesopotamian: Gold. It looks ridiculous that Mesopotamian tried so hard to

Wilbour Plaque From Brooklyn Museum
Wilbour Plaque From Brooklyn Museum

pursue something which can only be used after life, but aren’t we human beings all peculiar in one way or another? Geo in his blog “The Pleasures of Collecting” says “the fault lies in the vicissitudes of existence and brevities of life“, probably those foreign wives of Pharaohs would agree with it too.

Lastly, the famous Wilbour Plague of “Akhenaten and Nefertiti” from the Brooklyn Museum is also exhibited there. The 6 by 9 inches limestone plague is one of my favorite pieces in the whole collection. And it still shone in the whole exhibition at Met.

Beyond Babylon: Art, Trade, and Diplomacy in the Second Millennium B.C. is exhibited at Metropolitan Museum of Art from  November 18, 2008 till March 15, 2009.




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