Ancient Multiculturalism on Display at New York's Met

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Bruce White

Spouted Hittite vessel: Circa 17th and 16th centuries B.C.

Ancient history often seems like a balkanized realm of distinct cultures, each frozen in their own distinct moment. The Egyptians buried their godlike Pharaohs in pyramids, the Greeks debated democracy among Corinthian arcades, and rarely, at least in school textbooks, did the twain meet. But the historical reality, as recent archaeological researches have proven, is all the more complicated and fluid. An exhibition at New York City's Metropolitan Museum of Art shows with incredible detail how intertwined ancient peoples really were. (See 10 things to do in New York City.)

"Beyond Babylon: Art, Trade and Diplomacy in the Second Millennium B.C.," which runs till March 21, is a landmark gathering of over 300 artifacts from collections in 12 countries, primarily in the eastern Mediterranean. Some of the objects are simply stunning — such as a curved ivory wand from Mesopotamia, whose delicately chiseled engravings, still intact after 4,000 years, were meant to ward off evil spirits from harming an infant. But there's a larger magic at work: seen through the display's myriad vessels, statues, seals and pendants, the cultures of antiquity take shape in a world system threaded together by commerce and collaboration. Cretan fish motifs adorn the frescoes from a Syrian nobleman's house hundreds of miles away from the sea. Recovered relics from the 20-ton cargo of the world's oldest shipwreck span communities from the Red Sea to the faraway Baltic. (See pictures of New York City.)

In the ancient world, languages and traditions collided; people and stories traveled and resettled. Before becoming foundational texts in the Western canon, as a label in the exhibition notes, both The Iliad and The Odyssey could be heard in the court tales of royal Anatolian households and the battle songs of Hittite chieftains. The cornerstones of whole civilizations came from somewhere else.

See the top 10 museum exhibits of 2008.

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