In 1997, an exhibit was conceived to welcome in the third millennium, by mirroring the time frame. “Art of the First Cities: The Third Millennium B.C. from the Mediterranean to the Indus” opened at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York City, May 8.

The opening was a triumph of cooperation from various museums around the world, especially those in the Middle East. It was also the focus of international attention, as it occurred only a few weeks after the looting the National Museum of Iraq in Baghdad, and the exhibit centers on artifacts from Sumer and Akkad.

The first cities appeared in Sumeria – the land of “the black-headed ones” – within land made fertile by the Tigris and Euphrates rivers, near the Persian Gulf. Mud and reeds were used to make housing and inscribed tablets, originally for record keeping. Cylinder seals, which make an impression by rolling a cylinder on clay, are a large source of representative art, showing gods or goddesses with horned headdresses and flounced skirts, along with plants and animals.

Cuneiform started as pictographs, and over several stages developed to groups of marks. Thousands of fragments of tablets have survived and been pieced together to give us not only storage records, but religious liturgies, fables, laws and king lists. One bit of wisdom passed down is that “You should not establish a home with an arrogant man: he will make your life like that of a slave girl.”

The liturgies have a repetitive quality to them. Some may have derived from oral tradition and been sung or chanted. But within the written mythology, the goddess has already been usurped by male deities and reappeared in guises of secondary positions, and along with that, kings ruled the cities, although the cities “belonged” to a god or goddess.

The temple was the main structure of the city. It was usually built to represent a mountain, as mountains were the link between heaven and earth. Within the temple, approaching the inner sanctum, the king, and other members of the elite, placed statues representing themselves in an attitude of prayer, so that the god could see them being worshipful 24/7. The inner sanctum was a chamber where the god lived, but had no representation of the god.

Along with kingship came the idea of extensive grave goods. Some burials even contained human attendants and animals. The most spectacular of these came from Ur and were discovered by Sir Leonard Woolley in the 1920s. The “royal tombs,” of which only that belonging to Queen Puabi was relatively intact, contained beautiful and exotic artifacts, many made of gold with lapis and carnelian, which intrigue the imagination.

That expedition was sponsored by the British Museum and the University of Pennsylvania, who shared half of the findings, the other half remaining in Iraq. Both institutions have lent items from the Ur excavations to the exhibit, including the “Standard of Ur,” a mosaic done in lapis, Queen Puabi’s headdress of lotus flowers and leaves made of gold and lapis, and her cape made of carnelian beads. There is a full-sized harp decorated with a golden bull’s head of which texts say sounds like the divine bull.

Also from the cemeteries at Ur is a statue of a goat standing on its hind legs up against a flowering plant. Made of gold, silver, lapis, copper, shell and limestone, it is the most beautiful and well known treasure of Ur and represents fertility for both plants and animals.

These very rich materials were not native to the area. As Joan Aruz, curator of the exhibit, said, the cities did not come to being in a vacuum. There were influences through trade throughout the region. The exhibit includes items from Troy and the Aegean, from Anatolia, from the city of Agade (Akkad) which was north of Sumer and had dominance over Sumer for a while, from the Harappan culture of the Indus valley and from other settlements along the Persian Gulf, which show the exchange of materials, techniques of decoration and design motifs.

But most importantly, Phillippe de Montebello, director of the Metropolitan Museum said, “What we have on view at this moment may be the bulk of what has survived,” after the looting of the Baghdad museums.

The exhibit will be on view through Aug. 17.

– Karen Moy (