A remarkable exhibition at Maranat al Saadiyat in Abu Dhabi takes us back to the days when Mesopotamia – modern-day Iraq – was the world's earliest civilisation.
UAE's links with world's first great civilisation are part of Abu Dhabi
Imagine, if you can, a situation in which the world's major cities are abandoned. In the case of the UAE, the desert would quickly reclaim the land, obscuring all trace of what had come before. Should archaeologists happen to start digging, say, 2,500 years from now, what would they find? A Coke can? The crumbling remains of a multi-storey car park? An iPhone? And what stories would these objects tell them about the way we lived?
These are some of the questions that spring to mind when faced with the Assyrian Reliefs; great slabs of carved gypsum and some of the most remarkable relics from the ancient world. Dating back to the ninth century BCE, they were unearthed in the mid-19th century by archaeologists two and a half millennia after the fall of Assyria in 612 BCE, one of the world's earliest, and perhaps greatest, civilisations. They form part of Splendours of Mesopotamia, the latest exhibition to be presented by the Tourism Development and Investment Company (TDIC), which has its official opening tonight and is open to the public from tomorrow, at Manarat al Saadiyat in Abu Dhabi. The exhibition uses pieces from the British Museum's renowned Middle East collection as well as a selection from the Al Ain National Museum.
It tells the story of 3,000 years of Ancient Mesopotamia - modern-day Iraq - an area now recognised as the "cradle of civilisation", from which the frameworks of modern society, culture and trade emerged.
The first in a series planned in the lead-up to the 2014 opening of the Zayed National Museum, which will be devoted to the life and works of Sheikh Zayed, the exhibition also gives the first glimpse of the kinds of themes that will be examined within the Norman Foster-designed structure.
"[Ancient Mesopotamia's] story and its relevance will be one of the many regional and global stories explored in the Zayed National Museum to show how the United Arab Emirates has always been a crossroads of the world," says Rita Aoun-Abdo, the director of the cultural department at the TDIC, which is overseeing the development of Saadiyat Island and its Cultural District.
Curated by Nigel Tallis, the exhibition includes objects excavated from the UAE that date from the same period and demonstrate trade links with Mesopotamia.
"The story of the UAE is part of the wider story of the Middle East," says Paul Collins, lead curator of the Zayed National Museum Project at the British Museum. "You couldn't tell one without the other because they're all inter-related."
Three great civilisations - those of Sumer, Assyria and Babylon - are represented chronologically in separate colour-coded sections. Some 200 objects, including clay slabs dated 3301-3100 BCE depicting the earliest forms of writing, jewellery from the Royal Graves of Ur in southern Iraq, dating to the third millennium BCE, and an almost perfectly preserved stone statue of one of the first Assyrian kings (883-859 BCE) span the 3,000-year period in which Mesopotamia was the centre of the world.
"These were the first great cities, the first examples of writing," says Collins, who was previously curator of Later Mesopotamian Antiquities at the British Museum. "These are the roots of the world we live in and it wouldn't have happened without these civilisations."
It's hard to get your head around the numbers. One modest square of clay, its surface marked with drawings and imprints, shows the Sumerian people experimenting with written expression around 5,000 years ago. "It's an account, a list of goods," explains Collins. Two thousand years later and the primitive script had developed into something resembling handwriting, as shown on a larger legal "document". "By this period the language being spoken was a Semitic language, related to Arabic," he says. "The grammar is exactly the same."
Some of the most spectacular and earliest pieces are the examples of Sumerian jewellery found in the Royal Graves of Ur. Made of gold, lapis lazuli from Afghanistan and carnelian from Pakistan, the headdress, necklaces, hoop earrings and rings date back to 2600 BCE. Almost identical pieces can be found in jewellery stores today, around 4,500 years later.
"That material alone demonstrates the trade that linked Iraq with Afghanistan and India," says Collins, "much of it travelling via the Gulf and places like the UAE."
The treasures discovered in a series of tombs in the 1920s and 1930s, alongside the remains of sacrificial victims, rivalled the unearthing of Tutankhamun in terms of significance, says Collins, and go some way towards explaining the wealth of the British Museum's collection. "As with most of the big museums around the world," he says, "it's down to where they excavated and when. Most of the excavations happened in the 19th and early 20th centuries when the governments of the regions allowed the export of pieces. After about 1936 in Iraq, then they began to say 'no, we'll keep everything here'."
Since the participants of the Royal Graves dig were from Britain and the US, the findings there were split three ways, among the British Museum, the University Museum, Pennsylvania, and the Iraq National Museum, Baghdad.
It seems ironic that people from the Middle East will have to see a collection from the British Museum to experience something so closely linked to their heritage. Has Iraq, in common with other countries, asked for any of its ancient treasures back?
"No, the priority there is to try to ensure that their own collection is safe and secure," says Collins (in 2003, during the early stages of the Iraq war, around 7,000 pieces were looted from the National Museum in Baghdad and have not been recovered). "We are busy at the British Museum working with colleagues there to help them with that process. The world is now about museums sharing objects and expertise so that's what we're trying to do. There's this idea of global heritage and let's learn from each other."
Among the other outstanding relics at the Mesopotamia exhibition are the Assyrian Reliefs. These monumental stone slabs, the oldest of which dates to 875-860 BCE, lined the walls of some of Assyria's grandest palaces, but, when the empire collapsed in 612 BCE, they caved in and were buried. It was 2,500 years before they were discovered, by British archaeologists, in 1850.
The sophistication of the artwork is astonishing. Battle scenes and animals are depicted in a style not seen again, says Collins, until the Renaissance. "In terms of art history this is the beginning of narrative art," he says, referring to a ninth-century BCE sequence of images depicting the king hunting and in battle.
A later example, from the seventh century BCE, showing a battle scene in which an enemy king is defeated and beheaded before being carried back to Assyria, represents a pivotal moment. It is, Collins believes, the greatest work of art from antiquity. "You've got real narrative art," he explains, "use of continuous space. You've got captioned imagery and you've got the first examples of real physical portraiture. It's the greatest to me because of the depth of information and the way in which they're playing with space, time and ideas."
The final section, dedicated to the Babylonians, who defeated the Assyrians in 612 BCE and ruled for 70 years until they were, in turn, defeated by the Persians, contains further examples of a culture so sophisticated that it was to take the best part of a thousand years for Europeans to catch up. A likeness of the Babylonian king Nebuchadnezzar's great Hanging Gardens of Babylon is depicted in one relief; while a scale model of a Babylonian palace shows the type of architecture that would have formed a backdrop to these objects.
For an exposition of 3,000 years of history, Splendours of Mesopotamia is surprisingly digestible. "Because of the richness of the [British Museum's] collection," says Collins, "it's very easy to give a comprehensive coverage. In order to tell that story, we've picked the best objects in terms of historic importance but also artistic value and quality."
A separate section will be dedicated to showing objects excavated from the Hafeet and Umm al Nar cultures in modern-day Abu Dhabi, which have been loaned by the Al Ain National Museum. They prove, says Collins, that the UAE was trading with the Sumerian people in the third millennium BCE. In fact, he adds, it was thanks to Sheikh Zayed that these objects were found, since it was he who invited Danish archeologists to come to the UAE and excavate at Umm al Nar, a small island off the coast of Abu Dhabi, in the 1950s.
"Up until that point," says Collins, "scholars really hadn't considered the Gulf region as particularly important.
"Trade was known about; the archaeology of southern Iraq revealed that there were connections with the Indus Valley, but until the excavations here happened, it wasn't known that this region was also a crucial cog in the empire."
Splendours of Mesopotamia will be at Manarat al Saadiyat, Abu Dhabi, until June 27. A seminar by John Curtis, keeper of the Middle East department at the British Museum, Nigel Tallis, the exhibition curator, and Neil Macgregor, director of the British Museum, on the themes included in the exhibition, will take place tomorrow at 6.30pm at Manarat al Saadiyat. For details go to www.artsabudhabi.ae.