Elie Wiesel describes the Bible as “the pull of my childhood, a fascination with the vanished world, and I can find everything except that world.”
I feel much the same way, which is why the Metropolitan Museum’s exhibit “Assyria to Iberia at the Dawn of the Classical Age” so thrilled me. The premise of the exhibit isn’t Israel or the Bible. Rather, it explores cross-cultural interaction and global communication during the Assyrian Empire from roughly 1200 – 400 BCE, the time period that many major Biblical events took place.
Stretching from modern day northern Iraq to the Mediterranean, the Assyrian empire was Israel’s much larger and more powerful neighbor, and the exhibit is replete with references to numerous Biblical place names and people and gods: from the statuette of the Canaanite/Phoenician goddess Astarte, known as Ashtoreth in the Hebrew Bible, to the victory stele of Sargon II who is mentioned in the book of Isaiah, to the marble engraving featuring Marduk-apla-iddina II, who appears in the Bible as Merodach Baladin, the king of Babylon who sends King Hezekiah a letter and gifts, concerned about his illness.
Below, just a few of the pieces on display that provide a tangible and, I think, awesome connection to the “vanished world” Wiesel mourns.
1. The “House of David” inscription dates from about 830 BCE, and in it, the king boasts of killing Jehoram of Israel and Ahazia of the “House of David,” a phrase that appears over and over in Biblical verses. This is the first validation outside of the Bible that someone named David did, indeed, exist and had earned himself and his kingdom an international reputation.
2. The Israelite King Ahab is described in the Bible as having an “ivory house.” The Samarian Ivories, discovered in Samaria in modern day Israel, may or may not be a part of King Ahab’s palace, but it’s quite possible they date from his rule, and the small, engraved plaques were part of ivory-inlaid furniture.
3. In 701 BCE, the Assyrian king Sennacharib, one of the most powerful monarchs in history ever, laid siege to Jerusalem during the reign of Hezekiah, an event that is recorded in several books in the Bible. Written in Akkadian, the six paragraphs of the Annals of Sennacherib boast that Hezekiah was trapped in Jerusalem “like a bird in a cage.”
4. The book of Exodus specifies that four-horned, incense altars are one cubit wide, two cubits tall, a measurement that correlates to the limestone, four-horned altar found in Megiddo in northern Israel.
5. Much of the prophetic book of Daniel takes place in Babylon during the rule of Nebuchadnezzar, after the Babylonians have defeated the Assyrians. Nebuchadnezzar was responsible for the destruction of Jerusalem and the temple in 586 BCE, and for exiling its people to Babylon – "by the rivers of Babylon,” the Psalms lament the Judahites exile. The Jewish Daniel was carried off to the Babylonian court where he is famous for interpreting Nebuchadnezzar’s dreams and seeing the “handwriting on the wall.” If Daniel is indeed a historical figure, then he would have seen the glazed brick relief of a dragon from a portion of the Ishtar Gate (604-562 BCE).
6. The prophet Jonah, according to the Bible, journeyed by ship from Jaffa on the coast of modern day Israel to Tarshish (Carthage). The Nora Stele is a block of rock whose Phoenician inscription dating from 850-740 BCE contains the first mention of Tarshish. In addition to their seafaring and international trade expeditions, the Phoenicians spread the alphabet, enabling communication and giving rise to Greek and Etruscan and ultimately, to Latin and to almost all modern alphabets. Today, the closest living relative of Phoenician is Hebrew, in which most of the books of the Hebrew Bible were written.
The sliver of land that hugs the Mediterranean coast of Lebanon and northern Israel was referred to as Phoenicia by the Greeks, from phoinious, land of purple, from the purple dye of the murex sea-snail which the Phoenicians exported.Until 1200 BCE, however, that same territory was known as “Canaan”, a word that may be derived from Hurrian, kinahu, meaning purple. Canaanites/Phoenicians, Canaan/Phoenicia, different words for the same people and land.
Compared to the richness of the Assyrians’ and Babylonians’ grand palaces, temples and statues, the Israelites left behind a relative paucity of material goods. Whatever Israel may have had back in the day has long disappeared, carried off as the spoils of war or destroyed. On the other hand, the Assyrian and Babylonian peoples are no longer with us as they once were, their languages obsolete, while the Israelite people and Hebrew endured, much like the phoenix, the phoinious, the mythical purple-red bird that rises from the ashes of its predecessor and regenerates itself. Today, Israel is located, as it once long ago, on much of ancient Canaan/Phoenicia.
What remains 3,000 years later aren’t the gold vessels of the Temple, but the Hebrew words and ideas that have been transmitted by the alphabet across oceans and boundaries. The Bible served as a portable temple for Jews after the destruction of the second temple by the Romans in 66 CE, and through its influence on Christianity and Islam, the Bible brought the concept of one God to much of the world. Which is where I began this journey into the past, and where I will take my leave.
“Assyria to Iberia at the Dawn of the Classical Age” is on view at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, 1000 Fifth Avenue, New York City, until January 4th.
Angela Himsel is a writer in New York City.