Stele of a Goddess, Limestone, from Petra, Jordan, 1st-2nd century CE (image courtesy of Department of Antiquities of Jordan)

The weight of the past is always with us. William Faulkner, whose writing was saturated with this theme, summed it up in his widely repeated quote from Requiem for a Nun (1951): “The past is never dead. It’s not even past.” Since the 1990s, historical scholarship, too, has increasingly acknowledged that past and present are always intertwined. Or, to put it another way, that our study of the past says as much about the present as it does about the past.

How present and past are inexorably linked is a major theme of the Metropolitan Museum of Art’s new exhibition The World between Empires: Art and Identity in the Ancient Middle East. The exhibition focuses on various sites and communities of Western Asia some 2,000 years ago. A border land between the Roman Empire to the west and the Parthian Empire (centered on what is now Iran) to the east, the region and its people have often been seen in terms of one empire or the other. The Met re-envisions the area not as a periphery but as a central region of cultural production and exchange.

Geography is central to both the exhibition’s theme and its organization. We are taken on a journey from Yemen, at the southern tip of the Arabian peninsula to the land of the Nabataeans (an Arab people whose capital was Petra in modern Jordan), Judaea (in modern Israel and the West Bank), the coastal cities of Tyre and Sidon (in modern Lebanon), and Baalbek (in the interior of Lebanon), to the important cities of Palmyra, Dura-Europos, and Hatra in Syria and Babylon, and Ctesiphon in Iraq. This arrangement is designed to evoke ancient trade routes, as the exhibition’s press release emphasizes.

Curator Michael Seymour has emphasized that one goal of the exhibition was to incorporate recent scholarship on the Roman and Parthian Western Asia. This is clearly reflected in the focus on identity — a major concern in both recent art historical and archaeological scholarship and contemporary Western society. Identity is one area in which past and present overlap.

The exhibition’s 183 objects not only highlight aspects of ancient art and religion in the region, but attest to how local identities were entangled with the two major empires, yet also transcended them. Objects include a beautiful alabaster head of a woman from Yemen, nicknamed “Miriam,” and funerary portraits of the ancient residents of Palmyra that once graced their tombs. Local gods, sometimes equated with Greek and Roman ones, are depicted in Roman or Parthian or local style, or some combination. Among the hybrid objects is a stele of a goddess from Petra, in a local style with abstracted features but a Hellenstic wreath; and an aedicula (a small shrine) found in Rome dedicated to two Palmyrene gods — one in Roman dress, the other in Parthian dress — with Greek and Palmyrene Aramaic inscriptions. There are a number of finds from the city of Dura-Europos, where archaeologists excavated a well-preserved early church and a synagogue as well as temples to several other gods, reflecting its religious diversity. Paintings that lined the walls of the church include some of the earliest depictions of Jesus.

Images of Village at Temple of Bel, Palmyra, 1929 and 1930. Theodor Wiegand, Palmyra: Ergebnisse der Expeditionen von 1902 und 1917. Tafelband. (Berlin: Heinrich Keller, 1932), plate 70 (image via Heidelberg University Library)

The past and present are also intertwined in other, darker ways. At the physical and emotional center of the exhibition is a video installation featuring a 12-minute interview with three experts on the archaeology and cultural heritage of Iraq and Syria, including two natives of the region: Zainab Bahrani, an Iraqi professor of Ancient Near Eastern Art and Archaeology at Columbia University, and Michel al-Maqdissi, former director of excavations for the Directorate-General for Antiquities and Museums, Syria. Their perspectives, sometimes in agreement and sometimes not, are welcome. But visually the installation is even more striking. On the wall opposite the screen in an otherwise nearly empty gallery are a few signs with photographs and information on how cultural heritage has been affected due to the current conflict. The lack of lighting in the room makes the video more visible, but it does more. It represents the disturbing treatment of cultural heritage and the emptiness left by the destruction. The symbolism is weighty and effective.

But there are problematic aspects to how the exhibition relates the past to the present. Where did these objects come from? A significant portion of the material on display has solid provenance and these items can be traced back to their place of excavation. However, some of these acquisitions are still ethically questionable. Artifacts from Yemen, like the statue of “Miriam” loaned by the Smithsonian, were excavated by an American expedition led by “oilman-archaeologist” Wendell Phillips. Essentially a treasure hunter whose only qualification was a bachelors’ degree in paleontology, Phillips failed to field a qualified staff and antagonized the local authorities in Yemen, but used his political connections to acquire and get rich off of oil concessions. Meanwhile, the jar from Qumran — of a type possibly used to store Dead Sea Scrolls — was a gift to the Met from Jordan at a time when Jordan occupied the West Bank and the removal of artifacts was a violation of international law.

Many other objects were not found in excavations at all, but can be traced only to antiquities dealers or collectors. Consider the Palmyra material on display. It includes a selection of the 19 Palmyrene funerary portraits in the Met collection. Most of these were purchased on the antiquities market around 1900, especially from the New York-based Lebanese dealer Azeez Khayat. Why does this matter? For one thing, one of the Met’s funerary reliefs on display in the exhibition — while itself authentic — has an inscription that is widely believed by experts to be a modern forgery. These kinds of alterations to artifacts are typical of their treatment by antiquities dealers hoping to make them more appealing to buyers. More importantly, at the time of these acquisitions, Palmyra (known as Tadmur in Arabic) was part of the Ottoman Empire, which had antiquities laws in place since 1869. These laws regulated excavations and effectively prohibited export of antiquities outside the empire. Khayat spoke openly of his own illegal excavations in the Levant and described to audiences how to bribe customs officials and police officers in order to smuggle antiquities out of the Ottoman Empire. This strongly suggests that much of the Met’s collection was looted from Palmyra and then illegally removed from the country.

The Met was hardly alone in these acquisition practices. Ever since the West “rediscovered” Palmyra in the late 17th century, visitors wanted to bring a physical piece of the ancient site home with them. Robert “Palmyra” Wood (whose landmark 1753 volume The Ruins of Palmyra greatly influenced the development of neoclassical architecture in Europe) expressed bewilderment that the inhabitants of Tadmur wouldn’t let him carry off inscriptions — he could only blame their greed or superstition. In the 19th century Wood’s dream became more of a reality. Even after the Ottomans prohibited the export of antiquities, an inability to enforce these laws continued to allow the flow of artifacts to the West. Publicly, institutions like London’s Palestine Exploration Fund assured Istanbul of compliance with regulations; privately, the PEF’s secretary informed one of its explorers in 1875 that they had been constantly violating the law since it was enacted six years earlier. Guidebooks like Baedekers gave travelers advice about how much to pay for different types of artifacts, and about how to bribe customs officials in order to smuggle artifacts successfully. European and American institutions and individuals could either buy items from dealers like Azeez Khayat or remove antiquities themselves. In one disturbing case, the Irish missionary William Wright describes offering the equivalent of one franc to Tadmur’s inhabitants to send them scrambling to find a statue of Zenobia, the famed ancient queen of Palmyra. And so, European and American museums and private collections swelled with West Asian artifacts.

Head of a woman (known as “Miriam”) Figure; Yemen; mid-1st century; Alabaster, stucco and lapis lazuli; H x W x D: 11 7/8 x 7 5/16 x 6 15/16 in. (Gift of The American Foundation for the Study of Man, Wendell and Merilyn Phillips Collection)

Just as important is how the Met informs visitors about provenance. The museum labels list the standard details: the excavation project and site, often with a specific location at the site; if the object is not from an excavation, its year of acquisition is given, along with whether it was a gift or purchase, if it is part of the Met collection. The published catalogue provides additional information on collection histories. But there is no mention of any unethical or illegal practices. As educational institutions, museums should feel an obligation to be forthcoming about provenance issues with items on display — especially at a time when museums’ ethical practices are attracting increasing scrutiny. But this is especially true of an exhibition like The World between Empires, since it highlights recent destructive practices at these sites. There is, to say the least, a serious disconnect in the museum’s emphasis on the damage caused by ISIS looting at sites like Palmyra when its own Palmyra collection was probably acquired by looting. The Met could have tried to engage thoughtfully with this history of acquisition practices. Instead, in looking at their discussion of the damage caused by looting, it becomes quite clear how selective the context really is.

Then there is the exhibition’s treatment of violence. The World between Empires focuses on destruction in Iraq and Syria, with Yemen seemingly an afterthought — the video omits it entirely. (It may not be coincidental that the greatest threat to both cultural heritage and human life in Yemen is the US-allied Saudi coalition.) And in Iraq and Syria, the only culprit named is ISIS, America’s official enemy in the war, as if no one else has been responsible for looting and destruction in Syria and Iraq since 2011. In fact, a majority of the looting has been conducted by groups other than ISIS. The same may be true for the destruction of cultural heritage sites — destroyed not for ideological reasons, but simply as “collateral damage” of war.

Following Zainab Bahrani, the exhibition emphasizes that the destruction and looting in the current war is part of a broader context of war dating back to 1990. This is important, but it still omits pivotal incidents of death and destruction: for instance, the notorious Tadmur prison, where the Baathist government tortured and murdered political prisoners, killing an estimated 1,000 in a prison massacre in 1980; and, in the 1920s and 1930s, the French demolition of the village of Tadmur within the Temple of Bel and removal of its inhabitants in order to excavate the site. In the exhibition, as in the American and European news media’s treatment of Palmyra in the Syrian war, the fates of the modern city and its inhabitants — roughly 50,000 before the Syrian Civil War — are ignored.

Aediucula for the gods Aglibol and Malakbel of Palmyra, Marble, dated February 236 CE. From Rome (image courtesy of Roma, Musei Capitolini, Galleria Lapidaria – Archivio Fotografico dei Musei Capitolini, foto Pietro Mari, © Roma, Sovrintendenza Capitolina ai Beni Culturali)

Again, the Met is merely following a well-established pattern. Physical and online exhibitions, as well as the Met’s own 2016 symposium on Palmyra, have all ignored both collection practices and the existence of the modern city — largely treating Palmyra as if it had been empty ruins for the past 1,700 years.

On top of this, the museum labels conspicuously avoid placing blame on the US for its role in wars and sanctions against Iraq. Instead, we find convoluted wording such as “conflicts following the US-led coalition invasion in 2003.” And we find avoidance of the Met’s own entanglement in this violence. On September 22, 2014, the Met opened the exhibition Assyria to Iberia. Among the speakers at the extensive opening ceremony was then-US Secretary of State John Kerry. With the Egyptian Temple of Dendur as a backdrop, Kerry used the platform to condemn ISIS and demand military action to stop them. Within hours, the US government started its bombing campaign in Syria. The exhibition makes no mention of how the museum’s own antiquities were used as a justification for military action.

Reviewing the exhibition for the New York Times, Holland Cotter suggests that it does not gloss over violence as museums (“with their air of balanced neutrality”) typically do. This may be true, but, like most exhibitions, The World between Empires is ultimately safe. It avoids any real controversy. It does not question the violent role of any Western government, or any government at all, while it implies that the sole destroyer of heritage in the region is the almost universally reviled ISIS. And it certainly fails to question the Met’s own entanglement in empire and violence. Perhaps this is to be expected. But this means that, even in what remains unstated, the museum demonstrates how its past is intertwined with its present.

The World between Empires: Art and Identity in the Ancient Middle East runs through June 23 at the Metropolitan Museum of Art (1000 Fifth Avenue, Upper East Side, Manhattan). The exhibition was curated by Michael Seymour and Blair Fowlkes-Childs.

Michael Press is an archaeologist who writes on Middle Eastern archaeology, biblical studies, and how these fields are presented to the public. He received a PhD from Harvard University in Near Eastern...