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New York exhibit puts spotlight on ancient Middle Eastern power clashes

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After the Arab Spring broke out over a year ago, an exhibit at Metropolitan Art Museum in New York shows a connection between recent events and many occurrences from more than a millennium ago.

The show “Byzantium and Islam” aims to trace the sweeping changes in the Middle East back to the seventh century, where it finds earlier power shift of that time through the example of the Orthodox Christian rulers of Constantinople who gave rule to the new Islamic order in the southern regions of the empire.

Since 2006, Helen Evans, the Met’s curator of Byzantine art, has been showcasing some unique pieces and by 2009, the exhibition had accords in place to receive items from various places, like Egypt’s Department on Antiquities, until last year’s political turmoil that swept across the region and ousted governments in Tunisia, Egypt and Libya. The exhibit displays images of latest events representing Libyan chaos, clashes in Syria and change in Egypt.

But, after longtime Egyptian leader Hosni Mubarak was ousted, the Met couldn’t find anyone in the new Egyptian leadership willing to sign the agreements to loan the pieces to the Met. “It was a disappointment. We never had a rejection; we had inertia,” she told Deborah Amos of NPR.

“Clash of civilization” part of the exhibit, tells a great story of a countless moment in history, deliberated through plenty of stunning items left from that time. As it turns out, that clash was less disruptive than once thought.

The script illustrates that after the Prophet Muhammad established Islam in the seventh century, Muslims began expanding out from Mecca and Medina.. The religion therefore, rapidly swept across the broader region and reaches diverse ethnic and religious communities.

“Within religions, hugely different communities are bumping into each other. Karaite Jews and Rabbinical Jews, Samaritans,” Evans told NPR. The Christian sects included Syriac, Orthodox, Coptic and Church of the East.

Constantinople’s Orthodox Christian rulers had tried to stamp out rifts. The newly coverted Muslims were more tolerant of other faiths. These varied religious communities flourished under Muslim rule. “Christians served the new polity quite well. And the Christian churches and the Jewish community were given more rights,” Evans further explains.

At that time, the silk trade was of the economic importance as that of today’s crude oil. The show’s catalog explains: “The trade routes so important to the Byzantines became part of the new Islamic order.” Deluxe fabrics and tunics of the period display Christian iconography, Arabic script and classical hunting scenes. “You have the good life. Everyone is wearing this stuff; they are simply what rich people wear to impress each other,” Evans was quoted in NPR as saying.

The archaeological evidence on the ground shows a tradition of tolerance, acceptance, even simulation by the Islamic order.

“It is also in this period that they begin to write down the Quran,” says Evans, “transforming an exclusively oral tradition into a written sacred text. There is a generation that disapproves and believes it should continue as an oral tradition. But the counter-argument is, those who heard the Prophet Mohammad are dying. If they don’t write it down, they will eventually lose it”.

The exhibit opens with a display of a splendid Byzantine Bible, written in gold on pages tinted royal purple. In the last gallery, a Quran, written 300 years later, in gold on pages dyed dark indigo.

Even aims to preserve this rich cultural heritage and share it with larger audience. “They want to be sharing in a way that they feel they are adequately respected,” she says. “I think what we are not going to have is ‘look at the interesting exotic people at the edge of nowhere.’ That’s not the way to look at them.”

Evans hopes to convey a message of a shared civilization rather than a clash at the Met’s exhibit.