AFEW years ago, before war and strife made such a journey impossible, I travelled overland from Jordan to Damascus, stopping at many of the beautifully preserved remains of Greco-Roman civilisation that garland the old biblical route.
One of the best preserved of these antique sites is Jerash (ancient Gerasa), and under bright spring sunshine I explored the ruins of this once flourishing trading post that first rose to prominence in the third century BC. A few centuries later, under the Pax Romana, Gerasa enjoyed its first golden age; its prosperity and strategic importance are reflected in the colonnades, triumphal arches and temples — all beautifully preserved — that greet the visitor.
From the fourth to the sixth centuries the city supported a thriving Christian community, whose chief remaining traces are a series of lovely floor mosaics typical of the region. After the seventh-century Muslim conquests, Gerasa came within the embrace of the Islamic world, and there it, or what remains of it, lies. This story — a tale of change, fusion and flux — is reflected in a luminous exhibition of the period’s art at New York’s Metropolitan Museum of Art titled Byzantium and Islam; Age
of Transition. Findings from ancient Gerasa — floor mosaics and textiles — feature prominently in a show whose central theme is continuity within change.
The Met’s curators are keen to challenge categories that we use habitually to understand this long stretch of time, especially ideas such as the decline, or conquest, of the Christian West, coupled with the rise and victory of militant Islam. I learned at school how, in this vein, to partition history into more or less cleanly defined eras and neatly delineated power blocs: Rome falls, antiquity dies, and Christianity rules the European roost; while in the East, a succession of antiChristian Islamic caliphates follow upon the death of Mohammad.
One of the most important of these, from the perspective of the Met show, is the Umayyad Caliphate of Damascus, and the Umayyad mosque forms a kind of exhibit A in its case for cultural continuity and exchange. The polychrome mosaics adorning the mosque’s great courtyard seem to bear the stamp of Byzantium — they are so Greek! They are sinuous, gilded, figurative, sumptuous and quite unlike those of later generations of strictly geometric Islamic art. The early Umayyad Walid I was a pretty cool caliph: though he embarked on a series of conquests his artistic tastes took their colours from the West. On the walls of one of his desert castles frolic naked women, pretty much as they do in the arts of pagan antiquity.
The Met show’s emphasis is on a late antique era that doesn’t so much die as shape- change in the early years of Islam. As one of the catalogue essays asserts: ‘‘ most scholars now accept that the art and architecture of early Islam form part of the art of Late Antiquity rather than marking a substantial break with it.’’ That break did come, of course, and it wasn’t long in coming. But for a few centuries cultures and religions that have spent many centuries estranged were deep in conversation.
Ever since the West was catapulted by the 9/11 attacks on mainland America into a war with militant Islam the high cultural world has embarked on a parallel, and much more pacific, form of engagement with Islam. The National Gallery of Australia has hosted Crescent Moon: Islamic Art and Civilisation in
Southeast Asia (2006), the Louvre has had Roads of Arabia; Archaeology and History of the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia (2010), while the Met
has shown Venice and the Islamic World 828-1797, Rumi and the Sufi Tradition and Masterpieces of Islamic Calligraphy.
Surely it’s no coincidence that a number of these bridge-building, or eye-opening, exercises have been in the city that still bears the scars of that assault; a city whose polyglot nature is deep and abiding. An exhibition such
as Byzantium and Islam is a statement of liberal intent. It is not at all preachy and its focus is squarely on the material remains of late antique civilisation, and yet it is talking about a time, and a place, that for a relatively brief period witnessed a convergence of Hebraic, Greco-Roman, Christian and Muslim art. It is about a time that drew some things together before they fractured.