the fo­rum

The Weekend Australian - Review - - LIFELINES - Luke Slat­tery

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.

jon kudelka

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