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:: By Amy M. Braverman

:: Photography by Dan Dry

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Features ::

Crescent Boon

The Oriental Institute links lands from Mesopotamia through modern Israel—and reintroduces its east wing.

The Oriental Institute’s newest gallery—Empires of the Fertile Crescent: Ancient Assyria, Anatolia, and Israel—presents a geographic arc following the Assyrian Empire’s conquests from Mesopotamia through modern Syria, Turkey, Israel, and eventually Egypt, a region dubbed the Fertile Crescent in 1914 by OI founding director James Henry Breasted to evoke its rich land and cultures. Showcasing items brought back from 1920s and ’30s OI excavations, the exhibit features many objects not displayed in nine years—and some, including what the OI calls “the richest collection of Neo-Hittite materials in the Western Hemisphere,” never shown before.

In addition to linking ancient societies, the exhibit also connects the OI’s east wing with the rest of the museum for the first time since 1996, when it closed for renovations. The January 29 reopening—one phase of a full museum makeover including a new, artifact-protecting climate-control system—lets visitors complete a chronological loop around the building. From the Mesopotamian Gallery patrons turn to the three Fertile Crescent sections, beginning with the Dr. Norman Solhkhah Family Assyrian Empire Gallery. Most prominent here are the large stone reliefs, which once adorned King Sargon II’s (721–705 BC) Khorsabad, Iraq, palace walls. The reliefs, formerly displayed separately but now upright and pieced together, portray scenes of a pastoral hunt and Phrygians presenting the king with horses in tribute. Three smaller slabs depict Assyrian soldiers carrying severed heads and marching over decapitated bodies. Evidence of a brutal battle, they were found far west of Khorsabad in the Amuq Valley.

The Amuq (modern Antakya, Turkey) and central Turkey are featured in the exhibit’s next section, the Henrietta Herbolsheimer (SB’36, MD’38) Syro-Anatolian Gallery. The Hittite (15th–13th centuries BC) items include cuneiform tablets and red-burnished vases. The objects of their successors, the Neo-Hittites (9th century BC)—such as monumental sculptures crushed, likely by the Assyrians or in a civil war—had been “sitting in the basement, unrecognized and forgotten,” says research associate Emily Teeter, PhD’90. “People weren’t interested” in the items until recently. The renewed attention, suggests Museum Director Geoff Emberling, may have resulted from scholars, such as OI associate professor Aslihan Yener, resuming Amuq Valley excavations.

The final arc of the crescent, the Haas and Schwartz Megiddo Gallery (named for Albert Haas, Lab’33, and Morris Schwartz, AM’46, PhD’51), features biblical lands, providing context for the birth of Judaism and Christianity. Here the influence of surrounding cultures is clear; fine decorative ivories, for example, reveal Canaanite, Egyptian, and Mycenaean motifs. Other highlights include altars for burnt offerings, a fragment from the Dead Sea Scrolls, and a statue of the Canaanite god El.

From there a doorway leads to the next stop on the Assyrians’ conquering march, the 17-foot, 3-inch tall King Tut welcoming patrons to the Egyptian Gallery as they continue their museum loop.