Ancient history in Abu Dhabi

Time Out digs deep to discover the Splendours of Mesopotamia

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For the next three months, Abu Dhabi’s Manarat Al Saadiyat will host some of the region’s most stunning ancient artefacts, as TDIC’s Splendours of Mesopotamia exhibition lands in the capital. Organised in association with The British Museum, the show brings together some of the most academically lauded finds of the ancient region of Mesopotamia, which covers modern-day Iraq, Syria, Turkey and Iran.

We spoke to Dr Paul Collins, the British Museum’s Middle East expert and lead curator of the Zayed National Museum project, to find out more about the six most significant discoveries about to wow the city.

Carnelian bead headdress

Origin: Royal cemetery in Ur, 2600BC
‘Judging from the inscriptions in the tomb in which it was found, we believe this belongs to one of the queens of Ur [an ancient town located at the site of modern-day Iraq]. Alongside it were found similar headdresses and jewellery, but of a lower quality, suggesting they belonged to sacrificial victims buried with her to accompany their ruler to the next world. The piece reflects the empire’s connections with the wider world, since none of the materials used are found in the region. The lapis lazuli came from Afghanistan, the carnelian would have come from areas near where the UAE is today, and the gold probably came from Iran or Turkey. It was discovered in the early ’30s. The materials used don’t decay in soil, so it came out looking very fresh.’

Copper alloy bowl

Origin: Palace in Nimrud, 900-700BC
‘This came from the Mediterranean world, so it’s either a gift or a tribute sent to Nimrud from either Syria or the Venetian world and the cities of modern-day Lebanon. Another indicator of high status, this would have been used at the king’s court. It’s incised with a design showing Egyptian-looking imagery – Egypt was the other great civilisation of the ancient world and their art influenced this Venetian world of the eastern Mediterranean. It’s made from a hammered copper sheet.

Spouted gold cup

Origin: Royal cemetery in Ur, 2600BC
‘As with the headdress, the gold would have been imported. It has an unusual spout, causing speculation as to its exact purpose. It may have been a feeding bottle for a baby, or a vessel for grape and hop-based drinks – in the ancient world, these would have contained a lot of debris, so the spout may have been used as a filter. Similar cups made of pottery were also found, so this was a high-status version most likely used by royalty.’

East India House inscription

Origin: Babylon, 604-562BC
‘This comes from the final civilisation of Mesopotamia, the Babylonian empire. It’s an inscription of the famous king Nebuchadnezzar II, who conquered the Assyrians. He established his royal centre at the ancient city of Babylon and rebuilt it on a grand scale; this inscription records the rebuilding of the city. The inscription was then buried in the foundations of a temple, a record for posterity and for the gods. The script is very old fashioned, an attempt by the king to tie himself in to 3,000 years of history.’

Magnesite statue of Ashurnasirpal II

Origin: Ishtar Sharrat-nihi temple in Nimrud, 883BC
‘This statue is of a king who began the process of establishing the empire. The inscription on his chest recalls his expedition towards the Mediterranean, that pushed from northern Iraq towards the great wealthy cities of the West. It’s made of immensely hard stone called magnesite, which is extremely difficult to carve and would blunt tools almost immediately, so the stone itself represents power, because only he could have had it carved in this fashion. It would have been set up in front of a temple to his goddess, Ishta, as an expression of his piety.’

The Til Tuba relief

Origin: Nineveh, 660-650BC
‘This is the largest series of reliefs in the exhibition: three huge slabs of carved gypsum. They’re slid together to form a diorama depicting a battle which took place in about 657BC between the Assyrians and the Elamites from south-west Iran. It’s told like a comic strip and recounts the story of the defeat of the Elamite king, who had his head cut off. It’s pretty brutal, but it marks a fundamental change in our history, where you start to get stories told in that sort of detail.’

Splendours of Mesopotamia continues until June 27 at Manarat Al Saadiyat, Abu Dhabi, www.artsabudhabi.ae

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