Neighboring Cultures | The Israel Museum, Jerusalem
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Neighboring Cultures

Introduction

Since ancient times neighboring cultures exerted their influence on the land of Israel, located at the crossroads between them. The galleries, devoted to the neighboring cultures, offer the visitor a broad historical and cultural overview of the region, revealing the fascinating range of relations between the Land of Israel, and its neighbors.

Selected objects and artworks, dating from the 7th millennium BCE to the 19th century CE, recount the story of these cultures. These include, for example, human and animal shaped objects found in ancient Egyptian tombs displayed in the gallery dedicated to Egypt of the Pharaohs; reliefs depicting historical  rulers and various rites from the ancient Near East exhibited in the gallery displaying treasures from Mesopotamia (Iraq), Persia (Iran), the Levant (Lebanon, Syria and Cyprus), Anatolia (Turkey), and the Southern Arabian Peninsula; elaborate Greek vases decorated with figures of gods, monsters and heroes located in the gallery representing the Greek world; impressive marble sculptures created by the peoples of Italy; and tools and manuscripts, decorated with magnificent Arabic calligraphy, located in the gallery of the Islamic Near East.

Each gallery correlates to the adjacent Land of Israel galleries thus highlighting the close inter-relations between the cultures; extensive trade relations, migrations and conquests, all resulting in cultural, economic, and religious ties between the peoples of the Land of Israel and those of its neighboring cultures. These are reflected in the objects which reveal many similarities and mutual influences, tell the story of people living side by side, and offer the visitor an extensive in-depth overview of the entire region.


Egypt of the Pharaohs

Funerary stele of the priest Hor, depicted presenting offerings to two manifestations of the sun god, Egypt, 7th-6th century BCE, Painted wood
Gift of Abraham Guterman, New York, to American Friends of the Israel Museum

Egypt of the Pharaohs

The 4th millennium BCE – 4th century CE

For over 3,000 years Egypt, the great kingdom south of Israel, was governed by omnipotent kings, the Pharaohs. They ruled over the vast territory of Egypt – from the Nile Delta in Lower Egypt to the Kingdom of Kush in Upper Egypt.

The kingdom's administration class became an elite group, enjoying special material and religious privileges, including the right to commemorate the dead in sculptures and inscriptions, as the Pharaohs did. A typical example of this is reflected in the funerary stele of a priest, showing him conveying his offerings to the sun god.

The desire to achieve eternal life, which was shared by all ancient Egyptians, is expressed in their monumental temples and magnificent tombs. These places were decorated with reliefs and filled with sculptures of the deceased king, such as the head of the king, displayed here, which was part of a larger statue.

The ancient Egyptians attached prime importance to the successful transition to the afterlife. They embalmed the body and kept it in decorated coffins, such as the sarcophagus that held a boy’s mummified body. The internal organs were removed, and placed in four canopic jars, each bearing the head of one of Horus’ sons. Four such jars from the scribe Ahmose’s tomb, seventh century BCE, are displayed in the gallery.

The Egyptian pantheon was inhabited by many gods and goddesses, each of whom carried their prescribed role, with some of the roles overlapping. Among the major divinities were Osiris and his wife/sister Isis, shown in a bronze statuette where she can be seen spreading her wings over him for protection.

The ancient Egyptians left a wealth of written material, mostly in sacred, hieroglyphic script. These writings convey their way of life to us, as well as their rituals, and the major historic events of the period.

 Dr. Shirly Ben-Dor Evian, Jeannette and Jonathan Rosen Curator of Egyptian Archaeology


Ancient Near East

Wall relief depicting a stylized date palm flanked by protective genies Nimrud, Assyria, Reign of Ashurnasirpal II, 883-859 BCE, Alabaster, Gift of Baron and Baroness Edmond de Rothschild, Paris

Ancient Near East

The 7th millennium BCE – early 7th century CE

Ancient Near East, or Western Asia - an area also known as "The Fertile Crescent" – extended from the eastern Mediterranean shores to the Persian Gulf.  Over six thousand years ago, this region was the cradle of civilization. It was here that systematic agriculture was first practiced, the wheel was invented, complex urban societies developed, and the most ancient literary works were written.

It is in this area that the first kingdoms and empires were established. Although early kings considered themselves as divine, later on monarchs were perceived as all-powerful mortals, elected by the gods to rule over humans. Many objects on display illustrate kings in various aspects (victorious conqueror, pious worshiper, brave hunter, etc.), such as a rock relief depicting king Iddin-Sin, King of Simurrum trampling over his enemy before a goddess (ca. 2000 BCE); the unique stele of  Tiglath-Pileser III, the founder of the great Assyrian Empire, showing him worshipping divine symbols (737 BCE); and a relief portraying the Sasanian king Shappur I holding a spear, most likely hunting (probably a 19th century Qajar imitation of a royal image of the 3rd and 4th century).

The people believed that the humans were created by gods out of clay, mixed with divine blood and spit, in order to serve them. From written sources we know that there were hundreds of gods and goddesses, each responsible for a different realm. These deities, portrayed in human or symbolic form, coexisted with sundry hybrid demons and monsters – malevolent or benevolent. One of the most known of these fabulous creatures was the giant Humbaba, guardian of the Cedar Forest of Lebanon and the fierce enemy of Gilgamesh, the ancient Near Eastern hero par excellence, depicted on a protective clay plaque (2nd millennium BCE).

Ancient Near Eastern imagery was based on man’s natural environment. Thus the tree, a widespread symbol of fertility deities, can be seen on the wall relief from the palace of the Assyrian king Ashurnasirpal II (883–859 BCE), in which two winged creatures stand on either side of a stylized palm tree, perhaps pollinating it. The bull was another common symbol of fertility, virility and potency. On a relief dated to the 2nd – the 3rd century CE, the Persian god Mithra is shown killing a bull, an act of ultimately strength and courage. Women’s depictions, mostly in their powerful erotic nakedness, were especially prevalent. The "nude woman" icon, typical to ancient Near East, is exemplified in the gallery by many representations belonging to various cultures and periods, as shown by a clay figurine from Elam (14th–12th century BCE).

The rich variety of artifacts from this area, dating from prehistoric times to the emergence of Islam, sheds light on the beliefs and customs of the civilizations that rose and fell in the many different regions of the ancient Near East. They illustrate, to a certain extent, the enormous influence of neighboring cultures, notably that of Mesopotamia, exerted on the world of ideas and material culture of ancient Israel.

 Laura A. Peri, Rodney E. Soher Curator of Western Asiatic Antiquities


The Greek World

Attic black-figure column krater (deep bowl for mixing wine and water) with a scene from the myth of the Rape of Europa Athens, Greece, Late Archaic Period, ca. 520-510 BCE, Pottery
Gift of the Coplin and Beningson Families, New York, to American Friends of the Israel Museum, in memory of Irwin Coplin

The Greek World

The 3rd millennium BCE – 1st century BCE
Greek art appeared in Bronze Age civilizations (3rd millennium BCE) with the near abstract Cycladic figurines. These figurines were made of marble, and were used mainly in funerary contexts. When the early civilizations collapsed, Greece went through a Dark Age and artistic expression declined.

Greek art reappears in the Geometric Period (9th – 8th centuries BCE). This style is characterized by geometric composition and a sense of order. A jewelry box with two sculpted horse figurines on its lid as a handle, demonstrates how the pattern was used to cover the entire surface of the object to which these kinds of scenes were sometimes added.

The Archaic period (7th century BCE) came next, characterized by the development of ceramic art, sculpture, and the development of techniques in bronze production. The human figure gradually became the central theme, and sculpture was constantly seeking its ideal proportions: “man as the measure of all things”. Black-figures drawn against a reddish background was the predominant method of decorating pottery. A typical example of this style can be seen in an amphora, on which Dionysus, the god of wine is depicted here, dancing with two naked mythical creatures

Greece reached its cultural peak in the Classical period (5th– 4th century BCE to). Artists crafted the ideal human figure, in perfect proportion, in natural poses, and with delicately fashioned faces. A Head of a Youth, a fragment from a funerary stele, encompasses these qualities.

The Hellenistic period starts with the conquests of Alexander the Great (336–323 BCE), and Greek culture spread to the areas he conquered. The Artistic style becomes more realistic, and sculpture focuses on realism and motion, as clearly seen in the statue of Aphrodite holding an apple.

The encounter between the Greek conquerors and the subjected nations resulted in a fascinatingly, eclectic art. Many artifacts from the period reflect the mutual influences between culture, religion and Greek art and their local counterparts. The Comic Theater mask of a slave, produced in Alexandria, Egypt is a fine example of the Greek style.

 Galit Bennett-Dahan, Rodney E. Soher Curator of Classical Archaeology


The Peoples of Italy

Fragment of a wall painting depicting a flying Eros or Cupid, Boscotrecase, Italy, Early Fourth Style, ca. 50 CE, Gift of Dr. Eli Borowski, Jerusalem, in memory of his son, Zeev Reuven
 

The Peoples of Italy

The 8th century BCE – 6th century CE

Italy was home to many different peoples of diverse origin, and culture. They lived side by side and flourished there; each leaving its distinctive artistic mark on the culture. Their combined influence produced impressive artistic results. The gallery presents a selection of remarkable items reflecting the unique style of each group, and the art works in which the various influences converge.

At the beginning of the first millennium BCE, the original population of Italy, whose origins are not known, were joined by newcomers who came to the south of Italy and the surrounding islands. Phoenicians, and Punics brought eastern culture with them; the Greeks brought theirs. Southern Italy and Sicily came to be known as Magna Grecia (Greater Greece) exerting profound influence on the rest of Italy, notably on the artistic realm.

Examples of Greek art that the settlers brought with them are on display in the gallery and include both the typical ceramic vessels, and the bust of a goddess, probably Persephone - related to mystery fertility rites.

Central and Northern Italy was settled by peoples of other cultures, attracted to the region by its metal ores. The Etruscans were the most important group, singled out by their customs, and influencing central Italy in its early days.  Most Etruscan finds come from tombs, including weapons, decorated belts, and bronze jewelry buried alongside the dead.

Between Etruria in central Italy and Magna Grecia in the south, lay Latium, inhabited by Latin speaking Italian communities. Towards the end of the 8th century BCE their power grew, especially that of one village, which was to become the city of Rome.

According to tradition, Rome was ruled by Etruscan kings in the 8th – 7th century BCE. Only in the 6th century BCE were they overthrown, and Rome became a small independent republic. The young republic grew stronger, and by the end of the first century BCE it dominated the Mediterranean world. Rome ruled until the 6th century CE. A magnificent mural showing a flying Cupid, was found in a sumptuously decorated Pompeian villa is a prime example of Roman art at its best. Another typical object, used to advertise power and government can be noted in Emperor Tiberius’ portrait, which well exemplify the Greek influences in Roman portraiture.

 Galit Bennett-Dahan, Rodney E. Soher Curator of Classical Archaeology


Islamic Near East

Islamic Near East

The 8th century – 19th century

In the 7th century CE, in the Arabian Peninsula, a new monotheistic religion emerged, posed to change the course of history – Islam. Shortly after the death of the Prophet Muhammad, the founder of the religion, the Arab believers set out on a conquest campaign, and within less than a century Islamic rule spread from Spain in the west, to India in the east.

Muslim culture was a product of the fusion of traditions and cultures; the Arabic language and their new religion, with Classical and Persian traditions. All of these produced a new and unique art form – Islamic art.

The objects in the gallery were made in different periods mainly in Iran and other countries in Asia. Despite the geographic spread and the long stretch of time they share many characteristics: first and foremost the use of Arabic calligraphy as a major decorative element. The texts used are verses from the Koran, like those found on the mihrab (prayer niche) and on the two large wall tiles in the gallery. Other typical decorations include adorning objects with poetry, proverbs and blessings for the owners, like the 14th century metal bowl; decorating with the arabesque – an endless motif consisting of intricate flowers and leaves; geometric patterns; or figurative designs, banned from use in religious contexts, but common in secular art. Figurative art included animals and courtly scenes, like the hunting scene on the magnificent ceramic bowl on display in the gallery.

Some objects, such as the mihrab, were made for religious use. Others, mainly a variety of beautiful household items, were meant for use in rich dwellings. Although some of the objects are made from fairly simple materials, like ceramic and bronze, the rich and complex decoration lends them prestige, no less than silver and gold. Examples can be found in gilt luxury ceramics, bowls and jugs and bronze vessels which were inlaid with pieces of silver.

Late Islamic art shows the significant change in the style of Muslim painting and decoration, in the wake of European influences. Muslim elite coveted Western luxury objects and Muslim artists adapted their styles to their patrons’ new preferences and decorated their work in European spirit.

 Liza Lurie, Curator of Islamic Art and Archaeology