In 1899, a Bedoin tribe was looking to bury an elder in a desert now located on the border of Syria and Turkey. They dug into the sand, only to find the carved head of an ancient idol from an alien civilization.
Rayyane Tabet, a contemporary artist from Lebanon whose work is part of a new exhibit at the Metropolitan Museum of Art called “Rayyane Tabet: Alien Property,” says that the tribe suffered that year from an unprecedented drought, a swarm of locusts, and a cholera outbreak. They decided the idol had cursed them. And when a 39-year-old German attaché arrived to scout out a possible route for the Baghdad railway, they told him about it in the hope that he’d take it away.
Eventually, he did.
That young diplomat was Baron Max von Oppenheim, who picked up a shovel and started digging beneath the plains of Tell Halaf within a few days.
“You have to think of Max von Oppenheim as the German Lawrence of Arabia,” Tabet said. “But we remember Lawrence of Arabia because the British won that war.”
Von Oppenheim found more statues, but was called back to Berlin before he could start a real archeological dig. He didn’t know it yet, but he was standing on top of a buried civilization, an almost 3,000-year-old Neo-Hittite kingdom.
Years later, he returned, and over the course of several years found the remains of tombs and an opulent palace, which was lined with 194 “orthostats": stone panels carved with elaborate scenes and figures. He tried to sell some of those orthostats in New York but they were ultimately put in storage, and during World War II they were seized as enemy (or alien) property. Later, two of those wound up in the Met’s collection. Von Oppenheim brought other pieces to a private museum he founded in Berlin.
The 194 orthostats are the basis of the new exhibition, but that isn't the whole story. Because Tabet had learned as a child that his great-grandfather Faek Borkhoche, whom he knew as a quiet school teacher, served as von Oppenheim’s translator and secretary in the 1920s.
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There’s a photo of Borkhoche at Tell Halaf in a vitrine at the beginning of the exhibit. He’s mustachioed, handsome, and holding a snake that Tabet says he had caught the night before.
“This project is triggered by this kind of figure in the background, the silent person just standing next to this kind of major figure and this major moment in history that maybe suddenly is allowed to speak, in a way,” Tabet said.
Tabet started contacting museums around the world to ask if he could get rubbings of the orthostats. The result is lining the walls of one of the Met’s galleries: 32 charcoal rubbings, each of which has an eerie, ghostly feel.
“The rubbings themselves, there’s almost a flame-like, ethereal quality—there an impression that seems to be about to disappear,” said co-curator Clare Davies, the assistant curator of Modern and Contemporary Art in the Middle East. “And I think that that's a wonderful way of thinking about, what are the absences in the museum and how can we see them?”
That’s assisted by text on top of the rubbings that describes where each orthostat was found—and details the many that have disappeared or been destroyed.
“At this moment, when everybody's talking about the preservation of cultural heritage—that's the story of Tell Halaf,” Tabet said. “It reverses that logic. Those objects were actually destroyed in the West. They were destroyed in Berlin and not actually in Aleppo. And so one of the major elements of this show is in a way to trouble those preconceived notions about provenance, about repatriation, about questions around cultural heritage.”
Tabet says that a curator once told him that the moment an object is unearthed, it is jeopardized. It's in danger from the environment, from economic forces, from political forces.
“The history of preservation comes hand-in-hand with the history of destruction,” Tabet said.
That idea can be seen most clearly in a different object that’s part of the exhibit: a monumental sculpture of a seated woman that von Oppenheim called “My Venus.” It was loaned to the Met by the Vorderasiatisches Museum, part of the Pergamon Museum in Berlin, which is undergoing extensive renovations.
“It's one of the most iconic objects that were excavated at Tell Halaf,” said Kim Benzel, curator in charge of the Department of Ancient Near Eastern Art, who organized the exhibition with Davies. “She came out of the ground in virtually pristine condition.”
But she didn’t stay that way. Her face is mostly intact, but you can see the hundreds of cracks that are a result of a British air raid on Berlin in 1943. Benzel said it’s made her think about the destruction of ancient objects in the Middle East.
“It’s an issue that comes up constantly, with the various destructions and lootings. It’s terribly upsetting and wrong,” Benzel said. “And it’s something we can’t control. We can watch if looted objects are coming in to the museum, but we can’t, you know, stand in the middle of Palmyra and tell them to stop.”
And yet she added, an object being in the Middle East isn’t what makes it vulnerable.
“They're equally safe and unsafe everywhere I would say, because we don't know do we?” Benzel asked. “Should we consider ourselves in the West as safer? I don’t know. The Venus blew up in Berlin. And through Allied bombing, no less.”
The World War II phosphorus bomb superheated the basalt and when firefighters poured cold water on the stone objects in the room, they shattered. It took a decade for conservators to restore more than 30 objects out of 27,000 pieces.
The cracks should take away from the sculpture, but instead they add to it. They make her seem both more formidable and more contemporary. And they add a poignancy. The woman’s face looks resolute, even though her body seems to be disintegrating beneath her.
“It's like a tragic and a hopeful encounter,” Tabet said.
Sharing her gallery are large sculptures of a winged lion and bull from the Met’s permanent collection. They are similar to objects in the ancient Iraqi city of Nimrud that were under threat in 2016, when the Islamic State destroyed much of the city.
“In some very, very moving way, she's sitting here looking at them, almost as if to say,’ I'm still here. You're going to be fine.’” Benzel said.
Rayyane Tabet: Alien Property is at the Metropolitan Museum of Art through January 2021.