In the year A.D. 630, things were looking pretty good for the Roman Empire, considering that its “fall” was supposed to have happened 150 years earlier. The Emperor Heraclius had just kicked the Persians out of the empire’s breadbasket in the Middle East, which they had held for the last 15 years, so that imperial power once again stretched almost all around the Mediterranean. (Rome itself may have fallen to the Germans in 476, but the Roman Empire kept going for another 1,000 years in the Greek-speaking lands east and south, ruled from Constantinople.) Around that same moment, one of the capital’s great silversmiths crafted a gorgeous set of plates telling the story of King David’s rise and Goliath’s fall, in thinly veiled homage to the emperor’s own feats. The artist’s subject is biblical, made for enjoyment in the Christian culture of what we now call Byzantium, but its styling harks back to the great classical tradition, which that culture—always proclaiming itself “Roman”—could proudly claim. David wears an outfit straight out of any sword-and-sandal movie, and a nearby river god would have been at home on any temple in the Roman Forum. Those plates now belong to the Metropolitan Museum in New York and are a highlight of a stunning, deeply important new show there called Byzantium and Islam: Age of Transition. As that title suggests, our silversmith left one thing out of his calculation: at the moment he was hammering away, an unlikely new power was forming on the remote Arabian peninsula, under a seer and leader named Muhammad. After his death in 632, that Arab power erupted across all the Middle East and North Africa, pushing the Roman empire of Heraclius and his descendants back to an embattled core in Asia Minor and Greece.
Those, at least, are the historical facts of the matter. What the Met exhibition sets out to show is that, across the entire eastern Mediterranean, the cultural facts on the ground tell a very different story. The exhibition surveys one of the great moments in world history, when two of its greatest forces came head-to-head—and discovers that the contact is more fertile than deadly. Helen Evans, the Met’s curator of Byzantine art, points out that her show covers precisely the lands that were affected by last year’s Arab Spring. It shows that tolerance and open-mindedness have deep roots in the region.
Islam did not smash the Middle East’s Christian and classical culture, as scholars once thought. Christians continued to thrive in Muslim lands, and to make delightful objects much like the ones they’d always been making. The show includes gorgeous ivories, carved under Arab rule, that treat fully Christian subjects in quite classical styles. Deluxe Byzantine fabrics also continued to be made, woven with Annunciations and Nativities but also with Amazons and Bacchic vines and other details out of classical myth—sometimes in fabrics that include Arabic script. (One bishop felt it necessary to warn his priests against using altar clothes inscribed with Islam’s profession of faith.) Many of these textiles are woven from ultraprecious silk, proving that the elaborate trade routes of the Romans had hardly dried up with the arrival of Islam. Evans describes silk as the period’s economic equivalent of today’s crude oil.
Cultural treasures in a similar vein also continued to be made by, or for, the Jews and Samaritans and other local ethnic and religious groups, including some peculiarly Middle Eastern sects of Christianity: the show includes deluxe Hebrew and Coptic manuscripts. Where the Orthodox Church in Constantinople had tried (and mostly failed) to tamp down this religious variety, the new Muslim overlords were more laissez-faire. This may have left some locals less than devastated by the change from Roman rulers to Muslim ones. (One point the show doesn’t make: the Middle East’s new leaders may not have had much choice but to be tolerant. They must have been a tiny ruling elite faced with a sea of subjects whose cultures they could not change overnight. Some of the first Arab coins, although closely modeled on Byzantine ones, were still refused by locals because they came without crosses.)
Before Islam, there had already been Arab Christians working for the Greek-speaking Romans. After Islam, all kinds of Christians worked for the new Muslim rulers, eventually adopting the Arabic language for all their own writings, including theological ones. Two of the greatest defenders of the use of religious icons, which was prohibited at various times in Constantinople, were Christians immersed in the iconophobic culture of Islam. One of them wrote his defense in Arabic.
And the whole time that these Christians were incorporating bits and pieces of Arab and Muslim culture into their Byzantine ways, the Muslims were borrowing from them. One scholar argues that Islam’s trademark use of script as decoration was influenced by the gorgeous Greek texts that graced Byzantine treasures, such as the silver chalices included in this show. The great Friday Mosque in Damascus, built just 70 years after the Muslim eruption from the spare world of Arabia, has stunning mosaics done by craftsmen from Constantinople. As a newly arrived power, how could the Arabs not look to the Roman Empire as their model for grand display? The first caliph of Damascus, criticized for extravagance, said he needed to live at least as well as his Christian opponents. The best way to do that was by copying them. (Another early caliph was attacked for preferring newfangled mosques so ornate, they seemed made in “the manner of churches.”)
One of the earliest and most beautiful objects now at the Met is a Byzantine Bible, from around the year 600, written in gold on pages dyed imperial purple. The show closes with another sacred text, written in gold on deep indigo blue some 300 years later, when Muslim culture had at last settled deep in the region. Now, of course, the book’s a Quran—but its model is still that old Byzantine one.