Ancient Splendors

Reconstructing, in your mind's eye, the splendor of an ancient civilization from the artifacts in a museum is a little like building a life-size model of a brontosaurus based on some fossilized teeth. You peruse dozens of isolated objects, salvaged or stolen from dusty ruins-yet your imagination swims in images of golden thrones, spooky tombs and the prayer halls of faraway caliphates. If the show works, that is. Here are two that do: "Egypt's Dazzling Sun: Amenhotep Ill and His World" at The Cleveland Museum of Art (it will travel to Ft. Worth, Texas, and Paris) and "Al-Andalus: The Art of Islamic Spain" at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York. Both modestly scaled exhibitions run through Sept. 27.

The show in Cleveland is especially dramatic. It's installed in deep-blue, otherworldly galleries, punctuated by spotlights on the objects. Hardly anybody could fail to get tingly in front of 3,300-year-old art that was part of a stylistic tradition starting 50 centuries ago and lasting until well after the birth of Christ. "Amenhotep III" documents the reign of a New Kingdom pharaoh who ruled from 1391 to 1353 B.C., a relatively peaceful king who buttressed Egypt's power not with conquest but with a stable agrarian economy. As a tribute to him, the show,gathered from 30 major collections in the United States, Europe and Egypt, is concerned more with the good life (here and in the hereafter) than with a good fight. There are little luxury items like a glass "Perfume Bottle in the Shape of a Pilgrim's Flask" that looks almost psychedelic, or an acacia-wood "Comb With Kneeling Ibex Handle" that's a masterpiece of inventive animal sculpture. The small, decorative wood-and-ivory "Girl Carrying a Jar" has a cheerful swing to her stance as contemporary as a ballroom twirl. But the military might of Egypt is alluded to in the one-inch high, gold-trimmed model ship's ornament "The Royal Lion Conquering Nubia." It may be tiny, but with the beast devouring the head of a surprised Nubian, it's psychologically monumental.

"Al-Andalus" is by contrast as quiet and contemplative as the mood Islamic art was supposed to create in the devout. The first Moors landed in Spain in 711, and the last left at the time of Columbus in 1492. The seven centuries of Muslim conquest, when Islamic culture mingled with Spanish, left one of the most beautiful-and most over-looked-artistic legacies in the West. Where northern Christian art of the same period is heavy with a bodily Passion for the Savior, Spain's Islamic art-which usually forbids depicting the human figure-is aloof, elegant and almost wry in implying that Allah is in the details.

Architecture-the Great Mosque of Cordoba, La Giralda in Seville, the Alhambra in Granada-is the greatest achievement of al-Andalus (Arabic for "Spain"). It's a slightly ethereal architecture, with long sequences of arches, cascades of spindly columns and pierced stone screens. Buildings were often recycled: churches were turned into mosques after the invasion, and their bells were made into lamps by removing the clappers and adding candle holders to their surfaces. Some mosques were later whitewashed into austerity by Almohad -fundamentalists who thought their Islamic predecessors had succumbed to Spanish decadence. The Met can no more transport a mosque to New York than the Cleveland museum can squeeze a whole tomb into its galleries. So we have to be satisfied with some decorative fragments and spectacular color photographs to give us a taste of the whole.

Still, there are enough exquisite objects in "Al-Andalus" to evoke the beauty of Islamic Spain. Perhaps no calligraphy is more sharply elegant than Arabic, even when it's a sidelight, as in the 13th-century "Hadith Bayad wa Riyad Manuscript." Perhaps no piece of armor is more poignant than the gilded "Parade Helmet," because it's said to have belonged to the Nasrid King Boabdil, the last Islamic commander to be driven from Spain. And there's certainly no more enigmatic sculpture in either exhibition than the llth-century bronze "Pisa Griffin," whose true origins--Iran? Egypt? Spain?-are still unknown. These shows start to lift the shroud on ancient, exotic cultures, but the possessions of pharaohs and caliphs don't easily give up their secrets.