In honor of the recently desecrated Guardians of Nimrud, we repost this classic piece on the importance, not to mention the fun, of museums. Thanks to them, the Guardians are still with us. Read on, and keep reading, to go with them through the Gates and down the garden path, in unexpected company.
ALEXANDER RIDES TO MIDAS
Alexander the Great died in 323 BC. He was 33. Alexander died of a bone infection from an old arrow wound. It’s possible that his immune system was compromised by his grief, bordering on dementia, over the death of Hephaestion, his closest friend, greatest general, second in command and, some say, the love of his life.
Like the god he believed himself to be, the Golden Conqueror would never age. He won the respect and admiration of his own time and successive generations. In awe and affection they continue to laud him, creating imagery in all media from marble to film.
His actual body was mummified in Alexandria, Egypt, by Egyptian necromancers, and was still in a good state of preservation three centuries after his death, when Caesar Augustus leaned into its glass sarcophagus to kiss the Conqueror and, slipping, broke off the mummy’s nose. But Alexander’s tomb and body disappeared. The Alexander Sarcophagus in Istanbul’s Archeological Museum is the nearest thing we have.
Alexander is still fighting and hunting lions on this museum centerpiece from the great Necropolis at Sidon. The stunning bas-relief was created by unknown talent during Alexander’s lifetime. It’s possible that the artist actually set eyes on him.
The art commemorates victory over the Persians at the Battle of Issus in what is now Turkey, and Hephaestion is there fighting as well. Scholars argue over who was buried in the tomb, but he may have commissioned the work before his death with an eye toward Alexandrian help in future battles. The Alexander Sarcophagus was discovered, in what is now Lebanon, in 1887 and brought to Istanbul by Osman Hamdi Bey, the great Ottoman statesman, archeologist and artist who built Istanbul’s Archeological Museum.
And here is the rock star himself, Alexander. This still has traces of yellow paint in the marble hair, rose on the lips. It’s one of several done in the second century BC, when the artist might have had Alexander’s mummy to work from. I find this plausible because the forehead wrinkles are realistic for Alexander but idealized out of many statues.
THE GORDION KNOT
In the drawing up top, Alexander rubs shoulders with an ancient Cypriot statue of Bes, the God of Plenty, a Hittite lion 5500 years old, and King Midas. A skeletal cohort of Midas– nobody knows who it is- rests upstairs among swanky grave goods built of boxwood from 740 BC. Midas was King of the Phrygians, whose capitol of Gordion is near Turkey’s capitol, Ankara. The Phrygians invented a smelting technique that made bronze shine like gold, so yes, everything Midas touched turned to gold. And we thought it was just a fairy tale. Here’s some Midas Gold in the Archeological Museum in Antalya. It actually looks like titanium. There’s also a Madonna whose breasts weep blood, three jolly bronze creatures and a festive phallic bronze pin. I love drawing in museums. The stuff in those cases is laughing at you.
Gordion is the Home of the Gordion Knot. More fairy tales: Nobody could untie the Gordion Knot. Alexander famously solved this dilemma. He pulled out his sword and cut it.
Turkey is a veritable Gordion Knot of history. The threads keep weaving in and out, disappearing and reappearing, and I will never ever live long enough to unravel it. In a beloved tale, King MIdas judged Pan the winner in a music contest with Apollo, and a furiously un-godlike Apollo gave him donkey’s ears. The little figures below are Midas Gold and smaller than a hand. I haven’t yet been to the museum in Ankara, now in restoration, but look forward to its re-opening, when we can see Midas’s magnificent wooden furniture preserved and reassembled over years by dedicated archeologists.
LIONS CAN LIVE THOUSANDS OF YEARS That Hittite lion back in Istanbul has fellows all over what is now Turkey. Aslantepe (Lion Hill) Huge dig near Malatya features a jocular fountain lion and many real pussycats.
The museum at the University in Elazig was full of artifacts from Paleolithic to Ottoman. It’s the only place I’ve ever been offered a chair, not to mention tea and conversation.
I love the combination of tribal art and ancient artifacts found all over rural Turkey. Here’s a collection from Aslantepe Huge:
Here’s a Hittite courtroom, drawn in situ in Turkey in 2004. The culprit sat in the hot seat, surrounded by devils– those paintings on the walls– and was judged by a group. Not much has changed in 5500 years, if you consider the paparazzi.
NIMRUD IN HOLLYWOOD The Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York is one of the more civilized museums in the world, allowing artists to carry in sketchbooks and work at any time. But they go farther still. I drew this winged, lion-bodied Assyrian Guardian and mapped his beard curls to render when I wasn’t standing up– on feet that felt like two hot anvils pounding upward. But I neglected to render one curl to go by. I went back next day, but the exhibit was closed. At the guard station I explained the problem while flipping pages in the sketchbook. “All I need is five minutes,” I said, and those enlightened people called the actual curator who personally came downstairs, escorted me up to the exhibit, unlocked it and stood there while I drew the beard curl. Now THAT’s a museum!!
To the right of the bearded Guardian is a piece from a personal puzzle: that male figure with a bird head, wings and a sideways Egyptian stance, symbol of exotica and ancient mystery. This image strides through my earliest memories, associated with Echo Park, with klieg lights across the sky and the smell of eucalyptus, an enduring symbol of Old Hollywood, of Los Angeles, of home. What a shock to discover this dear and familiar figure to be a djinn– a genie, relic of Nimrud, in Mesopotamia, oceans and continents and millennia away from a childhood in California. I was totally immersed in the Middle East, obsessed with moving to Turkey, drawing to learn more. Echo Park had been the furthest thing from my mind. I stood there in the Met with my mouth open while images strobed through my memory. DW Griffith’s silent epic Intolerance, shot in Hollywood in 1916, stunned viewers with its exotic representation of Babylon. See the figures on the gate?
Antiquities in the Middle East were being discovered at the same time as the medium of film. DW Griffith’s Babylon featured this same djinn, still parading in Hollywood shopping malls to this day.
One Ramadan, drawing from memory Eastern Turkish women seen on the tram, I was compelled by a certain strength in their features to intersperse them with Mesopotamian deities. After all, these faces are all from the same region.
Nimrud is on the Tigris, just southeast of the eastern Turkish border. It was originally excavated in the 1850s. One example of our bird-djinn was surely found between then and Intolerance. DW Griffith employed artists from all over the world. One of them knew the image, which was used precisely because of that sense of ancient mystery it conveys. Many more were found at Nimrud in 1931 by archeologist Max Mallowan. The one above, used as reference for the djinn drawing, was photographed by his wife, Agatha Christie.
AGATHA CHRISTIE? That Gordion Knot again! The most prolific and well-known mystery writer of all time was no stranger to Hollywood, since so many movies have been made of her novels, including Murder on the Orient Express which begins in Istanbul, where she often stayed on her way to and from her husband’s digs in Mesopotamia. I had always associated Agatha Christie with floral dresses, trains, lorgnettes, a detective with patent-leather hair. But here she is in the dusty winds of the Middle East. She funded many digs, used up her face-cream cleaning ancient sculpture, and was an inveterate shutter-bug. She photographed many of the considerable Mallowan finds and wound up on many a museum plaque, along with all those best-seller lists.
Turkey is a mystery I will never solve, but it sure is fun trying. One way is to travel, and another way is to go into the museums and draw. When I get fascinated by a piece of art and draw it, I learn more and more about this place. Everyone was here, many at the same time. Check out these strange bedfellows from the 2nd century AD, at the Archeological Museum in Antalya.
Priapus, God of Sexual Enthusiasm, was as popular with the ancients as he is with us. The one on all those postcards is in Selchuk, along with many other aspects of love.
There’s Priapus actual size– fist-sized– at right center. He was in a glass case with a light you press for two minutes of illumination. I kept pushing the button so I could see to draw, and looked up to see a large crowd– the entire museum!– standing behind watching and giggling.
THE BYZANTINE FANTASY ZOO
It turns out that a dragon was a symbol of Christianity. So was a foot, which represented pilgrimage. Drawing in the Met, I realized that Christianity had spread all over the Middle East long before Islam. It incorporated all the fantastic animals of the Shamanistic religions that preceded it.
Thanks to the movies, the co-mingled Egyptian animal-human gods are old friends. But who ever heard of a Senmurv, a rocking-horse-like winged creature with a peacock tail?
All the early Christian exhibits are full of these strange co-mingled creatures: bird-headed lions, griffins, dragons, hippogriffs, pigs with wings. By the Middle Ages, artists were using them to populate Hell, most famously Hieronymus Bosch. The ancients combined lions and eagles and bulls. Bosch used animals he saw in Holland: frogs, birds, cats, mice, rabbits. Gradually these conglomerate fiends disappeared from Christian art, and all that is left of them now are those gargoyles on Notre Dame.
Heaven got the winged deities. The visual depictions of angels evolved from those Shamanistic figures, from fiery six-winged Seraphim to Cupid-inspired cherubs. And this powerful winged male figure: our dear and familiar djinn with a human head: the Archangel.
A PRIDE OF LIONS
Not every fabulous museum denizen is in a glass case. Derek here posed on the steps of the Met with all the insouciance of one of the stone lions within, while I was able to delight nine-year-old Faisal by drawing his incipient mustache.
Lord Elgin was the British ambassador to Ottoman Istanbul. Distressed at the rural peoples’ indifference to antiquities, he bought as many as he could afford, bullying an old friend into building an entire wing at The British Museum to house them, and bankrupting himself in the process. This is now a cause of discord between Turkey and England, but in the end the glories are preserved. Many village walls sport chunks of carving along with the rock and brick.
In The British Museum, while drawing these lions from Xanthos, I was surrounded by schoolchildren. In uniforms, with sketchbooks, little Harry Potters all, saying in those lovely accents, “Are you actually drawing those lions? Truly?” Yes, I said, these lions are from Xanthos, a city in Turkey. They were astonished, they were entranced. They had not known that Turkey is the Asia Minor referred to in the museum. My sketchbook at that time had pictures of the British Ambassador to Turkey, our Anglican Canon, the chandeliers in the British Consulate, and Cappadocia.
What these kids loved was the Open Air Museum in Cappadocia. They would not let me turn the pages. They wanted to know the story of every single pigeon cave in the cliffs, every window, every cave church. “These are pigeonholes? Real ones?”
“Look at this, it’s old Father Theodosias’s church, look here, where he prayed, the stone is worn there, that’s Arab painting up top, you can see-” When I looked up, there were a hundred kids there, parents, teachers, docents… now THAT’s a museum!
There are plenty of Hittite lions in Cappadocia, too. All of Turkey is one breathing, palpating, interwoven fist of historical threads, pulling in the whole world. We live at the center, then and now. And what’s all this history for? Well, for starters history gives me hope. In these perilous times it’s reassuring to realize that the ancients, too, often thought– with good reason!–that the world was ending. It’s relaxing, when distressed by the antics of some fruitcake potentate or terrorist thugs, to read of the same a thousand years ago and know that these lethal fools too shall pass. History is humbling: no matter how unique I feel, I learn of legions of others. Wandering through the museums, looking at familiar expressions in ancient bronze and marble and clay, I feel at one with the great tide of humanity: following that Gordion thread, seeing it disappear into the knot, wondering if I will ever see it re-emerge, or if I must wait for another incarnation. One day I may have all the answers, but by then the questions probably won’t matter anymore.
All drawings Plein Air. All drawings © Trici Venola, created with drafting pens on rag paper in sketchbook format, standard size 18 X 52 cm / 7 X 20 inches. All drawings part of The Drawing On Istanbul Project. Original drawings are for sale. If you see one here and love it, contact Trici Venola. We love your comments.