Munich in English - selected by independent Locals for Cosmopolitans, Newcomers and Residents - since 1989

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December 1999

Madame X

Until january 2000, the museum für Völkerkunde is home to an important collection, which documents the rich and sophisticated art of southern Arabia. Once named “Arabia felix” (happy Arabia) by the classical writers, the region is coextensive with the present-day Republic of Yemen. Over 600 objects are on view, many of which have never before left their country of origin. The name of the exhibition, Im Land der Königin von Saba (In the land of the Queen of Sheba), alludes to the mythical queen who, according to the Bible, visited King Solomon of Israel. While the queen’s identity remains a mystery, the art of her kingdom forms the focal point of this show. Items are arranged in chronological order, starting with the Neolithic Period and ending with the decline of the southern kingdoms in the fourth century AD. Though most objects are made of stone, some extraordinary bronze sculptures and metal weapons are also on display. The exhibition includes blown-up photos of the area, reconstructions and models, which bring this long lost civilization closer to us. Examples include the full-scale model of one of the gates of the Athtar Temple in Ma’in, a small kingdom that gained importance toward the end of the seventh century BC. Athtar was the most important god in the south Arabian pantheon, and was closely associated with Venus. A reconstruction of a camel grave bears witness to the status these animals achieved in southern Arabia. Thanks to the taming of the humped beasts, caravans could be sent to Egypt, Palestine and other Mediterranean lands, where incense, myrrh and other luxury products were traded. Indeed, the camel was of such importance that it was integrated into the funeral rites of men. The revered animal was buried either with the deceased, or in a separate, nearby grave. A live camel, having been forced to kneel in the grave, would have its legs bound, or its sinews slashed and would be decapitated. The implements used in the slaughter were then buried with the sacrificed desert creature. In some Sabaean cemeteries, this somewhat brutal rite was abandoned in favor of a more gentle one: here, camel statues were buried instead. Bordering on the great Arabian desert, the kingdom chronically suffered from dry periods, making irrigation systems essential for the development and flourishing of civilization. A model of the great dam of Ma’rib, the ancient capital of Sheba, demonstrates the remarkable engineering skills of the Sabaeans. The exhibition’s most charming piece is an alabaster sculpture of a young woman, dubbed “Miriam the Untamed” by the men who excavated her in 1950. Found in the cemetery of Tamna, capital of the rival kingdom of Qatabân, the sculpture dates from the first century AD. An elaborate coiffeur made of plaster, which still bears traces of black paint, frames Miriam’s exquisite features. The suspicion that the lapis lazuli-eyed figure once wore earrings and a necklace is confirmed by the holes in her ears and on either side of her neck. Such portraits of the dead — characterized by elongated necks — were usually fixed to rectangular pediments or were set into niches inside mausoleums. The exhibition ends with a brief description of the influence the Greco-Roman style exerted on southern Arabian art, notably on bronze sculpture. Here, two bronze statues of rulers from the second or fourth century AD reveal a tendency toward naturalistic representation. Many of the exhibits speak for themselves, but for those who wish to have precise information in English, a ring binder, which provides a somewhat quirky translation of the most important labels, is loaned to visitors at the entrance of the show. It is hugely preferable to the audio guide, which provides little extra information to the labels and lacks a general introduction to the subject. <<<

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