I Came, ISAW, I Contemplated

John Kuhner |

Take a Moment to Ponder the Centuries at the Institute for the Study of the Ancient World’s New “Romance and Reason” Exhibit


 Alexander cradles the dying King Darius, from a 16th c. manuscript of Firdausi’s Shahnamah.
         Alexander cradles the dying King Darius, from a 16th c. manuscript of Firdausi’s Shahnamah.

Living on the outskirts of New York City as I do, my cultural schedule is dominated by the large institutions: exhibits at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, great works at Lincoln Center, bringing my children to the American Museum of Natural History and the Bronx Zoo. But one of the real joys of living in the metropolis is getting to know the little cultural gems that are sprinkled here and there throughout the city: smaller museums, tiny exhibit spaces, art galleries that offer an intimacy no big institution can offer.

One of these exhibit spaces dear to lovers of the Classics is hosted by the Institute for the Study of the Ancient World (ISAW), on the Upper East Side. The exhibit space is small, taking up only two rooms, but is only a block away from the Metropolitan Museum of Art and Central Park, making it a perfect stop on a larger cultural outing.

The Institute, run by New York University, is housed in an 85th street townhouse, once I’m sure quite luxurious, and now elegantly adapted for institutional use. It houses offices, classrooms, and research materials for the little troupe of scholars who work here, writing scholarly volumes as well as starting new digital humanities projects. There is a superb research library. It hosts numerous public events as well. ISAW’s geographical scope, unusual within the world of Classics, is worth considering:

In an effort to embrace a truly inclusive geographical scope while maintaining continuity and coherence, the Institute focuses on the shared and overlapping periods in the development of cultures and civilizations around the Mediterranean basin, and across central Asia to the Pacific Ocean.

I have long thought that this might be one of the wisest redefinitions of the meaning of Classics in our global age: the Classics are the literary traditions that have continually existed for multiple thousands of years, including but not limited to Chinese, Sanskrit, Arabic, Persian, and Hebrew, as well as Latin and Greek. It is certainly worth watching to see if ISAW’s broader definition of the Classics will be effective.

The current exhibit at ISAW is entitled “Romance and Reason: Islamic Transformations of the Classical Past,” and is a splendid example of the Institute’s broader geographical compass. In one room (“reason”) are artifacts pertaining to the mining and adaptation of Greek science by various Islamic cultures; in the other room (“romance”) are books about Alexander the Great — from the currently Islamic parts of the world he conquered.

 The “Sun of Arithmetic,” 15th c. manuscript.
The “Sun of Arithmetic,” 15th c. manuscript.

The exhibit consists mostly of illuminated manuscripts, the volumes left open to particularly beautiful or interesting pages, with good explanatory text on the wall. When I entered the first room, on a frigid March Saturday, I found it full, with one person stationed at each manuscript, studiously dividing their attention between book and explanatory text. All were silent. It was very impressive: like coming across a candlelit religious procession. I know that people say we’re all getting dumbed down by twitter and cable television, but I find myself continually impressed by the intelligence and seriousness I see around me. I waited for the nearest manuscript to become available, and joined the procession moving clockwise around the room, from manuscript to manuscript.

Some exhibits lift your spirits; some make great subjects for discussion; some make for good first dates. “Romance and Reason” made all of us in the room contemplative. In the “reason” room we all came face to face with our species’ attempts to reason our way to some kind of understanding of the universe: we saw Arabic translations of Greek mathematical and astronomical and medical treatises, replete with trigonometric illustrations, star charts, and anatomical drawings, all showing evidence of personal experimentation in an attempt to understand or prove the original text. It took brainpower to follow, but something about the encounter with these manuscripts made it easy to pay attention. A manuscript is a powerful statement of hope in the future: imagine how many books you would commit to transmitting to posterity, if the only way you could do it was by copying them out by hand. And yet these Islamic scribes did not rush through their tasks, producing shoddy books in the minimum time possible: they created magnificent works of art, embellishing their pages with every variety of illustration. These were people who believed in each pen stroke. And mirabile dictu, their works remain, hundreds of years later.

                     Statue of Alexander from “Romance and Reason.” (Brooklyn Museum)
 Statue of Alexander from “Romance and Reason.” (Brooklyn Museum)

The “romance” room, dedicated to the reception of Alexander in the Islamic world, pleased me even more. One of the things that has always struck me when teaching is how a student can read a 150-page book and really notice — really notice, and remember — only five or ten of those pages; and those noticeable pages will be the parts that have the most meaning to them. At times I could even predict which students would notice which parts. We all do this. Of all the information our senses bring to our brain, we identify only a few of these things as really being significant. To me this is mythos — the part of the world around us that seems to have meaning, which to our brains is not just information but an important story. Facts can appear to have meaning of this sort, but good fiction always does. The Islamic treatments of Alexander are especially striking because they depart from mere history (hence “romance”), and turn Alexander into an Everyman — a mythical figure whose actions all have meaning. It is easy to see why: a person who goes from conquest to conquest, and yet drinks himself to death seems to suggest something about the nature of achievement; a man who has all the qualities that seem to make men attractive, and yet seems to die lonely and unconsoled, seems a kind of symbol. And so the Islamic writers treated him: he was an emblem of worldly success and intellectual curiosity: here they have him at the Kaaba of Mecca; there he is meeting with Plato; he dines with queens, watches men hang, is brought a stillborn baby, visits caves in mountains, and catches the breath of dying kings, all in richly illustrated manuscript pages (an interesting 16th c. manuscript showed the influence of the European Renaissance too). Anything that humans can do, could plausibly be ascribed to him. And so to come to the pages where his death-scene is recorded I found incredibly moving: even the great share the same human fate. On the wall are the words from the Persian epic the Shahnamah, by Firdausi, which closes with Alexander’s death: “There is nothing in the world so terrible and fearful as the fact that one comes like the wind and departs as a breath.”

 Alexander visits a cave, from a 17th c. manuscript Persian manuscript showing European influence.
Alexander visits a cave, from a 17th c. manuscript Persian manuscript showing European influence.

If you have the time, I recommend taking a break from whatever you are doing, and contemplating the centuries at the Institute for the Study of the Ancient World. The “Romance and Reason” exhibit will remain up until May 13th, 2018.

When I got home, I looked up the Shahnamah, to get more. It reads like a classic, though with a devotional timbre, and I was glad to have been introduced to it by the exhibit. These are its final words, which I will leave you with:

There is nothing in the world so terrible and fearful as the fact that one comes like the wind and departs as a breath, and that neither justice nor oppression are apparent in this. Whether you are a king or a pauper you will discover no rhyme or reason to it. But one must act well, with valor and chivalry, and one must eat well and rejoice: I see no other fate for you, whether you are a subject or a prince. This is the way of the ancient world: Sekandar [Alexander] departed, and what remains of him now is the words we say about him. He killed thirty-six kings, but look how much of the world remained in his grasp when he died. He founded ten prosperous cities, and those cities are now reed beds. He sought things that no man has ever sought, and what remains of him within the circle of the horizon is words, nothing more. Words are the better portion, since they do not decay as an old building decays in the snow and rain. We have finished with Sekandar now, and with the barrier that he built: may our days be fortunate and prosperous.


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John Kuhner

John Byron Kuhner is the former president of SALVI, the North American Institute of Living Latin Studies, and editor of In Medias Res.


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