Monday, March 21, 2011

Peeking inside the Aya İrini, and into Anatolia's ancient past

Marriages, divorces, broken betrothals, inheritance disputes, the selling of slaves, even the arrest of a spy -- it's awfully juicy material to be found in faded etchings on small clay tablets. Though they may not have the aesthetic grace of a well-crafted jug or bowl, or the obvious intrigue of icon-like animal figurines, these early records of the drudgery (field sales, donkey transportation fees) and drama of daily life in Central Anatolia some 4,000 years ago are perhaps the most compelling part of the exhibit currently on display at the Hagia Eirene Museum in Istanbul.

Even if you're not interested in ancient archaeological discoveries, the awkwardly named "Foreword to Anatolia Kültepe-Kanesh Karum: Assyrians in Istanbul" is worth a visit for the chance to peek inside the Hagia Eirene (Aya İrini), a mini-version of the more famous Hagia Sophia that's typically closed to the public. But unlike many such exhibits where endless rows of coins and pottery are displayed with little more than a date on the label, some effort was made here to interpret the findings from Kültepe (Karesh), an 18-level dig near the modern city of Kayseri, for a general audience.

aya irini

The first written documents in Anatolia, those little clay tablets can be thought of as the beginning of history in the area. They also reveal the somewhat surprising fact that women in the settlement had legal rights and could sign business transactions -- abilities probably no one was willing to try and keep from women tough enough to guard their homes against robbers and collect from debtors while their merchant husbands were away. Equality only went so far, though: A man could take a second wife in the event of infertility, which was considered solely his first wife's fault.

Also striking were some examples of the extraordinary longevity of good design. A clay colander c. 1880 BC looked pretty much the same as the metal ones in today's kitchens, while a pair of gold hoop earrings from 1700 BC could have been the first pair I wore in high school.

Not addressed, however, was whether users of stamps bearing the image of a double-headed eagle -- a common motif apparently symbolizing "the meeting of East and West" -- were soundly mocked for resorting to cliché.

TO VISIT: The exhibit is on view until March 28 at the Hagia Eirene Museum in the Topkapı Palace Garden in Istanbul. The museum is open Wednesday through Monday from 9 a.m. to 4 p.m. and admission is free.

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