The British Museum presents a new display that will explore present and ancient perspectives on the territories, landscapes and borders of the Middle East. While the first acknowledged borders were natural, human society replaced these with man-made borders that have led to inevitable conflict throughout history. This new Asahi Shimbun display, No man’s land, brings together a selection of objects separated by over four thousand years that embody human’s inability to exist comfortably within agreed borders.
On display will be three objects that tell the story of the first recorded example of prolonged conflict over a disputed border. 4500 years ago, in what is now southern Iraq, the neighbouring city states of Lagash and Umma fought bitterly over the tract of land called Gu’edina, ‘Edge of the Plain’. The ancient objects showcased here document the perspectives of the opposing sides, with both territories invoking divine sanction and precedent to justify their claim over the land.
New research has been carried out on British Museum objects especially for this display. The Lagash Border Pillar has been in the collection for 150 years and this show marks the first time that the inscribed text has been deciphered. Dating to 2400 BC, King Enmetena of Lagash set up this white stone pillar to mark his territory, and its glistening surface would have shone out brightly and assertively under the sun beating down on the plain.
Alongside this will stand the Umma Mace-Head made for King Gishakidu of Umma, Enmetena’s contemporary and enemy. Long regarded as a vase, it is now understood that this is a symbolic mace-head which has always been displayed upside down - until now. On top is a black-painted representation of the battle-net that was used by the gods to immobilise enemies for execution. The Ur Plaque also on display in this show illustrates a tradition followed by Lagash and Umma in which offerings were made at the border shrine under the protective eye of the Moon God.
These ancient objects are juxtaposed with two series of photographs by Ursula Schulz Dornburg. Over the last decades she has created a body of photographic work exploring past and present histories of the Middle East and captures visible traces of the region’s shifting borders and cultures. Both series in this display were taken during a journey through southern Iraq. The first, Mesopotamia, records the sites of ancient Mesopotamian cities that were once magnificent centres of art and culture. One of these was taken on the river Shatt al-Gharaff, bordering the ancient city-states of Umma and Lagash.
The second, Marsh Arabs, captures the fragility of the Iraqi marshlands that survived largely unchanged from c.2400 BC until they were drained and rendered uninhabitable during and after the First Gulf War.
Vividly demonstrating the manipulation of land for political gain is the Sykes- Picot map, lent by the National Archives for this show. Drawn up in secrecy in 1916 by Mark Sykes and François Georges-Picot before the fall of the Ottoman Empire, the map divided the Middle East into zones of control for the benefit of Britain and France. These artificial borders that decided the fate of the Middle East over 100 years ago contributed to conflicts which continue to this day.
The Asahi Shimbun Display No man’s land brings to light the fragility of borders throughout history. The ancient and contemporary works exhibited address the issues around the human desire to dominate land, and allude to the brutality and turmoil borders have invoked on those that inhabit them as well as the landscape itself.