Many a country has enjoyed its time in the sun — a period of dominance when the world (often quite literally) seemed to be at its rulers’ feet. It’s a difficult trick to repeat, though. Italy’s Renaissance, glorious though it was, never recaptured the heyday of the Roman Empire, and Mussolini’s attempts to invoke the country’s imperial past remained a dictator’s delusion.

Enter Turkey, home to not one, not two, but (count ’em) three mighty empires that changed the world: the Hittite, the Byzantine and the Ottoman.

These cultures are the focus of a stunning display of exhibits currently showing at the Tokyo Metropolitan Art Museum before moving to Fukuoka and Osaka later this year. (Though “focus” may not be the right word — this exhibition is essentially a survey of gorgeous artifacts produced through 3,500 years of Turkish history. We are not invited to analyze, merely to admire.)

Of the “Three Great Civilizations in Turkey,” as the exhibition is titled, the Byzantine and Ottoman are well known. The most intriguing story, however, is that of the Hittites.

Lost in time

The Hittite Empire lasted from approximately 1900-1200 B.C, centered on a capital city close to the site of present-day Ankara. At its peak it rivaled even the Pharaonic Egypt of Ramses I (d. 1314? B.C.) and Ramses II — the two superpowers were more or less permanently at war.

The Hittite Empire’s gifts to posterity include sophisticated legal and writing systems and (though this is disputed) the invention of ironworking.

Yet until just over 100 years ago, we knew nothing of them.

The “discovery” of the Hittite Empire is one of the most thrilling stories of modern archaeology. The Hittites feature frequently in the Hebrew scriptures, generally in long lists of other Near Eastern tribal “-ites” such as the Amorites and Jebusites, but otherwise they remained a mystery for centuries.

Then, at the end of the 18th century, pictographic bas-reliefs were discovered in the Asia Minor plateau referring to a people known as the Kheta, who had made a peace treaty with the Egyptian Pharaoh Ramses II. The same pictographs turned up in other locations, too, including on the banks of the Euphrates and the site of ancient Babylon. Scholars put two and two together, and in the 1870s and 1880s the Kheta were identified with the Biblical Hittites.

That identification was confirmed in 1906 when two scholars, German professor Hugo Winckler and Turkish expert Makridi Bey, conducted excavations in Boghazkoi (140 km east of Ankara). They dug up nothing less than the royal archives of the Kheta. Among the items was a cuneiform version of a text found in hieroglyphic in the mortuary temple of Ramses II, in Luxor, Egypt. The hieroglyphic text referred to a treaty between Ramses II and Khetasar, ruler of the Kheta; the cuneiform text to a treaty made with one Hattusilis, king of the Hatti — that is, the Hittites.

The lost Hittite Empire had been rediscovered.

The Hittite items are perhaps the most captivating in the show. Notable are the extraordinarily expressive ceremonial vessels, in shapes that include a stolid antelope and a bristling lion, a bunch of grapes and even a whimsical pair of curly-toed boots.

One imposing bas-relief testifies to the warlike nature of the Hittites, showing archers in a chariot pursuing a lion. Those chariots were a decisive force in the geopolitics of the day — and, it’s not too much of a stretch to say, helped shape the world as we know it today.

The ancient Jews of Israel, history’s first monotheists, escaped destruction by recruiting the Hittites as mercenaries. “The Lord had made the army of the Syrians hear the sound of chariots and of horses, the sound of a great army,” records the Hebrew book of Kings, “so that they said to one another, ‘Behold, the king of Israel has hired against us the kings of the Hittites and the kings of Egypt to come upon us.’ “

Onward Christian soldiers

The Israelites survived the Syrian threat, of course, and more than a millennium later the teachings of an Israeli Jew, Jesus of Nazareth, gave birth to the second of the world’s great monotheistic religions. Christianity spread rapidly, and just 300 years after Jesus’ execution the Byzantine Empire became the world’s first Christian superpower by decree of the Roman Emperor Constantine, who established his capital in Constantinople, formerly Byzantium — today Istanbul.

Flourishing for an extraordinary 1,000 years, the empire finally collapsed under the weight of its own political intriguing, and to this day the word “Byzantine” is synonymous with all that is covert and devious.

There’s nothing sinister, though, in the simple, elegant lines of four reliefs with Christian themes displayed here. Most striking are a beautifully detailed sixth-century depiction of the Archangel Gabriel, and a fifth/sixth-century relief of Christ and an apostle. Though both are fragmentary, the power of these early examples of Christian art has survived the attrition of the years.

The flip side of Byzantine piety was power — and an immense wealth amassed thanks to Constantinople’s location at the crossroads of Asia and Europe. Earrings, a bracelet, a belt buckle and jeweled rings, all of solid gold, attest to the magnificence of Byzantine ornamentation. A finely worked gold medallion decorated with scenes from the life of Christ strikes a more somber note, perhaps hinting at the fatal corruption of faith by more worldly concerns that would spell Byzantium’s downfall.

The crescent ascendant

In a neat reversal of fortunes, Byzantium’s successor, the Ottoman Empire, has a fair claim to being the greatest Islamic empire the world has yet seen.

However the Ottomans (ca. 1300-1918) swiftly developed an image problem to rival that of their predecessors. Western Europe thrilled to and recoiled from lurid stories of white women kidnapped to the sultan’s harem and the ingenious cruelty of the royal household.

Though not without some factual foundation, the Ottomans’ scandalous reputation is probably rooted more in the religious prejudices of the Christian West than in any historical reality. For the record, Ottoman culture also produced one of the world’s greatest poets, Mevlana Celaleddin Rumi (1207-73), and the empire excelled in the decorative arts.

Islam forbids the depiction of Allah, the One God, so Ottoman creativity flowed instead into nonrepresentational crafts such as calligraphy (for copying the Quran), metalworking (showing here are jeweled gold Quran covers), silk weaving (for gorgeous robes and prayer mats) and woodworking and inlay (used to fashion boxes and book stands for precious copies of the Quran).

However, the showcase item of this entire exhibition is secular Ottoman, the magnificent Topkapi dagger inlaid with bulbous emeralds. Every piece, though, speaks of the intricate craftsmanship of the Ottoman masters — of a skill that is akin to an act of worship, whatever object it is lavished upon.

“The beauty of careful sewing on a shirt,” wrote Mevlana, “is the patience it contains.” The poet continues:

‘Anything that comes and goes rises and sets, is not what I love,’ else you’ll be like a caravan fire left to flare itself out beside the road

The civilizations that created the exquisite objects in this exhibition have risen and set, the emperors who ruled them have come and gone. But the objects have survived. We should be grateful for this opportunity to see them.

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