THE GORDION KNOT OF HISTORY
The Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York is one of the more civilized museums in the world, allowing artists to carry in sketchbooks and work at any time. But they go farther still. I drew this winged, lion-bodied Assyrian Guardian and mapped his beard curls to render when I wasn’t standing up– on feet that felt like two hot anvils pounding upward. But I neglected to render one curl to go by. I went back next day, but the exhibit was closed. At the guard station I explained the problem while flipping pages in the sketchbook. “All I need is five minutes,” I said, and those enlightened people called the actual curator who personally came downstairs, escorted me up to the exhibit, unlocked it and stood there while I drew the beard curl. Now THAT’s a museum!!
To the right of the bearded Guardian is a piece from a personal puzzle: that male figure with a bird head, wings and a sideways Egyptian stance, symbol of exotica and ancient mystery. This image strides through my earliest memories, associated with Echo Park, with klieg lights across the sky and the smell of eucalyptus, an enduring symbol of Old Hollywood, of Los Angeles, of home. What a shock to discover this dear and familiar figure to be a djinn– a genie, relic of Nimrud, in Mesopotamia, oceans and continents and millennia away from a childhood in California. I was totally immersed in the Middle East, obsessed with moving to Turkey, drawing to learn more. Echo Park had been the furthest thing from my mind. I stood there in the Met with my mouth open while images strobed through my memory. DW Griffith’s silent epic Intolerance, shot in Hollywood in 1916, stunned viewers with its exotic representation of Babylon. See the figures on the gate?
Antiquities in the Middle East were being discovered at the same time as the medium of film. DW Griffith’s Babylon featured this same djinn, still parading in Hollywood shopping malls to this day.
One Ramadan, drawing from memory Eastern Turkish women seen on the tram, I was compelled by a certain strength in their features to intersperse them with Mesopotamian deities. After all, these faces are all from the same region.
Nimrud is on the Tigris, just southeast of the eastern Turkish border. It was originally excavated in the 1850s. One example of our bird-djinn was surely found between then and Intolerance. DW Griffith employed artists from all over the world. One of them knew the image, which was used precisely because of that sense of ancient mystery it conveys. Many more were found at Nimrud in 1931 by archeologist Max Mallowan. The one at the beginning of the article, used as reference for the djinn drawing, was photographed by his wife, Agatha Christie.
That Gordion Knot again! The most prolific and well-known mystery writer of all time was no stranger to Hollywood, since so many movies have been made of her novels, including Murder on the Orient Express which begins in Istanbul, where she often stayed on her way to and from her husband’s digs in Mesopotamia. I had always associated Agatha Christie with floral dresses, trains, lorgnettes, a detective with patent-leather hair. But here she is in the dusty winds of the Middle East. She funded many digs, used up her face-cream cleaning ancient sculpture, and was an inveterate shutter-bug. She photographed many of the considerable Mallowan finds and wound up on many a museum plaque, along with all those best-seller lists.
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