Saturday, May 12, 2007
Of ancient things
At the Library we visited the Sacred exhibition, subtitled "discover what we share": a collection of sacred texts from Christianity, Islam and Judaism, including a fragment of a Dead Sea Scroll and the earliest complete New Testament, the Codex Sinaiticus. I was fascinated by the 4th century manuscript containing long quotations from a Syrian version of the Diatessaron, a compendium of the four Gospels originally composed in the second century and later suppressed by the church, as I was by actually seeing the Lindisfarne Gospels. There were fantastically decorated copies of the Qur'an and the Torah, but in such a wealth of material it was impossible to absorb everything and we found ourselves focussing on the Christian exhibits - the earliest of which contained no decoration at all and seemed to embody the urgency with which the early church sought to preserve the continuity of belief and understanding as the first-hand witnesses died out.
The afternoon in the British Museum lasted for just enough time to be intimidated by the immense Egyptian and Assyrian statues (see pic) and aroused by the sight of what is now called the Parthenon Frieze. I know the history of how the Parthenon was used to store gunpowder and could well have ended up as a pile of dust, but I can't help feeling that now the "Elgin marbles" should be returned to Greece. London is probably more of a target for today's violence than Athens is, and though it's interesting to see the real thing close up, it would be more powerful to see them in situ. Actually, I grew up with these reliefs; they were - and presumably still are - round the ceiling of Hillhead Primary School (Glasgow) stairwell, tastefully outlined in dust.
Lasting impression? The sight of a 3600-year-old Pharoah looking serenely out over the scuttling of tourists and posing effortlessly as part of their photos. What of our efforts, I wonder, will we leave behind?