1. Egyptian ring with portrait of a Ptolemy, circa 186–145 BC, gold. 1.9cm × 1.7cm × 2.4cm. © RMN-Grand Palais/Art Resource, NY.

Beyond the Nile at the Getty

Visitors to the Getty Museum at the Getty Center in Los Angeles, California are now greeted by a 15-feet tall granite obelisk. Carved in AD 88–89 and dedicated to the goddess Isis and the emperor Domitian, it is a loan from the Museo del Sanni in Benevento, Italy, and one of more than 200 objects in Beyond the Nile: Egypt and the Classical World, a major exhibition exploring the artistic connections between Greece, Rome and Egypt.

Beyond the Nile is the first comprehensive exhibition of its kind to be mounted in an American museum. 'It's an unprecedented compilation of works of art from the Bronze Age to the late Roman Empire, drawn from the major museums of Europe and America, as well as the Getty's own collection,' says Timothy Potts, Director of the Getty Museum and one of the exhibition's curators.

2. Roman sculpture of Serapis, mid-2nd–mid-3rd century, marble. 42.5cm × 21cm × 20.3cm. © Museum of London.

In four chronologically sequenced rooms, Beyond the Nile explores the interaction of the three ancient civilisations, covering everything from trade, exchange and artistic borrowings to diplomacy, immigration and warfare. The first room explores the origins of Egyptian trade, contacts with Crete and mainland Greece during the Middle and Late Bronze Ages (circa 2000–1100 BC), through diplomatic gifts and trade goods.

By the time you reach the second room, the Greeks have arrived in Egypt as merchants and mercenaries in the Archaic and Classical periods (circa 700–332 BC). As Egyptian objects are exported to Greece and copied, Greek sculptors and architects are inspired to carve their first large stone figures, while myths on Egyptian themes begin to be depicted on Greek vases.

3. Roman bust of Antinous as Osiris, circa AD 130, marble. 90.5cm × 68.6 × 34.9cm. © Musée du Louvre, Dist. RMN-Grand Palais/ Daniel Lebée/Carine Déambrosis /Art Resource, NY 4.

The third room shows how, after the conquest of Egypt by Alexander the Great in 332 BC, the country was ruled by a Greek dynasty, the Ptolemies, for nearly three centuries. A complex hybrid culture developed under the Ptolemaic kings and queens, and this Hellenistic culture is reflected in portraits of private and royal individuals, including Cleopatra VII, Julius Caesar and Mark Antony.

The last room explores the art and identity of Egypt after the Roman conquest of 30 BC. Soon Egyptian imagery became fashionable in the imperial metropolis, Egyptian religious cults spread throughout the Roman Empire and Egyptian sculpture was exported to Italy, where it was copied by local craftsmen who produced monumental statues, like that of the emperor Domitian, as well as luxury goods decorated with the exotic deities and vistas of the Nile Valley.

4. Greek kouros, circa 520–500 BC, marble. 163cm × 39cm × 40cm. National Archaeological Museum, Athens; Photograph: Yannis Patrikianos © Hellenic Ministry of Culture and Sports/Archaeological Receipts.

Beyond the Nile is the first of a series of exhibitions at the Getty Museum entitled The Classical World in Context.

'The overarching goal of this exhibition is for visitors to understand Egypt, Greece and Rome not as monolithic, separate entities, but as cultures that shared and exchanged aspects of their religion, artistic traditions, languages and customs in an evolving milieu,' says Jeffrey Spier, the Getty Museum's senior curator of antiquities, and co-curator of the exhibition.

'Works from the Classical period and from ancient Egypt are found in collections throughout the world. In bringing so many of them together at the Getty Center, we are able to explore this aesthetic and cultural interconnectedness, and how that interplay generated beautiful, compelling art for generations.'

• Beyond the Nile: Egypt and the Classical World is at the Getty Museum Getty Center, Los Angeles (www.getty.edu) until 9 September 2018.
• The accompanying scholarly catalogue, edited by Jeffrey Spier, is published by Getty Publications at $65.

Dominic Green