Mesopotamian Art and Arquitecture

Mesopotamian Art and Architecture
The arts and buildings of the ancient Middle Eastern
civilizations developed in the area (now Iraq) between the
Tigris and Euphrates rivers from prehistory to the 6th
century BC. Their art reflects both their love and fear of
natural forces, as well as their military conquests.
The soil of Mesopotamia yielded the civilization’s
major building material, mud brick. This clay also was used
by the Mesopotamians for their pottery, terra-cotta
sculpture, and writing tablets. Few wooden artifacts have
been preserved. Stone was rare, and certain types had to
be imported; basalt, sandstone, diorite, and alabaster were
used for sculpture. Metals such as bronze, copper, gold,
and silver, as well as shells and precious stones, were
used for sculptures and inlays.
The art of Mesopotamia includes a mix from people
who differed ethnicly and linguistically. Each of these
groups made its own contribution to art until the Persian
conquest of the 6th century BC. The first dominant people
to control the region and shape its art were the non-Semitic
Sumerians, followed by the Semitic Akkadians,
Babylonians, and Assyrians.
The earliest architectural and artistic remains known
to date come from northern Mesopotamia from the
proto-Neolithic site of Qermez Dere in the foothills of the
Jebel Sinjar. Levels dating to the 9th millennium BC have
revealed round sunken huts outfitted with one or two
plastered pillars with stone cores. When the buildings were
abandoned, human skulls were placed on the floors,
indicating some sort of ritual.

Artifacts from the late Uruk and Jamdat Nasr periods,
also (about 3500-2900 BC), have been found at several
sites, but the major site was the city of Uruk. The major
building from level five at Uruk (about 3500 BC) is the
Limestone Temple; its superstructure is not preserved, but
limestone slabs on a layer of stamped earth show that it
was niched and monumental in size, measuring 250 x 99ft.

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Some buildings at Uruk of level four were decorated with
colorful cones inset into the walls to form geometric
patterns. Another technique that was used was
whitewashing, as in the White Temple, which gets its name
from its long, narrow, whitewashed inner shrine. It was built
in the area of Uruk dedicated to the Sumerian sky god Anu.

The White Temple stood about 40 ft above the plain, on a
high platform, prefiguring the ziggurat, the stepped tower,
typical Mesopotamian religious structure that was intended
to bring the priest or king nearer to a particular god, or to
provide a platform where the deity could descend to visit
the worshipers.

A few outstanding stone sculptures were unearthed at
Uruk. The most beautiful is a white limestone head of a
woman or goddess (about 3500-3000 BC), with eyebrows,
large open eyes, and a central part in her hair, all intended
for inlay. A tall alabaster vase (about 3500-3000 BC), with
horizontal bands, or registers, depicts a procession at the
top, with a king presenting a basket of fruit to Inanna,
goddess of fertility and love, or her priestess; nude priests
bringing offerings in the central band; and at the bottom a
row of animals over a row of plants.
The first historical epoch of Sumerian dominance
lasted from about 3000 BC until about 2340 BC. While
earlier architectural traditions continued, a new type of
building was introduced, the temple oval, an enclosure with
a central platform supporting a shrine. City-states centered
at such cities as Ur, Umma, Lagash, Kish, and Eshnunna
were headed by governors or kings who were not
considered divine. Much of the art is commemorative;
plaques, frequently depicting banquet scenes, celebrate
victories or the completion of a temple. These were often
used as boundary stones, as was the limestone stele
(Louvre, Paris) of King Eannatum from Lagash. In two
registers on one side of the stele the king is depicted
leading his army into battle; on the other side the god
Ningirsu, symbolically represented as much larger than a
human, holds the net containing the defeated enemy. The
Standard of Ur (about 2700 BC) a wooden plaque inlaid
with shell, schist, lapis lazuli, and pinkish stone, has three
bands of processions and religious scenes.

The Semitic Akkadians gradually rose to power in the
late 24th century BC; under Sargon I (about 2335-2279
BC), they extended their rule over Sumer and united the
whole of Mesopotamia. Little Akkadian art remains, but
what has survived is endowed with technical mastery, great
energy, and spirit. In the Akkadian cities of Sippar, Assur,
Eshnuna, Tell Brak, and the capital at Akkad (still to be
found), the palace became more important than the
The most significant Akkadian innovations were those
of the seal cutters. The minimal space of each seal is filled
with action: Heroes and gods grapple with beasts, slay
monsters, and drive chariots in processions. A new
Akkadian theme, developed and continued in the periods to
follow, was the presentation scene, in which an
intermediary or a personal deity presents another figure
behind him to a more important seated god. Except for
stories from the Gilgamesh epic, many myths that are
depicted have not been interpreted.

After ruling for about a century and a half, the
Akkadian Empire fell to the nomadic Guti, who did not
centralize their power. This enabled the Sumerian cities of
Uruk, Ur, and Lagash to reestablish themselves, leading to
a Neo-Sumerian age, also known as the 3rd Dynasty of Ur
(about 2112-2004 BC). Imposing religious monuments
made of baked and unbaked brick and incorporating
ziggurats were built at Ur, Eridu, Nippur, and Uruk. Gudea
(2144?-2124? BC), a ruler of Lagash, partly contemporary
with Ur-Nammu, the founder of the 3rd Dynasty of Ur, is
known from more than 20 statutes of himself in hard black
stone, dolomite and diorite. His hands are clasped in the
old Sumerian style, but the rounded face and slight
musculature in the arms and shoulders show the sculptor’s
will to depict form in this difficult medium with more
naturalism than had his predecessors.
With the decline of the Sumerians, the land was once
more united by Semitic rulers (about 2000-1600 BC), the
most important of whom was Hammurabi of Babylon. The
relief figure of the king on his famous law code (about 1760
BC) is not much different from the Gudea statues (even
though his hands are unclasped), nor is he depicted with
an intermediary before the sun god Shamash. The most
original art of the Babylonian period came from Mari and
includes temples and a palace, sculptures, metalwork, and
wall painting. As in much of Mesopotamian art, the animals
are more lifelike than the human figures.
The early history of the art of Assyria, from the 18th to
the 14th century BC, is still largely unknown. Middle
Assyrian art (1350-1000 BC) shows some dependence on
established Babylonian stylistic traditions: Religious
subjects are presented rigidly, but secular themes are
depicted more naturalistically. For temple architecture, the
ziggurat was popular with the Assyrians. At this time the
technique of polychromed glazing of bricks was used in
Mesopotamia; this technique later resulted in the typical
Neo-Babylonian architectural decoration of entire
structures with glazed bricks.
These Assyrian kings adorned their palaces with
magnificent reliefs. Gypsum alabaster, native to the
Assyrian region of the upper Tigris River, was more easily
carved than the hard stones used by the Sumerians and
Akkadians. Royal chronicles of the king’s superiority in
battle and in the hunt were recounted in horizontal bands
with cuneiform texts, carved on both the exterior and
interior walls of the palace, in order to impress visitors. The
viewer was greeted by huge guardian sculptures at the
gate; the guardians were hybrid genii, winged
human-headed lions or bulls with five legs (for viewing both
front and side) as known from Nimrud and Khorsabad. At
times mythological figures are portrayed, a Gilgamesh-like
figure with the lion cub, or a worshiper bringing a sacrifice,
such as the idealized portrait from Khorsabad of Sargon II
with an ibex (about 710 BC). The primary subject matter of
these alabaster reliefs, however, is purely secular: the king
hunting lions and other animals, the Assyrian triumph over
the enemy, or the king feasting in his garden, as in the
scene (7th century BC) of Ashurbanipal from Nineveh. The
king’s harpist and birds in the trees make music for the
royal couple, who sip wine under a vine, while attendants
with fly whisks keep the reclining king and seated queen
comfortable. Nearby is a sober reminder of Assyrian
mightthe head of the king of Elam, hanging from a tree.

Sculptors were at their best in depicting hunting
scenes, for their observation of real beasts was even more
profound than their imagination in creating hybrid beings.

Other reliefs from this monument depict real events:
battles, the siege and capture of cities, everyday life in the
army camp, the taking of captives, and the harsh treatment
meted out to those who resisted conquest.

The palace architectural reliefs at Nimrud, Khorsabad,
and Nineveh are important not only because they represent
the climax of Mesopotamian artistic expression, but
because they are valuable as historical documents. Even
though cities, seascapes, and landscapes were not
rendered with the realism and perspective of later Western
artists, the modern observer is still able to reconstruct the
appearance of fortified buildings, ships, chariots, horse
trappings, hunting equipment, weapons, ritual libations,
and costumes through the skill of Assyrian sculptors. The
various ethnic groups inhabiting Mesopotamia, Syria, and
Palestine in the 1st millennium BC are depicted with great
realism and can be identified by their dress, facial features,
and hairstyles.

Between the 9th-century BC Nimrud reliefs and the
7th-century BC Nineveh reliefs, stylistic changes took
place. In the earlier scenes, armies are represented by a
few soldiers only, without regard to the relative size of
humans and architecture. Figures are in bands, one above
the other, to suggest space. In the Nineveh scenes, the
figures, carved in lower relief, fill the entire picture plane.

Not only is there more detail, but at times figures overlap,
giving the viewer a sense of people and animals in real

The art of the late Assyrian seal cutter is a
combination of realism and mythology. Even the
naturalistic scenes contain symbols of the gods. These
objects may have originated outside of Assyria, for they
resemble Syro-Phoenician crafted objects found at Arslan
Tash on the upper Euphrates and at Samaria, capital of the
Israelite kingdom. The lioness plaques incorporate
Egyptian iconography and are examples of the best
Phoenician craftsmanship. Thousands of ivory carvings
displaying a variety of styles have been recovered at
The art of the peoples who lived on the fringes of the
Assyrian Empire at times lacks the aesthetic appeal of that
of the capital. In Tell Halaf, a local ruler’s palace was
decorated with weird reliefs and sculpture in the round;
among the hybrids is a scorpion man. At the site of Tell
Ahmar in northern Syria, ancient Til Barsip (Assyrian Kar
Shalmaneser), a palace decorated extensively with
Assyrian wall paintings was uncovered. Some of the
paintings are attributed to the mid-8th century BC; others to
a rebuilding by Assurbanipal in the 7th century BC. From
the earlier building are scenes with winged genii, the defeat
of the enemy and their merciless execution, audiences
granted to officials, and scribes recording booty from
subjugated nations. The paintings in Khorsabad were more
formalrepeat patterns in bands are topped by two figures
paying homage to a deity. Excavations in Lorestan, the
mountainous region of western Iran, yielded fine bronzes of
fantastic creatures, probably made in the middle or late
Assyrian period. These were used as ornaments for
horses, weapons, and utensils.

Syria, Phoenicia, and Palestine were on the land route
between Asia Minor and Africa, and the ancient art of this
area always shows the influence of those who conquered,
passed through, or traded with its inhabitants.

Mesopotamian-style cylinder seals from the Jamdat Nasr
period have been found. Pottery, works in stone, and
scarabs were influenced by dynastic Egypt beginning in the
29th century BC. Bronze figurines from Byblos of the early
2nd millennium are more distinctly Phoenician, as are
daggers and other ceremonial weapons found there.

Although the motifs used by local artisans came from
beyond the immediate region–Crete, Egypt, the Hittite
Empire, and Mesopotamia–the technique embodied in
crafted objects found at Byblos and Ugarit is distinctly
Phoenician. Phoenician goldsmiths and silversmiths were
skilled artisans, but the quality of their work depended on
their clientele. Ivory work was always of the highest
standards, probably because of Egyptian competition.

Phoenicians sold their wares all over the Middle East, and
the spread of Middle Eastern style and iconography, like
the alphabet, can be attributed to these great traders of

The Babylonians, in coalition with the Medes and
Scythians, defeated the Assyrians in 612 BC and sacked
Nimrud and Nineveh. They did not establish a new style or
iconography. Boundary stones depict old presentation
scenes or the images of kings with symbols of the gods.

Neo-Babylonian creativity manifested itself architecturally
at Babylon, the capital. This huge city, destroyed (689 BC)
by the Assyrian Sennacherib, was restored by
Nabopolassar and his son Nebuchadnezzar II. Divided by
the Euphrates, it took 88 years to build and was
surrounded by outer and inner walls. Its central feature was
Esagila, the temple of Marduk, with its associated
seven-story ziggurat Etemenanki, popularly known later as
the Tower of Babel. The ziggurat reached about 300 ft in
height and had at the uppermost stage a temple (a shrine)
built of sun-dried bricks and faced with baked bricks. From
the temple of Marduk northward passed the processional
way, its wall decorated with enamelled lions. Passing
through the Ishtar Gate, it led to a small temple outside the
city, where ceremonies for the New Year Festival were

Nabonidus (reigned 556-539 BC), the last Babylonian
king, rebuilt the old Sumerian capital of Ur, including the
ziggurat of Nanna, rival to the ziggurat Etemenanki at
Babylon. It survived well and its facing of brick has recently
been restored.

In 539 BC the Neo-Babylonian kingdom fell to the
Persian Achaemenid king Cyrus the Great. Mesopotamia
beame part of the Persian Empire, and a royal palace was
built at Babylon, which was made one of the empire’s
administrative capitals. Among the remains from Babylon
of the time of Alexander the Great, is a theater he built at
the site known now as Humra. The brilliance of Babylon
was ended about 250 BC when the inhabitants of Babylon
moved to Seleucia, built by Alexander’s successors.


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