Mesopotamian Art (c.4500-539 BCE)
Often referred to as the "cradle of civilization", Mesopotamia was a sizeable ancient land that occupied the area of the Tigris-Euphrates river system, roughly corresponding to modern-day Iraq, southwestern Iran, southeastern Turkey and northeastern Syria. It was the site of a series of early cultural advances, including the first system of writing. Increased prosperity and security led to religious formalities of worship (in temples) and burial, in megalithic tombs. It also led to an important series of contributions to the history of art, especially in ancient pottery, sculpture and metalwork.
The ancient art of Mesopotamia incorporates that of Sumeria, Akkad, Babylonia and Assyria, until the sixth century BCE, when Babylon fell to the Persians. Mesopotamian Sculpture (c.3000-500 BCE) includes a host of ceramic art, varieties of stone sculpture, in the form of both statues and reliefs, steles, mosaic art, carved cylinder seals and monumental architecture exemplified by Ziggurats built in Ur, Babylon, Uruk, Sialk, Nimrud and elsewhere (3200-500 BCE), and the legendary Hanging Gardens of Babylon, built in the ancient city-state of Babylon, by King Nebuchadnezzar II. Mesopotamia was also home to megalithic art like that of Catalhoyuk in Asia Minor. See also: Egyptian Art (3100-395 CE). For a comparison with Far East pottery and sculpture, see: Chinese Art, and also Traditional Chinese Art: Characteristics. For a comparison with the chronology of arts and culture in East Asia, see: Chinese Art Timeline (c.18,000 BCE - present).
Archeological excavations show that Mesopotamia was first settled about 10,000 BCE, by unknown tribes of Paleolithic hunter-gatherers. Around 7,000 BCE, after a short intermediate Epipaleolithic period, the culture changed from a primitive semi-nomadic style of hunting and gathering food, to a more settled type of lifestyle, based on farming and rearing of domesticated animals. During this so-called "Neolithic" era, the formation of settled communities (villages, towns and in due course cities) led to a series of new activities, including a rapid increase in trade, the construction of boats to transport goods, a growth of religious beliefs and ceremonies. All this led directly to improvements in food supply and a consequent rapid rise in population. New "cities" sprang up, including Eridu, Uruk, and Ur, followed later by Nineveh, Nippur, Assur and Babylon.
NOTE: Until the 1990s, it was assumed that pottery did not appear until the Neolithic period (8,000-7,000 BCE): that is, until humans turned from nomadic hunter-gathering to a more settled lifestyle based on farming and animal husbandry. Furthermore, the fertile crescent of Mesopotamia was seen as one of the earliest centres of ceramics. However recent discoveries of Paleolithic Chinese pottery prove that humans were making pots 10,000 years before the advent of farming. For the world's oldest pots, see Xianrendong Cave Pottery (c.18,000 BCE).
The earliest known civilization of Mesopotamia grew up around Sumer, in the south of modern-day Iraq, from about 5,000 BCE. A series of cultures grew up, distinguished by their painted pottery. Figurines of clay and veined alabaster, amulets and stamp seals became increasingly sophisticated, and there are round structures at Arpachiyah, T-shaped houses at Tel as-Sawwan, while at Eridu, archeologists excavated a sequence of shrines - from an early mud-brick hut to an elaborate raised building with buttressed walls. These buttresses were both decorative and structural and became a feature of Sumerian architecture. Towards the end of the 4th millennium there was a series of cultural innovations; wheel-made pottery appears, as does monumental architecture characterised, at Uruk, by huge shrines with complex plans and elaborately niched walls, or with engaged or free-standing columns, studded with a mosaic of coloured clay cones in geometric patterns. At Uqair the whole temple was adorned with mural painting. Cylinder seals were carved with designs and these are our main source for the iconography of the different periods. In addition, we know that the first use of copper occurred in Sumer, as far back as 5,000, as did the first evidence of hieroglyphic writing systems (in 3,400), the first ever wheeled transport (in 3,200) and the first cuneiform script. All these cultural developments are clear indications of a literate, organized society. For more, see Sumerian Art (c.4500-2270 BCE).
By 3,000 BCE, as a result of these innovations, we find extensive urban development and the creation of at least 12 city-states, each ruled by a King. They included: Kish, Ur, Erech, Akshak, Sippar, Nippur, Adab, Umma, Larak, Bad-tibira, Lagash and Larsa. Increasing rivalry between these states left them vulnerable to invaders, like the Elamites (c.2530-2450), and then the Akkadians (2334-2154) under their founder Sargon of Akkad (23342279). After the fall of the Akkadian Empire, about 2154, the ravages of the Gutians, and the resurgence of Sumer culture under the leadership of Ur, Mesopotamia eventually formed itself into two separate nations: in the north, Assyria; and in the south, Babylonia under Hammurabi (1792-1750). About 934 the Assyrians conquered Babylon, and by the time of Tiglath-Pileser III, they were the most powerful nation on earth, controlling Babylonia, Egypt, Asia Minor, Caucasus, North Africa and the eastern Mediterranean basin. This Neo-Assyrian Empire was finally brought down at the Fall of Nineveh in 612, by an alliance of Babylonians, Scythians, Medes, Parthians and others. After the fall of Babylon in 539, Mesopotamia became a province of the Persian Achaemenid Empire.
During the early period (c.4500-3000), the major medium of Neolithic art in Mesopotomia was ceramic pottery - of a type and quality which was far superior to any type of Greek pottery produced up to that point - the finest examples of which typically featured geometric designs or plant and animal motifs. In addition, various artifacts and artworks began to be ornamented with precious metals. About 3200 BCE in Babylonia, occurred the earliest known instance of nail art, when men coloured their nails with kohl, an ancient cosmetic containing lead sulfide.
During the 3rd Millennium, free standing sculpture, in stone and wood made an appearance, along with early bronze statuettes, primitive personal jewellery and decorative designs on a variety of artifacts. Sequences of shrines, excavated in the Diyala valley, contained examples of sculpture in the round and evidence of advanced copper and bronze casting techniques, some bronze sculpture being made by the complicated cire-perdue process. The copper high relief decoration of the temple facade at Al'Ubaid also survives. At Ur, many rich burials, some of them in vaulted tombs, contained beautiful gold, silver, lapis lazuli, coloured limestone and shell objects, jewellery, gaming-boards, harps, weapons and cylinder seals. See, for instance, the exquisite Ram in a Thicket (c.2500 BCE, excavated from the Great Death Pit, at Ur), one of the most arresting compositions in the history of sculpture. Clay reliefs or steles, used by the educated classes to narrate stories, were another popular art form, as were cylindrical or cubical statues: see, for instance, Emperor Gudea with a Vase (c.2150, Louvre, Paris).
During this rich early dynastic period, Mesopotamia was united for a period (2334-2154) under the Semitic kings of the dynasty of Akkad, whose art is illustrated by some interesting reliefs, very fine fragmentary life-size figures in stone and copper, and some of the most beautiful cylinder seals ever cut - works that indicate the presence of the region's best sculptors and metalworkers. After a period of chaos, there was a Neo-Sumerian revival led by Ur. Innumerable statues of Gudea of Lagash survive - see, for instance, the statuette Gudea of Lagash (2141-2122 BCE, Detroit Institute of Arts) - but few of the temples he built. Many of the buildings set up by the rulers of the 3rd dynasty of Ur have been excavated, however, and the first true ziggurat or stepped temple pyramid dates from this period. Compare also: Egyptian Middle Kingdom Architecture.
The 3rd dynasty of Ur fell in 2003 BCE before the Amorites, who moved in from the desert and set up a series of Semitic dynasties. By about 1750, Northern Mesopotamia was under the influence of Assyria, while the south was controlled by Babylon. The Kassites from Iran gradually gained influence in the south, but maintained the traditional architectural forms, even if some paintings at Aqar Quf and a brick facade decorated with life-size figures at Uruk, show some originality. The great innovation of the 15th century BCE was the use of glass and glazing; there are several examples of multicoloured, opaque glass from Tell el-Rimah and Middle Assyrian examples of glazed bricks. See also: Egyptian New Kingdom Architecture.
This was the period during which the Assyrians consolidated their kingdom and developed their stone sculpture, as demonstrated by the monumental statues and reliefs that decorated the palaces of the Assyrian kings. Particularly memorable was their carved stone relief sculpture, a frequent decorative element on imperial monuments and palaces. (See examples in the collections of the Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, and the British Museum.) These reliefs contained details of royal hunting parties and battle scenes. Special attention is paid to animal forms, like horses and lions. By comparison, human figures are equally detailed but relatively rigid and wooden-looking. Among the most famous examples of Assyrian art are the lion-hunt alabaster carvings depicting Assurnasirpal II (9th century BCE) and Assurbanipal (7th century BCE), now in the British Museum. (Compare Hittite art: 1600-1180 BCE). See also the earlier Babylonian relief entitled The Code of Hammurabi (c.1750 BCE, Louvre, Paris). Influences on Mesopotamian carving of this period would no doubt have included Egyptian sculpture as well as works of Ancient Persian art, while it itself would have influenced the various strands of Aegean art - including Minoan art (Crete) and Mycenean art (Peloponnese) - as well as early Etruscan art (Italy) and other eastern Mediterranean cultures of the Bronze Age.
The Assyrians emerged in the 10th century BCE as the dominant force in the Near East. They built huge palaces, temples and ziggurats at Nineveh, Nimrud, Khorsabad, which were guarded by stone portal lions, winged bulls or genii. They recorded their campaigns and exploits in long inscriptions, in detailed low reliefs on limestone slabs, in repousse on bronze gates, in glazed brick panels and in fresco painting. The booty they brought back included many different types of art, including numerous bronze bowls, furniture fittings and ivory plaques, carved in varying styles, which are technically superb and often very beautiful; these objects are, however, mostly of foreign workmanship. It was some time before Babylon's fortunes revived but under the Chaldaean kings of the late 7th and 6th centuries BCE the city was adorned with temples and palaces including Nebuchadnezzar's famous Hanging Gardens, which excavations have revealed to have been built over a series of vaulted chambers of different heights. The Ishtar Gate and a processional way leading from it were decorated with bulls, dragons and lions in low relief on brightly glazed bricks. The Persians, under Cyrus the Great, put an end to this Babylonian dynasty in 539 BC and thereafter Mesopotamia was ruled by a series of foreign dynasties - Achaemenids, Seleucids, Parthians and Sassanians - who, from the Seleucids onwards, however, established their capital in the neighbourhood of Babylon. Within a century, Sumerian, Akkadian, Babylonian and Assyrian art would be forgotten, as the world began to experience Greek sculpture, as exemplified by the architectural and relief sculptures of the Parthenon, as well as the sublime statues of High Classical Greek sculpture, as practiced by the likes of Phidias (488-431), Myron (active 480-444) and Polykleitos (active c.450-430). For art in Ancient Egypt, see: Late Egyptian Architecture.
Other famous examples of 3-D art produced in Mesopotamia include: Head of a Roaring Lion (800-700 BCE, Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York), The Black Obelisk of Shalmaneser III (860-825 BCE, British Museum), the limestone statue Winged Bull (c.720 BCE, Louvre, Paris) that watched over the doors of the Khorsabad Palace of Sargon II, and the Bull from the Ishtar Gate of Babylon (605-560 BCE, Pergamon Museum, Berlin). In addition, archeologists have uncovered masterpieces of ivory carving, along with exceptional bronze vessels decorated in the Assyrian style, that were created by Phoenician and Aramaean craftsmen.
Artworks from the ancient cultures of Sumer, the Akkadian Empire, Assyria, Babylon, and the Neo-Assyrian Empire, can be found in the permanent collections of several of the world's best art museums of Antiquity. Here is a short selected list of famous works of art not mentioned above.
- Samarra Plate (5000 BCE) Vorderasiatisches
Though the cultivatable land wass extended by means of irrigation, the country's natural and mineral resources were scant. There were a few rock outcrops in the north but stone had to be imported in the south; date-palm wood was fibrous with limited uses. Thus mud-brick, reed mats from the marshes and bitumen from Hit were the main building materials. The bricks were generally sun-dried so yearly replasterings were necessary. If a house was abandoned, the precious wooden beams and lintels were first removed after which it rapidly became a ruin into which the foundations of the next house were dug. Over a period of time the accumulated debris of a settlement often formed a sizeable mound or 'tel' - a distinctive feature of Middle Eastern archeology resulting from the use of mud-brick rather than stone.
The most important surviving architectural remains from Mesopotamia are, in rough chronological order: (1) the temple complexes at Uruk (4th Millennium BCE); (2) the temples and palaces of Khafajah and Tell Asmar in the Diyala River valley, dating to the Early Dynastic period; (3) the Sanctuary of Enlil at Nippur, and the Sanctuary of Nanna at Ur; (4) the Middle Bronze Age towns of Alalakh, Aleppo, Ebla, Mari, and Kultepe; (5) the Late Bronze Age palaces at Ashur, Bogazkoy, Nuzi and Ugarit; (6) Iron Age palaces and temples at Nimrud, Khorsabad, Nineveh (Assyria), Babylon (Babylonia), Tushpa/Van Kalesi, Cavustepe, Ayanis, Armavir, Erebuni, Bastam (Urartian), Karkamis, Tell Halaf and Karatepe. See also: Greek Architecture (900-27 BCE).
- White Temple at Uruk, Iraq (3200-3000
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