The soil of Mesopotamia yielded the civilization’smajor building material, mud brick. This clay also was usedby the Mesopotamians for their pottery, terra-cottasculpture, and writing tablets. Few wooden artifacts havebeen preserved. Stone was rare, and certain types had tobe imported; basalt, sandstone, diorite, and alabaster wereused for sculpture. Metals such as bronze, copper, gold,and silver, as well as shells and precious stones, wereused for sculptures and inlays. The art of Mesopotamia includes a mix from peoplewho differed ethnicly and linguistically.
Each of thesegroups made its own contribution to art until the Persianconquest of the 6th century BC. The first dominant peopleto control the region and shape its art were the non-SemiticSumerians, followed by the Semitic Akkadians,Babylonians, and Assyrians. The earliest architectural and artistic remains knownto date come from northern Mesopotamia from theproto-Neolithic site of Qermez Dere in the foothills of theJebel Sinjar. Levels dating to the 9th millennium BC haverevealed round sunken huts outfitted with one or twoplastered pillars with stone cores. When the buildings wereabandoned, 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 majorbuilding from level five at Uruk (about 3500 BC) is theLimestone Temple; its superstructure is not preserved, butlimestone slabs on a layer of stamped earth show that itwas niched and monumental in size, measuring 250 x 99ft. Some buildings at Uruk of level four were decorated withcolorful cones inset into the walls to form geometricpatterns. Another technique that was used waswhitewashing, as in the White Temple, which gets its namefrom its long, narrow, whitewashed inner shrine. It was builtin the area of Uruk dedicated to the Sumerian sky god Anu.
The White Temple stood about 40 ft above the plain, on ahigh platform, prefiguring the ziggurat, the stepped tower,typical Mesopotamian religious structure that was intendedto bring the priest or king nearer to a particular god, or toprovide a platform where the deity could descend to visitthe worshipers. A few outstanding stone sculptures were unearthed atUruk. The most beautiful is a white limestone head of awoman or goddess (about 3500-3000 BC), with eyebrows,large open eyes, and a central part in her hair, all intendedfor inlay. A tall alabaster vase (about 3500-3000 BC), withhorizontal bands, or registers, depicts a procession at thetop, with a king presenting a basket of fruit to Inanna,goddess of fertility and love, or her priestess; nude priestsbringing offerings in the central band; and at the bottom arow of animals over a row of plants. The first historical epoch of Sumerian dominancelasted from about 3000 BC until about 2340 BC. Whileearlier architectural traditions continued, a new type ofbuilding was introduced, the temple oval, an enclosure witha central platform supporting a shrine.
City-states centeredat such cities as Ur, Umma, Lagash, Kish, and Eshnunnawere headed by governors or kings who were notconsidered divine. Much of the art is commemorative;plaques, frequently depicting banquet scenes, celebratevictories or the completion of a temple. These were oftenused as boundary stones, as was the limestone stele(Louvre, Paris) of King Eannatum from Lagash. In tworegisters on one side of the stele the king is depictedleading his army into battle; on the other side the godNingirsu, symbolically represented as much larger than ahuman, holds the net containing the defeated enemy. TheStandard of Ur (about 2700 BC) a wooden plaque inlaidwith shell, schist, lapis lazuli, and pinkish stone, has threebands of processions and religious scenes.
The Semitic Akkadians gradually rose to power in thelate 24th century BC; under Sargon I (about 2335-2279BC), they extended their rule over Sumer and united thewhole of Mesopotamia. Little Akkadian art remains, butwhat has survived is endowed with technical mastery, greatenergy, and spirit. In the Akkadian cities of Sippar, Assur,Eshnuna, Tell Brak, and the capital at Akkad (still to befound), the palace became more important than thetemple. The most significant Akkadian innovations were thoseof the seal cutters. The minimal space of each seal is filledwith action: Heroes and gods grapple with beasts, slaymonsters, and drive chariots in processions. A newAkkadian theme, developed and continued in the periods tofollow, was the presentation scene, in which anintermediary or a personal deity presents another figurebehind him to a more important seated god.
Except forstories from the Gilgamesh epic, many myths that aredepicted have not been interpreted. After ruling for about a century and a half, theAkkadian Empire fell to the nomadic Guti, who did notcentralize their power. This enabled the Sumerian cities ofUruk, Ur, and Lagash to reestablish themselves, leading toa Neo-Sumerian age, also known as the 3rd Dynasty of Ur(about 2112-2004 BC). Imposing religious monumentsmade of baked and unbaked brick and incorporatingziggurats were built at Ur, Eridu, Nippur, and Uruk. Gudea(2144?-2124? BC), a ruler of Lagash, partly contemporarywith Ur-Nammu, the founder of the 3rd Dynasty of Ur, isknown from more than 20 statutes of himself in hard blackstone, dolomite and diorite. His hands are clasped in theold Sumerian style, but the rounded face and slightmusculature in the arms and shoulders show the sculptor’swill to depict form in this difficult medium with morenaturalism than had his predecessors.
With the decline of the Sumerians, the land was oncemore united by Semitic rulers (about 2000-1600 BC), themost important of whom was Hammurabi of Babylon. Therelief figure of the king on his famous law code (about 1760BC) is not much different from the Gudea statues (eventhough his hands are unclasped), nor is he depicted withan intermediary before the sun god Shamash. The mostoriginal art of the Babylonian period came from Mari andincludes temples and a palace, sculptures, metalwork, andwall painting. As in much of Mesopotamian art, the animalsare more lifelike than the human figures. The early history of the art of Assyria, from the 18th tothe 14th century BC, is still largely unknown.
MiddleAssyrian art (1350-1000 BC) shows some dependence onestablished Babylonian stylistic traditions: Religioussubjects are presented rigidly, but secular themes aredepicted more naturalistically. For temple architecture, theziggurat was popular with the Assyrians. At this time thetechnique of polychromed glazing of bricks was used inMesopotamia; this technique later resulted in the typicalNeo-Babylonian architectural decoration of entirestructures with glazed bricks. These Assyrian kings adorned their palaces withmagnificent reliefs. Gypsum alabaster, native to theAssyrian region of the upper Tigris River, was more easilycarved than the hard stones used by the Sumerians andAkkadians.
Royal chronicles of the king’s superiority inbattle and in the hunt were recounted in horizontal bandswith cuneiform texts, carved on both the exterior andinterior walls of the palace, in order to impress visitors. Theviewer was greeted by huge guardian sculptures at thegate; the guardians were hybrid genii, wingedhuman-headed lions or bulls with five legs (for viewing bothfront and side) as known from Nimrud and Khorsabad. Attimes mythological figures are portrayed, a Gilgamesh-likefigure with the lion cub, or a worshiper bringing a sacrifice,such as the idealized portrait from Khorsabad of Sargon IIwith an ibex (about 710 BC). The primary subject matter ofthese alabaster reliefs, however, is purely secular: the kinghunting lions and other animals, the Assyrian triumph overthe enemy, or the king feasting in his garden, as in thescene (7th century BC) of Ashurbanipal from Nineveh.
Theking’s harpist and birds in the trees make music for theroyal couple, who sip wine under a vine, while attendantswith fly whisks keep the reclining king and seated queencomfortable. Nearby is a sober reminder of Assyrianmightthe head of the king of Elam, hanging from a tree. Sculptors were at their best in depicting huntingscenes, for their observation of real beasts was even moreprofound 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 thearmy camp, the taking of captives, and the harsh treatmentmeted out to those who resisted conquest. The palace architectural reliefs at Nimrud, Khorsabad,and Nineveh are important not only because they representthe climax of Mesopotamian artistic expression, butbecause they are valuable as historical documents. Eventhough cities, seascapes, and landscapes were notrendered with the realism and perspective of later Westernartists, the modern observer is still able to reconstruct theappearance of fortified buildings, ships, chariots, horsetrappings, hunting equipment, weapons, ritual libations,and costumes through the skill of Assyrian sculptors.
Thevarious ethnic groups inhabiting Mesopotamia, Syria, andPalestine in the 1st millennium BC are depicted with greatrealism and can be identified by their dress, facial features,and hairstyles. Between the 9th-century BC Nimrud reliefs and the7th-century BC Nineveh reliefs, stylistic changes tookplace. In the earlier scenes, armies are represented by afew soldiers only, without regard to the relative size ofhumans and architecture. Figures are in bands, one abovethe other, to suggest space. In the Nineveh scenes, thefigures, 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 realspace. The art of the late Assyrian seal cutter is acombination of realism and mythology. Even thenaturalistic scenes contain symbols of the gods. These objects may have originated outside of Assyria, for theyresemble Syro-Phoenician crafted objects found at ArslanTash on the upper Euphrates and at Samaria, capital of theIsraelite kingdom. The lioness plaques incorporateEgyptian iconography and are examples of the bestPhoenician craftsmanship.
Thousands of ivory carvingsdisplaying a variety of styles have been recovered atNimrud. The art of the peoples who lived on the fringes of theAssyrian Empire at times lacks the aesthetic appeal of thatof the capital. In Tell Halaf, a local ruler’s palace wasdecorated with weird reliefs and sculpture in the round;among the hybrids is a scorpion man. At the site of TellAhmar in northern Syria, ancient Til Barsip (Assyrian KarShalmaneser), a palace decorated extensively withAssyrian wall paintings was uncovered. Some of thepaintings are attributed to the mid-8th century BC; others toa rebuilding by Assurbanipal in the 7th century BC.
Fromthe earlier building are scenes with winged genii, the defeatof the enemy and their merciless execution, audiencesgranted to officials, and scribes recording booty fromsubjugated nations. The paintings in Khorsabad were moreformalrepeat patterns in bands are topped by two figurespaying homage to a deity. Excavations in Lorestan, themountainous region of western Iran, yielded fine bronzes offantastic creatures, probably made in the middle or lateAssyrian period. These were used as ornaments forhorses, weapons, and utensils.
Syria, Phoenicia, and Palestine were on the land routebetween Asia Minor and Africa, and the ancient art of thisarea always shows the influence of those who conquered,passed through, or traded with its inhabitants. Mesopotamian-style cylinder seals from the Jamdat Nasrperiod have been found. Pottery, works in stone, andscarabs were influenced by dynastic Egypt beginning in the29th century BC. Bronze figurines from Byblos of the early2nd millennium are more distinctly Phoenician, as aredaggers and other ceremonial weapons found there. Although the motifs used by local artisans came frombeyond the immediate region–Crete, Egypt, the HittiteEmpire, and Mesopotamia–the technique embodied incrafted objects found at Byblos and Ugarit is distinctlyPhoenician. Phoenician goldsmiths and silversmiths wereskilled artisans, but the quality of their work depended ontheir clientele.
Ivory work was always of the higheststandards, probably because of Egyptian competition. Phoenicians sold their wares all over the Middle East, andthe spread of Middle Eastern style and iconography, likethe alphabet, can be attributed to these great traders ofantiquity. The Babylonians, in coalition with the Medes andScythians, defeated the Assyrians in 612 BC and sackedNimrud and Nineveh. They did not establish a new style oriconography. Boundary stones depict old presentationscenes or the images of kings with symbols of the gods.
Neo-Babylonian creativity manifested itself architecturallyat Babylon, the capital. This huge city, destroyed (689 BC)by the Assyrian Sennacherib, was restored byNabopolassar and his son Nebuchadnezzar II. Divided bythe Euphrates, it took 88 years to build and wassurrounded by outer and inner walls. Its central feature wasEsagila, the temple of Marduk, with its associatedseven-story ziggurat Etemenanki, popularly known later asthe Tower of Babel.
The ziggurat reached about 300 ft inheight and had at the uppermost stage a temple (a shrine)built of sun-dried bricks and faced with baked bricks. Fromthe temple of Marduk northward passed the processionalway, its wall decorated with enamelled lions. Passingthrough the Ishtar Gate, it led to a small temple outside thecity, where ceremonies for the New Year Festival wereheld. Nabonidus (reigned 556-539 BC), the last Babylonianking, rebuilt the old Sumerian capital of Ur, including theziggurat of Nanna, rival to the ziggurat Etemenanki atBabylon.
It survived well and its facing of brick has recentlybeen restored. In 539 BC the Neo-Babylonian kingdom fell to thePersian Achaemenid king Cyrus the Great. Mesopotamiabeame part of the Persian Empire, and a royal palace wasbuilt at Babylon, which was made one of the empire’sadministrative capitals. Among the remains from Babylonof the time of Alexander the Great, is a theater he built atthe site known now as Humra. The brilliance of Babylonwas ended about 250 BC when the inhabitants of Babylonmoved to Seleucia, built by Alexander’s successors.