Mesopotamian art and architecture
Mesopotamian art and architecture were produced by the diverse peoples who occupied the land between the Tigris and Euphrates rivers from about 3500 to 539 BC. The earliest civilization of MESOPOTAMIA was created by Sumerian-speaking people, and although their Sumerian language was preserved, the original inhabitants eventually either died out or were absorbed into the population of SEMITES who moved into this area at various periods in history.
Mesopotamia is divided into two geographical regions--the north with its mountains and foothills and the southern plain. Humans are known to have occupied caves in the mountains of northeastern Mesopotamia during the Paleolithic period (the Old Stone Age). By the 6th millennium BC, Neolithic village cultures based on rainfall agriculture were in existence in the northern foothills (see SAMARRA). Southern Mesopotamia was not settled until somewhat later in the 6th millennium BC, when a simple form of irrigation farming may have been developed. Elaboration of irrigation technology and cultivation of the date palm and barley made possible the growth of cities in the south. With changing patterns of land use and cultivation, the center of Mesopotamian civilization moved slowly north from Sumer in southernmost Babylonia to Akkad in northern Babylonia and finally to Assyria in the far north.
The many different Mesopotamian peoples and their shifting foci of power did not permit the cultural uniformity and continuity that are reflected in the contemporaneous artistic and architectural traditions of ancient Egypt. Nevertheless, some characteristics of Mesopotamian art and architecture were clearly shaped by the historical setting. The first and most enduring architectural monument was the temple. This fact reflects a view of life in which human beings were meant to serve the gods, who were personified as powerful and capricious forces of nature. From the time of the earliest preserved cities, it is apparent that strong fortifications were necessary because the city-states of Mesopotamia were so often at war with each other. Further, cities seem to have been deliberately planned, or left unplanned, to be defensible, with mazelike streets to puzzle invaders and with walled inner areas into which the inhabitants could retreat. Even temples, which were built according to a number of different ground plans, were laid out so that access to the statue of the god was somehow interrupted or made distant and difficult.
As did the architecture, Mesopotamian art had two major preoccupations--man's relationship to the gods and conflict on either a real or mythological plane. Although art was primarily created for temple or king, a number of small objects were also produced, such as cylinder seals and clay plaques with mythological scenes. These objects were probably owned to a great extent by the population at large.
Early Mesopotamian art was usually small in scale, because the south was poor in natural resources, and materials like stone and metals had to be imported. Later, Assyrian palaces were decorated with large stone-relief sculptures and immense gate guardian figures of animal or monstrous form. However, the oldest and most enduring form of art was the cylinder seal, a small stone cylinder covered with a design cut into its surface. Such seals when rolled over a wet clay tablet served a practical purpose: to identify their owners and to seal a variety of business transactions. These little objects were also frequently used as jewelry or as magical amulets. Like so many other forms of Mesopotamian art, they were intimately associated with writing. The seal impressions, even before the owner's name was incised on the cylinder, stood for a particular individual just as a signature does today.
The history of Mesopotamian art and architecture is conventionally divided into a number of periods. These divisions are based on historical evidence, scientific investigations, and stratigraphy of excavated sites--each of these coupled with a certain amount of guesswork. Particularly in the early periods, the dating is a matter of speculation, and different scholars give different names to the historical periods. The names and dates used here have been chosen for their clarity and simplicity. For further discussion of problems of chronology, the reader is directed to the appended bibliography, where almost every listed work deals to some extent with the difficult subject of chronology.
PROTOLITERATE PERIOD (c.3500-2900 BC) The first period of Mesopotamian civilization is the Protoliterate. This phase is most clearly seen at the southern city of URUK and indeed may have arisen there. However, Uruk's architecture is based on earlier forms at ERIDU, and during the Protoliterate period several southern cities--and even some cities in northern Mesopotamia and Syria--shared cultural traits with Uruk. Although there is little historical evidence, this cultural network was probably based on trade.
Southern Mesopotamian cities were built around temples, and the main temple in each city was dedicated to the chief god or goddess of that city. The White Temple on the Anu Ziggurat at Uruk is a characteristic example of Protoliterate temple architecture. The whitewashed outer walls of this small rectangular mudbrick structure are formed into the niches and buttresses that are a typical feature of all Mesopotamian temples. The temple stands on a ZIGGURAT, a tall artificial mountain formed from the remains of temples built and rebuilt on this site for centuries.
The Protoliterate art at Uruk, largely religious in theme, exists principally in the form of temple furnishings. Typical objects of the period include the so-called cult vase of Uruk, a 1-m-high (3-ft) alabaster vessel decorated with scenes of offerings brought to the temple (Iraq Museum, Baghdad) and a beautiful stone head, 22 cm high (8.6 in), of a woman perhaps representing the fertility goddess Inanna (Iraq Museum). This image had probably been set into a temple wall as part of a cult relief made of various materials. The face is softly and realistically modeled; the white stone must have looked like flesh when surrounded by its original colorful inlays for the eyes, eyebrows, and headdress.
EARLY DYNASTIC PERIOD (c.2900-2370 BC) During the Early Dynastic period, independent city-states flourished in southern Mesopotamia, in MARI on the middle Euphrates River, and as far north as the city of Assur, as well as the Syrian city known today as Tell Khuera. The southern cities were the Sumerian heartland, while Semitic-speaking peoples inhabited the northern city-states. Trade networks united these distant places, and toward the end of the period kings began to conquer and rule over several city-states.
In the flourishing cities of this period, temples were numerous. The exact form might vary because of local traditions and the particular shape of the site, but most temples had a rectangular CELLA (the inner sacred chamber), with some sort of indirect access to the statue of the god that stood within it. For large and important temples of this period, an unusual form appeared which has so far been discovered at three cities--LAGASH, Khafaje, and Al 'Ubaid. This was the temple oval, an immense oval platform on which a temple was constructed, with a second outer oval wall surrounding the entire temple complex. Large palaces have been excavated at KISH and Mari, evidence of the rising power of local city rulers during the Early Dynastic period. Similarly, the city walls of Uruk testify to the growing need to fortify cities in this period of increasing warfare.
Most surviving objects of Early Dynastic art are small figurines of worshipers, which were discovered in temples, where they were probably left as offerings by pious visitors and pilgrims. These sculptures are generally small, under 30 cm (11.8 in) in height, although a few rare examples are as tall as two-thirds life-size. Most of the figurines are male, although some are of females with elaborate gowns and headdresses. The typical male worshiper is shown standing, wearing a long, fringed skirt, which leaves the chest bare. The most prominent features of these statues are the inlaid eyes, which seemingly stare toward the god to whom they were dedicated, and the hands clasped in prayer. Many of the statues are crudely made, perhaps by amateurs; others exhibit more skillful carving, and a few reflect exceptionally fine craftsmanship.
In addition to these sculptures and numerous temple furnishings, there are certain monuments of the Early Dynastic period that demonstrate the rising power of the king. The most famous is the limestone Stele of the Vultures (1.9 m/6.2 ft, restored height; Louvre, Paris), made for King Eannatum of Lagash. Sculpted in relief on the front of this stele, the king is shown leading his army to victory while vultures peck the disembodied heads of his victims, inhabitants of a neighboring city-state. On the rear, the god who gave Eannatum his victory is depicted as an immense figure gathering the enemy into a huge net. In addition to the lengthy relief images, inscriptions cover both sides of the stele. The theme of conflict also occurs on cylinder seals of this period, although in a different way. The seals are decorated with so-called combat friezes, continuously repeated designs in which heroes and animals are portrayed in a seemingly endless struggle for survival.
A spectacular treasure trove of Early Dynastic culture was discovered at the Royal Cemetery at UR, dating from c.2500 BC. Here, 16 elaborately built tombs contain, in addition to the chief occupant (who may have been a ruler or a ritual figure), a number of human sacrifices. The main tombs of these graves were furnished with a wealth of luxuriously decorated objects, including gold cups and bowls, jewelry of precious stones and metals, inlaid harps, and other items that together provide some idea of the lively and colorful material culture of the time.
AKKADIAN PERIOD (c.2370-2230 BC) The Akkadian period, the first true Mesopotamian empire, was dominated by a dynasty of Semitic rulers whose capital city of AKKAD (yet to be discovered) was located somewhere north of Sumer, but still within Babylonia. Although this short-lived phase has as yet yielded few architectural remains, the Akkadian art that has been found is of very high quality and represents perhaps the most unique art created during the history of Mesopotamia. Truly imperial, the art focuses on the ruler rather than on religious events. A now headless diorite statue (94 cm/37 in high) of King Manishtusu (Louvre, Paris) from SUSA, depicts deftly and with regal elegance the long, softly rippling robes worn by the king. A bronze head (36.6 cm/14.4 in high) of a ruler, discovered at NINEVEH, is sometimes identified with the king Naram Sin (Iraq Museum, Baghdad). The king, whose strong features are sensitively modeled, has an elaborately braided headdress or helmet and an elaborately curled beard.
The 2-m-high (6-ft) sandstone victory stele of King Naram Sin from Susa (Louvre, Paris) is the most unusual monument of this period. On the conically shaped stele, the king, portrayed larger than his soldiers and wearing the horned crown of a god, stands facing a conical mountain; above are two stars, divine symbols. In contrast to the Early Dynastic Stele of the Vultures, where divine and human powers are separated on opposite sides of the monument, the two forces are here united in the presence of the king, who proudly records his military victory.
Many of the Akkadian cylinder seals display designs that are as beautiful as those appearing on the royal sculpture. Those decorated with combat friezes now appear in the form of separate pairs of combatants, carved with great realism and monumentality of form. In addition a rich variety of mythological scenes depict epic and divine tales.
NEO-SUMERIAN PERIOD (c.2230-2000 BC) In about 2230 BC, a band of mountaineers, the Guti, overthrew the Akkadian empire. The following period was marked by a Sumerian revival under the kings of Ur, who drove off the Guti and then ruled over Sumer and Akkad from c.2120 to 2000 BC. Early in this period the rulers of the city-state of Lagash built temples and produced sculpture that differed greatly from Akkadian art. Gudea, ruler of Lagash, commissioned a series of hardstone sculptures in which he is depicted as a humble and pious worshiper of the gods, rather than as their equal. While the fine artisanship of these sculptures must have been inspired by Akkadian art, the religious tone seems more in keeping with the Early Dynastic period.
The kings of Ur continued to express a similar tone in their attitudes toward the gods. Much architecture of the city of Ur during the Neo-Sumerian period has been excavated, and it is apparent that although these rulers had great political power, their architectural efforts were largely devoted to religious expression.
At the center of Ur was the religious precinct, which contained a large and elaborate ziggurat to the moon god Nannar (the chief deity of Ur), a smaller temple to Nannar's wife, and a still smaller royal palace. The ziggurat of Nannar was built in stages and was faced with a niched surface of baked brick. A temple to the god, which could be reached by three ramps, was placed atop the ziggurat. A smaller temple was located at the ziggurat's base. Other such ziggurats were built in many cities throughout the empire.
A characteristic form of temple used during this period was the so-called broad cella--a broad and shallow room approached through a series of entrance halls and courts. In this temple the statue of the god, or in some cases the deified ruler, could be glimpsed from afar. The statue was kept separate from the worshiper not by the layout of the temple as in earlier times, but by the many axially arranged spaces that separated the worshiper from his god.
Compared to the architectural remains, Neo-Sumerian art is scarce. Those pieces which have been preserved are religious and conservative, yet exquisitely crafted, as is the art of Gudea. The designs of cylinder seals are rigidly composed, with a similar preponderance of religious themes.
ISIN-LARSA AND OLD BABYLONIAN PERIODS (c.2006-c.1600 BC) In 2000 BC the rulers of Ur fell before invading AMORITES, a new wave of Semitic-speaking people who eventually were absorbed into the city-states of Babylonia. From then on, Semitic languages were to dominate Mesopotamian life. Early in the 2d millennium BC a number of independent city-states flourished, but an empire of small proportions was formed by King HAMMURABI of Babylon in the 18th century BC and was maintained by his successors.
The architectural evidence of these two periods is not very extensive. Nothing is known of Babylon at this time, and the most impressive building yet excavated is the palace at Mari, a powerful trading center before it fell (c.1760 BC) to Hammurabi.
The vast palace, with its complex ground plan, was an administrative, political, and religious center for the ruler of the city-state. Large wall paintings here of human figures and mythological animals are rare examples of the monumental art of this period.
The best-known piece of art of the Old Babylonian period is the stone stele inscribed with the law code of Hammurabi (Louvre, Paris). At the top of this 2.3-m-high (90.5-in) stele Hammurabi is shown worshiping Shamash, the god of justice, who handed down the laws (inscribed beneath this relief sculpture) to the king who would enforce them.
The images of the pious king and the powerful god are based on Neo-Sumerian prototypes, and the use of a picture to explain and justify the written law illustrates the close interrelationship between art and writing in ancient Mesopotamia. Cylinder seals of these periods show much the same themes as in the Neo-Sumerian period.
NEO-ASSYRIAN PERIOD (c.1000-612 BC) Little outstanding art or architecture was produced during the Middle Babylonian and Middle Assyrian periods of the second half of the 2d millennium BC. However, the succeeding Assyrian Empire, formed in the first half of the 1st millennium BC, became the most extensive Mesopotamian kingdom, and its material culture represents the crowning glory of Mesopotamian art and architecture.
Warfare and trade were the two main concerns of Assyrian kings, and their art and architecture were cleverly designed to further these two concerns. Assyrian cities such as Calah (NIMRUD), Nineveh, and Dur Sharrukin (KHORSABAD) were military fortresses. The latter, built by King Sargon II (r. 721-705 BC), is a splendid example of Assyrian city architecture. The city was surrounded by heavy walls with powerful gates. Guarding the main gate was a small fortress built over the city wall, and the main citadel rose over the wall at the rear of the city. The inner area was perhaps filled with tents or other light structures, because no architectural remains have been found there. The main citadel was itself a small walled city with palaces and temples.
The most important building in the city was the huge royal palace, built at the very back of the inner citadel. Within the palace were public rooms and courtyards, private apartments for the king, and an entire temple complex with a freestanding ziggurat.
Unlike southern cities, which were built around central temple areas, Assyrian cities had a peripheral emphasis, with the most important structure being the royal palace. Also unlike that of the south, Assyrian architecture could make use of local stone for orthostats, monumental vertical slabs that lined walls and gates. Notwithstanding these differences in architectural style and material, both northern and southern cities were planned to make it difficult for invaders to penetrate the main civic center, because warfare was a constant threat in Mesopotamian life.
Assyrian art was largely architectural decoration in the form of relief sculptures on the walls of palaces and of huge guardian figures at gate entrances. This sculpture was meant to impress and intimidate people with the power and sanctity of the Assyrian king. The relief sculptures depict the endless battles of the Assyrian armies; inevitably, the king is shown triumphant over everyone who had dared to oppose the mighty empire. Sometimes the king is portrayed in a ritual stressing his religious powers, or else he is shown accepting the tribute brought him by the many peoples of the empire. The king might also be shown as a skillful hunter who could dispatch dangerous wild animals like lions and bulls as easily as he could conquer his enemies.
A remarkable series of sculptures (now preserved in the British Museum, London) was discovered in the palace of King Ashurbanipal (r. 668-627 BC) at Nineveh. This king was particularly fond of sports, and the magnificent reliefs show many aspects of lion hunts as well as hunts of less dangerous animals. All Assyrian relief sculptures reveal a fascination with detail, with history, and with combat, an enduring theme throughout the history of Mesopotamian art. Cylinder seals of this period also frequently depict combat, often between a superhuman hero and a monster.
NEO-BABYLONIAN PERIOD (609-539 BC) In 609 BC the Assyrian Empire was conquered by an army of Medes and Babylonians, and the last Mesopotamian culture was that of the short-lived Neo-Babylonian Empire. The city of Babylon during this period displayed a combination of northern and southern architectural traditions. The city was built around a huge temple complex sacred to MARDUK, the chief Babylonian god; here stood the traditional temples as well as the ziggurat known in the Bible as the Tower of BABEL. The royal palace was built out over the city wall, perhaps in imitation of Assyrian palace architecture, although its rambling layout and hanging gardens, or planted terraces, were stylistically far more southern than northern.
Also typically southern was the wall decoration used in the city. Instead of the grim and powerful themes of Assyrian relief sculptures, Babylon was adorned with colorful glazed bricks on the wall of the massive ISHTAR Gate on the main road or procession way, and on the facade of the throne room in the royal palace. These glazed brick panels, usually in the form of molded reliefs of lions, bulls, and strange monsters, gave an elegant and sophisticated air to the city. Proud of their millennia of historic tradition, the rulers of Babylon chose to emphasize beauty rather than power in their art.
The Babylonian Empire fell to the Persians in 539 BC, and thus the final Mesopotamian kingdom was supplanted as the center of Near Eastern civilization. However, the traditions of Mesopotamian art and architecture were so rich and enduring that they enhanced the cultures of surrounding peoples, left their imprint in the Bible, and inspired many aspects of Greek art and architecture