Sumerian, Inanna Temple, Uruk, Iraq, c. 3200-3000 BCE (photo by By Carmen Asensio – http://www.ezida.com/photo2/urukzigginanna.jpg, FAL, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=10557569)
Sometime around 3500 BCE, the Sumerian culture developed in the southernmost part of Mespotamia, the area between the Tigris and Euphrates Rivers in the Middle East. This was among the first major, developed cultures in the world, and shows, in it’s archeological remains, signs of being a highly stratified culture, with a highly developed, centralized religion, and writing. This written language, among the first in the world, is called cuneiform, and began as a means to keep records. This was a system of making wedge-shaped signs on clay tablets that were then baked, and it eventually evolved into a system of writing that would give some of the earliest forms of literature, such as the epic of Gilgamesh.
The other development of the ancient Sumerian culture, seen first at the site of Uruk, now in southern Iraq, is the building of ziggurats, or stepped temple platforms, such as the one seen above, with small chambers at the top believed to be the houses of the gods. The ziggurat there, known as the White temple, and seen above on this page, was dedicated to the goddess Inanna, the patron goddess of Uruk, and was decorated with cone mosaics embedded into the walls. Also found at this site was a stone mask, seen below, believed to be a portrait of the goddess, that at one time had inlays of precious materials in the eyes, eyebrows, and hairline. It is probable that it was attached to a larger piece of sculpture.
The Royal Tombs at Ur, which, like Uruk, date from the Early Dynastic Period, give an indication of the wealth of the elites of Sumerian society. A number of the objects here have images on them of mythological scenes, such as the Epic of Gilgamesh, or of scenes possibly portraying “War” and “Peace.” The lyre also shows the importance of bulls within Mesopotamia, and we can see the typical means of representing the human form in the imagery on the standard, which shows a combination of frontal and profile views of the same individual.
These works show the rich cultural and artistic life of the people of ancient Sumer, and the importance of the royal figures within that life. Another source for the ritual life of these people is the site of Tell Asmar, where a series of votive statues were found. These were once placed in the house of the god, and the wide, staring eyes and praying hands show the piety of the people they portray.
Standing Male Figure, c.2750-2600 BCE (photo by By Rosemaniakos from Bejing (hometown) (Flickr) [CC BY-SA 2.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/2.0)%5D, via Wikimedia Commons)
The Akkadian Empire is said to have been the first to unify Mesopotamia under Sargon I (ruled 2334-2279 BCE). It would seem that, by the time of Sargon’s grandson, Naram-Sin (2261-2224 BCE), the rulers had begun to think of themselves as divine. The empire fell apart not long after his reign. It is still unclear the reasons for the decline, or the site of the capital city of Akkad. One of the things that can be said about the Akkadian rulers is the high level of technical sophistication of their art, as seen in the cast bronze head, probably representing Sargon, that was found at Ninevah, and is dated to 2250-2200 BCE. The eyes were gouged out, most likely because they were composed of inlaid precious materials, and the head was probably attached to a larger body.
Bronze head of an Akkadian ruler (Sargon I?), c. 2250-2200 BCE
In the Victory Stele of Naram-Sin, the ruler is placed at the top of the scene, with the double stars representing deities above him. His is also larger than the rest of the figures, an example of hieratic scale, where the most important figure in a scene is made larger than all other figures within that scene. This scene also shows an attempt at landscape with a tree in the center of the composition and a mountain behind the figures. Notice the continued blending of profile and frontal views of people, and the bull’s horns that form part of Naram-Sin’s headdress. It may also represent an actual battle, as it is known that Naram-Sin had to suppress a number of insurrections during his rule. The piece was taken back to Susa, in modern Iran, by the Elamites in the 12th century as war booty.
By the 21-20th centuries BCE, Mesopotamia was again reunited, this time under the Neo-Sumerian Empire, which had its capital at Ur, ruled by Ur-Nammu (ruled 2047-2030 BCE), the founder of the Third Dynasty. The ziggarat built by him would be one of the largest in Mesopotamia, and, like other Mesopotamian ziggurats, lay in the center of the city, at the heart of the ritual and royal spaces. The ziggurat had a number of levels, with the spaces becoming more restricted as you moved up the stairs.
Ziggurat of Ur, Built c. 2100 BCE (photo by By Tla2006 at English Wikipedia (Transferred from en.wikipedia to Commons.) [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons)
One of the major accomplishments of the Old Babylonian Period (c. 1830-1550 BCE) was the writing down of a series of oral and local legal codes by the king, Hammurabi, c. 1792-1750 BCE. These laws, which basically prove the adage “an eye for an eye,” represent the system of judging crimes, adjudicating property rights and inheritance, and deal with divorce, among other things. The code is made up of 300 statues written in Akkadian in 51 cuneiform columns, with an image of Hammurabi presenting the laws to the god Shamash at the top. Shamash is larger than Hammurabi, as he is the most important figure, and is shown seated on a ziggurat, with another as his crown.
The next unifying force in Mesopotamia is the Assyrian Empire, which was centered along the Tigris River in modern Syria. This really corresponds to the period called the Neo-Assyrian Empire, beginning in the 9th century BCE and continuing until 612 BCE, with the sacking of the capital at Ninevah. These war-like kings left extensive documents about themselves and their reigns, with Assurnasipal even amassing a massive library of cuneiform tablets. Many images of the kings combined ancient Akkadian and Mesopotamian forms with imagery from Egypt, the other major empire-building power in the area during this time.
Statue of Shalmaneser III. 858-824 BCE, Neo-Assyrian Period. Assur (Qala’t Sharqat) Basalt Inv. No. 4650. (Photo by By Gryffindor – Own work, GFDL, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=3909739)
In the inscription, the king gives a brief account of his genealogical titles and characteristics as follows: “Shalmaneser, the great king, the mighty king, king of all the four regions, the powerful and the mighty rival of the princes of the whole earth (universe) the great ones, the kings, son of Assur-Nasirapli, king of universe, king of Assyria, grandson of Tukulti-Ninura, king of universe, king of Assyria.” The inscription continuous with his campaigns and deeds of the lands of Urarut, Syria, Namri, Que and Tabal and comes to an end as follows: “At that time I rebuilt the walls of my city Ashur from their foundations to their summits. I made an image of my royal self and set it up in the metal-workers gate.“
The Neo-Assyrian king Sargon II built his planned fortress-like capital city at Dur-Sharrukin, or Khorsabad, between 721-705 BCE. It was left uncompleted at his death in 705 BCE, when his son, Sennacherib, moved the capital to Ninevah. There are two things of note at this site: one is the unusually shaped ziggurat, located in the upper left of the image below, that is part of the complex, and the other is the presence of the lamassu, which are divine genies with the king’s face, meant to be protective images. The lamassu combine human and animal forms, note the continuing influence of the bull, in 15 foot tall sculptures that loom over the viewer, and seem to be stationary when viewed from the front and in motion when viewed from the side.
The palace complex site also had a number of alabaster relief images of the king and his court engaged in various activities, an art form repeated at the new capital site of Ninevah. At this site, we see images of the last major Neo-Assyrian king, Assurnasirpal, hunting lions, attacking cities, and other scenes meant to intimidate the visitor to the complex. The lion hunts were especially important, as they were meant to show the power of the king, and they also related to the Assyrian belief that the longer someone took to die, the higher in heaven they would ascend.
After the fall of the Neo-Assyrian Empire, the Neo-Babylonian Empire (c. 612-539 BCE) came to the fore. The most dynamic king of Babylon was Nebuchadnezzar, who rebuilt the city of Babylon. This is also when Nebuchadnezzar is said to have built the famous Hanging Gardens, one of the Seven Wonders of the Ancient world, the location of which has never been determined. He is known for the use of glazed tiles in the new gates he built in the city walls, which were also used for decoration on the royal palace and the ziggurat. The Ishtar Gate, Figure 17, one of the famous seven gates, has images of bulls, lions, and dragons, all animals sacred to the goddess Ishtar, on a blue background. The gate was at the start of a processional way to the ziggarat that was the temple of Marduk, and also had inscriptions of prayers to Marduk (The animal tiles have some three-dimensional elements to them, and the archway of the gate is rounded. Both of these things represent a new type of technology.
Ishtar gate, c. 575 BCE (photo by By Radomir Vrbovsky – Own work, CC BY-SA 4.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=39256797)
In Iran, the main civilization was related to the Elamites centered at Susa in the Neolithic period. These people continued to exist in this area for thousands of years, developing writing, and impacting the history of Mesopotamia at various points. They are known for their fine ceramics.
This descriptive model of temple, also named Sit-shamshi, or the ceremony of the rising of the sun, from the 12th century BC in Susa is made of bronze, and has an Elamite inscription that reads “I, Shilhak-Inshushinak, son of Shutruk-Nahhunte, beloved servant of Inshushinak, king of Anzan and Susa, who made the kingdom grow, protector of Elam, I built a bronze sit-shamshi.“
The Persian kingdom of Ancient Iran defeated the Neo-Babylonian Empire in 539 BCE, although its history goes back to 550 BCE, and King Cyrus II (The Great). Cyrus is also known for the Cyrus Cylinder, which is considered to be one of the first declarations of human rights in known history. This empire would eventually stretch from Iran, though Mesopotamia, Anatolia (in modern Turkey, and into Greece, although the Persians, under Darius III were defeated by Alexander III of Macedon (the Great) in 331 BCE. The empire was centered on the capital at Persepolis, which reflected the international and cosmopolitan nature of the Persians. The “Gate of All Lands,” pictured below, used the lamassu of the Assyrians, and the Apadana, or audience hall was made up of 72 columns over 100 feet tall. The processional stairways had motifs of peoples of the empire bringing offerings to the king, as well as lions attacking bulls, symbolizing the Persian defeat of Mesopotamia. The cedar used for the wooden roof came from Lebanon, while other materials came from other parts of the empire. Alexander burned the structure in 330 BCE to symbolize his defeat of the empire.
Detail of Reliefs on Apadana of Darius, Persepolis, c. 550-486 BCE