When students or museumgoers are asked to name examples of art from ancient times, they frequently list examples from Egypt, Greece, or Rome. Depending on their country of origin, they might also include works from China and India. Historians generally consider the ancient period of Egypt to be from about 3150 BC to 332 BC, that of Greece from 1200 BC to 600 AD, and that of Rome from about 800 BC to 600 AD. Historians consider the ancient period of China to run from the founding of the Xia dynasty in the early 21st century BC to the early 7th century AD with the establishment of the Tang dynasty. The Indus River civilization and the Harappan civilization, which encompassed southeastern Pakistan and northwestern India, were both well established by 2700 BC.
Each of these civilizations left behind beautiful examples of their art. The Egyptians left the pyramids and other fantastic memorials to their dead. The Greeks and Romans left countless temples and statues throughout the Mediterranean world. The Chinese left manuscripts, terracotta statues and much more. The Indus River civilization left elaborate statuary and a primitive written language. The oldest of these examples, as we can see, are those from ancient Egypt – which in some cases are approximately 5,000 years old. However, all of the above examples are quite youngwhen contrasted with the civilizations that developed in Mesopotamia, the lands of present-day Iraq and Kuwait. The first recognizable Mesopotamian civilization, the Sumer, began approximately 6,000 years ago in 4000 BC. Other Mesopotamian cultures include the Akkadians, the Old and New Babylonian cultures, and the Hittites.
The word “Mesopotamia” means “the land between two rivers” in Greek. In this case, the rivers are the Tigris and the Euphrates that run roughly parallel to each other from their sources in the mountains of eastern Turkey and then southeast to the Persian Gulf. The Euphrates, the southernmost of the two, also runs through the northwestern part of Syria. Both are large, navigable rivers along most of their length and, especially in ancient times, the silt left in the area from flooding left the soil rich in the nutrients needed to sustain agriculture.
For thousands of years before the rise of the Sumer, people’s main concern was survival. One result of man’s slow shift from existing in traveling bands of hunter-gatherers to settled cultures that relied on agriculture and the domestication of animals for food was that for the first time not all members of society were required to grow or provide food. People became government officials, craftsmen, and artists, among other things.
As these civilizations developed, artists (often at the direction of the rulers and priests above them) began to portray the world around them, their ideas about the afterlife and the realms of the gods, and glorify their leaders.
Here we will list nine of the greatest works of art of the ancient cultures of Mesopotamia:
9. The White Temple and Great Ziggurat of Uruk
Located on the Euphrates in what is now southeastern Iraq, Uruk is home to perhaps the Sumerians’ most important temple to the gods, the White Temple and Great Ziggurat. Uruk was a major city for early Sumerian culture and home to the great Sumerian hero Gilgamesh who features in the famous epic poem of that name, one of the earliest examples of narrative that survives today.
The remains of one of the most important temples of ancient Sumer now bakes in the Iraqi sun. For tourists, historians and archeologists, a great deal of imagination is required to picture the ziggurat as it actually was 5,000 years ago. Time, sun, wind, and erosion has taken its toll on the structure, but from writings and by archeological extrapolation, we can build up a picture of what the structure looked like at the height of Sumer’s power.
Like many other cultures, the Sumerians believed the gods lived in the sky, so they constructed many of their temples on the highest point possible and made them as tall as the building technology of the time allowed. A ziggurat is a stepped pyramid. In this case, it is a broad one with a large, flat area at its apex where a massive temple was erected. Here, priests would offer prayers and sacrifices to the gods, and receive messages from the deities themselves.
The White Temple was 40 feet high (12 meters), built of brick (usable stone was rare in the region), and comprised an area of 56 x 72 square feet (17 x 22 square meters). Historians estimate that it took 1,500 laborers five years to construct the temple. Inside the temple, archeologists have found the burnt skeletal remains of a leopard and a lion, a number of stone tablets reflecting the accounting of the temple, and a burn pit where it is believed that burnt offerings were given to the gods. Additionally, they believe they have found evidence of a fountain or water system inside the temple, which indicates a level of technological understanding beyond that which we would normally associate with very ancient times.
8. Statues of Tell Asmar
In the 2009 movie The Fourth Kind, a psychologist works with people who have allegedly been abducted and their bodies inhabited by aliens and subjected to all sorts of terrors. Soon, she is visited by these aliens herself and begins to record their visits. She also hires a team of UFO experts to help her get to the bottom of the mystery. One of these experts is a historian who has traced alien abduction and visitation stories throughout history. It is his belief that beings from another planet have been visiting the earth for thousands of years. To “prove” his theory, he points out various statues and friezes of the Sumerian and other Mesopotamian cultures such as the Elamites of the powerful city of Eshnunna.
Two of the figures he believes might be depictions of aliens are the votive statues of Tell Asmar from around 2700 BC. Their large eyes are similar to those that we associate with visiting aliens. Other plausible-sounding similarities are concocted to lead us to believe that perhaps aliens have been visiting and ruling over us for centuries.
The true story of the figures is this: Just as worshipers light a candle and say a prayer to remember their loved ones in some Christian churches today, these statues represented the deceased. In many cases, names have been found on the bottom of the figures, along with a written prayer. The twelve figures of Tell Asmar (ten men and two women) were found close together in a temple area. It is believed that the wide, alien-like eyes of the statuettes were to make sure that they were able to see any messages or responses given by the gods, no matter how small or subtle.
Eight of the statues are made from gypsum, two from limestone and one from alabaster. The dark, oversized eyes are made from bitumen (coal) and one figure’s pupils are made from lapis lazuli. The beards of the men and other dark markings and shadings on the figures were also inlays of bitumen coal.
7. The Standard of Ur
Found in the 1920s by British archeologists (Iraq was then governed by Britain), the Standard of Ur is a beautiful piece of art that is 4,600 years old. The standard is actually a mosaic, not a piece of cloth as the name would suggest. Though much of the piece has been lost to time and thieves, a significant portion of it exists today in the British Museum in London.
The Standard is made from red limestone and lapis lazuli (which forms the blue background). These materials were not cheap, and the mosaic was prepared for the tomb of a king, Ur-Pabilsag, who died around 2550 BC. The mosaic is a partial story of his life and reign and gives us an insight into Mesopotamian culture.
Originally believed to be covering a hollow, four-sided box, the mosaic is actually quite small – 8.5 inches wide and 19.5 inches long – but provides great detail about aspects of life in ancient Mesopotamia. The two surviving fragments have been labeled “War” and “Peace.” The first shows the king, a two-dimensional, towering figure, viewing a procession of naked prisoners (some of them wounded) being marched past his chariot. Mesopotamian soldiers are shown in their helmets with weapons at the ready.
We also see a number of horse-drawn chariots. From these images, we know what these soldiers wore, and with what (and how) they likely fought. The horses lack bits in their mouths as this was an invention that came a thousand years later. Instead, they were directed by other means such as ropes along or inside the nose. Enemies are being paraded before them and are being trampled underneath the chariots.
The other fragment, “Peace,” again shows an outsized king at the head of a banquet, which includes a singer, a lyre player, fish and other animals, as well as various fruits and vegetables.
6. The Victory Stele of Naram-Sin
Another of the ancient Mesopotamian cultures was that of Akkadia, which ruled much of Mesopotamia from approximately 2334 BC to 2154 BC. The Akkadians controlled most of the length of the navigable parts of the Tigris and Euphrates rivers, which gave them great power. Like other civilizations throughout the centuries, the Akkadians erected monuments in honor of their great kings and warriors and, in the process, elevated them to a sort of god-like status.
The Victory Stele of Naram-Sin commemorates the triumph of the Akkadian king Naram-Sin over the Lullubi who lived in the Zagros Mountains of present-day Iran. We can tell a lot about King Naram-Sin just from looking at this stele. Most of the military/triumphant friezes of Mesopotamia and later are horizontal, with the king marching or riding at the front or rear of a procession of soldiers, priests, and/or prisoners. In this case, the stele depicts the victory of Naram-Sin in an upward, semi-triangular fashion, with the king at its apex and much larger than the figures below him, which decrease in size as you go closer to the bottom of the stone.
The Akkadians believed that only deceased kings became gods, but here Naram-Sin is wearing the helmet of a god and his face is depicted as that of a lion, something which other works tell us is reserved only for the gods. Like many conquerors that came after him, Naram-Sin must have had some ego.
5. Ashurbanipal and His Queen in the Garden
Ashurbanipal was king of the Assyrian Empire from 668 BC to 627 BC, a relatively recent king compared to those we have already mentioned. Actually, if you think just in terms of time, the reign of Ashurbanipal is closer on a timeline to us in today than to the people of Ur 3,200 years ago.
In this frieze of the king and his wife, we see life in the royal court in a different setting. Here the king and queen are relaxing and enjoying themselves. This shows that the queen must have either been quite important or the king must have loved her a great deal – or both. Queens did not appear in Assyrian art with much frequency, unlike the Egyptian art we are more familiar with.
Speaking of Egypt, we can see weapons in the background of the frieze which indicate perhaps a recent campaign against the Egyptians. We see wine goblets, fruit, slaves, and a severed head in the background. We can also see incense burners and slaves fanning away the desert flies. Some historians have noted that in this work, the faces of the king and queen (who are rendered in an almost three-dimensional way) have been defaced, while the faces of the slaves and servants have not. This leads historians to believe that Ashurbanipal and his queen must have been hated figures.
4. The Bull Lyre
One of the most beautiful pieces of art recovered from Mesopotamia is the Bull Lyre. Found in the tomb of Queen Puabi (c. 2680 BC), the lyre was meant to help the queen fend off loneliness in, and on to the journey to, the afterlife. The lyre is 112cm high, 73cm long, and the body is 7cm wide. The body is a sort of rectangular box standing on one of its lower sides, out of which the body of the lyre grows. The front of the lyre is adorned with the face of a blue bull (created by a lapis-lazuli inlay), and down the front of the bull’s chest are depictions from scenes at court. Whether the lyre was actually playable when created is unknown.
3. The Stele of Hammurabi
Hammurabi is one of the most famous of the ancient kings. He ruled Babylon from 1810 BC to 1750 BC and is responsible for one of the only (and first) surviving written codes of law. Supposedly given to him by the god Shamash, the Hammurabi Code details laws surrounding many aspects of life in ancient Babylon, and the laws were carved into a stone stele so that they could be seen by everyone. By carving his laws on this stele, Hammurabi was also making a statement that would be remembered well into the future. Hammurabi was declaring that the law should not be arbitrary and made on a whim. Although a work of government, the stele has since taken on an aspect of art, largely due to its use of cuneiform.
Cuneiform, meaning “wedge shaped” in Latin, was one of the earliest writing systems in history. It began around 6000 years ago as a series of pictograms and developed into a wedge-shaped or triangular alphabet for exactitude and understanding. Over time, artifacts from Babylonia and Mesopotamia engraved with cuneiform have been considered works of art. From the late 19th century through today, neo-primitive artists will include cuneiform writing in their work to add atmosphere or meaning.
In Mesopotamian culture, the lamassu were protective gods with the heads of royal humans, the bodies of bulls or lions, and the wings of birds. Much like the guardian lions, lion dogs, and dragons of China, the lamassu guarded temples and palaces to ensure no harm would come to the king and priests and to make sure prayers were protected.
The faces of the lamassu (and there are a number of them still in existence) are what most people associate with the appearance of Mesopotamian rulers or priests. They wear a large miter-type hat with a flat top (something like the headgear of Eastern Orthodox officials) and a long square-ended beard spun into curls. In much the same way as we think of King Tut or the Sphinx as being typical of ancient Egypt, people often associate the face of the lamassu with the rulers of Mesopotamia.
Most of the surviving lamassu figures are large and imposing – they were supposed to be, as they were the guardians of the temples and the gateways to the gods. The most famous pair of lamassu, at Sargon II’s temple at Khorsabad in northern Iraq, stand much higher and wider than the people. Another interesting fact about these bull- or lion-bodied guardians is that they often have five legs.
1. The Ishtar Gate
The Ishtar Gate, reconstructed and displayed in the Pergamon Museum in Berlin since 1930, was created during the time of the longest-reigning Babylonian monarch, Nebuchadnezzar II (634 BC–532 BC). Found on the north side of the ruins of Babylon in disrepair, the gate was reconstructed using original bricks and repainted. Today, the Ishtar Gate is considered by many to be the finest example of Mesopotamian art.
The gate itself is large: it is 14 feet high and 100 feet wide. Its crenellated towers show an architectural mastery, and its gold and yellow mosaics indicated that one was passing through into a rich and powerful city. From remnants of dyes and paints, restorers believe that the Ishtar Gate was colored, or topped, with lapis lazuli. The lapis-colored paint was expensive and indicates the importance of the structure.
It is believed that the Ishtar Gate was simply the last structure on a long road leading into the north side of the city. Historians and archaeologists believe that the road leading to the gate was lined with miniature castle towers, all crenelated like the top of the Ishtar Gate – whether this was purely aesthetic, to protected archers, or both is uncertain.