Mesopotamia sumeria

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SUMERIA (2800-2300) contemporary with the Old Kingdom of Egypt 

Sumer was a loosely associated group of isolated city states in the lower Mesopotamian valley (The Tigris and the Euphrates). 

- near the edge of the sea 
- with rich, fertile soil making it an area that led the way in the adoption of agriculture as a way of life 
These were urban cities, that were dependent upon their agriculture. 
Because there were few natural features to help create defensible cities, the cities were easy to attack leading to constant conflict between them. 

Important Sumerian developments include: 
1. The concept of a city state was developed by the Sumerians
2. Writing was developed by the Sumerians - Cuneiform characters on clay
3. One of the most important cultural developments of this period is the concept of the powerful god communicating their desires to humanity through the medium of a powerful priest class or autocratic ruler who serves as the intermediary. 
- Theocracy govt. of the gods/priest class 
- ruler may be divine himself, or chosen by the god/gods 
- each city had it's own gods 
This system centralizes power in the hands of a small group of people and gives political decisions a religious authority


Ziggurat of Ur
 (a ziggurat - a temple raised on a large platform)
c. 2100 B.C. 

The Ziggurat of Ur was built by the king Ur-Nammu. It's a very imposing structure. Imagine the power of a leader speaking from high on the side of this symbolic mountain of the god.

Reconstruction Drawing

These stepped towers we call ziggurats. By 2000 B.C. mud-brick ziggurats were being constructed in many Sumerian cities. Later, ziggurats were constructed in Babylonian and Assyrian cities.

Sumerian Art

Lyre of Queen Puabi, Ur, c. 2685 BC

Bulls Head, Lyre 
The bull's beard shows the Mesopotamian interest in combined human/animal forms 

Lyre Soundbox (Lyre of Queen Puabi)  18" high 
Very formal composition organized in registers. 
creatures inlaid in shell may represent mythological beings.  The scorpion man at the bottom may be one of the Guardians of the Sun from the Epic of Gilgamesh.
They appear to be attending a celebration - some bring gifts or offerings.  Again, these figures like the bull's head, illustrate the Mesopotamian interest in combined creatures, and human/animal combinations.


Statuettes From the Temple of Abu
2700-2500 B.C. Tell Asmar, Alabaster and limestone 
These are votive figures. Their function is to constantly worship god, so they are in a worshipful posture. 

BABYLONIA (1830-539 BC) 

Babylon was one of the Sumerian cities which controlled the region from the 18th c. to the 16th c. BC

Old Babylonian Period (1900-1550 BC contemporary with the Middle Kingdom in Egypt) 

Stele of Hammurabi
c. 1780 BC, basalt, 7'4" h

detail of the top of the stele with Hammurabi
and Shamash

Hammurabi was a powerful king of Babylon, known for his civil and criminal law code. This stele depicts the king receiving the inspiration for his code of law from the sun god Shamash. Note the flames rising from Shamash's shoulders - a sight intended to show the god's power.

Neo-Babylonia 612-539 BC

The Neo-Babylonian Period was the period when Babylon regained independence from the Assyrians. 

One of Babylon's noteworthy claims to fame was the construction of the infamous ziggurat, the Tower of Babel dedicated to the god Bel. Babylon also had a grand Processional Way with the beautifully decorated gate dedicated to the goddess Ishtar - seen in a reconstruction drawing to the right. 




Ishtar Gate 
575 BC  restored in Berlin
The symmetrical gateway is a very formal passageway decorated with elegant animal figures raised in relief above the surface.

Pacing Lion, the Processional Way
Made of baked and glazed brick with the figures raised in relief
The lions that line the Processional Way of Nebuchadnezzar are sacred to Ishtar.
They have a very vital energy and sense of life.

ASSYRIA (1000 - 600)

Ashurbanipal and his Queen

The Assyrians were from northern Mesopotamia and very militaristic.Their capital cities were citadels. As they created their short lived and violent empire they adopted many aspects of the other Mesopotamian cultures who they enslaved.

Through a program of regular military campaigns they expanded their empire to the point where at one time it stretched from Turkey to the Persian Gulf and from the Tigris to the Nile: including the Egyptian Empire at one point. It is difficult to maintain an empire in a land which has few natural boundaries, such as mountains, seas, deserts, etc. and they were constantly defending it against rebellions and incursions.

Khorsabad - Citadel of Sargon II
c. 720 BC
Residential city and citadel about a mile square.
Very complex layout, very symmetrical and regimented - like a military camp.

The palace itself was built on 50' platform. The fortress walls were built of mud brick reinforced with glazed brick - stone was available but used for sculpture - not building. The ziggurat was built in 7 levels, 18' high each painted a different color.

Another combination creature - winged bull with human head
A symbolic creature that protected the cities and the palace from evil spirits
- it represented the supernatural power of the king and wears the horned crown of the kings and gods of Akkad
Assyrians believed their king was endowed with supernatural power.

Many lamassu are built into the gateways and visible from front and back.


Lamassu, the citadel of Sargon II, Khorsabad
c. 720 BC, limestone, 13' 10" h.

  • Note how the lamassu have 5 legs!

  • Front view is of the creature at rest and the side view shows it in motion

  • 2 legs front + 4 legs side (includes one of the front view legs = 5 legs

  • This is a conceptual approach to giving the viewer the idea that he sees the full compliment of legs as he walks around the creature

 Assyrian Relief Sculpture

Ashurnasirpal II at War
c. 875 BC, limestone, 39" h.

Relief sculpture filled the halls and throne room of the king.

Many are historical records and scenes of the king dominating enemies and wild beasts
- the panels are arranged in horizontal bands of relief sculpture called FRIEZES - a contribution of Assyrian sculptors and builders - that would have ringed the king’s throne room and other rooms in the palace.
Here, in a scene of battle, the Assyrian king Ashurnasirpal is seen attacking a fortified city defended by archers on the walls. There is a winged deity above the king in the sky that not only protects the king but also probably sanctifies the event. The Assyrians appear to be gaining the advantage.

Ashurbanipal Hunting Lions, the Palace of Ashurbanipal, Nineveh
c. 650 BCE, limestone, 60" h.

Here the king, Ashurbanipal (seen with his lovely wife at the top of the page), demonstrates his manly prowess by hunting lions.

Ashurnasirpal Hunting Lions

Dying Lioness
the Palace of Ashurbanipal, Nineveh
c. 650 BC, limestone, 16" h.
Here a lioness, wounded by the gallant king drags her paralyzed rear legs across the ground. The king is such a poor shot he couldn't kill her with 3 arrows!

PERSIA (539-331 BCE) 

Darius and Xerxes Receiving Tribute 

The Persian Empire under Cyrus displaced the Babylonian Empire of Nebuchadnezzar. 

The Persian people were like many of the peoples of Mesopotamia descendants of nomadic tribesmen. The Persian Empire became the largest to that time encompassing Mesopotamia, Egypt, and most of Asia Minor. In 480 they sacked Athens and tried, unsuccessfully for the next 30 years under Darius and Xerxes to incorporate Greece into their empire. In 331 Alexander the Great conquered the Persian Empire. 
 Sources: Alan Petersen’s Art History 201 & The British Museum


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