It is an astonishing fact that human civilization
should have emerged into the light of history in two separate places at
just about the same time. Between
B.C., when Egypt was being united under pharaonic rule, another great
civilization arose in Mesopotamia, the "land between the rivers." And
for close to 3,000 years,
the two rival centers retained their distinct characters, even though
they had contact with each other from their earliest beginnings and
their destinies were interwoven in many ways. The pressures that forced
the inhabitants of both regions to abandon the pattern of Neolithic
village life may well have been the same (see fig.
But the valley of the Tigris and Euphrates
rivers, unlike that of the Nile, is not a narrow fertile strip protected
by deserts on either side. It resembles a wide, shallow trough with few
natural defenses, crisscrossed by two great rivers and their
tributaries, and easily encroached upon from any direction.
Thus the facts of geography tended to discourage the
idea of uniting the entire area under a single head. Rulers who had this
ambition did not appear, so far as we know, until about a thousand years
after the beginnings of Mesopotamian civilization, and they succeeded in
carrying it out only for brief periods and at the cost of almost
continuous warfare. As a consequence, the political history of ancient
Mesopotamia has no underlying theme of the sort that divine kingship
provides for Egypt. Local rivalries, foreign incursions, the sudden
upsurge and equally sudden collapse of military power—these
are its substance. Against such a disturbed background, the continuity
of cultural and artistic traditions seems all the more remarkable. This
common heritage is very largely the creation of the founders of
Mesopotamian civilization, whom we call Sumerians after the region of
Sumer, which they inhabited, near the confluence of the Tigris and
The origin of the Sumerians remains obscure. Their
language is unrelated to any other known tongue. Sometime before
B.C., they came to southern Mesopotamia from Persia, and
there, within the next thousand years, they founded a number of
city-states and developed their distinctive form of writing in cuneiform
(wedge-shaped) characters on clay tablets. This transitional phase,
corresponding to the pre-dynastic period in Egypt, is called "protoliterate";
it leads to the early dynastic period, from about
Unfortunately, the tangible remains of Sumerian civilization are
extremely scanty compared to those of ancient Egypt. Building stone
being unavailable in Mesopotamia, the Sumerians used mud brick and wood,
so that almost nothing is left of their architecture except the
foundations. Nor did they share the Egyptians' concern with the
hereafter, although some richly endowed tombs in the shape of vaulted
chambers below ground from the early dynastic period have been found in
the city of Ur. Our knowledge of Sumerian civilization thus depends very
largely on chance fragments brought to light by excavation, including
vast numbers of inscribed clay tablets. Yet we have learned enough to
form a general picture of the achievements of this vigorous, inventive,
and disciplined people.
The first evidence of
Bronze Age culture is seen in Sumer about
Each Sumerian city-state had its own local
god, who was regarded as its "king" and owner. It also had a human
ruler, the steward of the divine sovereign, who led the people in
serving the deity. The local god, in return, was expected to plead the
cause of his subjects among his fellow deities who controlled the forces
of nature such as wind and weather, water, fertility, and the heavenly
bodies. Nor was the idea of divine ownership treated as a mere pious
fiction. The god was quite literally believed to own not only the
territory of the city-state but also the labor power of the population
and its products. All these were subject to his commands, transmitted to
the people by his human steward. The result was an economic system that
has been dubbed "theocratic socialism," a planned society whose
administrative center was the temple. The temple controlled the pooling
of labor and resources for communal enterprises, such as the building of
dikes or irrigation ditches, and it collected and distributed a
considerable part of the harvest. All this required the keeping of
detailed written records. Hence we need not be surprised to find that
the texts of early Sumerian inscriptions deal very largely with economic
and administrative rather than religious matters, although writing was a
The dominant role of the temple as the
center of both spiritual and physical existence is strikingly conveyed
by the layout of Sumerian cities. The houses were clustered about a
sacred area that was a vast architectural complex embracing not only
shrines but workshops, storehouses, and scribes' quarters as well. In
their midst, on a raised platform, stood the temple of the local god.
These platforms soon reached the height of true mountains, comparable to
the pyramids of Egypt in the immensity of effort required and in their
effect as great landmarks that tower above the featureless plain. They
are known as ziggurats.
The most famous of them, the biblical Tower of Babel,
has been completely destroyed, but a much earlier example, built shortly
B.C. and thus several centuries older
than the first of the pyramids, survives at Warka, the site of the
Sumerian city of Uruk (called Erech in the Bible). The mound, its
sloping sides reinforced by solid brick masonry, rises to a height of
40 feet. Stairs and ramps
lead up to the platform on which stands the sanctuary, called the "White
Temple" because of its whitewashed brick exterior (figs.
88). Its heavy walls, articulated by regularly
spaced projections and recesses, are sufficiently well preserved to
suggest something of the original appearance of the structure. The main
room, or cella (fig. 89),
where sacrifices were offered before the
statue of the god, is a narrow hall that runs the entire length of the
temple and is flanked by a series of smaller chambers. But the main
entrance to the cella is on the southwest side, rather than on the side
facing the stairs or on one of the narrow sides of the temple as one
might expect. In order to understand the reason for this, we must view
the ziggurat and temple as a whole. The entire complex is planned in
such a way that the worshiper, starting at the bottom of the stairs on
the east side, is forced to go around as many corners as possible before
reaching the cella. The processional path, in other words, resembles a
sort of angular spiral.
Detail of the "White Temple" on its ziggurat, Uruk (Warka), Iraq,
of the "White Temple" on its ziggurat (after H. Frankfort)
Interior of the cella, "White Temple"
This "bent-axis approach" is a fundamental
characteristic of Mesopotamian religious architecture, in contrast to
the straight, single axis of Egyptian temples (see fig.
During the following 2,500
years, it was elaborated into ever taller and more
towerlike ziggurats rising in multiple stages. The one built by King
Urnammu at Ur about 2100
B.C. (fig. 90) had three
levels. Little is left of the upper two stages, but the bottom one, some
feet high, has survived fairly well, and its facing of brick has been
restored. What was the impulse behind these structures? Certainly not
the kind of pride attributed to the builders of the Tower of Babel in
the Old Testament. They reflect, rather, the widespread belief that
mountaintops are the dwelling places of the gods. (We need only think of
the Mount Olympus of the Greeks.) The Sumerians felt they could provide
a fit residence for a deity only by creating their own artificial
Ziggurat of King Urnammu, Ur (El Muqeiyar), Iraq, ñ. 2100 B.C.
The image of the god to whom the
"White Temple" was dedicated is lost—it was
probably Anu, the god of the sky—but a splendid
female head of white marble from the same period at Uruk (Warka) may
well have belonged to another cult statue (fig.
The eyes and eyebrows were originally inlaid with colored
materials, and the hair was covered with a "wig" of gold or copper. The
rest of the figure, which must have been close to lifesize, probably
consisted of wood. As an artistic achievement, this head is on the level
of the finest works of Egyptian Old Kingdom sculpture. The softly
swelling cheeks, the delicate curves of the lips, combined with the
steady gaze of the huge eyes, create a balance of sensuousness and
severity that seems worthy of any goddess.
Female Head, from Uruk (Warka).
ñ 3500-3000 B.C.
Marble, height 8" (20.3 cm).
Iraq Museum, Baghdad
It was the geometric and expressive aspects of the
Uruk head, rather than the realistic ones, that survived in the stone
sculpture of the early dynastic period, as seen in a group of figures
from Tell Asmar (fig. 92) carved about five
centuries later than the head. The tallest, about 30
inches high, represents Abu, the god of vegetation; the second
largest, a mother goddess; the others, priests and worshipers. The two
deities are distinguished from the rest not only by their size but also
by the larger diameter of the pupils of their eyes, although the eyes of
all the figures are enormous. Their insistent stare is emphasized by
colored inlays, which are still in place. The entire group must have
stood in the cella of the Abu temple, the priests and worshipers confronting the two gods
and communicating with them through their eyes.
"Representation" here had a very direct meaning: the
gods were believed to be present in their images, and the statues of the
worshipers served as stand-ins for the persons they portrayed, offering
prayers or transmitting messages to the deity in their stead. Yet none
of them indicates any attempt to achieve a real likeness. The bodies as
well as the faces are rigorously simplified and schematic, in order to
avoid distracting attention from the eyes, "the windows of the soul." If
the Egyptian sculptor's sense of form was essentially cubic, that of the
Sumerian was based on the cone and cylinder. Arms and legs have the
roundness of pipes, and the long skirts worn by all these figures are as
smoothly curved as if they had been turned on a lathe. Even in later
times, when Mesopotamian sculpture had acquired a far richer repertory
of shapes, this quality asserted itself again and again.
Statues, from the Abu Temple, Tell Asmar.
ñ 2700-2500 B.C.
Limestone, alabaster, gypsum, height of tallest figure
(76.3 cm). Iraq Museum, Baghdad, and The Oriental
Institute, The University of Chicago
BRONZE OR ASSEMBLED SCULPTURE.
simplification of the Tell Asmar statues is characteristic of the
carver, who works by cutting forms out of a solid block. A far more
flexible and realistic style prevails among the Sumerian sculpture that
was made by addition rather than subtraction (that is, either modeled in
soft materials for casting in bronze or put together by combining such
varied substances as wood, gold leaf, and lapis lazuli). Some pieces of
the latter kind, roughly contemporary with the Tell Asmar figures, have
been found in the tombs at Ur which we mentioned earlier. They include
the fascinating object shown in figure
offering stand in the shape of a ram rearing up against a flowering
tree. The animal, marvelously alive and energetic, has an almost demonic
power of expression as it gazes at us from between the branches of the
symbolic tree. And well it might, for it is sacred to the god Tammuz and
thus embodies the male principle in nature.
Such an association of animals with deities is a
carry-over from prehistoric times.
We find it not only in Mesopotamia but in Egypt as well
(see the falcon of Horus in fig. 53).
What distinguishes the sacred animals of the Sumerians
is the active part they play in mythology. Much of this lore,
unfortunately, has not come down to us in written form, but tantalizing
glimpses of it can be caught in pictorial representations such as those
on an inlaid panel from a harp (fig. 94)
that was recovered together with
the offering stand at Ur. The hero embracing two human-headed bulls in
the top compartment was so popular a subject that its design has become
a rigidly symmetrical, decorative formula. The other sections, however,
show animals performing a variety of human tasks in surprisingly lively
and precise fashion. The wolf and the lion carry food and drink to an
unseen banquet, while the ass, bear, and deer provide musical
entertainment. (The bull-headed harp is the same type as the instrument
to which the inlaid panel was attached.) At the bottom, a scorpion-man
and a goat carry some objects they have taken from a large vessel.
The skillful artist who created these scenes was far
less constrained by rules than the Egyptian. Even though the figures,
too, are placed on ground-lines, there is no fear of overlapping forms
or foreshortened shoulders. However, we must be careful not to
misinterpret the intent. What strikes the modern eye as delightfully
humorous was probably meant to be viewed with perfect seriousness. If we
only knew the context in which these actors play their roles!
Nevertheless, we are entitled to regard them as the earliest known
ancestors of the animal fable that flourished in the West from Aesop to
La Fontaine. At least one of them, the ass with the harp, survived as a
fixed image, and we encounter it almost
later in medieval sculpture.
Ram and Tree. Offering stand from Ur.
B.C. Wood, gold, and lapis lazuli,
The University Museum, Philadelphia
panel from the soundbox of a lyre, from Ur.
B.C. Shell and bitumen, 12
1/4 x 4
The University Museum, Philadelphia
Toward the end of the early dynastic period, the
theocratic socialism of the Sumerian city-states began to decay. The
local "stewards of the god" had in practice become reigning monarchs,
and the more ambitious among them attempted to enlarge their domain by
conquering their neighbors. At the same time, the Semitic inhabitants of
northern Mesopotamia drifted south in ever larger numbers, until they
the Sumerian stock in many places. They had adopted
Sumerian civilization but were less bound to the tradition of the
city-state. So it is perhaps not surprising that Sargon of Akkad and his
B.C.) were the first
Mesopotamian rulers who openly called themselves kings and proclaimed
their ambition to rule the entire earth.
Under these Akkadians, Sumerian art faced a new task:
the personal glorification of the sovereign. The most impressive work of
this kind that has survived is a magnificent royal portrait head in
bronze from Nineveh (fig.
Despite the gouged-out eyes (once inlaid with precious
materials), it remains a persuasive likeness, majestic and humanly
moving at the same time. Equally admirable is the richness of the
surfaces framing the face. The plaited hair and the finely curled
strands of the beard are shaped with incredible precision, yet without
losing their organic character and becoming mere ornament. The complex
technique of casting and chasing has been handled with an assurance that
bespeaks true mastery. This head could hold its own in the company of
the greatest works of any period.
Head of an Akkadian Rider, from Nineveh (Kuyunjik),
B.C. Bronze, height 12" (30.7
Iraq Museum, Baghdad
STELE OF NARAM-SIN. 96)—an
upright stone slab used as a marker—which
owes its survival to the fact that at a later time it was carried off as
booty to Susa, where modern archaeologists discovered it. This is the
earliest known monument to the glory of a conqueror. Here rigid
ground-lines have been discarded, and we see the king's forces advancing
among the trees on a mountainside. Above them, Naram-Sin alone stands
triumphant, as the defeated enemy soldiers plead for mercy. He is as
vigorously active as his men, but his size and his isolated position
endow him with superhuman status. Moreover, he wears the horned crown
hitherto reserved for the gods. There is nothing above him except the
mountaintop and the celestial bodies, his "good stars."
Sargon's grandson, Naram-Sin, had
himself and his victorious army immortalized in relief on a large stele
Victory Stele of Naram-Sin.
ñ 2300-2200 B.C. Stone, height
Musee du Louvre, Paris
The rule of the Akkadian kings came to an end when
tribesmen from the northeast descended into the Mesopotamian plain and
gained mastery of it for more than half a century. They were driven out
2125 B.C. by
the kings of Ur, who reestablished a united realm that was to last a
Of this architectural enterprise nothing remains today,
but Gudea also had numerous statues of himself placed in the shrines of
Lagash, and some twenty examples, all obviously of the same general
type, have been found so far. Carved of diorite, the extremely hard
stone favored by Egyptian sculptors, they are much more ambitious works
than their predecessors from Tell Asmar. Even Gudea, however devoted he
was to the traditional pattern of the Sumerian city-state, seems to have
inherited something of the sense of personal importance that we felt in
the Akkadian kings, although he prided himself on his intimate relations
with the gods rather than on secular power.
During the period of foreign dominance, Lagash
(the modern Telloh), one of the lesser Sumerian city-states. managed to
retain local independence. Its ruler, Gudea, was careful to reserve the
title of king for the city-god, whose cult he promoted by an ambitious
rebuilding of his temple.
His portrait head (fig.
far less distinctly individualized when compared with that of the
Akkadian ruler, yet its fleshy roundness is far removed from the
geometric simplicity of the Tell Asmar statues. The stone has been
worked to a high and subtly accented finish, inviting a wonderful play
of light upon the features. The seated statue (fig.
98) represents Gudea with an
architectural plan on his lap (perhaps the enclosing wall of a temple
district), which he is offering for the god's approval: there are six
entrances framed by towerlike projections, and the walls show regularly
spaced buttresses of the kind we saw in the "White Temple" at Uruk (Warka).
The figure makes an instructive contrast with such Egyptian statues as
in figures 65 and
Sumerian carver has rounded off all the corners to emphasize the
cylindrical quality of the forms. Equally characteristic is the muscular
tension in Gudea's bare arm and shoulder, compared with the passive,
relaxed limbs of Egyptian statues.
from Lagash (Tellohl, Iraq, ñ. 2150
9" (23 cm).
Courtesy, Museum of Fine Arts, Boston.
Frances Bartlett Donation
Cudea with Architectural Plan,
from Lagash (Telloh), Iraq.
Diorite, height 29" (73.7
Musee du Louvre, Paris