The Art of the Ancient Kingdoms




The cradle of homogenous yet diverse cultures. Mesopotamia nurtured a wealth ot native art forms that cast their influence well beyond the country's geographical boundaries. The city-states of Ur, Lagash,
and Mari were established after the long protohistorical phase of the fourth millennium, during the Early Dynastic period (2800-2350bc). The theocratic organization of Sumerian (Southern Mesopo-tamian) society affected ever}' aspect of artistic activity. Architecture found its principal outlet in temples and sanctuaries. The temple, constructed of brick, was the city's religious and economic centre: adjacent to it were storerooms, workrooms, and administrative offices. A central courtyard, as in the temple or Sin at Khafajeh, was reached through a monumental entrance and up an imposing staircase. Plastic art gave pride of place to the figure of the worshipper. Craftsmen produced statuettes in limestone, alabaster, and terracotta, endlessly repeating the image of a traditional, anonymous model. Ranging from small statues of gods, priests, and the faithful as found at Tell Asmar, to the naturalistic seated figure of the temple superintendent Ebih-il, statuary portrayed the act of dedication, symbol of the perpetual honour that must be paid to the divinity, thereby guaranteeing the eternal presence within the temple. The hands clasped against the chest, the rapt expression, and the large attentive eyes outlined in bitumen all proclaim a close relationship with the god in an attitude of humble reverence. The generally small dimensions, far removed from the colossal size of Egyptian effigies, are explained partly by the fact that such durable material as stone was hard to obtain and partly because of different religious beliefs: the power of the monarch was conveyed by the monumental nature of the overall architectural and decorative design. The Sumerians also made a number of seals, which are examplary of their inventive fantasy, narrative flair, and lively realism. The seals were enlivened by rams and oxen and scenes of fighting animals.

Statuette of a Man,
about 3000-2500 B.C.
Limestone and shell
Museum purchase



The objects recovered from the royal tombs of Ur testify to the richness of Sumerian decorative arts. In Mesopotamia, the afterlife inspired only dread and anguish, as revealed in sources such as the Gilgamesh epic, one of the best-known works of ancient literature. The resting places of the dead were less important than palaces or temples, and tombs were built only in underground hypogea. However, the wish to demonstrate the power in life of the dead monarch is evident in such works as the celebrated standard of peace and war, inlaid with lapis lazuli, shell, and limestone. Among the other important treasures is the funerary
hoard of Queen Puabi (2600-2500bc), including diadems and earrings, testimony to the technical skill of craftsmen working with precious metals.



A masterpiece of the Early Dynastic period, the Ur Standard was probably once displayed in a palace or temple. It consist of two rectangular panels of wood joined by trapezoidal ends. The two sides are ornamented in mosaic with limestone, shell, and lapis lazuli, set in black bitumen paste.
On each panel historical figures are depicted in three rows, or registers: one side shows peaceful activities, the other scenes of war. The registers are framed with coloured friezes that enliven the surfaces. The standard was discovered by the English archaeologist Sir Leonard Woolley, who excavated Ur during the 1920s and '30s. He identifed. among other things, the tombs of the city's early rulers. Ur (Genesis 11:31 ) was the land of Abraham, founder of the Hebrew race.

The Royal Standard of UR 2600bc
"Peace" side
British Museum, London

The Royal Standard of UR 2600bc
"War" side
British Museum, London



Prosperous from local agriculture and traffic control on the River Euphrates, the Mesopotamians built their temples and palaces with rows of rooms opening onto one or more inner courtyards. The only difference between the two was that the temple accommodated an altar. Particularly impressive was the enormous residence of the reigning dynasty at Mari during the period that followed Akkadian rule. This was added to by successive rulers, the last of which was King Zimri-Lim. Built mainly of mud-brick, it was arranged around two courtyards and contained 300 rooms. It was 200 metres (650 feet) long and 120 metres (390 feet) wide and covered an
area of two and a half hectares (six acres). The rooms in the palace included the private apartments of the king and his queens, domestic quarters, and diplomatic record offices. The existing fragments of the wall decorations provide testimoniy to both style and subject in Mesopotamian painting. Among the identifiable subjects are sacrificial scenes and Zimri-Lim's investiture at Mari by the goddess Ishtar. There are also geometric compositions, glimpses of landscape, and lively representations of contemporary society dress and customs.

Detail from fresco of sacrificial scene.
Palace of Mari, c.1800bc.
Aleppo Museum, Syria


Tiglath-pileser III in triump
From Nimrud, about 730bc


Neo-Sumerian Period

Akkadian Rile ended with the invasion of the Guti (c.2150bc). Order was restored by the kings of the Third Dynasty of Ur, and central power returned to the south (c.2112-2004bc). Neo-Sumerian artistic activity consisted mainly of monumental religious architecture. One notable example was the impressive ziggurat of Ur-Nammu, which consisted of a system of superimposed terraces, at the top of which stood the temple dedicated to Nanna, god of the moon. Religious statuary, too, enjoyed a renaissance, recovering the strength and imaginative power of earlier Sumerian art. The effigies of Gudea, governor of Lagash, in the garb of a worshipper, seated or standing, are finely modelled in green or black diorite, a naturally smooth, shiny material. The conquest of Sumer by the Amorites led to the formation of a series of independent states, whose history is documented in the royal archives of Mari.

Babylonia and Assyria

After his conquest of Mari, Larsa, and Eshnunna, Hammurabi, king of Babylon, reunited the whole of Mesopotamia and proclaimed himself universal monarch. The art of the Old Babylonian period (c.19OO-1595bc) retained Neo-Sumerian motifs and styles, including a wealth of fantastic animals, bulls, and lions, posted as guards to the palaces and temples. In sculpture, repetition of compositional structure and subject are revealed in the relief carved at the top of the stele inscribed with the code of Hammurabi. The king stands in worship before the seated god of the sun and justice, Shamash. Around 1595bc, the political geography of the Near East was once again thrown into confusion as the kingdom of Babylon crumbled under the onslaught of the invading Hittites from Anatolia. In the first millennium bc, Assyrian might was reflected in the creation of an immense empire. Assyrian art, for the most part secular, found expression in the narrative reliefs that once adorned the walls of their palaces. These bas-reliefs provide visual evidence of conquests, with scenes that illustrate military techniques and the exploits of the king, as valiant in his hunting of wild beasts as on the battlefield. Ashurnasirpal II (883-859bc) was the first Assyrian monarch to decorate the lower part of the throne room and other areas of his palace at Nimrud with a frieze in relief on hundreds of white limestone slabs. The narrative, which depicts chiefly mythological scenes and images of fertility rites, is told in juxtaposed episodes that build up independently towards a climactic event not shown. In the reign of Shalmaneser III (858-824bc), the gates of his royal palace at Balawat were decorated with bas-reliefs on bronze sheets. The gigantic palace of Sargon II (721-705bc) in the city of Khorsabad was encircled by massive walls. Figures of bulls with human heads, designed to ward off evil spirits, stood guard at the entrance gates. The use of five feet for the winged monster made it possible for the spectator to see the bull either as immobile (when viewed from the front) or in movement (when viewed from the side). After the fall of Nineveh in 612bc, the revival in southern Mesopotamia was marked principally by its architecture. During the reign of the Neo-Babylonian king Nebuchadnezzar II, this was exemplified in temples, imposing palaces with hanging gardens, and ziggurats standing more than 100 metres (330 feet) high -inspiration for the biblical Tower of Babel. In 539RC, Babylonia was taken by Cyrus and became part of the vast Persian Empire.

Human-headed bull
Musee du Louvre, Paris

Nowhere are the descriptive and symbolic intents of Neo-Assyrian relief carvers better exemplified than in the decorations of the palace of Ashurbanipal (669-62бвс) at Nineveh. The depictions of the exploits and everyday occupations of the king had the double effect of extolling the glory of the sovereign and of astonishing the observer. This art is fresh and lively, and the spirit of the landscape is impressively conveyed. Traditional hunting scenes are animated by realistic and dramatic episodes in which wild beasts leap up at the king's chariot or fall wounded by his arrows. Men and animals are strongly portrayed: the artist is eager to emphasize the powerful physique of the monarch and his warriors, and his rendering of animals is also exceptionally naturalistic. The war scenes are crowded with people: accounts of miltary activity include the army crossing rivers and attacking fortresses. There are also episodes of minor significance: daily life in camp, a horseman calling to his companions who have climbed a hill, and an Elamite noble who, handed over to the enemy, spits in the face of his own king.


Stone panel from the north-west palace of Ashurbanipal ii - 883-889bc

Stone panel from the north-west palace of Ashurbanipal ii - 883-889bc

Stone panel from the north-west palace of Ashurbanipal ii - 883-889bc




The Greek historian Herodotus (fifth century вс) describes with admiration the new
Babylon created by King Nebuchadnezzar IL "Apart from its size, its beauty is unequalled by any other city we know."
The seven-terraced ziggurat, dedicated to Marduk, god of Babylon, dominated the city and was entered by way of a long processional street that began at the gate of Lshtar, goddess of love and war. The gate, the most splendid of all Mesopotamia's monuments, opened in the centre of walls so massive that, according to Herodotus, a four-horse chariot could turn on them. The enormous gate is a fine example of the technique of brick construction prevalent in ancient Mesopotamia. On a blue enamelled background were relief decorations of bulls, dragons, lions, and stylized symbolic images. The marvellous reconstruction of the gate in the Staatliche Museen, Berlin, gives an idea of its colossal dimensions and the colourful effect of the original bricks. The decorative art of relief on enamelled bricks was widespread in the East, one example being the palace of Darius at Susa.


Statue of King Idrimi of Alalakh
c 1500bc
British Museum, London

Syrian and Palestinian Art

Bordered at one end by Anatolia and Mesopotamia and at the other by Egypt is a Mediterranean coastal strip that acts as a centre of lanes of communication linking three continents. The geographical situation helps to explain its enduring political fragmentation. From as early as the third millennium bc, successive Semitic-speaking populations -known as Canaanites bv the Hebrews who had followed them to the Promised Land -fell under the sway of powerful neighbouring states. Architecture from the third millennium onwards provides evidence of sophisticated levels of urban civilization, notably in the palaces of Ebla (royal palace G) and Alalakh (level VII). The palace of Yarim-Lim at Alalakh (18th century ne) shows similar originality in its design. It was built on three successive floors, the lowest of which was designed for public use, with orthostats in basalt, similar to those that appeared later in Anatolia and Assyria. Entrance to the principal room was through a smaller room with an opening supported by columns, anticipating the bit hilani, the princely dwelling that was to appear in the first millennium. In the realm of figurative art, originality appears in designs on the seals used in royal correspondence. Formal sculpture, too, was of a high quality, as represented by the head of King Yarim-Lim. The palace was destroyed by the Hittites, but the fortunes of the city revived under Idrimi in about 1500BC, although his statue is less sophisticated than that of his predecessor. Decorated with hunting scenes and bulls, gold bowls from the nearby city of Ugarit are the precursors of Phoenician bowls of the first millennium bc.
Both Alalakh and Ugarit were destroyed during the invasion of the "Sea Peoples" (c.1200bc). leading to massive migrations. The influx of Hebrews from the south and Arameaens from the north left only the coastal strip to its former inhabitants. The Phoenician city-states, as they should now be called, sought new trading outlets and established Punic colonies throughout the Mediterranean. They are renowned for the manufacture of glass, metal bowls, carved ivories, and jewellery. The Phoenicians were eclectic artists who were open to cultural influences. They borrowed motifs from both East and West, skilfully incorporating them into-their own designs. They were thus able to combine the Mesopo-tamian love of symmetry and the Aegean taste for galloping animals with the Syrian taste for groups of fighting animals - not to mention the sphinxes and griffins of Levantine origin. Production of small bronzes, which had Syrian precedents, were also revived in the first millennium bc. Evidence of Egyptian influence can be found in the statuette of Heracles-Melqart (shown in the typical pose of the "warrior god"), most notably in the short skirt and headgear. The vitality of the Phoenician merchants did not cease with the conquest of their territory by the armies of Persia: the Punic colonies they founded on the coasts of the western Mediterranean and, above all, the city of Carthage, would keep their heritage alive for centuries to come.





An important urban centre in northern Syria, Ebla (modern Tell Mardikh) flourished in the third millennium bc and may have extended its rule into Mesopotamia. Destroyed by Sargon I after a phase of decline, Ebla was rebuilt during the first decades of the second millennium. Protected by massive ramparts of up to 22 metres (66 feet) high, with a ring of stones and jagged rocks at the base, the city's most important buildings were the temples, including that of Ishtar. and the royal palace E. Temple D consisted of three successive rooms, axial in plan, built along lines that were later to be developed by the Phoenicians in their construction of the temple of Solomon in Jerusalem.
In the lower city was the royal necropolis (18th-17th century bc): of the three hypogea excavated, the tombs of the Lord of the Goats and of the Princess contained vessels, jewellery, bronze weapons, and ivory amulets. Finds of ritual basins, rectangular in shape and comprising two sections, proved important for their stone carvings. They testify, both in their form and subject matter — banqueting scenes and animals shown from side and front views — to considerable autonomy in the treatment of common models derived from Mesopotamia.



Lioness Attacking an Ethiopian in a Papyrus Grove, ivory plaque with gold overlay revealing Egyptian influence, ninth to eighth century bc. British Museum, London.


Precious because of its scarcity, ivory has always been a symbol of a high social status, making it a suitable material for both ritual and private use. From the second millennium bc, there were flourishing schools of ivory engravers across the Syrian-Palestinian region. Particularly famous are the spoons, combs, boxes, and decorative plaques for furniture from Megiddo (12th century bc). These traditions were revived by the Phoenicians and Syrians in the first millennium bc. Ivories were produced in a series of workshops in a variety of styles, and letters incised on the backs of some indicate that they belonged to palaces. The Assyrians plundered the cities of the Levant and seized craftsmen, who produced ivories for their new masters. The storerooms excavated at Nimrud were full of ivories and others have been found in wells, where they were thrown during the sack of the city in 612bc. When the wells were excavated in the 1950s, the ivory of the Lioness Attacking an Ethiopian in a Papyrus Grove was found. In addition to the gold leaf decoration, the work was inlaid with pieces of lapis lazuli and carnelian.



A view of the cliff at Naqsh-e Rustam, showing the tombs of
Artaxerxes I (464 - 424 BC) on the left, and Darius (522 - 486 BC).
In the centre at the base of the cliff is
a Sassanian relief showing Shapur I (AD 240 - 72)
triumphing over the Roman Emperor Valerian.

Palace of Darius, Susa.
Musee du Louvre, Paris.

Persian Art

When Alexander the Great invaded Persian territory in 331bc, he was captivated by the grand scale of the Achaemenid palaces and their decoration. In the southwest region of the Persian plateau, the Elamite civilization, with its capital of Susa, had flourished since the fourth millennium bc, when its handmade ceramics were decorated with geometrical patterns (triangles, lozenges, crosses, concentric circles, and swastikas) and animal and plant motifs. Human figures were rarer and, although stylized, displayed a lively naturalism. In the second half of the third millennium bc, the kings of Elam went to war against Sumer and Akkad, and the influence of Meso-potamian culture is clearly visible in the statue of the goddess Innin (analogous to the Babylonian Ishtar) and in the production of stelae. A new phase of cultural autonomy marked the rise of the Elamite state (13th—12th century bc). The gracefully monumental bronze statue of Napir-Asu, wife of King Untash-Khuban of Susa, the ziggurat of Choga Zanbil, and the reliefs of Kurangan, which herald the figurations of the Achaemenid palace, are all significant manifestations of art from this period.
During the first millennium bc, the expansion of Iranian-speaking Mede and Persian peoples altered the political aspect of the region. The ephemeral Median Kingdom, with its capital of Ectabana founded in 722bc, was overthrown by Cyrus II the Great and came under Persian rule in 539bc. Cyrus, having overthrown Astyages, king of the Medes, laid the foundations of his future empire, the bounds of which would extend from the Nile to the Indus. Persian art continued in the great Mesopotamian tradition, inheriting its fundamental characteristics. Cyrus, Darius, Xerxes, and other Persian kings vied with the magnificence of Babylonian king Nebuchadnezzar in the embellishment of their main cities, Pasargadae, Susa, and Persepolis. The gates of the palaces were protected by statues of animals like those found in Mesopotamia, while Persian sculptors derived the bas-relief from Assyrian art. In 518bc. Darius I initiated the building of Persepolis, which was to become the hub of the Persian empire. Conceived as the symbol of universality, the focal point where heaven and earth met. the palace of Persepolis was decorated with reliefs and monuments proclaiming the power of the dynasty. The spacious throne room and reception rooms boasted parallel rows of fluted columns more than 20 metres (64 feet) high. The axial plan was continued throughout the palace, the pivot of which was the columned apadana, or audience chamber. Processions of dignitaries and nobles decorated the staircase that led to the great hall. The Persians had succeeded in transforming the dramatic force of their Mesopotamian models into a serene magnificence that was to be the hallmark of their art. In 331BC, Alexander the Great, following his victory over the last of the Achaemenid kings, Darius III, decreed the end of the empire and opened a new chapter in history: for the first time East and West were united under the rule of a single overlord.



Detail of three of the immortals,
Palace of Darius, Susa.
Musee du Louvre, Paris.


The political, diplomatic, and administrative capital of the Persian Empire, the city of Susa enjoyed its period of greatest splendour during the reign of Darius I. The king was responsible for the construction of all the Achaemenid buildings in the city, and he employed workmen from far and wide. The royal palace, built on raised ground, was similar in style to the Babylonian palaces, with its three large inner courtyards surrounded by offices and residential quarters. Next to the palace was the apadana (audience chamber), with 72 columns, almost 20 metres (64 feet) tall, supporting the ceiling. These columns were the pride of Achaemenid architecture; more slender than their Greek prototypes and adorned with capitals featuring the foreparts of animals, they seemed to multiply until they merged with the side walls. The full length of the walls was taken up by a procession of soldiers flanked by benevolent spirits in the guise of winged lions and bulls: these were the so-called "Immortals", faithful guards of the king's person who formed a symbolic garrison.



Anatolian marble idol
Kusura-Beycesultan type, c. 2700 - 2100.
Private Collection, Germany

Anatolian bronze donkey
circa 7th Century bc

Anatolian Art

Often classified as peripheral to Mesopotamia!! culture, the art of Anatolia exhibits original features that have their roots in the pre-Hittite period. An initial burst of artistic activity saw modelling in gold, silver, and bronze, evincing a high level of workmanship from as long ago as the second half of the third millennium. The advanced state of urban development is shown by the city of Beycesultan on the Maeander river. The lower part of the imposing palace (mid-19th century bc) was constructed of stone and the upper part of mud reinforced with wooden beams. The palace, with its painted decorations, consisted of a series of courtyards flanked by rooms. The advance of the Hittites, an Indo-European people, altered the appearance of the region The Hittite state had a strong central structure, at least in its second imperial phase (1450-1200bc). and this was reflected in the supremacy of Hattusas (present-day Bogazkoy) over the other cities. Capital of the empire and centre of military and political power, its palaces and walls reflect the Hittite ambition for power and the urge to glorify the king. A double fortification with towers encircled the city, following the contours of the hillside, and the monumental arched gates, often compared to that at Mycenae, were guarded not only by sphinxes and lions, as in the Babylonian temples, but also by an armed divinity. On the north side of the King's Gate, the orthostat with the god perfectly demonstrates the link between sculpture and architecture. Special importance was attached by the Hittites to monumental carving, as seen on the walls of the major cities. The Hittite relief was essentially a form of commemorative art, in which, in contrast to the friezes in Mesopotamian palaces and Egyptian temples, the artist did not try to tell a story. The ostentation and affirmation of power were conveyed not in a historical description of warlike events but in the representation of divinity and the ritual ceremonies, in which the king was the protagonist. At the end of the second millennium, the invasion of the "Sea Peoples" overthrew the Hittite empire (c.1200 bc), and the colonies established in Syria were all that remained of Indo-European power. A new cultural and artistic phase now originated with the fusion of Hittite and Semitic traditions. On the Hittite relief illustrated below, for instance, the king wears a Hittite robe and carries a curved stick as his royal insignia. He faces the Syrian version of the Storm-god, who, characteristically, has his hair in a long curl, wears a kilt with a curved sword in his belt, brandishes a weapon, and holds lightning. However, his kilt, with its curved hem and his tall, horned headdress, is Hittite in style, and the Storm-god in the chariot behind him also derives from Hittite tradition. Sphinxes and lions continued to guard the city gates, but the sphinxes often betray the Egyptian influence that was widespread in the Levant. The Assyrians campaigning in Syria in the ninth century bc saw these figures and reliefs and created their own versions to decorate their palaces. In the late eighth century bc, the Assyrians annexed the city-states of Syria and imposed their own art and architecture.



A gold pin w/vessels on top
"Priam's Treasure"
Pushkin Museum, Moscow


Pioneer of the discovery of Mycenean civilization, the German archaeologist Heinrich Schliemann identified and excavated the site of Troy. A dedicated reader of Homer, he explored the places described in the Iliad-And the Odyssey. He-was convinced that the objects in gold, silver, and amber found in the second level of Troy were associated with the legendary King Priam. Attributable to the middle of the third millennium hc, the jewels are nevertheless of an earlier date than that which Greek historians give for the Achaean expedition led by Agamemnon. (The dating of Troy Vila, to which the Homeric account of the war may refer, is believed to be between 1300 and 1230bc.) In any event, the jewels testify to the culture and prosperity of Trov. a fortified city.

Highights of "Priam's Treasure"
Pushkin Museum, Moscow

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