Mesopotamia—a historical region of Western Asia situated within the Tigris–Euphrates river system—housed the world’s first urban civilization with a sophisticated cultural sphere which included music, art, and literature. The Sumerians of lower Mesopotamia founded the first cities, invented writing, developed poetry, and created vast architectural structures.
The artwork to come out of this civilization is reflective of its rich history, whose subject matter was heavily influenced by its sociopolitical structure, military conquests, organized religion, and natural environment. We look into Mesopotamian art, specifically architecture and sculpture, to better understand the craftsmanship of the people who inhabited the land at this time and how it influenced cultures to follow.
A Brief History of Mesopotamia
The word Mesopotamia derives from the ancient words “mesos,” meaning between, and “potamos,” meaning river. The name is fitting given the area was situated within the fertile valleys between the Tigris and Euphrates Rivers, a region now occupied by modern-day Iraq, Kuwait, Turkey, and Syria. Much of the history of this civilization is marked by its changing succession of ruling bodies.
The first humans settled in this region in the Paleolithic era. By 14,000 B.C., people lived in small settlements. Within the five thousand years that followed, these settlements turned into large farming communities, following the development of agriculture and the domestication of animals. In particular, they developed irrigation techniques that capitalized on the proximity of the rivers.
As these communities grew, they turned into larger cities (the Sumer are largely credited with creating the earliest examples). Uruk was the first to be built around 3200 B.C. With a population of about 50,000 citizens, it featured a wealth of public art, large columns, and temples. By 3000 B.C., the Sumerian people had firm control over Mesopotamia under several city-states. The area was ruled by many kings, one of which was Gilgamesh, believed to be born around 2700 B.C. The Epic of Gilgamesh, an ancient epic poem, is considered the earliest great work of literature.
From 2234 to 2154 B.C., the Akkadian Empire, the first multicultural empire with a central government, was established under Sargon the Great. By 2100 B.C., the Sumerians gained back control, which is when they established the first code of law under Ur-Namma. What followed was a swath of conquests and invasions with different rulers seizing power at various times.
The Assyrian Empire emerged around 1365 B.C. and expanded considerably over the next two centuries. Though there were various attempts to keep the peace in the years that followed, Babylonian public official Nabopolassar seized the throne in 626 B.C. His son Nebuchadnezzar reigned over the Babylonian Empire beginning in 614 B.C., and was known for his ornate architecture, specifically the Hanging Gardens of Babylon. Mesopotamian culture ended under Persian Rule around 550 B.C.
Mesopotamian Art and Architecture
The act of creating art predates the civilization of Mesopotamia; however, their innovations and advances are significant. The Mesopotamians began creating art on a larger scale, often in the form of grandiose architecture and metalwork. Because Mesopotamia covered such a vast amount of time and featured many leaders, it is commonly divided into three distinct cultural periods: Sumerian, Babylonian, and Assyrian.
The Sumerian Period (~4500–1750 B.C.)
The Sumerian Period introduced the rise of monumental religious structures. They typically constructed two forms of temples: a platform variety and a structure built at ground level. Platform temples originally stood within walled, oval enclosures. They contained accommodation for priests. Those built at ground level were more rectangular, entered on the cross axis. They included an altar, offering table, and pedestals for statues used during worship.
Temple interiors were adorned with patterned mosaics of terra-cotta cones that sunk into the walls. The parts that remained exposed were dipped in bright colors or sheathed in bronze. Often, painted murals depicted mythical scenes. There is less known about palaces and other secular buildings throughout this period.
Sculptures served as adornment or ritual equipment for the temples. Though identifiable cult statues—those that were venerated or worshipped for the deity that they represented—of gods or goddesses have yet to be found, some had common themes worth mentioning. Male statues typically stood with their hands clasped in prayer, and were clad with a woolen skirt. Female statues were more varied, but many wore a heavy coil arranged from ear to ear and a chignon (hair knot at the nape of the neck). Sometimes, the hair was concealed by a headdress.
Due to a lack of available stone, sculptures during the Sumerian period utilized alternative materials. Exquisite examples of metal casting have been found during this period. Sumerian artists were also skilled in creating composite figures, and notable examples of these have been found within the tombs at Ur. An example of this type of craftsmanship includes a bull’s head decorating a harp, covered with gold and wearing a lapis lazuli beard.
Relief stone carving was also a popular form of art. It was most commonly created on stone plaques, squares sized one foot or larger, which often depicted mythological or religious scenes in a series of horizontal rows.
The Old Babylonian Period (~2000–1600 B.C.)
Architecture and Statues
After the fall of Sumer in around 1750 B.C., Babylon began to grow and became a particularly powerful city-state under the Amorites, the first dynasty of Babylon. The most notable works of art from this period are the statuaries that were produced. Artists specialized in free standing sanctuaries, and figures were three-dimensional and largely realistic. Some of the most famous examples are the Statues of Gudea, a group of approximately twenty seven statues that depicted the ruler of the state of Lagash (who reigned between 2144 and 2124 B.C.). The statues were carved mainly from diorite, but also used alabaster, steatite, and limestone and were considered the most sophisticated level of craftsmanship during the time.
Though the ziggurat—rectangular stepped tower, sometimes surmounted by a temple—was already known to the Sumerians, the Old Babylonians continued to construct these temples. Walls would be decorated with elaborate works of art, with subject matter often demonstrating wishes for good harvests or fertility. Throughout this period, household items like vases and seal cylinders were also created, often decorated with human forms or animals.
The Assyrian Period (~1365–609 B.C.)
Much of the architecture throughout the beginning of the Assyrian reign was a continuation of Old Babylonian construction. There were a few innovations including the incorporation of small, twin ziggurats in the design of a single temple, the lengthening of sanctuaries on their main axis, and altars were withdrawn into a deep recess.
By the 9th century, the vast palaces of the Assyrian kings emphasized a new interest in secular building and reflected the ostentatious grandeur of those who ruled during this time. The gates of these palaces featured colossal portal sculptures built in stone and internal chambers decorated with pictorial reliefs.
Sculpture during this period was concerned primarily with relief carving. One popular form was “double aspect” relief, a type that derived from a Hittite invention of the 14th century and was intended to be seen from the front or side. These often depicted human heads, bulls, or lions, and decorated the arched gateways.
A popular theme in sculpture later in the period was that of military conquest and the ruthless suppression of revolt. These were typically arranged episodically to represent successive events.
Painting and Decorative Art
In many cases, murals took the place of reliefs as a decorative element. Additionally, Assyrian palaces were equipped with furniture, and ivory ornaments have survived in great quantities. Furniture was adorned with relief panels, inlays, and other forms of ornament, and this ornamentation was further enriched with gold and other semiprecious stones to give it an increased opulence.
The Neo-Babylonian Period (~626–539 B.C.)
The Neo-Babylonian period saw a great flourishing of art, architecture, and science, particularly under the rule of Nebuchadnezzar II, who ruled from 604 to 562 B.C. He was a great patron of art and urban development, and rebuilt the city of Babylon to reflect its ancient glory.
Many of the grandiose architectural achievements of this time period are reflected in the inner city gates that were constructed. The most elaborate example is the Ishtar Gate, which today resides in the Pergamon Museum in Berlin. Created in 575 B.C., the gate is known for its bas-relief dragons and accompanying Processional Way, which was additionally lined with statues of dragons. It is covered in lapis lazuli-glazed bricks, which created a gleaming, blue surface.
Another notable architectural achievement was the ziggurat Etemenaki, the “temple of the foundation of heaven and earth.” Originally seven stories high, it is believed to have been used as inspiration for the biblical story of the Tower of Babel.
Widely considered to be the cradle of civilization, those who inhabited the vast region of Mesopotamia developed an incredibly sophisticated system of art and architecture. Remains of animal-cladden mosaics, impressively-constructed temples, metalwork and sculpture showcase the elite craftsmanship that came from the period. Because the history of Mesopotamian art is rich with conquests and a multitude of reigning bodies, the art that continues to be uncovered by archaeologists is diverse and far-reaching. From the 4th millennium B.C. until the Persian conquest in the 6th century B.C., Mesopotamia produced significant and sophisticated cultural developments that shed light on the civilizations that occupied the land today.