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    Mesopotamian Art and Arquitecture Essay

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    Mesopotamian Art and Architecture:

    The arts and buildings of the ancient Middle Eastern civilizations developed in the area (now Iraq) between the Tigris and Euphrates rivers from prehistory to the 6th century BC. Their art reflects both their love and fear of natural forces, as well as their military conquests.

    The soil of Mesopotamia yielded the civilization’s major building material, mud brick. This clay was also used by the Mesopotamians for their pottery, terra-cotta sculpture, and writing tablets. Few wooden artifacts have been preserved. Stone was rare, and certain types had to be imported; basalt, sandstone, diorite, and alabaster were used for sculpture. Metals such as bronze, copper, gold, and silver, as well as shells and precious stones, were used for sculptures and inlays. The art of Mesopotamia includes a mix of people who differed ethnically and linguistically.

    Each of these groups made its own contribution to art until the Persian conquest of the 6th century BC. The first dominant people to control the region and shape its art were the non-Semitic Sumerians, followed by the Semitic Akkadians, Babylonians, and Assyrians. The earliest architectural and artistic remains known to date come from northern Mesopotamia from the proto-Neolithic site of Qermez Dere in the foothills of the Jebel Sinjar. Levels dating to the 9th millennium BC have revealed round sunken huts outfitted with one or two plastered pillars with stone cores. When the buildings were abandoned, human skulls were placed on the floors, indicating some sort of ritual.

    Artifacts from the late Uruk and Jamdat Nasr periods (about 3500-2900 BC) have been found at several sites, but the major site was the city of Uruk. The major building from level five at Uruk (about 3500 BC) is the Limestone Temple; its superstructure is not preserved, but limestone slabs on a layer of stamped earth show that it was niched and monumental in size, measuring 250 x 99 ft. Some buildings at Uruk of level four were decorated with colorful cones inset into the walls to form geometric patterns. Another technique that was used was whitewashing, as in the White Temple, which gets its name from its long, narrow, whitewashed inner shrine. It was built in the area of Uruk dedicated to the Sumerian sky god Anu.

    The White Temple stood about 40 ft above the plain on a high platform, prefiguring the ziggurat, a stepped tower, typical of Mesopotamian religious structures intended to bring the priest or king closer to a particular god or to provide a platform where the deity could descend to visit the worshipers. A few outstanding stone sculptures were unearthed at Uruk. The most beautiful is a white limestone head of a woman or goddess (about 3500-3000 BC), with eyebrows, large open eyes, and a central part in her hair, all intended for inlay.

    A tall alabaster vase (about 3500-3000 BC), with horizontal bands, or registers, depicts a procession at the top, with a king presenting a basket of fruit to Inanna, the goddess of fertility and love, or her priestess; nude priests bringing offerings in the central band, and at the bottom, a row of animals over a row of plants. The first historical epoch of Sumerian dominance lasted from about 3000 BC until about 2340 BC. While earlier architectural traditions continued, a new type of building was introduced, the temple oval, an enclosure with a central platform supporting a shrine.

    City-states centered at cities such as Ur, Umma, Lagash, Kish, and Eshnunna were headed by governors or kings who were not considered divine. Much of the art is commemorative; plaques, frequently depicting banquet scenes, celebrate victories or the completion of a temple. These were often used as boundary stones, as was the limestone stele (Louvre, Paris) of King Eannatum from Lagash. In two registers on one side of the stele, the king is depicted leading his army into battle; on the other side, the god Ningirsu, symbolically represented as much larger than a human, holds the net containing the defeated enemy. The Standard of Ur (about 2700 BC), a wooden plaque inlaid with shell, schist, lapis lazuli, and pinkish stone, has three bands of processions and religious scenes.

    The Semitic Akkadians gradually rose to power in the late 24th century BC; under Sargon I (about 2335-2279 BC), they extended their rule over Sumer and united the whole of Mesopotamia. Little Akkadian art remains, but what has survived is endowed with technical mastery, great energy, and spirit. In the Akkadian cities of Sippar, Assur, Eshnuna, Tell Brak, and the capital at Akkad (still to be found), the palace became more important than the temple. The most significant Akkadian innovations were those of the seal cutters. The minimal space of each seal is filled with action: heroes and gods grapple with beasts, slay monsters, and drive chariots in processions. A new Akkadian theme, developed and continued in the periods to follow, was the presentation scene, in which an intermediary or a personal deity presents another figure behind him to a more important seated god.

    Except for stories from the Gilgamesh epic, many myths that are depicted have not been interpreted. After ruling for about a century and a half, the Akkadian Empire fell to the nomadic Guti, who did not centralize their power. This enabled the Sumerian cities of Uruk, Ur, and Lagash to reestablish themselves, leading to a Neo-Sumerian age, also known as the 3rd Dynasty of Ur (about 2112-2004 BC). Imposing religious monuments made of baked and unbaked brick and incorporating ziggurats were built at Ur, Eridu, Nippur, and Uruk. Gudea (2144?-2124? BC), a ruler of Lagash, partly contemporary with Ur-Nammu, the founder of the 3rd Dynasty of Ur, is known from more than 20 statues of himself in hard blackstone, dolomite, and diorite. His hands are clasped in the old Sumerian style, but the rounded face and slight musculature in the arms and shoulders show the sculptor’s will to depict form in this difficult medium with more naturalism than his predecessors did.

    With the decline of the Sumerians, the land was once more united by Semitic rulers (about 2000-1600 BC), the most important of whom was Hammurabi of Babylon. The relief figure of the king on his famous law code (about 1760 BC) is not much different from the Gudea statues (even though his hands are unclasped), nor is he depicted with an intermediary before the sun god Shamash. The most original art of the Babylonian period came from Mari and includes temples and a palace, sculptures, metalwork, and wall painting. As in much of Mesopotamian art, the animals are more lifelike than the human figures. The early history of the art of Assyria, from the 18th to the 14th century BC, is still largely unknown.

    Middle Assyrian art (1350-1000 BC) shows some dependence on established Babylonian stylistic traditions: Religious subjects are presented rigidly, but secular themes are depicted more naturalistically. For temple architecture, the ziggurat was popular with the Assyrians. At this time, the technique of polychromed glazing of bricks was used in Mesopotamia; this technique later resulted in the typical Neo-Babylonian architectural decoration of entire structures with glazed bricks. These Assyrian kings adorned their palaces with magnificent reliefs. Gypsum alabaster, native to the Assyrian region of the upper Tigris River, was more easily carved than the hard stones used by the Sumerians and Akkadians.

    Royal chronicles of the king’s superiority in battle and in the hunt were recounted in horizontal bands with cuneiform texts, carved on both the exterior and interior walls of the palace, in order to impress visitors. The viewer was greeted by huge guardian sculptures at the gate; the guardians were hybrid genii, winged human-headed lions or bulls with five legs (for viewing both front and side) as known from Nimrud and Khorsabad. At times, mythological figures are portrayed, such as a Gilgamesh-like figure with the lion cub, or a worshiper bringing a sacrifice, such as the idealized portrait from Khorsabad of Sargon II with an ibex (about 710 BC). The primary subject matter of these alabaster reliefs, however, is purely secular: the king hunting lions and other animals, the Assyrian triumph over the enemy, or the king feasting in his garden, as in the scene.

    The king’s harpist and birds in the trees make music for the royal couple, who sip wine under a vine, while attendants with fly whisks keep the reclining king and seated queen comfortable. Nearby is a sober reminder of Assyrian might: the head of the king of Elam hanging from a tree. Sculptors were at their best in depicting hunting scenes, for their observation of real beasts was even more profound than their imagination in creating hybrid beings. Other reliefs from this monument depict real events: battles, the siege and capture of cities, everyday life in the army camp, the taking of captives, and the harsh treatment meted out to those who resisted conquest.

    The palace architectural reliefs at Nimrud, Khorsabad, and Nineveh are important not only because they represent the climax of Mesopotamian artistic expression, but because they are valuable as historical documents. Even though cities, seascapes, and landscapes were not rendered with the realism and perspective of later Western artists, the modern observer is still able to reconstruct the appearance of fortified buildings, ships, chariots, horse trappings, hunting equipment, weapons, ritual libations, and costumes through the skill of Assyrian sculptors.

    The various ethnic groups inhabiting Mesopotamia, Syria, and Palestine in the 1st millennium BC are depicted with great realism and can be identified by their dress, facial features, and hairstyles. Between the 9th-century BC Nimrud reliefs and the 7th-century BC Nineveh reliefs, stylistic changes took place. In the earlier scenes, armies are represented by a few soldiers only, without regard to the relative size of humans and architecture. Figures are in bands, one above the other, to suggest space.

    In the Nineveh scenes, the figures, carved in lower relief, fill the entire picture plane. Not only is there more detail, but at times figures overlap, giving the viewer a sense of people and animals in real space. The art of the late Assyrian seal cutter is a combination of realism and mythology. Even the naturalistic scenes contain symbols of the gods. These objects may have originated outside of Assyria, for they resemble Syro-Phoenician crafted objects found at Arslan Tash on the upper Euphrates and at Samaria, the capital of the Israelite kingdom. The lioness plaques incorporate Egyptian iconography and are examples of the best Phoenician craftsmanship.

    Thousands of ivory carvings displaying a variety of styles have been recovered at Nimrud. The art of the peoples who lived on the fringes of the Assyrian Empire at times lacks the aesthetic appeal of that of the capital. In Tell Halaf, a local ruler’s palace was decorated with weird reliefs and sculpture in the round; among the hybrids is a scorpion man. At the site of Tell Ahmar in northern Syria, ancient Til Barsip (Assyrian Kar Shalmaneser), a palace decorated extensively with Assyrian wall paintings was uncovered. Some of the paintings are attributed to the mid-8th century BC; others to a rebuilding by Assurbanipal in the 7th century BC.

    From the earlier building, there are scenes with winged genii, the defeat of the enemy, and their merciless execution, audiences granted to officials, and scribes recording booty from subjugated nations. The paintings in Khorsabad were more formal, repeat patterns in bands topped by two figures paying homage to a deity. Excavations in Lorestan, the mountainous region of western Iran, yielded fine bronzes of fantastic creatures, probably made in the middle or late Assyrian period. These were used as ornaments for horses, weapons, and utensils.

    Syria, Phoenicia, and Palestine were on the land route between Asia Minor and Africa, and the ancient art of this area always shows the influence of those who conquered, passed through, or traded with its inhabitants. Mesopotamian-style cylinder seals from the Jamdat Nasr period have been found. Pottery, works in stone, and scarabs were influenced by dynastic Egypt beginning in the 29th century BC. Bronze figurines from Byblos of the early 2nd millennium are more distinctly Phoenician, as are daggers and other ceremonial weapons found there. Although the motifs used by local artisans came from beyond the immediate region–Crete, Egypt, the Hittite Empire, and Mesopotamia–the technique embodied in crafted objects found at Byblos and Ugarit is distinctly Phoenician. Phoenician goldsmiths and silversmiths were skilled artisans, but the quality of their work depended on their clientele.

    Ivory work was always of the highest standards, probably because of Egyptian competition. Phoenicians sold their wares all over the Middle East, and the spread of Middle Eastern style and iconography, like the alphabet, can be attributed to these great traders of antiquity. The Babylonians, in coalition with the Medes and Scythians, defeated the Assyrians in 612 BC and sacked Nimrud and Nineveh. They did not establish a new style or iconography. Boundary stones depict old presentation scenes or the images of kings with symbols of the gods.

    Neo-Babylonian creativity manifested itself architecturally at Babylon, the capital. This huge city, destroyed (689 BC) by the Assyrian Sennacherib, was restored by Nabopolassar and his son Nebuchadnezzar II. Divided by the Euphrates, it took 88 years to build and was surrounded by outer and inner walls. Its central feature was Esagila, the temple of Marduk, with its associated seven-story ziggurat Etemenanki, popularly known later as the Tower of Babel.

    The ziggurat reached about 300 ft in height and had at the uppermost stage a temple (a shrine) built of sun-dried bricks and faced with baked bricks. From the temple of Marduk northward passed the processional way, its wall decorated with enamelled lions. Passing through the Ishtar Gate, it led to a small temple outside the city, where ceremonies for the New Year Festival were held. Nabonidus (reigned 556-539 BC), the last Babylonian king, rebuilt the old Sumerian capital of Ur, including the ziggurat of Nanna, rival to the ziggurat Etemenanki at Babylon.

    It survived well, and its facing of brick has recently been restored. In 539 BC, the Neo-Babylonian kingdom fell to the Persian Achaemenid king Cyrus the Great. Mesopotamia became part of the Persian Empire, and a royal palace was built at Babylon, which was made one of the empire’s administrative capitals.

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