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Flashcards in Mesopotamian Art for Dummies Deck (26)
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  • Modern-day Iraq
  • means “between rivers” in Greek'Fertile Crescent', in between Tigris and Euphrates rivers, which fertilize it throughout the year.
    • Believed to be the location of Garden of Eden 
  • Had no mountains, deserts, or oceans to protect it

    • desert nomadaic tribes caused conflict

    • Constant power changes in 3000 year history



  • Part of Mesopotomia
  • Was not really a country, but a cluster of city-states, like Ancient Greece.
  • Although linked by culture, religion, and language, the city-states didn’t unite for over a thousand years.
  • Sumerians called their patchwork “country” the “land of the civilized lords,”  and called themselves “the black-headed people.


Major Characteristic of Mesopotamian Art

  • Art changed almost as often as its rulers, each conqueror bringing new influences
  • Sumerians, the Akkadians, Assyrians, Babylonians, and New Babylonians each had a distinctive style, which seemed to grow out of each other like a family tree of art and architecture


Sumerian Scuplture

  • Divinities lived somewhere in the sky or mountains, and also resided inside their statues in the temples of each city-state. In Sumer, a statue of a god wasn’t just a representation, as it was later on in Greece — it was the god. Divinities could be in more than one place at a time
  • People could petition their local god indirectly by going through the priest-king, or they could do it more directly by commissioning a statue of themselves and placing it in the temple, as people could be said to take up residence in a statue


  • Standard of Ur
  • Depicts a Sumerian military victory and aftermath from about 2,600 B.C. 
  • Inlaid images on three parallel strips on two sides of a wooden box should be read from bottom to top
  • Static art - 1000 years later, Assyrians dramatically improved visual narrative, giving their art an action-movie feel


  • Abu Temple statuettes - votive statues
  • The tallest is 30 inches high
  • were of real Sumerians who devoted themselves to, or made a vow to (votive), their local god.
  • The ancient Sumerians’ eyes popped when they saw a god. Being bug-eyed meant you were devout
  • Sumerian statues appear cylindrical, as artists based the human body on the cylinder and cone. 


Hammurabi's Code

  • Hammurabi respected the Sumerian gods so much that he created a code of divinely ordained laws.
  • The first detailed written law code in history — to help carry out their moral commands on earth.
  • The code was written in in cuneiform, the Sumerian script.
  • Like Moses, Hammurabi claimed to receive his law code directly from god.


Post Akkadian Empire History of Mesopotamia

  • Akkadian Empire lasted about 2 centuries, until tribes from the northeast overran it in 2112 B.C.
  • Urnammu, the Sumerian king of Ur, which had remained independent, ejected them about 50 years later and reunited Mesopotamia for another century, until a new wave of conquerors swept the Sumerian kings away forever. These centuries of turmoil produced no great art.
  • Finally, in 1792 B.C., Babylon emerged as a great political and cultural power in southern Mesopotamia, under King Hammurabi, its greatest and most famous ruler.


  • When a Sumerian king or queen died, attendants, soldiers, oxen and musicians accompanied
  • Pubia's Lyra - found in the tomb of King Abargi of Ur
  • A golden bull’s head protrudes from the harp
  • Horns, hair, eyes & beard made of lapis lazuli (azure gemstone), found 2,000 miles away in Afghanistan
  • Animal fables wrought with wood & shell and inlaid in bitumen, a mineral pitch made from coal or oil.
    • Top fable- a man hugs two bulls whos faces mirrors his, and their right legs and hooves wrap about his head like parentheses
      • Gilgamesh motif - Gilgamesh & his friend Enkidu slay the Bull of Heaven
    • Bottom three - visual story w humanoid animals 


Sumerian Architecture

  • Sumerians tried to get close to god with architecture.
  • Built their temples like high-rises (ziggurats), which look like tiered wedding cakes up to seven layers high with a temple on top ie. Tower of Babel
  • only priests were allowed to use the stairs and enter the temple at the top
  • Sumerians didn’t have access to limestone, they built their ziggurats, temples, and palaces out of mud brick, which has a much shorter half-life than limestone or granite and thus has disappeared


What was Code of Hamurabi

  • Hammurabi’s law code prevented judges from arbitrarily handing down sentences based on personal bias.
  • Many of the laws seem brutal to modern ears:
    • Ie. If a man knock out the teeth of his equal, his teeth shall be knocked out [similar to the Hebrew “an eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth” code].
  • In spite of its occasional severity, Hammurabi’s Code was the beginning of civil rights/“inalienable rights.”
  • Writing the code in stone made the laws seem immutable.


How and When did Mesopotomia Unite

About 2334 B.C.

Sargon I, an Akkadian king from an area north of Sumer, conquered Mesopotamia, northern Syria, and possibly part of Anatolia, creating one of the first empires.

Put politics before religion.

Sargon and his Akkadian successors still respected the Sumer religion, but replaced the language with Akkadian. 


The Tower of Babel

Nebuchadnezzar II, king of Babylon (605 B.C.–562 B.C.), gave ziggurats a bad rap by stealing holy objects from the temple in Jerusalem and housing them in the ziggurat of Babylon. He probably wanted to show that his gods had more power than the Hebrew god did. 

But in general, the Sumerian and Babylonian peoples built ziggurats to put them in touch with the gods, not to elevate their personal egos.


Pre Montheastic Sumerian Religion

  • Each Sumerian city-state had its local god, who owned and protected the city (a bit like the Greek goddess Athena protected Athens), and acted as its spokesman in the assembly of the gods
  • Sun-god = Shamash; Enlil = wind; Anu = king of gods; and Ishtar = goddess of desire, to name a few.

  • People could petition their local god indirectly by going through the priest-king, or they could do it more directly by commissioning a statue of themselves and placing it in the temple

  • Priest-kings ran the city-states, acting as the gods’ appointed “shepherds of the people.” They managed everything from the economy and government to religious affairs. They distributed the food, too, because even people’s labor was viewed as god’s property



  • Head of an Akkadian ruler from Nineveh.
  • An example of new art under Sargon's rule
  •  King depicted as a godlike but secular ruler (not a shepherd of the people), appearing calm but militiristic
  • The style is similar to Sumerian sculpture.
    • Artist coifed the beard like those of the statuettes of Abu Temple, but the modeling of the face is much more realistic
      • ie. contours of the lips and slightly hooked nose


Firsts in Sumer

  • First written language
  • Abraham founded monotheism
  • first epic poem = Gilgamesh
  • earliest codes of laws = code of hamuraibi
  • oldest wheel - 5,500 years old
  • first potter's wheel


  • Mask of Warka (3,500 B.C. and 3,000 B.C.)
  • Mona Lisa of Mesopotamia

  • mask of a god from Uruk
  • earliest known representation of the female face
  • eyes were likley filled with colored stones; the eyebrows and hair were probably wrought of gold or copper, which is now missing
  • Stolen in post Iraq War but recoved by US forces


Assyrian Basic History

  • In 1596, about a hundred years after the death of Hammurabi, the Hittites conquered Babylon. They produced no great art.
  • Not long after, the Kassites overran Babylon.
  • About the same time, in northern Mesopotamia, the brutal Assyrians grew from a city-state called Assur into a vast empire that lasted from about 1363 B.C. to 612 B.C., when the Persians and Scythians overran them. With their iron weapons, they terrorized their neighbors and mercilessly destroyed all challengers.


Assyrians Art

Macho art that glorified their rulers and intimidated their enemies. Each Assyrian king built a bigger-than-his-predecessor’s palace to flaunt his power.

Assyrians gave visual narrative an action-movie feel by inventing continuous visual narration.

Picture stories “read” like a film strip with one event leading dramatically to the next


King Ashurnasirpal II Killing Lions


Is cinematic and roils with dynamic energy.

Rank is no longer indicated by physical size (as in the Standard of Ur) but by action.


History of New Babalyon

  • Persians conquered the Assyrian capital Nineveh
  • Babylon reemerged as the center of Mesopotamian culture.
  • Kingdom only lasted for 70 years
  • Nabopolassar, a Babylonian general who had sided with the Persians, was the first king of New Babylon.
  • Nebuchadnezzar rebuilt Babylon into the most beautiful city on earth. 
  • Returned to the Sumerian model of being “shepherds of the people.”
  • Although Nebuchadnezzar attacked Judah, the New Babylonians were much less warlike than the Assyrians.


  • Hanging Gardens of Babalyon
  • Nebuchadnezzar, Nabopolassar's son, gave his wife the Hanging Gardens of Babylon as a gift
    • (Note: Speculative)
  • One of the original Wonders of the World.
  • Terraced, rooftop gardens
  • irrigated by water pumped from the Euphrates. 


  • Ishtar Gate
  • 575 BC
  • entrance to the city 
  • On the front, against a background of glazed blue bricks, stand decorative horses, blue-horned bulls, and dragons made of gold-colored, turquoise, and blue bricks.
  • The top of the gate is crenellated (notched) like a medieval castle. But instead of squares (like in a medieval castle), the crenellations rise like mini-ziggurats.



Charasteristics of New Babalonian Art

  • New Babylonian art reflected a quieter and gentler period
  • It was much less aggressive and less active than Assyrian art.


What’s the difference between the Ishtar Gate and Assyrian art? 

  • Ishtar Gate
  • Wasn’t intended to tell a story.
  • Built to be beautiful and imposing, a reflection of Nebuchadnezzar’s cultivated tastes.
  • All the animals strike the same pose and there is no movement. The stiffness of the animals adds to the impression of being imposing and solemnly majestic


Basic Tenant of Akkadian Art

Art became a war and polotical propaganda tool, rather than something to honor the gods.