In continuing our survey of art history, our next stop is the ancient Near East, otherwise known as Mesopotamia. This region is located between the Tigris and Euphrates Rivers and includes the ancient cities (like Babylon) that now make up the modern nations of the Middle East, including Iran, Syria, Jordan, Israel and Lebanon, among others.
This area was developing at the same time as the ancient Egyptian cities, and were some of the earliest civilizations to cultivate key processes such as agriculture, trade, religion, social common areas and communication. The Near East was a hotbed of evolution for humankind.
Similar to their Egyptian neighbors, Mesopotamian cities built temples with raised, complex bases known as ziggurats. They also constructed tombs in which were placed several sculptures of gods and worshippers alike. Citizens could pay a sculptor to create a statue for them that would sit in a constant state of worship before the statue of a god. It was believed that the statue of the god embodied the god’s spirit and, likewise, the smaller statues were believed to embody the spirit of the worshipper. You will notice that these statues are very stylized, with large eyes comprised of different stones. The eyes were extremely important in ancient Mesopotamia and their portrayal seemed to symbolize intense focus and unwavering devotion to the worshipped god.
One of the most important artifacts recovered from these civilizations is the Standard of Ur, which is approximately 4,500 years old. The Standard of Ur seems to be a hollow box with meticulously crafted mosaic scenes depicted on the sides. The original use for the artifact remains unknown, although the scenes may be a narrative depicting a battle followed by a victorious celebration. One one side, images of war and battle are seen in three different registers. Along the bottom, enemies are trampled beneath chariots and felled by warriors, while a more intimate battle between legions of soldiers takes place just above it. On the top register, prisoners of war are brought, naked, wounded and bleeding, to the king by the victorious battalion.
On the opposite side, scenes of peace and prosperity abound. Here we see laborers tending to their cattle and lugging various goods to trade. On the top register the King sits with many others at some type of celebration with entertainment and libations. Several of the materials used to construct the Standard of Ur signify flourishing trade operations — the deep blue lapis lazuli came from mines in Egypt while the white shell came from the Persian Gulf. Whatever the use, the Standard of Ur gives us a vibrant peek into the operations of this ancient civilization.
And finally, possibly one of my favorite ancient pieces, is the Law Code Stele of King Hammurabi. This looming, intricately inscribed piece of basalt dates back to around 1792-1750 BCE and contains some of the first evidences of advanced writing and grammar in history. At the top of the stele (a vertical stone monument), we see a depiction of King Hammurabi, who ruled over ancient Babylon for many years. The scene shows Hammurabi receiving a divine law code from the god Shamash in the form of a ring and scepter Beneath this scene is an incredibly detailed list written in cuneiform — Hammurabi chose cuneiform because it was the most accessible form of communication at the time, so that anyone could read and understand the laws. The writing details Hammurabi’s rights and stature as king before outlining his set of incredibly detailed laws and punishments for breaking these laws. Your social caste did not matter in terms of these laws (unless you were a slave) because they were seen as laws that superseded mankind. These are your basic “eye for an eye” laws, but also included financial restitution in many cases as well.
The civilizations of the ancient Near East were incredibly important to the development of the complex social structures we have today, as they essentially built a solid base for the rest of humankind to follow.
P.S: If you would like a more involved overview of the ancient Near East, click here.
What do you think was the original use for the Standard of Ur? How have our contemporary laws been influenced by the original Law Code of Hammurabi? What do you make of the contrast between the highly revered stature of the ancient Near East and the current state of affairs in the Middle East? Let’s talk.