You are looking at a map of the “cradle of civilization,” located between the Tigris and Euphrates river, a region that is now part of Iran and Iraq. This is one of the earliest places where people gathered in large, complex, hierarchical societies with densely populated urban centers. This river valley, and the surrounding regions, are often referred to as “Mesopotamia”…which is a fancy Ancient Greek way of saying, “between the rivers.”
Take a look at the lower right-hand corner at the modern city of Basra. In Mesopotamia times, that whole area was under water. The Persian Gulf came all the way up to the very powerful and influential city of Ur.
Three big themes you will encounter in Mesopotamian art and architecture:
- Religious devotion
- Power relationships and political dominance.
Three big ideas about Mesopotamia:
• Mesopotamia was a culturally diverse region, alternately dominated by peoples from different parts of the region.
• Mesopotamians had a writing system called cuneiform.
It started around 5,300 years ago with pictograms (drawings) from the city-state of Uruk. These pictograms evolved into the cuneiform script, whose symbols could represent either sounds or ideas. The cuneiform system was adapted for use with at least 10 different languages.
• Mesopotamian rulers usually claimed absolute power through a direct connection with the gods. We sometimes describe them as “priest-kings”
Sumer was the southern area of Mesopotamia, made up of powerful city-states.
As important as it was in its own time, however, we didn’t even know of its existence until excavations began during the 1800s.
One type of object found in these excavations was the orant or “praying” figure. We can tell from the places they were found, as well as the inscriptions on some of the statues, that people commissioned craftsmen to carve these figures, then placed them inside temples. Their clasped hands and steady gazes expressed the prayerful devotion of the person who purchased the statue.
Just for comparison, take a glance some pictures of “orant” figures from cultures around the world:
Not all of the pictures in this search are relevant, but you’ll be able to recognize the ones that are. How are these figures similar? How are they different from one another?
Uruk is sometimes called the “first city.” The article about Uruk in the Heilbrunn Timeline of Art history, posted by the Metropolitan Museum of Art writes, “By around 3200 B.C., the largest settlement in southern Mesopotamia, if not the world, was Uruk: a true city dominated by monumental mud-brick buildings decorated with mosaics of painted clay cones embedded in the walls, and extraordinary works of art.”
Inanna was a powerful Mesopotamian goddess whose domains included love, fertility and warfare. This was not as much of a contradition in Sumerian society as it might be in ours. It made sense to ancient peoples that gods could be both benevolent and destructive, as in the following lines from a translation of a Sumerian hymn to Inanna:
“To open up roads and paths, a place of peace for the journey, a companion for the weak, are yours, Inana. To keep paths and ways in good order, to shatter earth and to make it firm are yours, Inana…To turn a man into a woman and a woman into a man are yours, Inana. Desirability and arousal, goods and property are yours, Inana. Gain, profit, great wealth and greater wealth are yours, Inana. Gaining wealth and having success in wealth, financial loss and reduced wealth are yours, Inana. ”
According to legend, Uruk was founded by Gilgamesh, the hero of a Sumerian epic. Some of the artworks you see below portray heroic figures who may or may not be Gilgamesh–it’s hard for researchers to be sure. Nevertheless, you’ll get some insights about Mesopotamian concepts of heroism.
Historians believe that the first “priest-kings” emerged in Uruk. This statuette probably represents a priest king.
Below is another artifact from Uruk. Can you tell what it is and what it’s for?
As mentioned above, another powerful Mesopotamian city-state was Ur. As a port city, Ur enjoyed tremendous wealth from trade. Each Mesopotamian city had its own patron god, and Ur’s was the moon god Nammu. One of the priest kings, aptly named Ur-Nammu, erected an enormous temple to the moon god. In modern times, the temple was in ruins, but Saddam Hussein’s government restored many Mesopotamian monuments, including the Ziggurat of Ur*.
Ur is famous for its “Royal Cemetery,” also known less glamorously as the “Great Death Pit.” It’s called the Royal Cemetery because many important and wealthy people were entombed there. It’s called the “Great Death Pit” because many people and animals seem to have been entombed with them, perhaps to accompany and serve the rulers in the afterlife. Archaeologists from the British Museum and the University of Pennsylvania, excavating in the 1920s and 30s, found spectacular treasures there:
The “Ram in the Thicket” statues. (Actually, a pair of goats)
Around 2200 BCE, invaders from a northern kingdom called Akkad invaded and conquered Sumer. The most famous Akkadian works of art are portraits of rulers.
Head of A Ruler*
Stele of Naram-Sin
Statues of Gudea
Laws of Hamurabbi
Kudurru (Boundary stone)
Hero Wrestling a Lion; Winged Bull
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