Art of the Ancient Near East


First thing first ….

The BBC’s How Art Made the World (aired on PBS in America) is a thought-provoking five-part series, of which part 3 – “The Art of Persuasion” – is particularly useful for the beginning of an art history survey class.

You can use it in a number of ways depending on the size of your class and the length of time/frequency per week you meet. You might wish to show the first ten minutes at the end of the lesson and have students watch at home on Netflix, or to have a “movie screening” in class (bringing popcorn can help make things feel festive) and watch with guided questions.

In this episode, Dr. Nigel Spivey uses the 2004 election campaign of George Bush to explore the manner in which art and architecture have been used to propagandize powerful figures since time immemorial. Spivey’s four case studies hit four keys areas in the early part of the art history survey – Stonehenge (Prehistory), Darius the Great and Persepolis (Ancient Near East), Alexander the Great (Ancient Greece), and Augustus (Ancient Rome) in just under 56 minutes. Students begin the course prepared to see ancient art as connected to the contemporary world around them, and to discuss how images can be used politically, economically, and socially – not just as objects of display in a museum or Powerpoint. The mess of electioneering today has great precedent in ancient cultures – they produced propaganda too.

Ask your students respond to the film by either discussing in small groups, or through a short in-class writing exercise. You might ask questions like:

  • Which major sites and historical figures does the narrator focus on during the film? Keep track by taking note of names, places, countries, and major dates so we can discuss after watching.
  • In what ways do ancient rulers or cultures use visual art? Do you notice any recurring themes, methods, or ideas?
  • Which historical figure covered in the film do you think used art most effectively in pursuit of power?

Images and Readings ….

PPT Images

Background reading might include your survey textbook, and (much better) this comprehensive educator guide from the Met Museum. The Met’s guide cuts to the chase and highlights key images with short, explanatory texts on each one. Pages 126-129 offer excellent classroom discussion topics: How did the building blocks of society develop? How does trade affect cultural development? How is art affected by politics? What can images “do”?    

Other resources include Smarthistory’s excellent Ancient Near East section. There are at-home readings for students in the AHTR online syllabus.

Content suggestions ….

Early writing tablet recording the allocation of beer Probably from southern Iraq, Late Prehistoric period, 3100-3000 BCE

Early writing tablet recording the allocation of beer
Probably from southern Iraq, Late Prehistoric period, 3100-3000 BCE

Our library favorite (and director of the British Museum) Neil MacGregor’s A History of the World in 100 Objects covers Ancient Near Eastern cuneiform tablets, which is a great place to begin investigating this part of the survey. Some of the earliest cuneiform writing was created in order to keep track of beer, of all things. (Find the text for free online on the BM website, or students can listen for free too.*) But the Sumerians also produced great literature. The Epic of Gilgamesh predates Homer’s Illiad and Odyssey by some 1,500 years. With the advent of visual art in Prehistory, and now writing, we’re looking at the arrival of the idea of culture – the ability by homo sapiens to enact creative or abstract thought. The Met educator guide outlines a group of objects from their collection perfect for investigating the visual culture of the Ancient Near East.

In an hour and fifteen minutes, this  content area can be investigated through many ancient objects, including

You may have already discussed different interpretations of “culture” – as learned behavior, not genetic or biological, including languages, customs, beliefs, technology that is shared by a group. Culture is irrevocably intertwined with the idea of civilization, of settlement and the formation of rules and regulations, and the growth of urban centers.  And, as Neil MacGregor says, “Writing is essential for the creation of what we think of as human civilization.” This is why the tablets are such a great place to begin the discussion!

This “Urban Revolution” begins first in the “fertile crescent” of Mesopotamia (today = Iraq) and Egypt c. 3,500-3000 BC. It forms the symbolic boundary between pre-history and history and during it mankind invented “civilization” – the development of permanent systems of social regulation; the beginning of infighting for control of these regulated resources; social bonds, social welfare; law; transport; irrigation; agriculture; food surplus; and settlement.

Agriculture was the basis for wealth.  Religion played a central role in government and daily life.  Leaders strongly identified themselves with the gods. Many societies rose and fell during the period we designate as the Ancient Near East.  Stability was fleeting and this most of the objects pertained to religion and rule. The earliest of these communities were the Sumerians.  The Sumerians are credited with many firsts:  the wheel, the plow, casting objects in copper and bronze and cuneiform writing.

The city-state was another of the great Sumerian “inventions.” Activities that had once been individually initiated became institutionalized and the state took responsibility for the safety and welfare of its inhabitants. Huge mud-brick temples like the Ziggurat at Ur (2100 – 2050 BCE, present-day Muqaiyir, Iraq) towered over the flat plains. (These historic edifices became the backdrop for contemporary images photographed, filmed, and transmitted to the West during the Iraq War.) Objects such as the Warka (or Uruk) Vase and cylinder seals (c. 2600 BCE) were found in the vicinity of such temples during twentieth century archaeological excavations. (The Warka Vase was one of the thousands of artifacts which were looted from the National Museum of Iraq during the 2003 Invasion of Iraq and was later returned during an amnesty.) Votive figures were also important artifacts of this period, and suggest patronage of the arts.

In 2334 BCE, the loosely linked group of cities known as Sumer (Southern Mesopotamia), came under the domination Sargon of Akkad who came from the North of Mesopotamia. Sargon’s grandson, Naram-Sin, called himself “King of the Four Quarters,” and the Stele of Naram-sin (c. 2250 BCE, 6.5 feet high!) offers an opportunity to discuss how leadership and power is portrayed in visual arts of this period through hieratic scale. The Votive Statue of Gudea, c. 2090 BCE, may only be 29” high, but Gudea ruled the one city state that managed to fend off the Akkadians. Gudea’s image is therefore a great comparison with Naram-sin’s. How do the two portrayals of leadership differ? Are there contemporary connections to be made with portraits of current political leaders? 

The Stele of Hammurabi, c. 1792-1750 BCE, is approximately 7 feet tall. King Hammurabi (r. 1792-1750 BCE) established a centralized government under the Babylonians and ruled southern Mesopotamia in the early second millennium. He is known for his conquests, but also for his law code. This is the first systematic codification of his people’s rights, duties, penalties for infringements. There are 300 or so entries, some dealing with commercial and property matters, others with domestic problems and physical assault. (See this Yale translation which offers great background context as well as the code translated in full.)

After centuries of struggle in Southern Mesopotamia among Sumer, Akkad, and Lagash, the Assyrians rise to dominance in Northern Mesopotamia, coming to power in 1400 BCE.  By the ninth century BCE they controlled most of Mesopotamia. Their palaces were decorated with scenes of battles, Assyrian victories, presentations of tribute to the king, combat between men and beasts, and religious imagery. Palace reliefs like that of Assurnasirpal II Killing Lions, c 875 BCE, provide an opportunity for in-class formal analysis. 


Briefly introduce the object: The Assyrian kings expected their greatness to be recorded. They commissioned sculptors to create a series of narrative reliefs exalting royal power and piety. These narratives recorded battles but also conquests of wild animals.  This is one of the earliest and most extensive forms of narrative relief found before the Roman Empire.

Group discussion might begin with broad questions like “What do we see? What are our very first observations?” before asking students to differentiate between form (“What elements of form can we discern (line, color, material, composition, technique)”) and context  (“What elements of context can we discern (narrative, characters involved, does this compare to other works we know in similar or different ways?, historical context)”). Summing up responses will suggest that the form and the context of the work are interdependent – the strong central figure, the use of the bow and the hunt, hieratic scale, and the royal dominance of the “king of the beasts,” the lion, underlines that visual narrative is an important memorializing aspect of this ruler’s reign and “speak his power.”

The visual history of the ANE is peppered with the rise and fall of rulers and city-states, one reason why such rulers were keen to immortalize themselves in architecture and art. Our final ruler is the one who continued the Neo-Babylonian empire, delivering it from the Assyrians in the north. The most renowned of the Babylonian kings was Nebuchadnezzar II (r. c. 605 BC – 562 BC), whose exploits the biblical book of Daniel recounts, he is notorious today for his suppression of the Jews. Like great rulers across time, Nebuchadnezzar II used architecture as a way to demonstrate his power, and the jewel in the crown of his building campaign was the Ishtar Gate (c. 575 BCE). Today, parts of the Ishtar Gate and the processional way leading to it are in the Pergamon Museum in Berlin. It was dedicated to the Babylonian goddess Ishtar and faced with a rare blue stone called lapis lazuli. (A smaller reproduction of the gate was built in Iraq under Saddam Hussein as the entrance to a museum that has not been completed. Damage to this reproduction has occurred since the Iraq War.)

The king had left instructions in cuneiform scrip on tablets of clay.  He urged his successors to repair his royal edifices, which for identification purposes, had bricks inserted in the walls, with an inscription announcing that they were the work of “Nebuchadnezzar, King of Babylon from far sea to far sea.”  The new inscribed bricks relay that the New Babylon was “rebuilt in the era of the leader Saddam Hussein.” Today, rulers all over the world in many different cultures still use architecture to demonstrate their power as Hussein did, linking his rule with an ancient, grand era in Iraq’s history.

Although Nebudchadnezzar had boasted that “I had caused a mighty wall to circumscribe Babylon…so that the enemy who would do evil would not threaten,” Cyrus of Persia captured the city in the sixth century BCE. Babylon was but one of the Persian conquests. Egypt fell to them in 525 BCE and by 480 BCE the Persian Empire was the largest the world had yet known extending from the Indus River in southeastern Asia to the Danube in northeastern Europe. The most important source of Persian architecture is the palace of Persepolis. It was built by Darius I, successors of Cyrus (a figure Dr. Spivey introduces in his documentary). Reliefs on the walls of Persepolis depict processions of royal guards, Persian nobles, dignitaries and representatives from over 23 subject nations bringing the king tributes.  Every one of them wears his national costume.

The Achaemenid line ended with the death of Darius III in 330 BCE at the hands of Alexander the Great, king of Macedonia. Alexander conquered Persepolis, and set the stage for the next chapter – Ancient Greece!

At the end of the class ….

The Met Educator guide (linked above) has some great suggestions for writing and discussion activities linked to this content area, two of which are below. Alternatively, students could complete a short writing response to the guided questions for Dr. Nigel Spivey’s “The Art of Persuasion.”

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* The book started life as a 100-part series on BBC Radio 4.  His text is a good replacement for the art history survey textbook. It’s free and – unlike any art history survey textbook – it’s fascinating and compellingly written.

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