Ancient Near East Art As a Reflection of History, Politics & Culture Video

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  • 0:02 Learning from Art
  • 1:13 Cuneiform Writing
  • 2:12 The Code of Hammurabi
  • 3:17 Steles and Reliefs
  • 5:46 Ziggaruts and Palaces
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Lesson Transcript
Instructor: Amy Troolin

Amy has MA degrees in History, English, and Theology. She has taught college English and religious education classes and currently works as a freelance writer.

In this lesson, we will explore how the art of the Ancient Near East reflects the history, politics, and culture of that region. We will look at several examples of art that make a special contribution to this process.

Learning from Art

Much of what we know about the Ancient Near East comes from its art. This seems kind of strange, doesn't it? We're used to learning about the history, politics, and culture of a place or a people through documents like papers or letters or books. But these didn't exist in the Ancient Near East, so we turn to another source: art.

Thankfully, the cultures of the Ancient Near East left us plenty of art, and it has proven very useful to scholars who are trying to understand the region's history, politics, and culture. Why? Because the people of the Ancient Near East were conscious of these elements. They deliberately included history, politics, and culture in their art and in doing so, they left us an important record about their lives and activities.

In this lesson, we're going to examine some art of the Ancient Near East that teaches us a great deal about the history, politics, and culture of the people who created it.

Cuneiform Writing

Writing is key to learning about any culture, and one of the oldest written scripts in the world was developed in the Ancient Near East by the Sumerians. Cuneiform, a writing system that used wedge-shaped markings in clay, captured the culture of the Ancient Near East in writing and often appeared on the region's works of art.

Cuneiform inscriptions appear on everything from clay tablets that documented business transactions, to relief sculptures and steles that explained the great wars and victories of kings, to religious art that honored and supplicated the gods. Cuneiform recorded the great epics of Ancient Near Eastern peoples, including the Epic of Gilgamesh, and made them into a form of visual art simply by merit of the uniqueness and creativity of the script's forms and symbols.

The Code of Hammurabi

Cuneiform writing also records the famous Code of Hammurabi, which is a code of law issued by the Babylonian king of that name about 1780 BCE. The Code has come down to us inscribed on a 7-foot, 4-inch basalt stele, an upright stone pillar, that also features a relief sculpture of Hammurabi receiving the law from the sun god Shamash. Hammurabi's authority and power shines through the art as he speaks directly to Shamash and then lays down the law for his people.

The law itself, incorporated into this work of art, is a fine expression of Babylonian culture. It includes a prologue about Hammurabi and his role as the protector of the people and then details almost 300 laws that governed nearly every aspect of Babylonian life, from marriage and family to business and agriculture.

Steles and Reliefs

Ancient Near Eastern artists left behind other steles and relief sculptures that tell us a great deal about the history, politics, and culture of their region. These works of art captured important moments in stone: rulers' brave deeds, military victories, and the high points of the life and existence of the people.

For instance, the great Victory Stele of Naram-Sin was created by an Akkadian artist to document the victory of King Naram-Sin over the Lullubi, an enemy people. The limestone stele gives the most important place to the king, who, looking every bit the regal royal and representative of the gods, leads his army in a charge with his enemies quailing at his feet. The stele both commemorates the event and reveals the king's great power and eminence. It clearly informed other potential enemies not to mess with the Akkadians.

The Assyrian relief sculptures featuring King Ashurnasirpal II performed a similar role. Hundreds of reliefs once decorated the king's palace. The ones that have come down to us show the king as a military conqueror, as the mediator between his people and the gods, and as a great hunter of lions. These reliefs, which were carved during the king's reign in 883-859 BCE, are inscribed in cuneiform with the proud words:

I am Ashur-nasir-pal, the obedient prince, the worshiper of the Great Gods, the fierce dragon, the conqueror of all cities and mountains to their full extent, the king of rulers who tames the dangerous enemies, the crowned with glory, the unafraid of battle, the relentless lion who shakes resistance, the king of praise, the shepherd, protection of the world, the king whose command blots out mountains and seas...

The king was sending a strong message to friends and foes alike and, in doing so, left us some incredible works of art that provide a peek into his world.

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