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Art of the Ancient Near East: Periods & Characteristics

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  • 0:02 The Ancient Near East
  • 1:03 Major Characteristics
  • 2:39 Sumerians & Akkadians
  • 4:48 Babylonians & Assyrians
  • 6:37 Persians
  • 7:35 Lesson Summary
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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.

This lesson will introduce the art of the Ancient Near East. We will explore some basic information about the region, learn about the major characteristics of its art, and examine the five major periods of its art.

The Ancient Near East

The Ancient Near East was a region of contrasts: arid deserts and fertile river valleys, settled civilizations and wandering nomads, notable advancements and great violence. It extended over three million square miles, all the way from modern Turkey in the north, down the coast of the Mediterranean, eastward into Mesopotamia and Iran, and all the way to the Indus River valley. It also covered an expansive period of time, all the way from the 3000s BCE to the 600s CE.

Needless to say, the region's art is just as complex and diverse as the region itself. This lesson will provide a brief introduction to the art of the Ancient Near East. We'll focus especially on the major characteristics of this art and then briefly examine its five major periods.

Major Characteristics

Even though the art of the Ancient Near East varies according to period and area of origin, we can still identify a few of its major characteristics.

  • The art of the Ancient Near East tends to focus on the relationship between the human and the divine. Much of it is religious in nature, designed for use in religious rituals or to honor the gods.
  • Ancient Near Eastern art is also political. Rulers used it to proclaim their power and prestige.
  • Artistic technique and skill are more important than originality in Ancient Near Eastern art. Artists wanted to show off their expertise more than their imagination.
  • Animals frequently appeared in the art of the Ancient Near East. They are realistically portrayed, but they often symbolically represent abstract concepts, like strength, fertility, kingship, and divinity.
  • Human images are more idealistic than naturalistic in Ancient Near Eastern art. Rulers especially are depicted symbolically to emphasize their wisdom, strength, and power.
  • Relief carvings are a key form of art in the Ancient Near East. Reliefs are sculptures that stand out from a flat surface, kind of like a 3D picture, and they appear on everything from the smallest cylinder seal to the largest palace wall.

Sumerians and Akkadians

Now that we've covered some of the major characteristics of the art of the Ancient Near East, let's turn our attention to its five major periods, which are named for the groups that ruled them. We will only summarize these periods in this lesson; other lessons will go on into more detail about them.

First came the Sumerians, who lived in Mesopotamia in at least the 3000s-2000s BCE. The art of the Sumerians provided a foundation and a model for the art of the rest of the Ancient Near East. The Sumerians are known for developing cuneiform writing, which was one of the first written scripts in the world. This writing decorates much of their art, which takes forms of sculptures like the Face of Woman from Urak and the Standard of Ur, delicate little cylinder seals that were used to mark documents with miniature reliefs, fantastic ziggurats, which are four-sided, pyramid-like temples decorated with reliefs and steles, which are monumental pillars carved in relief. Much of Sumerian art is religious in nature.

The Sumerians' successors, the Akkadians, crashed onto the Ancient Near Eastern scene about 2350 BCE. They were concerned with consolidating and proclaiming their conquering power, and their art reflects this goal. For instance, the sculptural bronze head of an Akkadian ruler (perhaps the empire's founder Sargon) is impressive for its stern visage that reminded everyone of who was in charge. The victory stele of Naram-Sin celebrates that ruler's impressive conquest in stone reliefs and raises him to the level of a god. The Akkadian rule didn't last long, however; it collapsed about 2150 BCE.

Babylonians and Assyrians

A new group was waiting in the wings to take control, but it took them a while to gain power. These Amorites, or Babylonians as they are called for the name of their most famous city of Babylon, united much of the Ancient Near East under the great king Hammurabi about 1792 BCE. Hammurabi is famous for his written code of law that is a work of art in itself, for it is preserved on a carved stele that also depicts the well-known ruler. The Babylonians also specialized in realistic freestanding sculptures, like the Statues of Gudea, and elaborate painted frescoes that showed religious scenes. The culture was also responsible for the great ziggurat, known as the Tower of Babel, the legendary Hanging Gardens of Babylon, and the colorful, carved Ishtar Gate.

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