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Evolution of the Art of the Ancient Near East

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  • 0:49 Sumerian Foundations
  • 1:28 Akkadian Adoptions
  • 2:09 The Babylonians
  • 3:17 The Military Assyrians
  • 4:02 The Persians: A New Mix
  • 4:58 Lesson Summary
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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're going to explore the evolution of art in the Ancient Near East. We'll look at how the Sumerians laid a foundation that other cultures adopted and adapted to suit their goals and needs.

Adopting and Adapting

There's an old saying that goes something like this: 'The more things change, the more they stay the same.' In other words, transformation and continuity go hand in hand. There will always be something old and familiar even in something that seems brand new. This is especially true in the art world. Artists of all times and places have been inspired by their predecessors. They adopt and adapt the art that came before them as they produce new works of art.

This happened in the ancient Near East, too. In this lesson, we're going to explore how art evolved in the ancient Near East. We'll look at how the Sumerians laid an artistic foundation that other cultures adopted and adapted to suit their own goals and needs.

Sumerian Foundations

The Sumerians set the stage for ancient Near Eastern art. They developed the wedge-shaped cuneiform writing, built ziggurats, which were large, rectangular, terraced temples, created cylinder seals to mark other objects with unique signatures, and popularized relief sculpture. The Sumerians also set the tone for the religious focus of ancient Near Eastern art by developing a belief system that stood the test of time even though the names of gods and goddesses changed. As we shall see, other cultures picked up on these Sumerian innovations, borrowed them freely, and added modifications of their own.

Akkadian Adoptions and Adaptations

The Akkadians did just that. After the Akkadian ruler Sargon triumphed over the Sumerians, he was quick to start making use of their artistic heritage. Akkadian artists created reliefs and seals using the Sumerian method, but they also used this art to express their own concerns and interests. Akkadians were especially focused on artistically expressing their conquering power and the ruling authority that flowed from it. They did this by creating works of art like the Victory Stele of Naram-Sin, which depicts the conquest of this great king over an enemy people. Art developed a political purpose.

The Babylonians Take Art Up a Notch

After the Akkadians fell, the Babylonians, after a while, stepped into the power vacuum. Like the Akkadians, they freely borrowed from Sumerian artistic traditions, sculpting reliefs, writing in cuneiform, creating cylinder seals, and building ziggurats. But the Babylonians took artistic excellence up a notch. For instance, the famous Stele of Hammurabi uses relief sculpture and cuneiform to express this great king's code of law, which was like none other in the ancient world. The Babylonians also used reliefs and cuneiform to record their fantastic legends, including the Epic of Gilgamesh.

What's more, the Babylonians created one of the most amazing ziggurats of the ancient Near East, the Etemenanki or 'House of the Platform of Heaven and Earth.' Stretching at least two hundred feet into the air, this massive temple to the god Marduk was lavishly decorated in blue enamel. The Babylonians again took art to new levels with their stunning Ishtar Gate, with its bright colors and carved dragons, and the legendary Hanging Gardens.

The Military Assyrians

When the Assyrians seized power from the Babylonians, artistic endeavors again took a military and political turn. Still using the forms and methods of their predecessors, the Assyrians, led by King Ashurnasirpal II, strove to reveal and emphasize their power and authority in their art. In other words, they wanted to show who was boss, so they created elaborate reliefs portraying the king as a military conqueror and lion hunter. They built grand palaces to house those reliefs, which tended to scare the daylights out of visitors as well as impress them with Assyrian dominance. They also recorded their adventures and victories in cuneiform, making sure to include all the lurid details.

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