The Naram-Sin & Hammurabi Steles

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  • 0:01 Mesopotamian Steles
  • 0:48 Victory Stele of Naram-Sin
  • 2:22 Stele of Hammurabi
  • 4:27 Lesson Summary
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Lesson Transcript
Instructor: Christopher Muscato

Chris has a master's degree in history and teaches at the University of Northern Colorado.

In this lesson you will explore the art of ancient Mesopotamia, focusing on the use of steles to communicate important information. Then, test your understanding with a brief quiz.

Mesopotamian Steles

We like art. We put art everywhere and we often use art to celebrate important moments. We are not the first people to do this. In fact, art has been used to indicate important moments throughout human history. In Mesopotamia, the area of the Middle East between the Tigris and Euphrates rivers, art was used by kings to show their power and celebrate major events. Mesopotamian civilizations are among the oldest on earth, dating back thousands of years.

One of their major forms of art were steles, large slabs of stone that were carved with images or words. As some of the oldest state-sponsored carvings in the world, Mesopotamian steles show the values, attitudes, and cultural changes of people long ago.

Victory Stele of Naram-Sin

Naram-Sin was a powerful king from the city of Akkad in Mesopotamia from roughly 2254 BC - 2218 BC. He ruled the Akkadian Empire, which stretched over 300,000 square miles across Mesopotamia, the Levant, and parts of Iran. In essence, Naram-Sin controlled the area between the Arabian Peninsula and Eastern Europe. This Mesopotamian king not only expanded the power of Akkad to its height, but also introduced new cultural and religious practices. Notable amongst these was the belief that the king was actually a god.

New traditions, new art. Like other Mesopotamian kings, Naram-Sin erected steles to commemorate military victories. The Victory Stele of Naram-Sin is a six-foot-tall slab of sandstone that is carved with images from his victory over the rival Lullubi people. Traditional Mesopotamian steles often depicted a narrative, or a story of an event, through a series of images that progressed in a line.

The Victory Stele of Naram-Sin presents the story with diagonal images, breaking from tradition but also naturally drawing the eye towards the top of the stele. There, standing above everyone else, is Naram-Sin. See how much larger he is than everyone else? This is not an accident. Naram-Sin is wearing a horned helmet that is a sign of divinity, meaning that he is portrayed as a god -- a massive figure literally stomping on his enemies. This was a new artistic style, reflecting the changing religious ideas.

The Victory Stele of Naram-Sin emphasizes the godliness of the king
Section of the Victory Stele of Naram-Sin

Stele of Hammurabi

Steles continued to be important items that Mesopotamian kings used to present information. One of the greatest of these kings was Hammurabi, the founder of the Babylonian Empire, who ruled from roughly 1792 BC - 1750 BC. Hammurabi extended the Babylonian Empire to incorporate all of Mesopotamia, but his true fame lies in the Code of Hammurabi, one of the first written sets of laws in the world.

This code had 282 laws, as well as punishments for breaking them. Ever heard the phrase, 'Eye for eye, tooth for tooth'? This idea comes from Hammurabi's code, and means that a person receives punishment equal to their offense. So, if a person punches someone, and that person looses a tooth, the attacker is punished by having a tooth removed. That's Babylonian justice.

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