AP Art History: Unit Two - The Ancient Near East
Updated: Mar 3
Welcome back to the Accessible Art History blog! This week, I am moving forward in my AP Art History curriculum! Unit 2 covers the entirety of the Ancient Mediterranean. Since this encompasses multiple civilizations, I thought it would be a good idea to break this unit down by civilization. So, to kick things off, I am going to cover the six works from the Ancient Near East. To learn more about them, keep on reading!
About the Ancient Near East
Before we dive into the works of art, it’s important to understand what art historians mean by the term “Ancient Near East”. This categorization covers a number of different groups and cultures over a large geographic area. They center around Mesopotamia, known as the “Land Between Two Rivers and/or the “Fertile Crescent”. This is considered the cradle of civilization because it is where we first see permanent and complex settlements pop up. Today, it covers the modern nations of Egypt, Iran, Syria, Jordan, Israel, Lebanon, the Gulf states and Turkey.
Much of our knowledge about the Ancient Near East comes from archaeological digs led by people from wealthy, western nations. They were slightly obsessed with finding artifacts related to biblical stories and figures. It is important to note that this had initially skewed our information on the subject, but scholarship in recent years have been working to correct that. Instead, it is focusing on how advancements developed in the area that laid the foundation for civilization.
Work 1: (12) White Temple and Ziggurat
Alright, now that we’ve got info out of the way, let’s dive into the works. The first one is the White Temple and Ziggurat of Uruk. It was built in the late 4th millennium BCE and was dedicated to the sky god, Anu. Both the ziggurat and the temple were constructed of mud brick because stone was rare in this area. Standing at around 40 feet tall, this complex would have dominated the landscape. Additionally, it was painted a bright white, which would have shone brilliantly in the sun.
So, you may be asking, what is a ziggurat? Well, it is essentially a large, raised platform. There are four, sloping sides, which meet to form a flat top. On this platform, a temple would be built. This was done to help set the temple apart from the rest of the landscape and to literally raise it above all other buildings.
The White Temple was orientated on the ziggurat platform with the cardinal direction points. There were three entrances, but none of them faced the ramp that led from the ground to the platform. This was a deliberate choice by the architects to force people to walk around the temple and contemplate its beauty and religious importance. As with many Sumerian temples, it was built on a bent access approach and served a double purpose. Not only was it a place of worship, but it was a storehouse for food and supplies.
Work 2: (14) Standing Worshiper
This next work is a statue called the “Tell Asmar Male Worshiper” and dates from between 2900-2600 BCE. He is also from Uruk, the ancient name for Tell Asmar, though he is from a different temple. It is constructed of alabaster, with limestone and shell used for the details. This statue stands at just under a foot tall and is part of a group of 12 that were found buried in the temple complex. They were carefully placed in the ground, indicating that this placement was purposeful and meant to preserve them for as long as possible.
The most striking detail of this statue is his large, nearly bulging eyes. This, combined with his clasping hands, show that he is deep in prayer. Most likely, a wealthy member of Uruk’s society commissioned this piece to represent himself. That way, even when he couldn’t worship, his proxy could stand in for him at the temple and pass on his prayers to the gods.
Work 3: (16) Standard of Ur
The next piece is perhaps the most famous example of Ancient Near Eastern art. The Standard of Ur was discovered in a royal grave in the 19th century and dates from around 2600 BCE. The word “standard” is a bit of a misnomer because art historians are not entirely sure of the original purpose. It is more likely that it was a decorated box versus something that was carried on a large pole.
Two panels from the Standard of Ur have survived to the modern era. Each is divided into three registers. First, we are going to examine the “War” Panel. Interestingly, this is the earliest depiction of war in the history of art. The top register shows the king standing with prisoners of war. Note that the king is the largest figure in the scene, therefore showing that he is the most powerful. The middle register shows soldiers going into battle, as well as more prisoners of war. Finally, the bottom register shows chariots pulled by equine-like animals. Even though they are two dimensional, there is still a sense of movement.
The Peace panel is all about celebrating the spoils of a victorious campaign. Once again, viewers can see the king in the top register. He is surveying the banquet scene before him. On the two registers below him, there is a procession of servants bringing animals and baskets of goods to him. This king, whose name has been forgotten, wanted to show how his victory in war benefited the community.
Work 4: (19) Stele of Hammurabi
The Code of Hammurabi is one of the most important writings in the history of the world. It survives on a giant stone slab and dates from about 4,000 years ago. Not only does it feature a relief image of a king and a god, but it is the longest inscribed text that survives from this period in history. This text describes nearly 300 laws from Babylon. For art historians, this piece not only tells us about the artistic traditions of the Ancient Near East, but also contains valuable information about the political and legal system at the time.
King Hammurabi was the King of Babylon from c. 1792 BCE to c. 1750 BCE. Besides the
code, Hammurabi is most famous for his military conquests. During his reign, Assyria was conquered and brought under Babylonian rule. This meant that nearly all of Mesopotamia was in his control. Due to both his political and military might, Hammurabi was seen as a god during his own lifetime and worship continued after his death. In fact, he was so popular that records from the period after his death show a spike in babies being named after him!
The law code is inscribed in 44 columns of cuneiform text and are written more as precedents than actual laws. First, an action is described and then its consequence is stated. The majority of these laws deal with the two most important aspects of Ancient Near Eastern society: agriculture and family. These laws also feature the first written instance of innocence until proven guilty and one of the first times evidentiary support is mentioned. This code was incredibly impactful on society, including up until the modern era. In fact, both the U.S. House of Representatives and the Supreme Court have small relief statues of Hammurabi in their buildings.
Another important part of the Stele is the relief carving. This piece shows two figures facing each other. The man on the right is the god, Shamash. He was the god of both the sun, and justice. The viewer knows he is a god because of his horned crown and his throne. On the bottom of the throne there are small mounds, meant to represent the mountains that Shamash would appear over every morning during sunrise.
On the other side of the carving, another man is standing. This is King Hammurabi. He wears the traditional head piece and robes of a Babylonian king. Hammurabi stands ready and waiting to receive a staff and ring from Shamash. These are traditional, Ancient Near Eastern symbols of kingship and rule. This is a message of propaganda showing that Hammurabi and his laws were divinely inspired.
It is also important to note the size of the figures. Because Shamash is sitting, the two men are right around the same height. In ancient art (across many cultures), this means that they were of the same importance. Obviously, when standing, Shamash would have been taller. This preserves the distinction between man and god.
Work 5: (25) Lamassu
Similar to the Sphinx of Ancient Egypt, Assyrian Lamassu were mythological protection creatures. They have the head of a man, the body of either a bull or a lion, and the wings of an eagle. By combining these animals together, the power of the figure was multiplied. Lamassu sculptures were placed outside of palaces and public buildings. These ones, now in the Louvre, are from the Citadel of Sargon II. In order to assert his power, Sargon built a new capital city. He named it the “Fortress of Sargon” and it is believed to have been the largest city of the ancient world at the time.
Archaeologist believe that these Lamassu stood at a gate that was built to honor the god Nergal, an Assyrian god of war and plague who ruled over the underworld. If you look at them from the side, you might notice that they have five legs! This is because they were carved to appear in motion, striding forward to protect the city.
Work 6: (30) Audience Hall
The final work of the Ancient Near East collection is the Audience Hall of Persepolis. Although the site is now in ruins, Persepolis was once the ceremonial capital of the Achaemenid Empire. At the time, this empire ruled over an estimated 44% of the human population at the time!
It was occupied for about two hundred years, from 515 BCE to 330 BCE when it was conquered by Alexander the Great. The name derives from the Ancient Greek words for "the city of the Persians." It was built by Darius I, whose name can be found on various inscriptions throughout the ruins.The large building program was considered by his successor Xerces.
The Persepolis Complex consists of a large, walled platform with five large buildings on it. It was not the largest city of the empire, so its purpose isn't entirely clear. In fact, it isn't even clear where the king's quarters are! Some archaeologists postulate that it was used for religious ceremonies because the site has a sacred connection to the god Mithra, as well as links to the Nowruz, the Persian New Year’s festival. But, because of the king’s presence and building program, it was likely used as an administrative center as well!
The Ancient Near East is a fascinating period of art history to study because it is a part of the foundation for the history of humanity in the western world. This is where we see the first settlements start to pop up thanks to the fertile farm land created by the Tigris and Euphrates rivers. In turn, humans had the time to create objects to teach us about the past many thousands of years later!
Gardner’s Art through the Ages, 12th edition by Fred S Kleiner