Ancient Near Eastern cultures established the first cities, the earliest code of laws, and the oldest known writing which was used, not for poetry, but for bookkeeping.

The Ancient Near East, an introduction

Sumerians, Akkadians, Babylonians, Assyrians, and Persians - no wonder we need an introduction!
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The cradle of civilization

Assyrian

The Assyrian empire dominated Mesopotamia and all of the Near East for the first half of the first millennium, led by a series of highly ambitious and aggressive warrior kings. The culture of the Assyrians was brutal, the army seldom marching on the battlefield but rather terrorizing opponents into submission who, once conquered, were tortured, raped, beheaded, and flayed with their corpses publicly displayed. The Assyrians torched enemies' houses, salted their fields, and cut down their orchards.
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Assyrian art, an introduction
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Assyrian Sculpture
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Lamassu from the citadel of Sargon II
Lamassu (winged human-headed bulls possibly lamassu or shedu) from the citadel of Sargon II, Dur Sharrukin (now Khorsabad, Iraq), Neo-Assyrian, c. 720-705 B.C.E., gypseous alabaster, 4.20 x 4.36 x 0.97 m, excavated by P.-E. Botta 1843-44 (Musée du Louvre) Speakers: Dr. Beth Harris and Dr. Steven Zucker IN THE NEWS: Irreplaceable Lamassu sculpture, Assyrian architecture and whole archaeological sites have recently been destroyed by militants that control large areas of Iraq and Syria. This tragedy cannot be undone and is an attack on our shared history and cultural heritage. To learn more: February 27, 2015 New York Times article
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Ashurbanipal hunting lions
Ashurbanipal Hunting Lions, gypsum hall relief from the North Palace, Ninevah, c. 645-635 B.C.E., excavated by H. Rassam beginning in 1853 (British Museum) Speakers: Dr. Steven Zucker & Dr. Beth Harris
Exercise
Ashurbanipal hunting lions (quiz)
Test your knowledge!

Persian

Western histories often looked at the Persians only in relation to their confrontations with the ancient Greeks, but the Persian empire was long-lived, complex and sophisticated. The heart of ancient Persia is in what is now southwest Iran. In the second half of the 6th century B.C.E., the Persians created an enormous empire reaching from the Indus Valley to Northern Greece and from Central Asia to Egypt.
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Persian art, an introduction
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Persepolis: The Audience Hall of Darius and Xerxes
Essay by Dr. Jeffrey Becker
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The Cyrus Cylinder and Ancient Persia
The Cyrus Cylinder is one of the most famous objects to have survived from the ancient world. It was inscribed in Babylonian cuneiform on the orders of Persian King Cyrus the Great (559-530 B.C.E.) after he captured Babylon in 539 B.C.E. It was found in Babylon in modern Iraq in 1879 during a British Museum excavation. Cyrus claims to have achieved this with the aid of Marduk, the god of Babylon. He then describes measures of relief he brought to the inhabitants of the city, and tells how he returned a number of images of gods, which Nabonidus had collected in Babylon, to their proper temples throughout Mesopotamia and western Iran. At the same time he arranged for the restoration of these temples, and organized the return to their homelands of a number of people who had been held in Babylonia by the Babylonian kings. Although the Jews are not mentioned in this document, their return to Palestine following their deportation by Nebuchadnezzar II, was part of this policy. The cylinder is often referred to as the first bill of human rights as it appears to encourage freedom of worship throughout the Persian Empire and to allow deported people to return to their homelands, but it in fact reflects a long tradition in Mesopotamia where, from as early as the third millennium B.C.E., kings began their reigns with declarations of reforms. 
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Capital of a column from the audience hall of the palace of Darius I, Susa
Capital of a column from the audience hall of the palace of Darius I, Susa, c. 510 B.C.E.,  Achaemenid,  Tell of the Apadana, Susa, Iran (Louvre) Speakers: Dr. Steven Zucker & Dr. Beth Harris