Ancient Mediterranean + Europe
The cradle of civilization
Map of the Ancient Near East
The cradle of civilization
Mesopotamia, the area between the Tigris and Euphrates Rivers (in modern day Iraq), is often referred to as the cradle of civilization because it is the first place where complex urban centers grew. The history of Mesopotamia, however, is inextricably tied to the greater region, which is comprised of the modern nations of Egypt, Iran, Syria, Jordan, Israel, Lebanon, the Gulf states and Turkey. We often refer to this region as the Near or Middle East.
What's in a name?
Why is this region named this way? What is it in the middle of or near to? It is the proximity of these countries to the West (to Europe) that led this area to be termed "the near east." Ancient Near Eastern Art has long been part of the history of Western art, but history didn't have to be written this way. It is largely because of the West's interests in the Biblical "Holy Land" that ancient Near Eastern materials have been be regarded as part of the Western canon of the history of art. An interest in finding the locations of cities mentioned in the Bible (such as Nineveh and Babylon) inspired the original English and French 19th century archaeological expeditions to the Near East. These sites were discovered and their excavations revealed to the world a style of art which had been lost.
The excavations inspired The Nineveh Court at the 1851 World's Fair in London and a style of decorative art and architecture called Assyrian Revival. Ancient Near Eastern art remains popular today; in 2007 a 2.25 inch high, early 3rd millennium limestone sculpture, the Guennol Lioness, was sold for 57.2 million dollars, the second most expensive piece of sculpture sold at that time.
Illustration from: Sir Austen Henry Layard, The Ninevah Court in the Crystal Palace, 1854
A complex history
The history of the Ancient Near East is complex and the names of rulers and locations are often difficult to read, pronounce and spell. Moreover, this is a part of the world which today remains remote from the West culturally while political tensions have impeded mutual understanding. However, once you get a handle on the general geography of the area and its history, the art reveals itself as uniquely beautiful, intimate and fascinating in its complexity.
The Euphrates River in 2005
Geography and the growth of cities
Mesopotamia remains a region of stark geographical contrasts: vast deserts rimmed by rugged mountain ranges, punctuated by lush oases. Flowing through this topography are rivers and it was the irrigation systems that drew off the water from these rivers, specifically in southern Mesopotamia, that provided the support for the very early urban centers here.
The region lacks stone (for building), precious metals and timber. Historically, it has relied on the long-distance trade of its agricultural products to secure these materials. The large-scale irrigation systems and labor required for extensive farming was managed by a centralized authority. The early development of this authority, over large numbers of people in an urban center, is really what distinguishes Mesopotamia and gives it a special position in the history of Western culture. Here, for the first time, thanks to ample food and a strong administrative class, the West develops a very high level of craft specialization and artistic production.
Essay by Dr. Senta German
Want to join the conversation?
- What kind of creatures are those in the second image - body of a lion, head of a bearded man and wings ?(9 votes)
- The winged creatures are known as a Lamassu. A Lamassu is an Assyrian protective deity, often depicted with a bull or lion's body, eagle's wings, and human's head. In some writings they are also said to represent a female deity, but this changes. Khan Academy features a video on a few famous Lamassu which were found at the Citadel of Sargon II.(23 votes)
- Which was the great empires of the near east from 1200-500BC?(3 votes)
- Can you clarify the difference between the near east and the middle east (ct far east)(4 votes)
- Before the first World War, the Near East referred to the Balkans and the Ottoman empire and Middle East referred to Afghanistan, Iran, Turkestan, Central Asia and Caucasus. After the Ottoman Empire disappeared in 1918, the area called Near East was not used and Middle East came to be used for the entire region. Near East has referred to the countries in Western Asia that lie between Iran and the Mediterranean Sea. Middle East is referring to the region that includes North Africa and Western Asia.
source: http://www.differencebetween.net/miscellaneous/difference-between-near-east-and-middle-east/#ixzz3FDPktj1i(4 votes)
- I would be interested in studies related to quality of life after this new development of agriculture and irrigation. I noticed this line "The large-scale irrigation systems and labor required for extensive farming was managed by a centralized authority. The early development of this authority, over large numbers of people in an urban center, is really what distinguishes Mesopotamia and gives it a special position in the history of Western culture." and how much it sounds like "slavery." Was this true? And was human suffering a result of this new found surplus?(3 votes)
- I don't know of any studies, but I saw something that might be shed a little light on the matter of quality of life: at the Field Museum in Chicago, the exhibit Ancient Americas shows how life changed for the Pueblo Indians when they became sedentary. They had more variety in their diet when they were hunter-gatherers, but the population was smaller because food supplies were not reliable. When they developed agriculture and settled, the food supply was more reliable, but there was less variety in their diets. With larger numbers living more closely together, they suffered more from disease. They too developed a hierarchy and a centralized government.
This does not speak to the question of slavery; they may have seen it as "This is what I am supposed to be doing to help support my people; I'm doing my part."
From what I have read, mostly from Thomas Cahill's book The Gifts of the Jews, the concept of individuality and individual rights didn't exist in the Ancient Near East, so even if it looks like slavery to us, their understanding of it would have been very different.(6 votes)
- I have learned about mesopotamia many times, but I have never really heard about how it dissolved... did it even do that? Or did it just morph into other countries over time?(4 votes)
- It just "morphed", more than once.. Check historic maps of the region; you'll see that the landforms and the course of the rivers have not changed much; what has changed is where national boundaries are drawn and what the places are called. The remains of Babylon, for instance, are near modern-day Baghdad in Iraq.(2 votes)
- I don't understand how the water flows through the land and gets into the trees. Dirt would turn to mud, and sand would flow like crazy. Did they have irrigation canals or something like that?(3 votes)
- Once a year the river would swell and suffuse the surrounding flood plane. Also, in North Africa there are large underground "lakes" that would fill with water. Some of them have held waters from as far back as the last glaciations. And, also they did use irrigation canals, pipes, etc.(3 votes)
- Political power in the empires of the Near East was reflected in the architectural structures built over time and by various rulers. Discuss the types of buildings and construction methods that reveal this part of ancient history.(3 votes)
- In the lower left of the second paragraph, what is the name of that lion like sculpture at the Nineveh Court?(2 votes)
- The lamassu is a protective deity from ancient Assyria, generally depicted with a human head, and eagle's wings, and the body of a bull or a lion. See: http://www.metmuseum.org/toah/works-of-art/32.143.2(2 votes)
- What kind of human creatures are those in the second picture.(2 votes)
- Where is the Euphrates river?(1 vote)
- The Euphrates river is near modern day Iraq and Syria(2 votes)