Culture and Art of Ancient Mesopotamia

Ancient MesopotamiaMesopotamia is one of the most important centers of world civilization and ancient urban culture. Pioneers on the path to creating this culture were the Sumerians, whose achievements were mastered and developed further by the Babylonians and Assyrians. The origins of Mesopotamian culture date back to the IV millennium BC. When cities began to emerge. For a long period of its existence, it had internal unity, continuity of traditions, inseparable connection of its organic components.

The initial stages of the Mesopotamian culture were marked by the invention of a kind of letter that later turned into a cuneiform script. It was cuneiform writing that was the core of the Mesopotamian civilization, which unified all its aspects and allowed to preserve traditions. When the cuneiform was completely forgotten, the Mesopotamian culture also died with it. However, its most important values were perceived by the Persians, Arameans, Greeks and other peoples, and as a result of a complex and not yet fully clarified chain of transmissions entered the treasury of modern world culture.


In the ideological life of Ancient Mesopotamia, the dominant role belonged to religion. Still at the turn of the IV-III millennium BC. E. In Sumer, a thoroughly developed theological system arose, which later was largely borrowed and developed further by the Babylonians. Every Sumerian city revered its patron god. In addition, there were gods who were revered throughout Sumer, although for each of them there were also special places of worship, usually where their cult originated. It was the god of heaven Anu, the god of the land Enlil (the Akkadians called him also White) and the god of the waters of Enki, or Ea. The deities personified the elemental forces of nature and were often identified with the cosmic bodies. Each deity was assigned special functions.

Enlil, centered on the ancient holy city of Nippur, was the god of fate, the creator of cities, and also the inventor of a hoe and plow. The sun god Utu (in Akkadian mythology he is named Shamash), the moon god Nunnar (Akkadian Shin), considered the son of Enlil, the goddess of love and fertility of Inanna (in the Babylonian and Assyrian pantheon – Ishtar) and the god of the ever-living nature of Dumuzi (Babylonian Tammuz), personified the dying and resurrecting vegetation. The god of war, disease and death Nergal was identified with the planet Mars, the supreme Babylonian god Marduk – with the planet Jupiter, Nabu (the son of Marduk), considered the god of wisdom, letters and accounts – with the planet Mercury. The supreme god of Assyria was the tribal god of this country, Ashur.

At first Marduk was one of the most insignificant gods. But his role began to grow with the political exaltation of Babylon, the patron of which he was considered. According to the Babylonian myth of the creation of the world, initially there was only chaos, personified in the form of a monster named Tiamtu. The latter spawned the gods, who, however, behaved very noisily and began to constantly harass their mother. Therefore, Tiamtu decided to destroy all the gods. But the fearless Marduk decided to fight with the monster, having secured the consent of the other gods that, if he won, they would obey him. Marduk managed to defeat Tiamt and kill her. From his body he created the sky with stars, earth, plants, animals and fish. After this, Marduk created a man, mixing clay with the blood of one god, executed for crossing over to the side of Tiamtu. This Babylonians borrowed the myth from the Sumerians with only minor deviations. Naturally, in the corresponding Sumerian myth Marduk, the god of Babylon, was not mentioned at all, and Enlil was the hero-winner of the monster.

In addition to the deities, the inhabitants of Mesopotamia also worshiped the numerous demons of good and sought to propitiate the demons of evil, believed to be the cause of a variety of diseases and death. Against evil spirits they sought to be saved by means of spells and special amulets. All these demons were depicted as half-human, half-animal. Especially popular were the so-called lamas, which people imagined in the form of winged bulls with human heads. Giant dimensions of lamas were guarded by the entrance to the palaces of the Assyrian kings.

The Sumerians and Akkadians believed in the afterlife. In their opinion, it was a kingdom of shadows, where the dead always suffered from hunger and thirst and were forced to eat clay and dust. Therefore, the children of the deceased were obliged to make sacrifices to them.

Scientific knowledge

The peoples of Mesopotamia achieved certain successes in the scientific knowledge of the world. Particularly great were the achievements of Babylonian mathematics, originally arisen from the practical needs of measuring fields, the construction of canals and various buildings. Since ancient times the Babylonians erected multi-storey (usually seven-storey) ziggurat towers. From the upper floors of the ziggurats, scientists from year to year conducted observations of the movements of celestial bodies. Thus, the Babylonians collected and recorded empirical observations of the Sun, the Moon, the arrangement of various planets and constellations.

 In particular, astronomers noted the position of the moon in relation to the planets and gradually established the periodicity of the motion of the heavenly bodies, visible with a simple eye. In the course of such centuries-old observations, Babylonian mathematical astronomy arose. The most creative period of it falls on V in 1 * BC. E., When its level in many respects was not inferior to the level of European astronomy in the era of the early Renaissance. Until now, numerous tables have been preserved with astronomical calculations of distances between stars. One such essay contains information about the main fixed stars and constellations, their sunrises and sunsets, and their comparative positions.

In the V century. BC. E. There were large astronomical schools in Babylon, Borsipp, Sippar and Uruk. At the same time, the activity of the great astronomers Nabourian and Kiden falls. The first of them developed a system for determining the lunar phases, the second set the duration of the solar year, which, according to his calculations, was 365 days 5 hours 41 minutes and 4.16 seconds. Thus, in determining the duration of the solar year, Kiden was mistaken for only 7 minutes and 17 seconds. Since the second quarter of the III century. BC. E. The Babylonian astronomical works began to translate into the ancient Greek language. This allowed the Greek astronomers to join in a short time to the millennial achievements of Babylonian science and shortly after this to achieve brilliant success.

However, with all the achievements of Babylonian astronomy was inextricably linked with astrology – pseudoscience, trying to predict the future of the stars. In addition, many astronomical texts contain indications of causal relationships that seemed to exist between stars and those or other diseases.

A large number of Babylonian medical texts have survived. One can see from them that the doctors of Ancient Mesopotamia were good at treating dislocations and fractures of the extremities. However, about the structure of the human body, the Babylonians had very weak ideas and they failed to achieve notable successes in the treatment of internal diseases.

Back in the III millennium BC. E. The inhabitants of Mesopotamia knew the way to India, and in the I millennium BC. E. – also to Ethiopia and Spain. The cards that have survived to this day reflect the attempts of the Babylonians to systematize and generalize their fairly extensive geographical knowledge. In the middle of II millennium BC. E. Guides were compiled for Mesopotamia and neighboring countries, intended for merchants engaged in domestic and international trade. Maps of the territory of Urartu to Egypt were found in the library of Ashurbanabal. Some maps depict Babylonia and neighboring countries. These maps also contain text with the necessary comments. On one such map, Mesopotamia and the surrounding areas are represented as a round plain washed by the Persian Gulf, and Babylon is located in the very center of this plain.

In Mesopotamia they treated their distant past with keen interest. For example, during the reign of Nabonidus in the VI. BC. E. During the excavations in the foundations of the fallen temple buildings, inscriptions of the III millennium BC were discovered and read. E., And the names of the kings that occur in these texts are correctly placed in chronological order. In one of the temples of the buildings of the city of Ur, archaeologists found a museum room in which objects of various epochs of historical interest were collected. A similar museum was also in the summer royal palace of Nebuchadnezzar II in Babylon.

However, at the end of the first millennium BC. E. The rigid forms of ancient traditions, the centuries-old dominance of religious ideas, the lack of new methods of cognition of nature began to interfere with the development of Babylonian science. In addition, it began to lose its vitality, as the Akkadian (and largely the Sumerian, who was already dead a millennium before death) remained the scientific language, while the population everywhere in Mesopotamia converted to Aramaic as a spoken language .

In the formation and subsequent development of the art of Ancient Mesopotamia, the artistic traditions of the Sumerians played a decisive role. In the IV millennium BC. E., Ie, even before the emergence of the first state formations, the leading place in the Sumerian art was occupied by painted ceramics with a characteristic geometric ornament. Since the beginning of the III millennium BC. E. A great role was acquired by the carving on the stone, which soon led to the rapid development of glistema, which continued until the disappearance of the cuneiform culture at the turn of the 1st century. N. E. Cylindrical seals depicted mythological, religious, domestic and hunting scenes.


In the XXIV-XXII centuries. BC. E., when Mesopotamia turned into a single power, the sculptors began to create idealized portraits of Sargon, the founder of the Akkad dynasty. On the stele of the king of the same dynasty Naram-Sueen, who perpetuates victory over the tribes of the lullubies, he is depicted in a warlike pose at the moment of defeat by the enemy’s spear. There are also twelve captives. One of them is lying on his knees at the feet of the king, the other raises his hands up, making them a pleading gesture, and the third flies into the abyss; The rest of the prisoners are terrified. Over the figure of the king-triumphant are carved two multi-pointed stars, symbolizing the favor of the gods to the victor.

During the III dynasty of Ur in the XXII-XXI centuries. BC. E., when throughout the territory of Mesopotamia was created a single, widely ramified network of bureaucratic apparatus, art monuments also acquire uniformity and stereotypy. These are mostly sculptural portraits of rulers in a pose of majestic tranquility.

In the palace of the kings of Mari, built in the beginning of the II millennium BC. E., archaeologists have found numerous frescoes with images of sacrifices and scenes of palace life. The artists first applied contours to the gypsum base and then applied paints.

The art of Mesopotamia flourished during the existence of the Assyrian state in the 8th-7th centuries. BC. E. This flourishing was reflected primarily in the Assyrian reliefs, with which the palace chambers are lined. The relief depicts military campaigns on enemy territory, the seizure of cities and fortresses in neighboring countries with Assyria. Particularly finely conveyed are the characteristic anthropological and ethnographic features of prisoners of war and tributaries representing different peoples and tribes. Part of the relief also contains hunting scenes of Assyrian kings.

For the reliefs from the palace of Ashurbanabal in Nineveh are characterized by great fineness and detailing in the transfer of suffering to the wounded lions. Artists who created Assyrian palace art, completely departed from the ancient traditions of static images of people and objects, while giving perfection to genre scenes and enriching them with landscape paintings.

Impressive successes the population of Ancient Mesopotamia reached in the construction of palace and temple buildings. They, like private houses, were built of adobe bricks, but unlike the latter, they were built on high platforms. A characteristic construction of this kind was the famous palace of the kings of Mari, built in the beginning of the II millennium BC. E.

The development of technology, craft and commodity-money relations led in the I millennium BC. E. To the emergence of large cities in Mesopotamia, which were the administrative, artisan and cultural centers of the country, and to better housing conditions. The largest city in Mesopotamia was Nineveh, built on the banks of the Tigris, mainly at Sinakhherib (705 – 681 BC) as the capital of Assyria. It occupied 728.7 hectares of land and was located in the form of an elongated triangle. The city was surrounded by a wall that had fifteen gates. In the urban area, apart from palaces and private houses, there was a huge royal park with all kinds of exotic trees and plants, including cotton and rice, the seeds of which were taken from India. Nineveh was supplied with water with the help of a special aqueduct, which began 16 km from the city. In the Assyrian capital, in all probability, there were more than 170,000 people. More people were in Babylon (presumably about 200,000), which was largely rebuilt under Nebuchadnezzar II in VI BC. E. And occupied an area of 404.8 hectares.

In Babylon there were streets with a length of five or more kilometers. The walls of the houses were often two meters thick. Many houses had two floors and were equipped with all necessary amenities, including bathrooms. As a rule, the rooms were located around the central courtyard. The floors were covered with baked bricks, carefully poured with natural asphalt, and the internal walls were covered with lime mortar. Near the houses of the rich people up to 1600 sq.m. Having several households and more than twenty rooms, there were houses of the poor, the area of which did not exceed 30 sq.m.

In Mesopotamia, the production of glass began early: the first recipes of manufacture date back to the 17th century BC. E. However, the Iron Age in this country came relatively late in the 11th century. BC. The wide use of iron for the production of guns and weapons began only a few centuries later.

It should be noted that the achievements of the inhabitants of the Tigris and Euphrates in architecture, art, writing, literature, and the sphere of scientific knowledge played the role of the standard for the entire Middle East in antiquity.

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