Mesopotamia, long known as the cradle of civilization, the birth place of writing, occupies a special place in the history of man. But how do we know it was the birthplace? What did this first civilization look like and why is this place so special? The answer can be found in temple art where pictorial representations are mixed with a simple early language to tell us how that civilization worked, how it compared with modern times and how it became the forerunner or prototype for civilizations yet to come.
Mesopotamia, approximately where modern Iraq is located, is not a country but a region. The word means “between two rivers”, defining a geographical region where water was the key to survival. The geographic area known as Mesopotamia was divided into four main states. Those states, Assyria to the north, Babylonia to the west, Akkad to the East and Sumer to the South all took turns holding political sway in the entire region. To be more accurate “the cradle of civilization” was Sumer. The progress established by the Sumerians was carried on over the following thousand years by various regional powers, including the Assyrians and Babylonians. The hanging garden of Babylon became one of the wonders of the Ancient world. Writing was first to appear in the time of 3500-3000 BC. This is crucial to our understanding because the people of Sumer, known as Sumerians, displayed their writing proficiency on many things, including temple wall sculptures, statues and clay seals used to commemorate people and events. That one thing has been significant in furthering our understanding. The simple pictographic style of writing was later replaced by Cuneiform, another gift of the Sumerians.
Most of the artwork comes from the mighty temples, known as Ziggurats, built by the Kings of that era. A few of the most famous Ziggurats are Eredu, Uruk, Nippur and The Great Ziggurat of Ur. They give testament to an advanced culture for its time, enabled by the change from a hunter/gatherer lifestyle to farming, livestock herding, building and everything else that follows in the wake of settlement.
Following are just a few examples of how art lets us see into their lives:
Obviously they had writing. Writing can be found on walls, seals, statues and monuments.
They had a leader, a King, shown and described in wall sculptures, statues and clay seals. The King had a Queen, proven to exist by archaeologists. They demonstrate civil union and marriage. They had Governors assigned by, and reporting to, the King. This demonstrates civil structure. I.e. government. They had a military arm demonstrating national defense (or offense). They had laws. King Ur-Nammu is known to have instituted laws against offences we would recognize as offences today (Like the Ten Commandments). They had penalties for breaking the law. In other words, they had organization and structure necessary for a large group of people to function in close proximity, like a major city.
Many artifacts are made of copper and bronze demonstrating leading edge technology for their time. Hunting and military scenes clearly show chariots demonstrating the wheel in action. They had the wheel. Musical instruments, wall sculptures, pottery, metal working and language demonstrate the arts. They clearly had a skilled class of Artists, Scribes and Musicians. They had temples demonstrating religion. They had Mathematics and Astronomy. Clearly this was not a hunter/gatherer group scratching around for survival. People now had aspirations toward higher learning and expression.
They had farms and crops. They plowed the fields and grew Barley. Not only that, they had a system for allocating crops to those needing the food. They had a large community acting in unison for the common good. They had irrigation for the fields drawing water from the Tigris and Euphrates. In other words, they had an organized farm system to supply food to the population. They had cities and towns created by people who had stopped being nomads. A constant food supply is necessary for this society to take root.
Mesopotamian Art has shown us a great deal. You could recognize many of the elements depicted on the temple walls as describing where you live today. You may not have your own military wing but you do have a town/city, a constant food supply, a church, a local government, laws, law enforcement, punishment, the arts, music, writing, daily work, a home, you drive to work in your chariot etc. Yes, Mesopotamia was the cradle of civilization and its story can be seen in its Art.
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