The artistic traditions of ancient Iraq, or Mesopotamia, are among the oldest in the world, for it was in this flat, fertile land between the Tigris and Euphrates rivers that the world’s first advanced civilization, that of the Sumerians, arose around 3000 BC. But the long history of Mesopotamian art was marked by change as much as continuity; the region was then as now a center of political conflict, and the Sumerians gave way to a succession of powers both indigenous and foreign, each of which left a cultural imprint.
This volume’s contributing authors, all art historians and archaeologists specializing in the ancient Near East, provide accessible and lively overviews of the successive phases of this eventful artistic saga. The first two chapters cover the classic” age of the great Mesopotamian city-states, from the pre-Sumerian Ubaid culture to Alexander’s conquest of Babylon; the remains of this era range from the fabulous treasures of the royal cemeteries at Ur to the mighty ziggurats of Uruk and Babylon. The third chapter concerns the Greco-Mesopotamian art of the Hellenistic dynasty founded by Alexander’s general Seleucus; the ruins of Seleucia, his capital on the Tigris, cover some 1500 acres. The fourth chapter investigates the artistic contributions of the two Persian dynasties, the Parthian and the Sassanid, that dominated the region from the first century BC to the seventh century AD and established the soaring iwan, or vaulted portico, as one of its typical architectural forms. The final chapter is devoted to the area’s early Islamic period, during which the Abbasid caliphs (eighth to thirteenth century AD) made Iraq the center of the Islamic world, constructing splendid mosques in their capitals of Baghdad and Samarra and elaborating the fantastic arabesques that have never disappeared from Islamic decorative art.
The ancient masterpieces discussed in these chapters are depicted in 217 stunning illustrations, most of them full-color photographs, and appended to the main text is a unique visual guide to Iraq’s principal archaeological sites, which provides a further 247 black-and-white photographs. With its authoritative, up-to-date texts and this wealth of illustrations, The Art and Architecture of Mesopotamia is an essential publication for anyone with an interest in the cultural heritage of mankind.
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Giovanni Curatola, a professor of archaeology and the history of Muslim art at the University of Udine, has curated such exhibitions as Islamic Art in Italy and Shamans and Dervishes of the Steppes. He is presently involved in the effort to preserve Iraq’s archaeological heritage.
Donny George is the former Director General of Antiquities of Iraq.
Former Director General of Antiquities of Iraq
Tracing a profile of the Art produced by the Mesopotamian culture, the culture that evolved in "the land between two rivers", the Tigris and the Euphrates, is an undertaking that is at once both arduous and necessary: arduous because an entire library of work has been dedicated to the subject since the first archaeological digs in the 1800s, which revealed to the world what has been defined as the very real cradle of civilization, which it's governmental, economic, and political organizations all having repercussions on the artistic expression of our peoples; necessary because the latest archaeological finds, new discoveries, and growing awareness in the sector requires that definitions and explanations be continually updated in order to cast new light on the quickly developing context and render the entire picture more detailed and comprehensible. This is especially true in that the successive cultural strata discovered at the Mesopotamian sites are now examined taking into consideration the settlements' continuity over the course of millennia. Therefore, the necessary approach is not only multidisciplinary but also open to an analysis of the historical and artistic phenomena characterizing the settlements: it is an attempt to review in a linear fashion, dictated by historical perspectives, events that in reality did not follow a precise pattern. Various competencies are needed in order to incorporate the immense archeological and artistic patrimony of modern-day Iraq into a single analysis.
All of this is happening at an exceptional time when the nation is extremely fragile (to use a euphemism) at a stage when it's identity (all the identities, plural, that have contributed to defining this ancient civilization), is being challenged by external factors well known to all. The very image of Iraq today is connected more than ever to its past and not just the abundance of its oil resources. In the last few dramatic years, the activities of the National Museum of Iraq, a glorious avant-gard institution dedicated to the conservation, study and the legacy of the past (made tangible thanks to an immense heritage boasting over half a million finds, many of which are absolute and unique artistic masterpieces), have come to the attention of the word due to the painful events that have inflicted a serious wound on the entire Iraqi population. Both national and international reaction has been consistent with the principal that such a would and such devastation has not been inflicted merely on a distant people, but that this intolerable affront has affected all humanity in one of its highest expressions. The help and support given to the State Board of Antiquities and Heritage and to the museum—its direct emanation—by various parties and in different ways, and the growing concern of the excessive political authorities in charge of the country toward these institutions, treating them with sensitivity and care, can only be viewed with deeply felt sympathy and constitute a stimulus for the rapid deliverance and rehabilitation of the museum as the main custodian of the historical memory of all, not just the Iraqi population. This work, divided into three main sections, is thus heading in the right direction, and I feel a personal pleasure in contributing to its creations with these introductory pages. I mentioned three main sections: that which we can define as the "classical" antiquity of royal Mesopotamia with its great and celebrated empires, followed by the extraordinary epoch of Hellenism, the prelude of the Parthian and Sasanian ages, and finishing with the Islamic period, generally somewhat absent and neglected, but fundamental to the formation of the Muslim culture and civilization that we know today. Briefly, the depiction of Iraq's significance over the millennia as a center of development and spread of culture is certainly reinforced here.
Jean-Daniel Forest and Nathalie Gallois were given the not easy task of summarizing in just a few pages the evolution in all its complexity Mesopotamian age over a vast period of time. The periodization is spot on though still complex and relative: the first chapter begins with its origins and continues to the end of the third millennium BC, while the second chapter deals with the phase from the beginning of the second millennium BC until the fall of Babylon. The importance of the geographical surroundings and canal works are the backdrop against which historical events stand out, starting from the longevity of the Ubaid culture (fifth millennium BC) with its extraordinary ceramics. Uruk (modern Warka), with its large built-up areas, was a city-state ( with an already well-structured state culture) led by a by a monarch, and it underwent three phases of development. The architecture, built of unbaked brick, is extremely important, and to this Forest and Gallois dedicate ample space. However, the buildings are not necessarily connected to a religious function; in some cases they are multi-functional: palace, temple, living quarters, official building. The applied arts of this period are opulent. The so-called "Lady of Uruk" —recently restored by conservation lab technicians, who discovered traces of polychrome—is an artistic masterpiece. The cylinder seals engraved with high or low reliefs also make up a sizeable corpus, and "allegorical realism" is a good definition given to an important iconographical analysis of their themes of power, strength, and sovereignty. The interpretation of the material comes in the light of knowledge about Neolithic production: one illuminates the other. Under discussion are the most outstanding sites of the Early Dynastic period revealed so far, such as Eridu, Kish and Tell Agrab, but also Mari. It is possible to speak of Sumero-Akkad that, also in iconographic terms, is correctly placed in relation to the Uruk one, of which it could be considered the heir. A detailed analysis of the role of sovereign is given, and Akkadian power is traced with clarity, even along more general lines. A few lines are dedicated to Lagash and the sovereign of Gudea, an obligatory detour thanks to the excavations carried out in Tello (ancient Girsu). In particular, the authors concentrate on—and they are right to do so—the period known as UR III, probably the height of Sumerian culture. Mention is also made of the centralized structure of the empire and of the literary epic of Gilgamesh, a vital source of information.
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