The city-state of Assur on the upper course of the
Tigris owed its rise to power to a strange chain of events. During the
earlier halt of the second millennium B.C., Asia Minor had been invaded
from the east by people of Indo-European language. One group, the
Mitannians, created an independent kingdom in Syria and northern
Mesopotamia, including Assur, while another, the Hittites, established
themselves farther north on the rocky plateau of Anatolia. Their
capital, near the present-day Turkish village of Bogazkoy, was protected by
impressive fortifications built of large, roughly cut stones. Flanking
the gates were lions or other guardian figures protruding from the
enormous blocks that formed the jambs of the doorway (fig.
1360 B.C., the Hittites
attacked the Mitannians, who were allies of the Egyptians. But the
latter, because of the internal crisis provoked by the religious reforms
of Akhenaten ,
could send no effective aid. Consequently, the
Mitannians were defeated and Assur regained its independence. Under a
series of able rulers, the Assyrian domain gradually expanded until it
embraced not only Mesopotamia proper but the surrounding regions as
well. At the height of its power, from about 1000
B.C., the Assyrian empire stretched from the Sinai
peninsula to Armenia. Even Lower Egypt was successfully invaded in
Lion Gate, Bogazkoy, Anatolia, Turkey,
ñ. 1400 B.C.
Palaces and Their Decoration
The Assyrians, it has been said, were to the Sumerians
what the Romans were to the Greeks. Assyrian civilization drew on the
achievements of the south but reinterpreted them to fit its own distinct
character. Thus the temples and ziggurats they built were adapted from
Sumerian models, while the palaces of Assyrian kings grew to
unprecedented size and magnificence.
Citadel of Sargon II, Dur Sharrukin (Khorsabad), Iraq. 742-706 B.C.
(reconstruction by Charles Altman)
DUR SHARRUKIN. 705
B.C.) at Dur Sharrukin (the modern Khorsabad),
dating from the second half of the eighth century B.C., has been
explored sufficiently to permit a reconstruction (fig.
102). It was surrounded by a
citadel with turreted walls that shut it off from the rest of the town.
Figure 103 shows one of
the two gates of the citadel in the process of excavation. Although the
Assyrians, like the Sumerians, built in brick, they liked to line
gateways and the lower walls of important interiors with great slabs of
stone (which were less difficult to procure in northern Mesopotamia).
These slabs were either decorated with low reliefs or, as in our case,
elaborated into guardian demons that are an odd combination of relief
and sculpture in the round. They must have been inspired by Hittite
examples such as the Lion Gate at Bogazkoy (fig.
Awesome in size and appearance, the gates were meant to impress the
visitor with the power and majesty of the king.
One of these, that of Sargon II (died
of the Citadel of Sargon II (during excavation)
Inside the palace, the same impression was reinforced
by long series of reliefs illustrating the conquests of the royal
armies. Every campaign is described in detail, with inscriptions
supplying further data. The Assyrian forces, relentlessly efficient,
always seem to be on the march, meeting the enemy at every frontier of
the overextended empire, destroying his strong points and carrying away
booty and prisoners. There is neither drama nor heroism in these scenes—the
outcome of the battle is never in doubt—and
they are often depressingly repetitious. Yet, as the earliest
large-scale efforts at narrative in the history of art, they represent
an achievement of great importance. To describe the progress of specific
events in time and space had been outside the scope of both Egyptian and
Sumerian art; even the scene on the stele of Naram-Sin is symbolic
rather than historic. The Assyrian artist thus had to develop an
entirely new set of devices in order to cope with the requirements of
If the artist's results can hardly be called
beautiful, they achieve their main purpose: to be clearly readable. This
is certainly true of our example (fig.
the Palace of Ashurbanipal (died 626?
B.C.), at Nineveh (now Kuyunjik),
which shows the sack of the Elamite city of Hamanu in the main register.
Assyrian soldiers with pickaxes and crowbars are demolishing the
fortifications (notice the falling timbers and bricks in midair) after
they have set fire to the town itself. Still others are marching away
from it, down a wooded hill, laden with booty.
The latter group poses a
particularly interesting problem in representation, for the road on
which they walk widens visibly as it approaches the foreground, as if
the artist had meant to render it in perspective. Yet the same road also
serves as a curved band that frames the marchers. This may seem an odd
mixture of modes, but it is an effective device for linking foreground
and background. Below the main scene, we observe the soldiers at camp,
relaxing with food and drink, while one of them, at far right, stands
The Sack of the City ofHamanu by Ashurkcwipal,
from the Palace of Ashurbanipal, Nineveh (Kuyunjikl,
B.C. Limestone, 36
British Museum, London
the Palace of Ashurnasirpal I (died 860?
B.C.) at Nimrud (Calah), the lion attacking the royal
chariot from the rear is clearly the hero of the scene.
The mass of descriptive detail in the
reliefs of military campaigns often leaves little room for the personal
glorification of the king. This purpose is served more directly by
another recurrent subject, the royal lion hunts. These were more in the
nature of ceremonial combats than actual hunts: the animals for the king
to kill were released from cages into a square formed by troops with
shields. (Presumably, at a much earlier time, the hunting of lions in
the field had been an important duty of Mesopotamian rulers as the
"shepherds" of the communal flocks.) Here the Assyrian relief sculptor
rises to his greatest heights. In figure
from the Palace of Ashumasirpal II, Nimrud (Calah),
Iraq, ñ. 850 B.C.
Limestone, 3'3" x 8'4" (1
British Museum, London
strength and courage, the wounded animal seems to embody all the
dramatic emotion that we miss in the pictorial accounts of war. The
dying lion on the right is equally impressive in its agony. How
differently the Egyptian artist (see fig.
had interpreted the same composition! We need
only compare the horses: the Assyrian ones are less graceful but very
much more energetic and alive as they flee from the attacking lion,
their ears lolded back in fear. The lion hunt reliefs from Nineveh,
about two centuries later than those of Nimrud, are the finest of all.
Despite the shallowness of the actual carving, the bodies have a greater
sense of weight and volume because of the subtle gradations of the
surface. Images such as the dying lioness (fig.
106) have an unforgettable
Dying Lioness, from Nineveh (Kuyunjik), Iraq, ñ. 650
Limestone, height of figure 13
British Museum, London
The Assyrian empire came to an end in
B.C. when Nineveh fell before the combined onslaught of
Medes and Scythians from the east. At that time the commander of the
Assyrian army in southern Mesopotamia made himself king of Babylon.
Under him and his successors the ancient city had a final brief
flowering between 612 and
539 B.C., before it was
conquered by the Persians. The best known of these Neo-Babylonian rulers
was Nebuchadnezzar (died 562
B.C.), the builder of the
Tower of Babel. That famous structure represented only one part of a
very large architectural complex comparable to the Citadel of Sargon II
at Dur Sharrukin.
Whereas the Assyrians had used carved stone slabs, the
Neo-Babylonians (who were farther removed from the sources of such
slabs) substituted baked and glazed brick. This technique, too, had been
developed in Assyria, but now it was used on a far larger scale, both
for surface ornament and for architectural reliefs. Its distinctive
effect becomes evident if we compare the gate of Sargon's citadel (fig.
with the Ishtar Gate of Nebuchadnezzar's sacred
precinct in Babylon, which has been rebuilt from the thousands of
individual glazed bricks that covered its surface (fig.
107). The stately procession of
bulls, dragons, and other animals of molded brick within a framework of
vividly colored ornamental bands has a grace and gaiety far removed from
the ponderous guardian monsters of the Assyrians. Here, for the last
time, we sense again that special genius of ancient Mesopotamian art for
the portrayal of animals which we noted in early dynastic times.