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Heilbrunn Timeline of Art History Essays

Art of the First Cities in the Third Millennium B.C.

The roots of our own urban civilization lie in the remarkable developments that took place in the third millennium B.C. This was a time of astonishing creativity as city-states and empires emerged in a vast area stretching from the Mediterranean to the Indus Valley. Although remote in time and place, this urban revolution, first represented by the formation of cities in southern Mesopotamia (ancient Iraq), must be looked upon as one of humanity’s defining moments. These complex centers of civilization, such as the city of Uruk, which arose toward the end of the fourth millennium B.C. in the fertile plains bordered by the Tigris and Euphrates rivers, stimulated great inventions, such as writing, and witnessed a flowering of artistic expression. Much of this art demonstrated devotion to the gods and celebrated the power of kings. The growth of cities and powerful ruling families led to a demand for luxury items. These were fashioned from materials obtained largely from abroad and were destined for temples and tombs such as the famous Royal Graves at Ur (ca. 2500 B.C.). Partly as a result of these advances in Mesopotamia, other major civilizations developed along the great maritime and land routes that connected them to one another.

During the third millennium B.C., diverse populations inhabited the vast areas stretching from the Mediterranean Sea to the Indus River and from Central Asia to the Gulf. Among the most intriguing of these peoples are those who dwelt in the cities and countryside of Sumer (southern Mesopotamia). In their own language, Sumerian, they call themselves sag giga, or “black-headed ones.” There were also Semitic-speaking peoples in Mesopotamia. With the foundation of the Akkadian dynasty by Sargon of Akkad (r. ca. 2340–2285 B.C.), they established a political center in southern Mesopotamia. The Akkadian kings created the world’s first empire, which at the height of its power united an area that included not only Mesopotamia but also parts of western Syria and Anatolia, and Iran. One undeciphered language is Harappan, named after the major Indus Valley city of Harappa. Unlike the cuneiform (wedgelike) script adopted for Sumerian and Akkadian, which was largely written on clay, the Harappan, or Indus, script is composed of signs familiar from short inscriptions above animal representations on numerous Harappan stone seals.

The basic characteristics of the artistic style that came to define the art of the Near East were already established by the third millennium B.C. in Mesopotamia. One of the primary aims of Mesopotamian art was to capture the relationship between the terrestrial and divine realms.

Styles and iconography were transmitted to sites such as Mari and Ebla in northern Syria as well as to Iran and as far as Arabia. In contrast to the arts of Mesopotamia, those of Egypt glorified the king as the embodiment of divine power, and it remains difficult to assess what, if any, contribution Egyptian art made to Mesopotamian artistic style. However, there were links with the cultures of the Mediterranean littoral: sites such as Troy, where the fabled “Treasure of Priam” was uncovered by Heinrich Schliemann, reflect artistic connections that extended through central Anatolia and northern Syria. In the east, the distant Indus Valley region also interacted with the Near East in the third millennium B.C., maintaining merchant enclaves in Central Asia and perhaps in Mesopotamia itself. Yet this civilization was also quite different from that of Mesopotamia. There is no evidence of monumental temples and palaces or large-scale sculpture in the Harappan world. Rather, the focus seems to have been on private housing, public works, and urban infrastructure, with an emphasis on a sanitary and abundant water supply. In the intervening regions of eastern Iran and western Central Asia, the arts reflect a vast and diversified tapestry of peoples and languages organized in independent polities but culturally unified through trade.

Thus the art of the third millennium B.C. reflects not only the extraordinary developments in the cities of the Near Eastern heartland but also their interaction with contemporary civilizations to the east and west. This was a seminal period in the history of humanity, and by exploring it we gain perspectives not only about the major artistic and cultural achievements of ancient Mesopotamia but also about the enduring legacy of the earliest of urban civilizations.