Dawn of the Classical Age: The Globalization of the Early Iron Age
“Assyria to Iberia” at the Metropolitan Museum of Art
Recently New York’s Metropolitan Museum of Art opened another important exhibition displaying objects gathered from international collections, selected and arranged to show the cultural interactions of a large geographical area at a critical time in human history. Assyria to Iberia at the Dawn of the Classical Age, which runs to January 4, 2015, assembles art from Mesopotamia, the Levant, Egypt, Anatolia, Greece, Crete, Cyprus and Mediterranean outposts along North Africa, Italy and Iberia at the beginning of the Iron Age.
The heart of the time period covered is 900-600 B.C.E. when iron technology became pretty much universal, although the events of the previous three centuries, the cultures that made them the age of heroes to later generations and how their political and commercial hegemony was brought down ushering in a world that would germinate Western Civilization are essential to the story. This first four centuries of the first millennium B.C.E was an age of great cultural and intellectual (not to mention artistic) importance to Western Civilization. It was a time when extensive cultural interchange took place from Iran to the Strait of Gibraltar. Spurred by those two major spurs of human innovation—commerce and conquest—the interconnected societies developed a global style where theme, techniques, visions and symbols were shared among different societies, spurring new cultural expression. The museum show, of course, emphasizes the visual arts and physical culture of the people, but it was also a time of great literary importance, so much so that much of what was written is still read and discussed today.
In Canaan, the principal part of the classical Hebrew canon was finalized: the editors of the Torah were compiling and editing various myths of Mesopotamia, Canaan and Egypt to fashion the origin legends of the Hebrews, while others were trying to harmonize the monarchist and antimonarchist stories of the early states of Israel and Judah to come to some sort of foundation story from which arguments of legitimacy and authority would thereafter be framed. To the west in the Aegean sphere, Homer and Hesiod essentially invented Western literature with works that not only inspired generations up to our own time, but also provided the measure by which imaginative literature would be judged. The literary activities of the Levant and Greece harkened back to an earlier time. Hesiod saw the generation of the Late Bronze Age as peopled with ferocious heroes:
“They loved the lamentable works of Ares and deeds of violence; they ate no bread, but were hard of heart like adamant, fearful men. Great was their strength and unconquerable the arms which grew from their shoulders on their strong limbs. Their armor was of bronze, and their houses of bronze, and of bronze were their implements: there was no black iron. These were destroyed by their own hands and passed to the dank house of chill Hades, and left no name: terrible though they were, black Death seized them, and they left the bright light of the sun.” (Hesiod, Works and Days 145-55; Loeb ed.)
Hesiod was quite explicit that his current time, the Iron Age, was degenerate. His Hebrew contemporaries implicitly agreed.
In the East the Assyrian kings would not have conceded that the Mediterranean race of the Bronze Age loved deeds of violence more than they. They commissioned art to show that now was the most valiant of times and they the most ferocious of kings, but to do so even they invoked ancient customs and standards to measure their own deeds. Ashurbanipal (#2), perhaps the king most certain of his place in history, collected one of the largest libraries of the ancient world in his palace at Nineveh. Thousands of baked clay tablets recorded his correspondence and military campaigns. But the library also preserved the history of the Akkadian people. Ashurbanipal collected not only king lists but the very best of ancient literature, including Gilgamesh, the creation epic and flood story, and the story of Adapa. Eastern tradition (probably untrue) has it that Alexander the Great saw his library and determined to create one of his own. He did not live to do so, but Ptolemy I fulfilled his dream at Alexandria. But that would be several centuries in the future.
However much literary men preferred the Bronze Age which had been swept away, it was the during the Iron Age that global interconnections were formed that would cross-fertilize new societies and provide the soil from which the Classical Period of Western Civilization would spring. The Met exhibition strikingly shows how intimately interconnected the new Iron Age world order was—a world order which basically survived until it would be rooted up and replaced with a Hellenistic one by Alexander himself.
Social and Economic Reorganization on Land and Sea
During the late Bronze Age, say around 1200 B.C.E., there were three big powers on the Eastern Mediterranean: The Mycenaeans were based in mainland Greece, but had settlements on the Palestine coast as well as the islands of the Aegean and Mediterranean. They also had trading partners in Anatolia, Palestine and Egypt. In Asia, the Hittites had possession of all of Anatolia and controlled Syria and the western Levant down to where Egypt controlled from the South. The Hittites had once, 400 or so years before, been the major power in the Middle East having even sacked Babylon ca. 1590 B.C.E. The kingdom was weakened by the expenditures of that campaign, and the Hittites didn’t even rule over Babylon, instead that fell to the Kassite, a mysterious people who were neither Semitic nor Indo-European and may have been the Hittites’ ally or their rival. The strife within the Hatti kingdom that followed tempted Egypt into the Hittites’ sphere of influence, and in 1274 B.C.E. the Egyptian forces stumbled into a Hittite chariot ambush at Qadesh in western Syria. The Egyptians rallied from near disaster and fought to a draw before withdrawing to Egypt. A decade later the two powers agreed to a détente, dividing their respective spheres of influence approximately at Qadesh (see Map 2, below).
Beginning about 1200 B.C.E. a great dark age descended on the region which obscures our understanding of the period. But by 1000 B.C.E. the Mycenaean Palace States were destroyed, the Hittite Kingdom in Anatolia collapsed and the Twentieth Dynasty in Egypt ended and with it the New Kingdom itself. These developments seem all to be related to waves of new peoples entering the region. In the case of the Mycenaeans the people Homer called Achaeans may have been the invaders that overthrew them. As Homer describes them, they seem to have been a collection of warlords and their vassals, who during this same time captured or at least sacked Ilion (Troy). For their part, the Hittites were defeated by the Phrygians from the north, possibly partly owing to the frontier’s defenselessness without Ilion’s protection. The Egyptians also faced new invaders. Ramesees III recorded three major battles with a set of mercenaries or invaders who he called the “People of the Sea.” The inscription at Medinet Habu (Thebes) says that these people despoiled the coast of Palestine, but his Egyptian army defeated them each time they met and captured many prisoners. These peoples represented a confederation of migrating groups, from Anatolia, the Aegean or even Europe. Among the peoples were the Philistines who eventually settled in Palestine (which gets its name from this people) and eventually assimilated the customs and religious practices of the indigenous Canaanites.
What made the three great powers so susceptible to attack by hitherto unknown invaders is a mystery. But the Hittites came to power and dominated the Near East when they had a near monopoly on iron smelting. At the end of the Bronze Age that technology was widely disseminated and so the technological advantage of the established powers was neutralized. Another hint is provided by the artifacts. The small (11.8 x 6 cm.) ivory plaque at the head of this post shows a Mycenaean soldier (#1). Aside from the fairly unwieldy 8-shaped shield, he has no other armor other than his helmet. The helmet, however, is hardly practical. According to a description in Homer (Iliad X:260-265; Loeb ed.) and designs on pottery and other plaques, the helmet is made up of rows of boars’ teeth (arranged in rows with alternating curves). The helmet in the plaque may also show cheek guards (of brass or leather). But given the helmet required the tusks of scores of boars, it must have been quite expensive to produce and therefore only available to the wealthiest of warriors. Armies led by ostentatious war lords probably start off at a disadvantage when fighting savage invaders.
In the east the close of the Bronze Age saw the end of the 500-year rule of Babylonia by the Kassites. The kingdom had lost much territory to Assyria, which even twice sacked Babylon itself and rendered the kingdom a vassal. Around 1200 B.C.E. during internal fighting within Assyria, Babylonia was able to recover all but the northern parts of its kingdom. The Late Bronze Age Collapse which brought down the Mediterranean powers had no effect on Mesopotamia, but by 1155 B.C.E. the Kassite Dynasty was overthrown by a combination of Assyrian invaders from the north and Elamite invaders from the east. A native Semitic regime rose up and drove the Elamites out of southern Babylonia, but could not expel Assyria from the north. Nevertheless, this dynasty lasted 200 years and then succumbed to more Kassite and Elamite invasions. It took an Assyrian invasion in 911 B.C.E. to drive out the non-Semitic peoples, and then Assyria established its rule over Babylonia for the next three centuries.
Assyria itself, the land of the winged bull Ashur, lay above the flood plains of Babylonia in the hills between the Tigris and Euphrates, but they congregated mostly on the eastern part along the main branch of the Tigris. It was physically hemmed in at its east and north by mountains (the Zagros Mountains, the Armenian Upland and the Anatolian Plateau). To its west it faced the Aramaeans, who constantly harassed its trade to the Mediterranean and occasionally threatened its territory. The Aramaeans occupied most of Syria and much of the Levant, but the never united into one state. When the Hittite Empire collapsed, the Hittites moved into Syria and mingled with the Aramaean population. In the middle of the Second Millennium B.C.E. Assyria moved into the steppes to its northwest with its fertile farmlands, north of the bulk of Aramaeans and east of the Hittites. By providing fair administration of the land, the Assyrians won the allegiance of some Aramaeans living there who assimilated. Briefly Assyria also conquered Syria all the way to the Mediterranean, but was pushed back. Assyria also aggressively pushed south into Babylonia. Since Elam was also seeking the same territory, the two powers clashed, but Assyria defeated the Elamites and subdued Babylonia. Although Assyria did not succumb to the Late Bronze Age Collapse, from 1200 B.E.C. for about 270 years Assyria was subject to rivalries for the throne and instability was the rule. At least two kings were deposed by relatives, something unheard of among Assyrians. Surrounding peoples took advantage of the unrest and chipped away at Assyrian territory. Assyria shrank within its Mesopotamian borders until the reign of Ashur Dan II, which began in 935 B.C.E. This king reinvigorated the administration and began repelling the Aramaeans and other tribal peoples who had encroached on Assyrian territory and by the end of his reign (912 B.C.E.) Ashur Dan II had restored Assyria to its natural boundaries.
Thus, at the beginning of the 9th Century B.C.E. the world of the Mediterranean was no longer dominated by major powers and because those powers had dominated it, the Mediterranean maritime trade system had broken down. There was a political vacuum from Syria to Greece and throughout the Levant. And both empire and commerce abhor a vacuum. It would be Assyria that would attempt the empire and the Phoenicians who would tend to global commerce. The result was a globalization that would put its mark on modern Western Civilization from its beginning.
The Assyrian Empire and Imperial Art
The son of Ashur Dan II, Adad-nirari II, set Assyrian on a course of conquest that would last nearly three centuries. This new phase of Assyrian history has been named Neo-Assyria and it represents more than a rebirth of Ashur, because Assyria had never seen anything like it. Perhaps nowhere had such a thing existed. For Assyria developed into a single, unified, efficient military empire which acquired lands and disposed of peoples in nearly annual campaigns. The army became the first fully modern military: Its infantry was made up of conscripts and was divided into both light and armored spearmen, archers and slingers. The Assyrians developed cavalry (not simply ancient chariot riders), which was armored, much like the later Roman mailed cavalry. Assyria designed the world’s first siege engines, capable of battering down a city’s fortification. Organization and military intelligence was celebrated in cuneiform texts. The entire apparatus, which eventually brought down the entire known world (or at least that part that could be reached by land), must have consumed vast resources both in personnel and in materiel. Indeed, the battle monuments and royal inscriptions of the later kings suggest that the entire society was on total war footing all the time. The economy of the Empire probably derived in very substantial part from tribute and war booty. The expenditure and manpower needs for the continuous war probably required all the techniques of military dictatorships. The state became so all-encompassing that a new artistic style became uniform in the empire, one that put the King at the head, glorified Ashur above all, and celebrated uniformity, massed action and submission.
The art of late Assyria, however, arose after total war became the defining feature of the empire. During the reign of Adad-nirari II, the army quieted the frontiers, took a large chunk of Babylonian territory and engaged and defeated Aramaeans in two battles to the west. Tukulti-Ninurta II, the son of Adad-nirari II, continued his father’s campaign against the Aramaeans. His victory steles, however, had none of the characteristics of later (or even earlier) Assyrian art. The stele (#8, above left) celebrating the victory at Laqû, a site on the west of the Euphrates, is a work of Aramaean-Hittite art. The stele shows the West-Semitic god Adad (Hadad) striking Lakû, symbolized as a serpent. The god’s face is profiled with features characteristically West-Semitic. Compare the victory stele with the orthostat of the six-winged goddess from the Met exhibit, to the right (#9). Note that both figures have horns from their foreheads, and the goddess is even holding serpents. In the victory stele, Adad wears a Hittite helmet and his hair rolled up with one knee-length band behind in Hittite manner.
It was Tukulti-Ninurta’s son, Ashurnasirpal II, who would not only turn the army into an unrelenting machine for imperial expansion but also stimulate the flowering of Assyrian imperial art. That art was bold, stylized and symbolic, and designed for a very specific political purpose—to show that the god of Assyria had selected the emperor to prevent chaos on earth by use of his might, which supported his irresistible authority. Art was to celebrate the prowess of the Assyrian king, shown by his military victories, the large and relentless army under his command, his unswerving fury against rebels, and the wealth he commanded from his vassals, all of which proved in what favor Ashur held him. As bold as the new art was, however, it was a pale reflection of the brazenness and audacity Ashurnasirpal would display in his military campaigns. The art that was invented under Ashurnasirpal II would be the official court art of Assyria (and because the court ruled over everything and dominated all economic life, it was essentially the only art of Assyria). But before Ashurnasirpal turned his eyes to art, he turned his attention to military matters.
Evidently the frontier tribes learned of Tukulti-Ninurta’s death and considered the time ripe to test the empire’s control. (Succession disputes had preoccupied Assyria in the past.) Ashurnasirpal mobilized the army for his first campaign which he launched into the eastern mountains. The tribal fighters fled into the mountains, but Ashurnasirpal’s forces pursued them, even though the mountain passes were not prepared for his chariots or infantry. His first “annal” inscription (in the Ninurta temple in Nimrud) tells how he descended on the Tumme people: “With their blood I dyed the mountain red like red wool, [and] the rest of them the ravines [and] torrents of the mountain swallowed. I razed, destroyed, [and] burnt their cities.” This was just a foretaste of his cruelty.
The Assyrian army then turned north to the land of Ḫabḫu (possibly in the foothills of Armenia). At Nishtun the defenders escaped into the mountains. But “my warriors flew like birds. I felled 260 of their combat troops with the sword. I cut off their heads and formed [therewith] a pile.” When the remainder saw the army razing their settlements, they came down and sought terms. “I imposed upon them tribute, tax, and corvée. Būbu, son of Babua, son of the city ruler of the city Nishtun, I flayed in the city Arbail [and[ draped his skin over the wall.” He then took his army westward where he brought more cities into the Assyrian orbit. On encountering a city that rebelled against Assyrian rule, he besieged it. When it inevitably fell “I felled with the sword 800 of their combat troops, I burnt 3,000 captives from them. I did not leave one of them alive as a hostage. I captured alive Hulāiia their city ruler. I made a pile of their corpses. I burnt their adolescent boys [and] girls, I flayed Hulāiia their city ruler [and] draped his skin over the wall of the city Damdammusa. I razed, destroyed, [and] burnt the city.” And so he went burning and sacking cities, burning the civilians and skinning the leaders. As the campaign continued even these atrocities failed to slate his blood lust. When he reached the city of Tela, he resorted to mutilations, probably because the siege was more difficult. But the city eventually succumbed:
“I felled 3,000 of their fighting men with the sword. I carried off prisoners, possessions, oxen, [and] cattle from them. I burnt many captives from them. I captured many troops alive: from some I cut off their arms [and] hands; from others I cut off their noses, ears, [and] extremities. I gouged out the eyes of many troops. I made one pile of the living [and] one of heads. I hung their heads on trees around the city, I burnt their adolescent boys [and] girls. I razed, destroyed, burnt, [and] consumed the city.”
The known royal inscriptions of Ashurnasirpal record at least one or more campaigns in each of sixteen years. The inscriptions celebrate atrocities and looting against those who resisted and tributes and taxes imposed on those who submitted. (The oppressiveness of the taxes he imposed is suggested by the fact that despite the terror that Ashurnasirpal inspired, some resisted.) He also resettled troublesome populations and took large numbers to use as conscript laborers. But the inscriptions mostly celebrate Ashurnasirpal himself:
“I am king, I am lord, I am praiseworthy, I am exalted, I am important, I am magnificent, I am foremost, I am a hero, I am a warrior, I am a lion, and I am virile; Ashurnasirpal, strong king, king of Assyria, designate of the god Sîn, favourite of the god Anu, loved one of the god Adad [who is] almighty among the gods, I, the merciless weapon which lays low lands hostile to him, I, the king, capable in battle, vanquisher of cities and highlands, foremost in battle, king of the four quarters, the one who defeats his enemies, the king who disintegrates all his enemies, king of the totality of the [four] quarters including all their princes, the king who forces to bow down those not submissive to him, the one who rules all peoples …”
Those unfamiliar with the Ancient Near East will be surprised to discover that Ashurnasirpal sincerely believed that his brutality and arrogance was a form of humble obeisance to his gods. The gods rewarded his devotion by granting him the power, and he, in effect, was carrying out their rule on earth as their human agent. And of course Iron Age Middle Eastern gods were nothing if not vengeful and blood-thirsty. (Yahweh, for example, told King Saul to kill all the Amelekites, “man, woman, infant and suckling” as well as their livestock. Saul slaughtered all but one, the King, and saved the best livestock. But this disobedience, according to Samuel, made Yahweh regret setting Saul up as king. For saving this one person, Samuel advised Saul that Yahweh would deprive him of his kingdom. Samuel, Yahweh’s prophet, then killed the Amelekite king himself! See 1 Samuel 15.) And so it is not surprising that at home Ashurnasirpal devoted himself to building monuments and making offerings to the gods.
During his first regnal year, he rebuilt temples and added to the collection of temples in Ashur. Ashur had been the seat of Assyrian royal government since 2500 B.C.E. It is difficult to comprehend how long that city acted as the capital of Assyria. To make the length of time comprehensible, consider: 1617 years ago, Augustine first began to write his Confessions, the Council of Carthage had just decided which books belonged in the Christian Bible, and Jerome had not translated it yet. But despite a tradition this long, which must have had profound religious and political significance to the courtiers and priests, in the sixth year of his reign, Ashurnasirpal decided to move the capital to Kalhu, an Assyrian city built in the mid 13th Century B.C.E. (and called Nimrud by later Arabs and most archaeologists today, but Calah (כָּלַח) in Genesis 10:11-12). The location was hilly and good only for sheep-raising. It had two advantages to him, however. It was the city of Ninurta, his father’s name-sake (and guardian deity?) and it was located near ample deposits of gypsum alabaster. He would put the latter to good use for reliefs in his new and lavishly-planned palace, because it was a mineral that could be rendered in fine detail without fine steel tools.
Ashurnasirpal used the labor of thousands of conscripted Aramaeans to construct a citadel in the southwest corner of Nimrud and separately walled it (see #13, above). In the northwest corner of that citadel an elaborate palace was built (schemata in ##14 & 15, above). The design of the palace recalled the traditional royal architecture of the Middle Assyrian period with a central courtyard surrounded by rectangular rooms of various sorts. But Ashurnasirpal enlarged and transformed the palace. His new palace had at least two large courtyards (Courtyard Y in #15 and whatever courts were washed out by the rain wadi in the north and west of the palace (see ##13 & 14)). In addition there was a smaller court (AJ in #14) and possibly a similar one to the east (and possibly a similar arrangement in the washed out northern part of the complex). The small court AJ seems to be in the center of smaller domestic and residential rooms. All of the other courts are surrounded by rectangular rooms at least two rows deep. The two major parts of the palace are separated in the middle by a long narrow room (it is in fact the longest room in the palace), which served as the throne room (Room B in both ##14 & 15, above.) This basic plan would be used in all palaces for the rest of the Neo-Assyrian period, no matter how much larger and more lavish they would grow: A throne room surrounded on one side by a forecourt or gate-court (called bābānu in Akkadian); the second other part (the bītānu) contains the inner courtyard with its reception and residential rooms.
But what made this a strikingly innovative monument of Assyrian art were the rows upon row of wall friezes of gypsum reliefs. Granted that the figures are highly repetitive. Not only are the same figures repeated, seemingly endlessly, but the figures themselves are executed in nearly exactly the same way. Faces (and feet) are shown in profile, while the bodies are turned about a quarter of the way. Muscles of the arms and legs are massive and highly defined. Beards and hair are rendered in like manner on all figures. Yet the impression must have been astonishing and drove home the point to be made: The King was the master of order. He was a favorite of the gods, and as such not only mastered the mysterious relations with things supernatural, but bestowed the benefit of it on the population. The rows of winged genii, both human and bird-faced (e.g., #11) had to have instilled in the viewer a sense of the wonder and dread of things unseen (see arrangement on one wall in Room I, for example, #22, below). Other scenes showed the deference accorded the king by both man and deities. And the sheer number of these massive works must have been daunting. There are literally miles of such relief and they are now held not only in the British Museum (which got the pick of the lot) and the Metropolitan, but numerous other museums in North America. The Brooklyn Museum, for example, bought the reliefs that the Metropolitan had no use for. The Met exhibition has the first such relief that arrived in the United States, the one now owned by Williams College (of a bird-faced guardian, #7, above). In all, at least 18 museums outside of Iraq possess reliefs from this palace.
The effect was enhanced in ways that we now are unable to fully experience. Pigment remains on the reliefs show that they were painted in bright colors originally. While reconstructing the colors now is conjectural, there are fire-glazed ceramics of the time that show how artists of the time used color. One is a a rendering of the king with attendants (#19). The tile shows the King holding a bowl in the same manner he does in the relief above (#16). He wears a ceremonial robe with rosette figures. (The rosette as a design element seems to have been invented in Mesopotamia and became widespread later in Greece.) The attendant behind the king is beardless, just as are the attendants in the reliefs (see ##16 & 18), but wears a floral patterned robe as well. Perhaps this attendant is a eunuch (because beardless), in which case he would be bearing ceremonial arms or maybe he is simply the king’s arm bearer. The attendant second behind the king wears a helmet, has a beard and carries a spear and shield. He thus is probably a real soldier, maybe the king’s bodyguard. The figures are outlined in black and the pigments, green and yellow are painted within the boarders. The green in the fabric, however, was probably originally a shade of red because it was made of a compound with copper, which when oxidized turns green over time.
The ceramic of the leaping goat (#20) is quite compelling in its own right. it comes from a slightly later time and different place (Ashur), which probably explains how it captures a kind of capriciousness not seen in Ashurnasirpal’s formal art in Nimrud. Because it doesn’t follow the strict composition rules of the art in the Northwest palace it almost looks expressionistic. The ceramic is a fragment of a large beaker. It is possibly an object for domestic rather than ceremonial use, which might explain its somewhat whimsical look. In any case background in this case is probably true, because it was originally copper oxide mixed with ferrous oxide. The other two pigments were white and yellow. The figures were all outlined in black (as in #19), before being colored in.
Using the known colors available and pigment remains on various reliefs, the company Learning Sites Inc. has reconstructed a possible color pattern for the Williams College relief (#7), which you can see by scrolling down to the bottom of this linked page.
Ashurnasripal left no doubt that he himself understood how important the art and architecture of his new palace was. For in an unusual stele at the site (unusual because it was mostly text, unlike the other reliefs and because its relief was inset in sandstone rather than gypsum block), the king describes a lavish 10-day long feast, which the text claims was attended by 69,574 guests, including 5,000 foreign dignitaries. The text also gives a list of the fare consumed: thousands of sheep, oxen and deer, tens of thousands of birds and fish, eggs, hundreds of containers of grains, vegetables, bread, cheese, nuts and fruit, garnished with hundreds of jars of honey and spices, as well as 10,000 jugs of beer and 10,000 skins of wine. All of this was designed to honor the gods of Assyria, because the figure on the “Banquet Stele” (#21) was the king himself standing in association with their avatars: The twin horns for the supreme god Ashur on his helmet; the disc of the sun god, Shamash; the crescent of the moon god, Sin; the fork of the storm god, Adad; and a star, representing the planet Venus, for Ishtar, goddess of love and war.
In fact, setting aside the immense human suffering he inflicted to achieve it, Ashurnasirpal’s pride in the achievement he oversaw was justified, and this palace then was a fitting place for the world’s first gallery opening party. Whatever the painting on the reliefs may have added and however else the lavish setting of furniture, gold and silver works and ivory objects enhanced them, the reliefs themselves must have been astonishing to the ancient viewer. First, the composition of each individual block adhered to standards never before seen in the ancient world. The figures and other objects are arranged in a coherent manner not only with respect to each other but also in relation to the border of the blocks. This may seem like an elementary virtue, but it characterized art works before that time (even arguably great ones) only by accident. Frequently in Near Eastern steles, images aren’t even confined by the edges and spill over the sides (see #8, above). Placement within frames or borders was often haphazard (see #9, above), especially because of the convention not only to make the king larger than everyone else, but also to make him the center of the work. But in Ashurnasirpal’s palace reliefs the scenes are conceived as compositions within the confines of the block (or as parts of matched sets, as in the running series of patterned mythical figures, as in Rooms C, G and I).
More importantly, the compositions are designed in such a way that the are visually interesting, give a hint of perspective and provide the illusion of “movement” even though the figures are carved flat with the same body orientation. Take the two prisoner reliefs in the throneroom (##23 and 24). In the block showing the king (#23), the convention that the king be larger than all other figures is observed without detracting from the authenticity of the picture. The charioteer’s head is actually slightly higher than the king’s but it’s clear that he is smaller, which contributes to the view that the artists intended to show a receding background. The vertical arrangement of heads, moreover, gives the impression of movement (“rhythm,” Moortgat calls it). That movement is all accomplished by the king’s men; the prisoners themselves, when in the presence of the king, prostrate themselves, so that their heads are at the level of the king’s feet.
The column of prisoners, with the soldiers parading them, shows the same movement. The prisoners themselves are tied at the elbows and are indistinguishable except for the one pulled up abruptly by the guard at the center with the bow. The “bobbing” heads of the guards and the level heads of the prisoners suggested the monotonous march to the king, where the prisoners would beg for their lives. One can only wonder what additional effects painting would have on the scene.
Ashurnasirpal’s reign would mark the high point in relief work for some time. His son, Shalmaneser III, concentrated on conquest. Although he made a palace twice as big as his father’s (see #36, below), his artists did not seem to have any ideas beyond those pioneered by Ashurnasirpal’s. He did however expand the empire well beyond anything that had been seen previously, but his last years were marked by the civil war that resulted from the succession pretensions of his sons. Vassal states, of course, use occasions like civil wars to assert their independence. It took much time to recover the empire Shalmaneser put together. It wasn’t until Tiglath-Pileser III seized the throne in 744 B.C.E. that the empire was reorganized in such a way that it became, once again, a unified, strictly disciplined military state. From then until the end, the empire was always at war, constantly seeking to subjugate everyone. Sargon II seized the throne in 721 B.C.E. and established the last and most vigorous dynasty. Sargon, who died in battle, was progenitor of a line of warriors: Sennacherib (705–681 B.C.E.) who moved the capital to Nineveh, Esharhaddon (681–669 B.C.E.), who took Memphis and expanded the empire into Egypt, and finally Ashurbanipal (668-ca. 627 B.C.E.), the last of the great Assyrian kings. He was called “the great and noble Asenappar” in the Bible (Ezra 4:10) and Sardanapalus by Roman historian Justin (Historiarum Philippicarum, Book III), who said this “last king” was “a man more effeminate than a woman,” who spun “purple wool with a distaff” in a woman’s dress among the concubines. It’s impossible to ascertain how Ashurbanipal earned this reputation first attested eight centuries after his death, but perhaps it had something to do with the fact that he remained in Nineveh while his army completed the conquest of Egypt.
To us, Ashurbanipal seems the most cultured of all the Assyrian kings, at least since Ashurnasirpal. He scoured the Near East for matters of literary interest and had a stable of scribes who rendered them into Akkadian, even though by then most of the Empire spoke Aramaean. He regarded himself as a servant of the gods and had himself so depicted (#2, above), when he restored the temple to Marduk, Babylon’s chief deity, which had been razed when Sennacherib sacked Babylon years before. The Met exhibition shows the three items he is most famous for in terms of art; items that rivaled the achievements of Ashurnasirpal: three reliefs in his palace, one of a lion hunt, one of the battle of Til Tuba and one of a banquet with a queen.
Like other kings, Ashurbanipal staged lion hunts to prove his prowess. A three-panel relief in this show visually explains how these hunts work: In the top panel an attendant, protected inside his own cage, opens the door of a lion cage below. The lion leaps at the king, who is aiming a bow and arrow at him, while attendants stand around him to support him. A second panel shows the king holding a lion by the tail as he is about to strike it with his mace. He was apparently able to sneak up on the animal because it was being harassed by a chariot and a man wielding a spear on horseback. The bottom panel shows the king offering the bodies of four lions in some sort of ritual involving the pouring of liquid over their heads in front of a table with an incense burner. Behind the king are musicians playing harps.
This is but one of Ashurbanipal’s lion hunting reliefs. The scenes are rightly lauded for the sympathetic naturalism with which the lions are rendered. Some scenes show the agony of the lion in its death throes. The block at the Met’s show shows another innovation: the use of multiple figures to simulate the movement of the animal. In the top panel of #26 a lion is seen first cautiously leaving the cage, then running toward the king and finally leaping towards him. The king is shown with bow drawn, but the representation does not make the king more valiant than realistically possible—one other archer is also aiming at the lion and another attendant hold a shield.
The relief of the battle of Tel Tuba, the second relief, describes a victory over the Elamites in 653 B.C.E. when the Assyrian army blocked the attempt to rest Babylonia from it. This large and intricate work attempts to show different aspects of the battle. Overall the Assyrians are charging from the left and driving the Elamites down a bank into the river. The overrun Elamites are depicted fleeing in utter confusion, offering only occasional resistance to the spear-carrying infantry, archers and calvary in hot pursuit. Bodies lie in profusion underneath the frantic soldiers. As a depiction of battle it has a sense of immediacy like noting before it, including Egyptian battle scenes (cf. 3 & 4, above). The work is intended as history and includes cuneiform descriptions of particular scenes. But because the Assyrians lacked the literary scribal tradition of the Hebrews and the epic poetry tradition of the Ionian Greeks, Assyrian history is largely pictorial.
The third of the three reliefs on loan from the British Museum is in some ways the most curious. Breaking from the established tradition of showing the king only in ritual roles or battle array, this work (#28) shows the King reclining on a couch with a queen in a chair at his feet. Both are drinking from shallow bowls while attendants surround them, fanning, brushing away flies and playing music. The queen holds a cone-shaped object, and the king holds a lotus blossom. Their clothes are richly embroidered. Birds can be seen in the trees, as can as well the head of Teumman (in the tree to the left behind the harp player). Originally this relief was part of a group that depicted a large banquet celebrating the defeat of the Elamites (of which the beheading of the king was one part). When Nineveh was sacked by the Medes in 612 B.C.E., Ashurbanipal’s authority was expunged from this work by looters who literally defaced him.
The reliefs and statuary of the kings was the official art of Assyria for the entire empire. The last relief shows a couch that is arguably (although not definitively) Phoenician (especially given what looks like an ivory tusk). There is some dispute whether Assyrian kings (or even wealthy subjects) actually enjoyed the art of Phoenicia and other lands they looted or obtained tribute from. Since much foreign art was found stored in warehouses, some have thought that the Assyrians simply took the fine arts and luxury goods from lands that they subdued or made vassals simply to show their dominance. Whatever the truth of that (and it seems implausible to me), there is ample evidence that luxury goods circulated around the Near East and the entire Mediterranean, and that circulation was largely due in the Iron Age to the Phoenicians.
The Phoenicians and the Iron Age Global Trade Network
From all that is apparent the rise of the Iron Age Assyrian Empire came about from internal organic causes. Its growth resulted in directed and forced diffusion of Assyrian culture (including material culture). Likewise, Assyria itself also was enriched by contact with foreign societies and this is particularly noticeable in the non-imperial arts and other material culture. But Assyria also contributed greatly to the mixing of cultures over long distances. This is because as the empire grew in size and wealth (much of it plundered or from conscription labor), its demand for raw material (timber, metals, ivory, precious and semi-precious stones) and manufactured goods grew as well. The various sources of raw material, however, were scattered across the Middle East, into Africa, along the entire Mediterranean and throughout Europe, and possibly even Asia but Assyria was no naval power and it had no merchant marine.
There had been a maritime trade network in the Bronze Age in which goods were exchanged among the triad of the Levant, Cyprus and the Mycenaean states with such regularity that a distinctive international art mixing Canaanite and Mycenaean styles was discernible. Moreover, the ivory carving and metalworking practiced both in Cyprus and the Levant eventually spread throughout the Mediterranean. Beginning around 1200 B.C.E., however, the Mycenaean palace states disappeared. Whether this was caused by the Dorians, the “Sea People,” insurrection or a combination is unknown. According to Rameses III, however, it was without doubt the Sea People who were responsible for the collapse of the Hittites (Hatti and other Hittite federations in Anatolia) and Mitani (in Syria) kingdoms, as well as the city-states Ugarit, Carchemish, Hazor and Ashkelon. All of this, according to the Pharaoh, took place before 1175 B.C.E. when vast numbers of the invaders had resettled along the Palestine coast and drove out the native Canaanite population.
Archaeology has confirmed the destruction of these and other Levant cities at the beginning of the Iron Age. But the Phoenician cities appear not to have shared in the destruction. Perhaps they purchased a reprieve. Or maybe it was just luck. But they survived to become a major factor in the globalization of the early Iron Age. The group of “Sea People” called Philistines in English versions of the Bible (פְּלִשְׁתִּים, Pelishtim, in the Masoretic text of the Hebrew Bible (Genesis 10:14), Φυλιστιιμ, Phylistiim in Septuagint Greek (Genesis 10:14) and Παλαιστῖνοι, Palaistinoi by Josephus (e.g., Antiquitates Judaicae, V:275; Neise ed. (Samson story)) swept down the coast of Palestine (which was named after them) and settled in the southern coastal region, the famous pentapolis of Gaza, Ashkelon, Ashdod, Ekron, and Gath (Judges 13:3). At the same time, taking advantage of the disruptions, the Aramaeans spread northward and eastward from southern Syria to the foothils of Anatolia across to the western borders of the Assyrian kingdom. The Hittite elite left Anatolia and joined with the Aramaeans in the west to form what some historians call (based on the surviving material culture) the Neo-Hittite or Hittte-Aramaean peoples. Egypt’s political influence in the Levant disappeared.
There is not enough evidence to ascertain how it was that the Phoenician cities, all acting more or less independently, became the maritime leaders of the early Iron Age. They were Semitic people, probably Canaanites, maybe from the Persian Gulf area as both Herodotus and Strabo attest. But inadequate seafaring know-how for long distance shipping and the absence of near maritime trade partners make the Persian Gulf then an unlikely place to learn maritime arts. Perhaps, once they found themselves on the Mediterranean a combination of necessity and opportunity caused the Phoenicians to engage in maritime trade. As for necessity: There simply wasn’t ample farming spots around Arwad, Byblos, Sidon and Tyre. On the other hand, those cities had naturally protected harbors, and there were ready-made near maritime partners on Cyprus, where Kition, Enkomi and Hala Sultan Teke would soon undergo major harbor constructions (see Map 2, above).
And so the Phoenicians, who were inheritors of the Canaanite traditions in ivory carvings, metalwork, jewelry and glass works, and added to it the production of a purple dye made from the mucous of certain local snails (in ancient times called Murex), which became internationally sought after. (A folk etymology associates their name with Greek φοινός, phoinos = “crimson,” supposedly for their expertise in the art of purple production, but it is more likely the name ultimately comes from the Egyptian reference to Canaan.) They began trade first with neighbors and then ventured upon the seas. Phoenician craftsmanship became legendary, so much so that the Hebrew Chronicler writing in the fourth century B.C.E., had this to say about a master craftsman from Tyre: “skilful to work in gold, and in silver, in brass, in iron, in stone, and in timber, in purple, in blue, and in fine linen, and in crimson; also to grave any manner of graving, and to devise any device; to do whatever may be set before him …” (2 Chronicles 2:13.)
From manufactory the Phoenicians sought complete vertical integration in their commercial empire. First, they became master traders. The swineherd Eumaeus (“leader of men”) calls the Phoenicians “greedy knaves” (Odyssey XV:416, Loeb ed.; τρῶκται, a word used by others to refer to a “sharp toothed fish” and the “hands” of a usurer), who bring “countless trinkets in their black ship.” The ships themselves were the key to their success.
A bronze ornamental band that decorated an Assyrian gate in Balawat (ancient Imgur-Enlil, 16 miles southeast of modern Mosul) shows a Phoenician vessel of the mid-eighth century B.C.E. (#30). The scene depicts Phoenicians of Tyre and Sidon delivering tribute to Shalmaneser III. The ship in the center has the characteristic stem- and stern-posts terminating in horses heads, the features which caused the Greeks to call the boats hippoi (“horses”). These vessels were relatively small and used mainly for short-distance hauls, particularly of lumber—the famous cedars of Lebanon, for example. (The Hebrew monarchist historians describe how Hiram I of Tyre provided Solomon with the cedars to construct the Temple in Jerusalem. From this arrangement the two monarchs developed a cordial commercial relationship during which they opened up new trade routes. See I King 5.) The Balawat band possibly shows the use of hippoi to transport lumber from a site south of Tyre northward on the Mediterranean to a place at the mouth of the Orontes River (approximately at the latitude of Aleppo) for overland transportation to Assyria.
The Phoenicians also used a round-bottom ship for heavy cargo hauls, their stout shape earning them the Greek name gauloi (“tubs”), but they were called “ships of Tarshish” by the Phoenicians, indicating that they sailed as far as southern Iberia. These vessels were shown on Assyrian relief as employing oarsmen for maneuvering. The Phoenicians also invented a warship, used by Assyrians in the days of Sennacherib, with double rows of oarsmen and a shielded row of fighters (#31). The bow was formed into a large point, which enabled the warship to “spear” other vessels. The stacked rows of oarsmen was the origin of the famous bireme, which revolutionized ship construction. The Greeks would later improve on the concept allowing it to deploy a naval force that was swift and could out-maneuver larger naval transports or warships, which more than once allowed Athens’ navy to defeat larger forces, most famously the Persians.
The Phoenicians made an additional contribution that probably was not full appreciated at the time: They invented the alphabet. Previous methods of writing were not based on symbols for individual phonemes. The cuneiform script of the Assyrians and Babylonians, for example, used a large number of symbols to represent entire syllables (as well as complete words, unrelated to the syllable but rather the ideogram of Sumerian, a different language, from which the Akkadian cuneiform system was derived). Other cultures, such as the Egyptians and Sumerians, used symbols for entire words, not based on the sound at all. Using symbols for phonemes, syllables could be made up of a combination of thee symbols. Since there are fewer phonemes than possible syllables, the alphabet was both easier to learn and more flexible than a syllable-based system, and much more so than one based on ideograms. The Phoenician alphabet was adopted by the Greeks (once they began writing again in the 8th century B.C.E.). From there it was adopted by the Latins and others, and proved so flexible and enduring that it is being read by you at this very moment.
With the foregoing advantages the Phoenicians not only probed the farthest reaches of the Mediterranean for trade but also set up posts for that purpose and even settled colonies. The most famous (and successful) of these was Carthage, which, it turns out, was not so much a frontier, but rather a planned city for certain Phoenician elite. Nevertheless, it would be the longest living of all Phoenician settlement endeavors and would itself become something of an empire, sending out its own colonists over time. As for the others, artifacts show the reach of Phoenicia’s commercial activity, which became a “soft power” much more extensive than Assyria’s iron fist.
Substantial Phoenician influence was early pushed west of the Strait of Gibraltar. Gadir (modern Cadiz) was founded by Phoenicians, who constructed a temple and brought other aspects of their Canaanite religion. Before the Late Bronze Age collapse in the Levant, the Canaanites were dominated by the Egyptians, politically and culturally, which was reflected in their art and religion. Long after Egypt withdrew from Palestine it still remained a presence in Phoenician religious symbolism and that influence was carried as far as Iberia in their statuary and ornaments. The male figure (#33) found in the waters off Sancti Petri island, where a temple complex existed. That temple was for worship of both the Melqart and Herakles Gaditanos. Melqart was a Phoenician god—he was in fact the tutelary god of Tyre, whereas Herakles was pan-cultural. Herodotus maintained that this Herakles was an ancient god, earlier and separate from the hero Herakles. The figurine wears the atef crown worn by Osiris. (Herodotus equates Herakles with Shu, not Osiris, but his treatment Egyptian gods seems to have been driven by a rather hopeless attempt to find a one-to-one match between the twelve Olympian gods and a grouping of twelve Egyptian gods, a groping found in no other source. See Charlotte R. Long, The Twelve Gods of Greece and Rome (Leiden: E.J. Brill: 1987).) This association of Osiris with both Melqart and Herakles Gaditanos emphasizes that all three gods possessed redemptive powers over life and rebirth. This Phoenician figure and others like it were perhaps votive offerings. This one may have ended in the sea after being cast into a sacred well as part of a ritual. In any event, it seems to draw from the tradition, well established in Canaan in the Bronze Age, to associate a local Semitic god with the attributes of an Egyptian one. Many such figures took on the pose of the “striking god,” such as one found elsewhere in the Met’s collections. Those figures also wore the atef crown of Osiris.
A seated nude female figure (#34), possibly from El Carambolo, a site around two miles west of Seville that contained ancient gold jewelry also of Phoenician origin, likewise has an Egyptian headdress, in this case a wig which falls down to her shoulders. The pedestal she sits on is missing, but her feet are atop a foot rest, which has Phoenician script on its front side that explains that the work is a votive offering to Astarte, the goddess of love and war. Astarte herself was a transcultural figure. She was known in Babylonia and Assyria as Ishtar, who corresponded to Sumerian Inanna, and was also known to the Hebrews (as Ashtoret, using the same consonant roots as in Phoenician: ʻštrt = עשתרת). Although she wears an Egyptian wig, nudity was not a trait of Egyptian divine representation (as it was in the Near East). She would become Aphrodite in the Greek world and from there become an important fixture of the Classical Cosmos. In this figure, she is one of the earliest of the international Near Eastern gods in the Western Mediterranean.
The Egyptian affectation of the figure from Seville is probably nothing more than a holdover from centuries of artistic habit. Or it might have become part of Phoenician sensibilities or commercial worldview as a people whose outlook was global. But it falls in line with the observation of Henri Frankfort that “The hallmark of the Phoenicians is the lavish use of bungled Egyptian themes.” By this he meant that the use of Egyptian symbols, gods and motifs in a ways that Egyptians would not is a fairly good indicator that the object was of Phoenician origin. This is because the other cultures in the Near East never used Egyptian symbols. The Aramaeans grew closer culturally to the Mesopotamians (particularly once Assyrian conquered their principal cities). There in no trace at all of Egyptian motifs in Urartu around Lake Van (see Map 2, above). And of course the Assyrians themselves had a fairly rigid orthodoxy, at least since Ashurnasirpal II, and adhered to the imperial style without any international embellishments. Thus if a statuette designed for ritual purposes has a mixture of Egyptian symbols and other influences, it is a good bet to conclude that it is of Phoenician manufacture.
The goddess with the Hathoric headdress (#35), for example, wears the Egyptian horns and orb. In Egyptian depictions of Horath, the horns grow out of a base on top of the goddess’s head. In the Phoenician statuette the horns sprout from a palmette, a common Phoenician ornament. The use of divine headdresses in Phoenician ceremonial objects probably was only meant to signify that the figure represented was a divine being and no specific association with the symbols of the headgear was intended. One figurine, for example, had a globe and horns of Hathor sitting on top of an atef crown of Osiris. In #35 the face is silver-plated and perhaps her horns also once were. The orb between the horns might have been gilded and the rings that would have been attached at the holes near the ears might have been gold as well. All of that would have greatly improved the impression conveyed by this statuette. As it is, it is simply another nondescript form (we don’t know enough to even speculate what goddess this is supposed to represent), from a mold, and probably mass produced.
The one area that Phoenicians excelled in artistic production was in luxury goods. Homer, for instance, has Achilles offer as the prize for a footrace a silver Phoenician mixing bowl “richly wrought; six measures it held, and in beauty it was far the goodliest in all the earth, seeing that Sidonians, well skilled in deft handiwork, had wrought it cunningly” (Iliad, XXIII:740ff, Loeb ed.). The Met exhibition has numerous examples of Phoenician (and others’) metalwork. But more than even their metalwork and glass production, Phoenician ivory carvings stands out. Two large caches of Phoenician and Syrian ivory objects in Assyrian palaces have been found. Because these objects were tribute or booty, it’s not possible to date or locate their manufacture precisely. One of the caches was found at Arslan Tash (see Map 2, above), which we will look at in the next section. The earlier of the two large finds of Phoenician ivory work is in Nimrud, mostly in Shalmaneser III’s palace there, the so-called Fort Shalmaneser (#36; for location, see #13 inset, above). Many ivories were found in the principal residence of the palace and a smaller number in the palace’s workshop. Since some of the latter are done strictly in the imperial Assyrian style, presumably Assyrian artists were also carving ivory and perhaps studying the Phoenician examples.
The incised relief of a banquet (#38) gives an example of the imperial style (also of the fairly unsophisticated style of Assyrian ivory workers one generation after Ashurnasirpal’s artists). The work focuses on the king (center left). Facing him is an attendant with a flywisk and a spoon or scoop. Behind the king are his attendants and behind them is the cook fanning pots of food. The drawing is crude and this perhaps suggests that during the reign of Shalmaneser III Assyrian artisans were only beginning to work with ivory. By contrast both Syrian and Phoenician artists had mastered intricate carving techniques. The Sphinx which was broken off from an openwork plaque (#39) is thought to have been part of a workshop in Northern Syria perhaps somewhat west of Tell Halaf (see Map 2, above) which operated until the end of the eighth century B.C.E. This school seems to have produced openwork plaques mainly of two types: sphinxes in profile with face forward and plaques of “a lady at the window” (a female head framed in rectangles, perhaps representing Astarte). These two subjects with similar style were found in a temple at Khorsabad and their association at both places provides the basis for the conclusion that they were fashioned by the same workshop. The Sphinx (#39) is expertly carved low relief. The beast wears a sun disk (broken off) surrounded by the uraei (sacred serpents symbolizing supreme power) on top of an Egyptian-style wig.
Unlike the Egyptian religious symbolism in votary offerings, many Phoenician ivories at Nimrud carried African themes that were not mythological (at last overtly). There is a group of statues all portraying men carrying animals and other goods, probably as tribute (although to whom is not clear). Four of the men appear African and two appear Asian. In one (#40) a Nubian is walking to the right (head facing forward), leading a gazelle by the horns and carrying a monkey on his shoulder. The monkey is playing with the man’s hair. On the other shoulder the man carries a leopard skin. The cat’s head hangs down, but the right hand of the man is missing. The pattern of the robe’s fabric, the leopard’s spots and the texture of his hair are rendered by incisions. The five similar carvings, known as the “Room 2 Group,” have other combinations of animals including two non-specific animals, a lion, a goat and an ostrich. The eyes and eyebrows of the figures were excised by looters for inlay. Two of the figures were burnt and lay in the fill on the rooms floor but four still were lined up in a niche in the wall.
In Ashurnasirpal’s Northwest Palace in Nimrud an ivory carved plaque with similar aesthetic sensibilities but much more dramatic was found in the mud at the bottom of a well in the palace, which accounts for its good state of preservation (#41). The object’s exact pair was also discovered in the same location, but has since disappeared when it was stolen from the Iraq Museum during the looting which followed the American occupation of Baghdad in 2003. Nigel Tallis of the British Museum suggested that the item were stripped of valuable overlay (although the lapis lazuli inset still remains in the lion’s forehead in the surviving piece) and dumped during the sack of Nimrud by the Babylonians and Medes in 612 B.C.E. The pieces were probably part of an elaborate piece of furniture, perhaps a throne, because there are two mortice holes on the top with an incised letter aleph and two rectangular holes on the base also with the letter aleph, suggesting woodworkers’ notations.
The meaning of the iconography is not readily apparent. Tallis suggests it represents Egypt’s domination of Nubia. The lioness not only is mauling the youth but is embracing him with its left forearm. Some have thought the youth exhibits an acceptance and that therefore the scene is something of an exorcism. Whatever the larger meaning, the piece must have presented a stunning appearance when in tact. The background of carved lotus and papyrus was covered with a layer of gold sheet and the recesses were filled with lapis lazuli and carnelian. The stones were fastened by a mortar that itself contained a blue pigment. The result was a background of colorful reflective flowers appearing out of gold leaves with a bluish base. In addition to being perhaps the most successful of the Phoenician uses of cloisonné, the piece is an elegant expression of the global culture of the time: excellent Phoenician artistry employing luxury items from around the world, employing Egyptian iconography and displayed in an Assyrian palace to proclaim the empire’s cultural superiority. The congruence is all the more remarkable when one considers that the raw material was imported not only from around the Mediterranean but also from Asia, where lapis lazuli mining had an ancient history and where the ivory likely came from, at least since the extinction of the Syrian herds in the early 8th century B.C.E. Given that the eastern border of Assyria was lined with mountains and the eastern border of Babylonia was facing the hostile Elamites, the trade from India must have gone either by means of the ancient lapis lazuli routes through Iran or along the coast of the Arabian Sea by ship to Arabia and by Arabian traders who worked in conjunction with the Phoenicians.
Phoenician crafts by themselves show that the world of the early Iron Age extended from the Tigris to the land West of Gibraltar. It was a world made up of commercial ties driven by the demand of the great empire and executed by the efforts of the great mariners. But cultural exchange was also the result of direct geographical contact. And given the expansion of Assyria and therefore the westward progress of the peoples in their way, the known world would soon be in physical contact with one or more eastern people and the result would be the “Orientalization” of this world.
The Rest of the World: The West becomes Eastern
Two kingdoms on the eastern borders of Assyria played minor roles in the new Iron Age order: Elam and Urartu.
Elam, in southern Iran (see Map 1, above), directly faced Babylonia. At times it sought to conquer Babylonia, at others it allied itself with Babylonia against Assyria. Assyria resisted both Elam directly and its attempts to meddle with Babylonia. Eventually Ashurbanipal directed an army into the heart of Elam. The relief celebrating Assyrian victory at Tel Tuba (#27) presaged the end. In 646 B.C.E. the Assyrians sacked Susa.
Elam in its day participated in a trade route from southern Iran through Babylonia to Arabia, but does not seem to have much participated in the main cultural interchange from Assyria to the Mediterranean. The relief fragment of the spinner and assistant (#43) shows no traces of Assyrian or Babylonian influence. In fact, there appears to be no other contemporary visual depiction of a spinner, although of course there were literary ones (e.g., Penelope sits before her son Telemachus, “spinning fine threads of yarn” while the suitors sate themselves with food and drink, Odyssey XVII:96-97; Loeb ed.). The posture, headdress and object on the table are unknown from other depictions. Is it a domestic scene (as in Homer) or are they threads of fate? This is a wholly Elamite mystery.
Urartu, the land of Mount Ararat, was considered, from the beginning of the empire, a source of vexation, brigandry and insurrection. Ashurnasirpal II, you will recall, began his first campaign to put down an uprising there. But his father and grandfather had also conducted campaigns there. It would take years and more than one king to finally “pacify” Urartu. The mountains posed a large problem for Assyria’s professional army with its armored infantry, chariots and engines. The defenders could always slip into the hills and disappear, but the Assyrians had to make way through the inhospitable ground and also maintain supply lines. It was not until 842 B.C.E. that Urartu was made a province of Assyria by Shalmaneser III. But Assyrian looked at their possession there as the base for operations elsewhere, and therefore there remained little concrete evidence of Assyrian presence. And for their part the Urartuans had little interest in assimilating, so their own art and material culture shows no influence of Assyria or anything east of it. It is as though the dividing line between East and West that became so prominent in Classical Greek times had already been marked and this area was firmly already Persian.
You can almost imagine the origins of Persia in the griffin (#44) from Toprakkale (see Map 1, above). And while it contains some of the elements of Assyrian guardian lamassu (#12) or genii apkallu (#7) (bird head, winged-body, cat or bull body), the griffin clearly does not assembly the parts in the same way. The bird heads of both the griffin and the genie are raptors of some sort, but the griffin has the expression of a predator, while the genie is a bird of protection. (Perhaps this is because moutain people saw predators in action, while those in flatter lands only saw them hovering above.)
The peoples who absorbed Assyrian influence, thus, were to the west, and the largest and most influential were the Aramaeans. They were a tribal people who, even as late as the Iron Age congregated around solitary cities and had no aspiration for a unified state that would control contiguous territory. They had no discernible art tradition of their own, and for the most part their artists were unskilled. Their mythical system seems to have come largely from the Akkadians, and they had no scribal or other literary tradition. But it seems their very nondescriptness allowed for their great contribution to the Near East—a common language. Perhaps because they assimilated so readily into the empire, their language seeped into the empire itself. Eventually it was spoken all through the Levant and in much of western Assyria. When the Persians conquered Mesopotamia in 500 B.C.E. it would become the official language of the Persian Empire. The process by which it became the koine of the Near East is mysterious, but probably not any more so than how any other cultural artifact spreads and is assimilated. It was a time of globalization, and language was one of many things transmitted. Aramaic, however, lasted longer than most artifacts. After the koine dialect broken into regionalisms. one form became Syriac, a language used by religious specialists (much like Latin would later become) in Eastern Christianity and Jewish Talmudic scholars. But that’s too far ahead of the story.
The Aramaeans were the peoples most exposed to the Assyrians and therefore the ones most dependent on their favor. Tell Halaf (ancient Guzana; Maps 1 & 2), the most eastward of the Aramaean cities, tells the tale. In 894 B.C.E. Tell Halaf chose to pay tribute to Adadnirari II rather than confront Assyria. From that time until 808 B.C.E., when it joined a confederacy who rebelled, the city flourished. In 808 B.C.E. it was burned to the ground for its insurrection. At the beginning of the city’s vassalage to Assyria, its notable art works consisted of large sculptures which appear barely to have escaped the block they were carved from. The best of these works is the Scorpion Bird Man (#45), a mythical guardian (girtablullu) in Aramaean belief with the head of a human, the body of a bird and the stinger of a scorpion. In Tell Halaf this figure with another (slightly different as though by another hand) guarded the entrance to an inner citadel of the palace. The palace complex was illustrated by sculpture of animals and animal deities. (The Scorpion Bird Men have four horns on their foreheads (see #46), indicating their divinity.) Some of guardian figures were carved into the column support of the palace. The Scorpion Bird Men, however, were the best rendered of the lot.
More block-like and less competently rendered was the Statue of a Seated Woman (#46). The figure probably represents a V.I.P. because of the footrest. The hair suggests the figure was of a woman. A cup rests on the table which hides the legs in the block of the rock. The head is slightly upturned. Considerable technique was required to render the hair locks from the hard basalt. But although the sculpture is fully in the round, the side view shows that the modeling was incompetently done. Clearly the sculptures of Tell Halaf at the time (and this piece, like the Scorpion Bird Men, was completed at the beginning of the vassalage to Assyria) had no tradition to work from.
As time went on, statuary became less common and the artists took up relief on orthostats, just like Assyrian artists were doing. But the Aramaean artists had not gained nearly the competence and in any event chose subjects, not from the Assyrian reliefs (which they likely never saw) but from designs and representations on Assyrian bowls and pottery. Eventually the more “imperial” themes were drawn, such as the lion hunt (#48), a relief depicting a subject almost certainly having no reference in the life of any Aramaean. And although the subject and figures (such as the chariot, charging horses and lion) come from Assyrian royal reliefs the composition of the picture, execution of the relief and the features of the individuals are purely Aramaean. It is especially interesting to see the difference between the careful use of space by the Ashurnasirpal artists (e.g., ##16, 23 & 24) and the apparent need by Aramaean artists to fill all available space with figures (as in #47).
Farther west Aramaean art fell under the influence of the Phoenician artisans. At ArslanTash (see Map 2, above) a second large cache of ivory carvings was discovered. These were unearthed in a less than scrupulous manner and their exact provenance is uncertain. Most of those certainly from the site are held by The Louvre; others probably from the site were acquired by institutions (including the Met) from antiquities dealers. The group shows the “Egyptianizing” features that Phoenician ivory (and other artworks) exhibit. But the human-like figures (e.g., #49) are squatter than Phoenician ones and exhibit the characteristic facial features of Aramaean reliefs (e.g., ##8 & 9). For these and other reasons, many (if no all) of the Arslan Tash ivory are thought to be from a Syrian school west of Tell Halaf.
There are non-human ivories from Arslan Tash that are so “naturalistic” and well executed that they look, to me, as though they are from another school entirely and a Phoenician one at that. An open work plaque (#50) of a calf feeding from a cow which turns back to lick the calf at once looks both realistic (in the sense that the features appear in proportion and the animals are acting normally) and at the same time stylized, because of its flatness and therefore thendesign-like elements it is composed of. (The pattern-like effect would be more marked when a number of the plaques are lined up in a row, which is how they evidently were intended to be exhibited.) Whether or not these ivories are in fact Phoenician, the similarity shows how exceedingly close the material cultures of separate societies had become in the 8th century B.C.E.
The Met exhibition continues society by society from the Levant westward. Those interested in Biblical archaeology can see the famous Victory Stele of King Hazael of Aram-Damascus, the only source outside of Hebrew sacred literature to mention the “House of David,” the even more well known prism-shaped Annals of Sennacherib, which describes how Hezekiah and Jerusalem were blockaded “like a bird in a cage” before taking control of the city (a version which markedly differs from the account in 2 Kings 18 & 19 and 2 Chronicles 32), as well as items that shed light on Ahab, king of the northern kingdom and his Phoenician wife Jezebel. To me of most interest was the ritual objects found at En Hazeva some time in the early to mid 9th century B.C.E on the southern frontier of Judah (see Map 2, above). The anthropomorphized urn-like figures (e.g., #51) have an oddly compelling appearance. The “primitiveness” of the composition almost appears modern. The fact that their ritual purpose, or indeed what god was being worshipped, only adds to their mysterious attractiveness.
The exhibition examines, in more detail than one visit can take in, how this new global culture affected Midas, Croesus, Anatolia, Cyprus, Egypt and especially Carthage. Surprising confirmations of how the Assyrians projected power are steles far from Mesopotamia. Most surprising was a stele of Sargon II at Kition in Cyprus (see Maps 1 & 2), a place that the Assyrians could not bring physical force to bear. But then again this new order was not entirely about physical force, for how otherwise would Egyptian gods be found in royal Assyrian palaces?
The End and the Future
The exhibit ends with the rise of Neo-Babylonia which destroyed Assyria. The great achievements of this new power were all destructive: They destroyed Assyria as well as Jerusalem (and Solomon’s Temple) and took many, including the elite of Israel, into captivity. This empire would not last a century and when it fell it was destroyed with fury. Nevertheless, it did create one of the iconic visuals of the ancient world: the gate of Ishtar, along a processional of outstanding painted relief. Two of the most famous reliefs from Babylon’s Processional Way (e.g., #52) from the State Museum of Berlin are included in the exhibit and are as astounding as you might expect.
When Cyrus the Great and his Persians in 539 B.C.E. ended the Babylonian pretensions to lead the world order, it represented the end of the period of Near Eastern hegemony in the Iron Age. But in fact, a new beginning had already begun to the East. It would be the Greek city states in the Aegean that would head a new Western world order, one that would confront the Persians more successfully than the Babylonians did. But the new order would be one radically different from the old because geographical empire and political domination would not be the sole criterion of civilization.
A substantial part of the Met exhibit involves the inception of this phenomenon and the question of how much of what would become Greece could be found in the East. The objects collected provoke interesting thinking about the “Orientalizing” influence on Greece. This subject, however, is far too interesting to relegate to a footnote here and will require a separate post.
* = Object not shown in the Met exhibition. (Objects belonging to the Metropolitan Museum’s permanent collection, but not included in the Met exhibition, are found in the Ancient Near Eastern collection on the second floor on the east side of the building.)
John Arzuz, Sarah B. Graff and Yelena Rakic, Assyria to Iberia at the Dawn of the Classical Age (New York: Metropolitan Museum of Art: 2014).
John Boardman & I.E.S. Edwards, The Cambridge Ancient History, Volume III, Part I (The Prehistory of the Balkans, The Middle East and the Aegean World, Tenth to Eighth Centuries B.C.) (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press: 2003).
Vaughn E. Crawford, Prudence O. Harper & Holly Pittman, Assyrian Reliefs and Ivories in the Metropolitan Museum of Art: Palace Reliefs of Assurnasirpal II and Ivory Carvings from Nimrud (New York: Metropolitan Museum of Art: 1980).
K. Demakopoulou (ed.), The Mycenaean World: Five Centuries of Greek Culture, 1600-1100 B.C. (translated by M.E. Caskey & D.A. Hardy) (Athens: Greek Ministry of Culture: 1988).
Tamás Dezső, The Assyrian Army: I. The Structure of the Neo-Assyrian Army as Reconstructed from the Assyrian Palace Reliefs and Cuneiform Sources: 1. The Infantry (Budapest: Eötvös University Press: © 2012).
Henri Frankfort, The Art and Architecture of the Ancient Orient (from the series The Pelican History of Art ed. by Nicolaus Pevsner) (Baltimore, Md.: Penguin Books Inc.: 1970).
Albert Kirk Grayson, Assyrian Rulers of the Early First Millennium B.C. I (1114-859 B.C.) (The Royal Inscriptions of Mesopotamia, Assyrian Periods, Volume 2) (Toronto: University of Toronto Press: © 1991).
Georgina Hermann, The Small Collections from Fort Shalmaneser (London: Butler & Tanner Ltd. for The British School of Archaeology in Iraq: ©1992).
Austen H. Leyard, The Discoveries at Nineveh and Babylon (London: John Murray: 1853) (at the Internet Archive).
Anton Moortgat, The Art of Mesopotamia: The Classical Art of the Ancient Near East (translated by Judith Filson) (London: Phaidon Press Ltd.: 1969).
Joan and David Oates, Nimrud: An Assyrian Imperial City Revealed (Norfolk, U.K.: Bindles Ltd for the British School of Archaelogy in Iraq: 2004).
A.T. Olmstead, “The Calculated Frightfulness of Ashur Nasir Apal,” 38 Journal of the American Oriental Society 209 (1918).
Julian Reade, “The Evolution of Imperial Architecture: Political Implications and Uncertainties,” 46 Mesopotamia: Rivista di Archeologia, Epigrafia e Storia Orientale Antica 109 (2011).