The history of Ancient Mesopotamia begins at the fourth millennium BC., in the river valleys of the Tigris and the Euphrates. In this rich agricultural region, many people thrived: the Sumerian, Akkadian and Assyrians. If their language was different, a common cultural background is observed that permeates their way of life, but also in their beliefs. It is this common cultural framework I offer you to discover through a selection of six artworks.
Room 1 : Political and economix framework of Ancient Mesopotamia
Precursors of writing (showcase 3)
The first Oriental Antiquities room is devoted to the origin of Eastern civilizations. One can observe the birth of the Sumerian civilization that dominated lower Mesopotamia in the third and the second millennium BC.
The Sumerians were one of the first civilizations to develop a script. like Egyptian hieroglyphics, the writing was made up of symbols, ie drawing inspired by real objects. As paper (an invention of the Middle Ages) did not exist, the Sumerian engraved with a reed pieces of clay, that were dried.
The tablet, shown against, is the oldest tablet in the Louvre Museum. Tablet top notches allowed to insert small objects in clay used to count and measure. And the signs below the notches match names of specialists individus. therefore experts concluded that it was an accounting of money owed to employees.
This piece gives us valuable informations on Ancient Mesopotamia. It reflects a very old development of the kingdom of Uruk, roughly contemporary with that of ancient Egypt. Indeed, the increase of agricultural production int this area bording the Arabian desert allowed the development of trade, and the birth of a reward system in kind. This led to the establishment of a social hierarchy more and more elaborate. Quickly, prosperity in Uruk was such that a town thrived, housing a palace and a temple.And in order to protect its wealth, its elites started to build walls around their kingdom.
Living in a microkingdom (showcase 1)
The Stele of Vultures deals with one of these conflicts : the war led by the king of Lagash Eannatum (2455-2426) to the city of Umma for control of fertile lands of Guedina.
On the top of the stele, we can see the army of the king of the city of Lagash trampling the bodies of the soldiers of the opposing army. The king, Eannatum can be recognize at a glance thanks to its larger size, and his garment, sheepskin breeches worn by Mesopotamian dignitaries, called the kaunakes.
On the top right, vultures outweigh the corpses of the vanquished army. These birds, ubiquitous in Mesopotamian art, are an evocation of death and war, on the one hand. On the other hand, vultures were also an incarnation of Imdougoud, a mythical creature capable of flapping wings to reign chaos.
In conclusion, this first side shows a vision of the power of the archaic Lagash dynasty kings who imposed its hegemony to the cities of Lower Mesopotamia, much of IIè millennium BC.
The other side is dedicated to the god Ningirsu, the protector of the city of Lagash. He imprisons in his net the soldiers of the enemy army. In his other hand, he squeezes Imdougoud in his fist. The significant size of Ningirzu shows the very important role of the sacred in the conduct of politics and everyday life. The success like the failure of human actions were attributed to heavenly forces. And to protect themselves from these forces, each city was endowed with a protective deity to whom they dedicated the main temple of the kingdom. This deity was even considered as the real ruler of the city, the king himself being merely an instrument of power.
Room 3 : Art in Ancient Mesopotamia
During the second millennium BC, Mesopotamian civilisation is apex. Despite political history disrupted by Akkadian invasions, the cities of Mesopotamia kept on growing.
Sculpture (Room 3)
In the second millennium, Lagash dynasty continues to dominate Mesopotamia. Its kings largely contributed to the development of sculpture by their numerous orders. In this room, you can see many the statue of King Gudea of Lagash (2141- 2122 BC.) that were found in Lower Mesopotamia.
At first, these statues were devotional gesture on the part of the prince. Indeed, most of these representations of Gudea were for temples. They offered a permanent image of the king praying in the temples. Dyorite stone, used by the sculptor, was of great strength and difficult to cut. It was considered as a noble and hard material, allowed the Emperor to withstand time.
In addition, these statues played a political role since it is a tool of propaganda . Indeed, the cuneiform inscriptions (in Akkadian language) on the tunic reminiscent of King Gudea’s role in the restoration of the temple. Also, its tunic gives us a glimpse of its right hand and let the viewer to admire the Royal musculature. One can clearly see that statue as an assertion of his royal power.
Music (room 3 showcase 6)
Not only was music a popular delight, it also played a religious and important social role. Musicians enjoyed a privileged status being associated with the sacred staff. As professionals often they were attached to a temple or a palace, both in Sumerian or Akkadian than in Assyrian. Each of them mastered the traditional instruments Sumerian: the lyre, harp and drum.
Musicians accompanied the banquet, but also the religious processions. It seems that for these early civilizations, the music had the virtue to soothe the soul of the individual and help them make wise decisions. It was very common in the daily lives of residents.
The following tablet was found in a burial. It represents a harpist playing to accompany the deceased. The Mesopotamians had a predilection for this type of stringed instrument. Some, crafted from precious stones were even found in the graves. They even think they could be used as offerings to the gods.
Room 4: The Mesopotamian mythical characters
In the first millennium BC, Akkadian dominion gave way to those of the Assyrians (people of northern Mesopotamia. But again, political change did not involve a cultural change. Instead, the remains of the Assyrian capital built at Dur-Sharrukin, by King Sargo II, testify of the cultural unity of Mesopotamia.
Gilgamesh, the mythical king
Gilgamesh is the most famous heroes of méopotaminenne culture. First king of Uruk, it is described in myth as an odious tyrant enslaving its people to perform architectural projects Pharaonic and to enslave his sexual desires. To punish him for his excessive behavior, send him an evil creature to face: Enkindu, the bull man. But neither opponents managed to take over the other. Including their complementarity, as a figure of good and evil, they decided to join forces to accomplish great deeds. But the early death of Enkindu terrifies Gilgamesh, who embarks then in the vain quest of immortality.
Sargo II chooses to represent this symbolic figure on the walls of the throne room of his palace. This choice is not innocent. Indeed, it is a 4 meters high traditional representation of Gilgamesh. He is choking a lion with its left arm while he holds in his right hand a mace. The menacing look of Gilgamesh like the dying lion are fixed on the visitor. It reminded visitors, royal power able to tame the savageness of the largest predators. Woe to the one who would dare to provoke the king!