In Focus

The Near East: Cult and Craftsmanship

The following essay is from the 1996 publication Gods, Men, and Heroes: Ancient Art at the Dallas Museum of Art_._

"The destiny was fulfilled which the father of the gods, Enlil of the mountain, had decreed for Gilgamesh: 'In nether-earth the darkness will show him a light; of mankind, all that are known, none will leave a monument for generations to come to compare with his. The heroes, the wise men, like the new moon have their waxing and waning....You were given the kingship, such was your destiny, everlasting life was not your destiny."

--The Epic of Gilgamesh

In contrast with Egypt, favorably situated in the rich valley of the Nile Rive and cut off from surrounding peoples by deserts, the upper Nile rapids, and the Mediterranean and Red Seas, the Near East was a geographical and cultural crossroads for millennia. Some of the earliest experiments in the domestication of crops and animals occurred in this area, as did early forms of writing. The first city-states grew up in Mesopotamia. The Fertile Crescent, stretching from the mouth of the Tigris and Euphrates Rivers north and east to Syria and down the coast of the Levant, was an axis for the movement of peoples, crops, technology, and artistic ideas over a large area from India and the Iranian plateau westward to Anatolia, the Aegean, and North Africa. There was also a great deal of trade and interchange to the north of the Black Sea, on the plains and mountain ranges of southern Russia.

Whereas Egyptian civilization, in its great periods, represented the values of a long-lived traditional society with stable religious beliefs and formulaic conventions in art, the character of Near Eastern city-states was far more diffuse. They were true entrepôts: merchant centers for wares and ideas coming from all parts of their world. It is no accident that both the original idea of writing and the more sophisticated concept of alphabetic writing probably originated here. Priests, tax collectors, and traders needed a convenient system of tabulation for their businesses. Cylinder seals, stamps, and clay tablets were convenient tools for these early accounting systems.

This commercial society had a very high standard of craftsmanship. Bronze working, ceramics, architectural brickwork and glazed tile, monumental sculptures and reliefs, and decorative work in gold, gems, and ivory all were of superb quality. What did not occur were the systematic conventions of Egyptian art; Near Eastern pieces were more varied and experimental in form.

There was also a difference in artistic development outside the great cities of the Near East. The nomadic horsemen and pastoralists of Iran, eastern Anatolia, and Scythia created a distinctive kind of portable art, often with animal imagery. In turn, this art style passed westward to the Carpathians, Thrace, and the Danube Basin, where it had an influence on early Celtic and Germanic art. The art of horse nomads was to play a very important role over the vast extent of Eurasia.

Two of the most critical developments in the rise of city-state civilization are represented in the DMA collections: the domestication of animals and grain crops, which were the basis of settled village life, and the specific domestication of horses and cattle as draft animals to draw wheeled vehicles. Farming and pastoralism are now believed to go back to at least the eighth millennium BCE in the Near East. The fifth-millennium BCE Anatolian lugged vessel (1974.79.FA), representing this Neolithic village art, is the oldest work in the Museum. The rise of wheeled vehicles from sledges and runner-carts, a development that also seems to have occurred first in the Near East by the third millennium BCE, is evident in the DMA's bronze wagon drawn by oxen (1972.38.A-D). This fine work represents, in elegant line, a seminal moment in human history.

The importance of wild and domesticated animals in the Near East and the loving intensity with which artists observed antelopes, ibex, goats, horses, oxen, and birds appear in many works in the collection. Human and animal life were so intertwined that Near Eastern deities often appear with animal-human genies, or magic servitors, and as "master/mistress of animals," in heraldic poses that suggest a union of man and nature, The DMA's ceremonial standard top with a figure (1963.21), perhaps a deity or hero, supported by entwined animals is a motif with a long life. Such heraldic images were later transferred to Greek figures, like the huntress goddess Artemis, who appears as a "mistress of animals."

As in pharaonic Egypt, Near Eastern societies worshiped deities who were images of fertility and natural power. This power was implicit in animal art, but there were also more conceptual images symbolizing fertility, such as nude female figurines supporting their breasts. This design, too, was passed on to Greek goddesses like Demeter via the mother-goddesses of Anatolia, Minoan Crete, and the Aegean Islands. In this dispersal of fertility imagery, the DMA has a Syro-Hittite ceramic figurine, two Cycladic marble figurines, and Archaic Greek terracotta figures associated with the worship of Demeter and Persephone.

Only institutions such as the Bode Museum in Berlin, with its complete reconstruction of the Ishtar Gate from Babylon, or the British Museum and the Louvre, with large-scale Assyrian relief suclptures, or the archaeological site of Persepolis in Iran, with intact ceremonial architecture of the Achaemenid Persian kings, can present in monumental form the power of ancient Near Eastern art associated with architecture. Unlike in Egypt, where monumental tombs and temples were made of hard stone, most Near Eastern buildings were constructed of mud brick and decorated with glazed tiles. The grandeur of ancient Babylon is far less apparent today than the funerary grandeur of ancient Giza or Thebes (although Egyptian palaces, made of mud brick, have largely vanished , too). However, surviving small-scale examples of sculpture, jewelry, amulets, precious vessels, horse trappings, and architectural ornament do testify to thousands of years of meticulous artistry.

In Egypt, the patrons of such craftsmanship were the royal court, the nobility, local notables, and priests. In such a centralized world, the elite patronized artisans continuously for thousands of years. No Near Eastern society had such continuity: power passed from one city to another; states and empires rose and fell; and a lack of defined geographic borders led to a very fluid political situation, as it does today. Social identity was based on language, ethnic group, or religion.

At the same time, the lack of impenetrable geographical frontiers, so different from Egypt, also led to trade and to the dispersal of art far and wide. When the fifth century BCE Persian king Darius designed Persepolis, his craftsmen managed to combine motifs as disparate as the Egyptian winged sun disk, Mesopotamian animal-human genie figures, Assyrian winged bulls, Persian warriors, and a realistic train of tribute bearers, who may owe something to eastern Greek art.

Trading communities in the Levant, more so than the inward-looking kingdom of Egypt, spread art styles and sophisticated techniques like faience, enamel, glass, inlay, gold working, ivory ornament, and decorative sculpture from the mountains and plateaus of central Eurasia to the Black Sea, Aegean Sea, and western Mediterranean Sea. While the great heritage of Egyptian art played a key role in the development of early Greek sculpture and architecture in the 7th century BCE influence from Near Eastern art goes back to the Bronze Age. Indeed, in one sense it has never stopped. Islamic art built on a millennia-old tradition of craftsmanship in the Near East, a tradition that still exists today.

Excerpt from

Anne R. Bromberg and Karl Kilinski II, Gods, Men, and Heroes: Ancient Art at the Dallas Museum of Art. Seattle: University of Washington Press, 1996. 27-28.