Arising from the Fertile Crescent, the Assyrian Empire once ruled over Mesopotamia with powerful armies and grand stone palaces. This advanced civilization greatly predated the Roman and Greek Empires but produced works of art as delicate as Greek amphorae and as monumental as Roman statuary. Leaving behind a rich archeological record and a wealth of written records, the Ancient Assyrians are an important facet of any introduction to ancient art.
What was Ancient Assyria?
Assyria was an ancient kingdom that originated in the city-state of Aššur (also known as Ashur), which once lay on the Tigris River in Mesopotamia. Often referred to as the "Cradle of Civilization," many powerful empires arose in the Bronze and Iron Age fertile crescent between the Tigris and Euphrates rivers. Among these was the Assyrian Empire. The complex geopolitical history of ancient Assyria is typically divided by historians into three distinct phases: the Old Assyrian Empire, the Middle Assyrian period, and the Neo-Assyrian period. Over almost two thousand years, political control shifted and empires rose and fell. The Assyrian state remained politically centered around the Akkadian-speaking city of Aššur for most of this time.
Related: Brief History of Assyrians
Evidence points to the existence of a settlement at Aššur around 2600 BC. At that time, the settlement seems to have been an outpost of the Sumerian Empire which controlled much of Bronze Age Mesopotamia. The city then came under the control of the Akkadian Empire. However, by about 4,000 years ago, the city had achieved independence--a small city-state under its own king. These early kings styled themselves viceroys of Ashur, the god of the city for whom they constructed temples. Successive kings began military campaigns to expand Assyrian controlled territory and trade lines. Under King Shamshi-Adad I (1808--1776 BC), the Old Assyrian Empire reached its widest extent, covering most of Mesopotamia and incorporating parts of the Levant and Anatolia. However, after his death, the Old Assyrian Empire was made subservient to the Babylonian Empire under Hammurabi (famous for his law code). Despite this, a series of Assyrian kings managed to outlast Babylonian control and survive subordination to other powers for several more hundred years.
The next major phase of Assyrian history traditionally begins in the mid 14th century BC. King Assur-Uballit I once more established full Assyrian independence, this time from the Kingdom of Mitanni. Successive kings began to expand the city state's control once more, conquering territory once held by Mittani, Hittite, and Babylonian rulers. New territory could be governed directly or by subordinated local princes. The Empire's long succession of military victories was recorded--in cuneiform writing--on stone tablets and monuments which glorified each victorious Assyrian king. The Assyrian Empire left countless written records of governance and imperial expansion. An advanced society, the Assyrians built magnificent cities with grand temples and palaces. Like Hammurabi, the Assyrians also had a written code of law.
Between 1200 and 900 BC, new migratory populations disrupted many Near Eastern kingdoms. Despite some territorial loss, the Assyrian state survived due to its military might and relatively stable monarchy. The Neo-Assyrian period canonically begins in 911 BC with the rise of King Adad-nirari II. He began a new period of aggressive expansion. The Neo-Assyrian Empire would reach much further than ever before. At its peak, Assyrian-controlled territories (including subjugated kingdoms) stretched from Egypt to the Persian Gulf and north into modern-day Turkey. Throughout these lands were scattered fortified provincial cities and many rural communities. Some of the most famous Assyrian building projects were begun during this period. The conquerer King Ashurnasirpal II (883 to 859 BC) chose to move the capital of the empire from Aššur. He built himself an immense palace complex in the city of Nimrud (also known as Kalhu) and set up court within the opulent walls depicting his own valorous deeds. Several kings later, the capital moved to Nineveh under Sennacherib (704 to 681 BC), who built his own new palace in the large ancient city. For a time, Nineveh was the largest city in the world.
The fall of the Assyrian Empire began around 627 BC when competition for the succession to the throne led to civil war. Weakened by internal division, vassal states began to separate from imperial control. Other groups took advantage of the situation. Scythians attacked the provinces and the Medes forced their way into Assyrian-controlled lands. The city of Nimrud was sacked in 615 BC, and Nineveh fell in 612. In 609 BC, the last stand of imperial troops fell. Although Assyria remained an important cultural and political region in the succeeding polities of the near east, the independent imperial tradition had ended.
Common Motifs of Assyrian Art
As one is introduced to Ancient Assyrian art, there are many common motifs to know. Lions regularly appear in Assyrian art. In ancient days, the Asiatic lion (slightly smaller than the African) roamed the Near East. To hunt the lions was a kingly activity of great importance. Famous carved reliefs of lion hunts show King Ashurbanipal hunting lions in an arena, sometimes from a chariot. The lion was also important as a symbol of the goddess Ishtar, the Queen of Heaven, one of the two most important deities in the Assyrian pantheon. Her symbolic lions can be seen in the faience brickwork of the Gates of Babylon, as Ishtar was also worshipped by that neighboring kingdom.
Bulls are another common motif in Assyrian art. Whether carved in ivory or stone, the bull was more than just an important food source. Sumerian and Akkadian traditions describe the Bull of Heaven, which features in a conflict between Ishtar and Gilgamesh in the Epic of Gilgamesh. The bull remained an important symbol in Assyrian and other Mesopotamian cultures. It also was combined with human, lion, and avian traits to form mythical creatures. For example, Lamassu combined winged lions or bulls with human heads. Their caps carried horns, identifying them as divine creatures. These imposing stone statues usually guarded gateways, towering imperiously over all who entered. From the side, a fifth leg was cleverly sculpted to give an impression of movement as one passed by.
The other of the two main Assyrian deities was Aššur, or Ashur. Associated with the city of Aššur, the Assyrians promoted him as their chief deity. He was often included in art as a horned and winged sun disk with rays of divinity emanating. Within the disk, the figure of the god often clasps a bow. Often Ashur hovers over a sacred tree--often considered a Tree of Life--tended by winged supernatural figures in human shape and kingly dress. Another commonly depicted theme is kingly power. At times the Assyrian ruler himself is depicted--perhaps hunting lions or tending to the sacred tree. Particularly in palace decorations, carved cuneiform writing is used to declare the king's glory, bravery, building projects, and military victories. Foreign visitors to the palaces of Assyrian kings would be in no doubt of his might.
What sort of artwork did the Ancient Assyrians create?
Assyrian kings lined their palace walls with countless panels of carved stone reliefs depicting deities, kings, and scenes of imperial life. These reliefs were typically carved in gypsum alabaster, but they would have been brightly painted (just like Roman marble). Some of the most famous reliefs come from the Northwest Palace at Nimrud. Many of these feature tall winged beings with stylized beards. Although not specific gods, the spirits wear horned crowns identifying them as otherworldly beings. Other figures also appear, including royal attendants, soldiers, the sacred tree, and the king himself. Women are rarely depicted, and the main deities typically appear in symbolic form rather than as figural representations. The stone reliefs told stories of conquest, hunts, imperial rule, and religious ceremonies.
Written messages were also added to the scenes depicted. At Nimrud, across the figural reliefs of winged figures was carved a Standard Inscription. Akkadian rendered in cuneiform script, King Ashurnasirpal II listed his ancestry, titles, military victories, and his building projects. This inscription repeats across the panels. A not-so-subtle intimidation tactic and monument to the king, the repetitious message may have also been imbued with protective powers.
The Ancient Assyrians left behind many intricately carved ivory pieces. Scholars believe most of the raw ivory came through trade routes from Africa. Used to make items such as fan handles, boxes, and furniture inlays, the ivory was typically carved using an incised technique (more rarely, in relief). Ivory pieces could depict similar figures to those shown in stone reliefs. Floral motifs were common. However, some specific regional influences can be seen in the Assyrian ivory artifacts.
Scholars believe many of the ivory pieces found at cities such as Nimrud were crafted in North Syria and the Phoenician city-states. Paid as tributes to Assyrian kings, these ivory pieces share motifs with the art of Ancient Egypt--including sphinxes and pharaonic crowns. Ivory pieces could be combined with colorful accents or inlaid in wood for a beautiful effect. These more delicate additions have often not survived intact.
BRONZE AND GOLD
The Middle Assyrian period corresponds to the peak of the Bronze Age. Fittingly, the Assyrians used bronze to create plaques, pendants, and weapons--among other items. Figural bronze plaques covered in a layer of gold served as decoration. Amulets in the shape of deities and spirits could offer protection to the wearer. Bronze dog figurines (or clay models) were even buried beneath buildings as protective "guard dog" charms. And beautiful curved sickle swords of bronze denoted authority.
Gold was used in Assyrian trade and tribute as the precious metal could denote status and wealth. Embossed gold sheets could be used to decorate bronze objects, or to coat wood and other less precious materials. Golden tablets have also been documented. Elaborate gold jewelry was discovered en masse by archeologists in royal tombs, buried with a woman who may have been a queen.
Artisans in ancient Mesopotamia and Egypt were the first known producers of man-made glass, with the first glass items appearing around 3500 BC. Glass vessels developed around 1500 BC. The Assyrians wrote texts on glass production which far predate the use of blown glass techniques. The famed Sargon Vase was crafted between 721 and 705 BC by drilling and carving a solid block of glass. The handled jug carries an inscription of text and a lion--thought to be a symbol of the Neo-Assyrian King Sargon II. Experts have suggested the vessel may have been made by Phoenician artisans and inscribed later, as it appears similar to Egyptian rock-crystal vessels. Glass was also used to create beautiful decorative inlays for decorative use. Despite the delicate nature of glass, examples of these works have survived.
The Ancient Assyrians, like other Mesopotamian cultures before them, used cylinder seals at all levels of society. A cylinder seal was a carved cylindric stone that could be worn on a string. An individual could readily use the stone to imprint a unique design. The designs served as an individual's signature, often reflecting the profession and status of the holder.
The Assyrian Empire controlled many trade routes and had a thriving imperial bureaucracy that required frequent documentation. Crafted by a seal cutter, the seals could be marble, quartz, or another semi-precious stone. When rolled across wet clay tablets, the seal left behind its deign raised upon the clay. Many of these detailed miniature works of art can be seen in museum collections today; in their variety, they offer a window into the business of non-royal Assyrians.
CUNEIFORM TABLETS AND CYLINDERS
Although not visual art, the Assyrians certainly crafted enduring physical works of writing. They wrote on clay tablets and also on large "cylindrical" clay prisms. Written in cuneiform were medical texts, astrological predictions, and military records. The Royal Library of Ashurbanipal, the late Neo-Assyrian king, was discovered piecemeal in the 19th century. As the king conquered lands he had collected texts, but he also sent out scholars to record texts from abroad. His library held thousands of well-organized tablets and writing boards--from the Epic of Gilgamesh to banal bookkeeping records. These works have been invaluable to historians as well as to world culture. Many works written in wax or on other organic materials have unfortunately been lost to history.
STONE STELAE AND OBELISKS
For an ancient Assyrian king, an obelisk or stone stela (freestanding stone) was a handy means to publicly display both piety and power. Sculpted in relief, a king could depict himself with symbols of the gods. For example, the stela of Shamshi-Adad V shows the king extending his raised hand towards five small symbols, each representing a god. Among them are the star of Ishtar and the horned helmet of Ashur. Ashurnasirpal II--creator of the palace at Nimrud--also depicted himself on a stela, adding cuneiform text like that seen on the Nimrud wall panels.
Like the Egyptians, the Assyrians used stone obelisks as public monuments. Most famous is perhaps the Black Obelisk of Shalmaneser III, which was placed in the central plaza of the city of Nimrud for all to see in 825 BC. The obelisk carries scenes that depict subjugated kingdoms paying tribute to the Assyrian king. Cuneiform script details the king's military victories as well. The text of the obelisk contains the first known mention of the Persians and may also reference Jehu, a King of Israel mentioned in the Bible.
Ancient Assyrian Art Today
Today, many Ancient Assyrian treasures are scattered throughout European and American museums and private collections. As in Egypt and other countries with rich ancient traditions, colonizing and proselytizing foreigners looted treasures for academic reasons as well as personal gain. The 19th-century archeologists encountering these antiquities at the grand ruins of Nimrud were quick to strip the walls and ship the reliefs overseas. This looting tradition continued well into the 21st century. With the beginning of the Iraq War in 2003, wartime allowed for the theft of over 15,000 items from the Iraqi National Museum. While many items remain missing, some appeared in the United States, Germany, the UK, and Canada. Some were seized and returned years later, such as these 45 objects returned in 2012.
In 2015, ISIS insurgents destroyed most of the ancient city of Nimrud, in addition to other historical sites. The extreme conflicts in the region also appear to have allowed an increase in looting from archeological sites; only some of those artifacts were intercepted by customs officials in other countries. Later, in 2018, Hobby Lobby paid a $3.1 million fine for their role in purchasing illegally looted and smuggled artifacts from the Sumerian city Irisagrig, also in modern Iraq. The objects were returned to the Iraqi government.
The return of objects taken from Mesopotamia many years ago remains a question faced by museums--not just about Ancient Assyrian art, but about all goods obtained through imperialism and the thirst for antiquities. Ancient Assyrian sites and artifacts can be found in Turkey, Iran, Iraq, and Syria; when many of these items will return to these lands where modern Assyrians live is--as of yet--an open question.