The Ancient Near East
circa 7000 B.C.–A.D. 650
The term “Near East” refers to the vast expanse of land extending from the eastern Mediterranean coast to central Asia. Today many separate countries exist in this area, but in antiquity there were no nations or political boundaries. Instead, geographic barriers such as mountains and rivers separated people from one another. Distinct cultures arose in some of these areas, such as between the Tigris and Euphrates rivers in a region now called Mesopotamia (“The Land Between the Two Rivers”) in modern Iraq and in the highlands of central Anatolia (modern Turkey). The people of these cultures derived their personal identity from membership in a group sharing common customs, beliefs, and language.
Although each of these groups—the Sumerians, Assyrians, Achaemenid Persians, Sabeans, and others—had its own artistic tradition, they frequently borrowed themes and styles from one another. Certain subjects became standard throughout the Near East and were repeated for centuries. For more than four thousand years, for example, artists living in what are today Iran, Iraq, and Turkey fashioned images of supernatural beings combining human and animal characteristics.
Ancient Near Eastern art served several purposes. Some objects, like the twelve palace reliefs installed along the walls of this gallery, were meant to impress and overpower viewers. Figures of gods, in both human and animal form, were placed in temples and worshiped. A few objects, especially small animal sculptures, seem to have been made simply to be enjoyed and appreciated.
How the Reliefs Came to Brooklyn
In 879 b.c., King Ashur-nasir-pal II celebrated the completion of his palace at Kalhu by hosting a gala banquet. The festivities lasted ten days and drew 69,574 guests. The visitors wandered through the palace, which covered more than two acres, and marveled at the walls decorated with massive alabaster slabs, including the twelve displayed here. The glory, however, was short-lived. Within a few generations the palace had been abandoned, and eventually it was forgotten.
In 1840, a twenty-three-year-old English diplomat named Austen Henry Layard, rafting down the Tigris River from Mosul to Baghdad, noticed an unusually large mound and stopped to examine it. Curious about pieces of brick, alabaster, and pottery projecting from the earth, Layard vowed to return and excavate the site. Without knowing it, he had discovered the remains of Ashur-nasir-pal II’s palace.
When Layard finally returned in 1845, he began unearthing such impressive material that the British Museum in London, then engaged in a rivalry for Middle East antiquities with the Louvre in Paris, gave him two thousand pounds to send all the monumental sculptures and relief-decorated slabs he could. He sent so many that the museum, perhaps figuratively as well as literally, could not take any more. Although most of the reliefs Layard sent the British Museum are still on view there, some went on sale.
In 1855, Henry Stevens, an American living in London, purchased the twelve reliefs now in this gallery and shipped them to Boston, hoping municipal authorities would acquire them for that city. When the necessary funds could not be raised, Stevens sought a buyer in New York. Almost immediately, James Lenox bought the reliefs for the New-York Historical Society in Manhattan. In 1937, the society decided it could no longer house the slabs and lent them to the Brooklyn Museum. Finally, in 1955, Hagop Kevorkian, a collector and dealer of ancient Near Eastern Art in New York, presented the Museum with the funds necessary to purchase the twelve reliefs from the society and install them here in this space, now named the Hagop Kevorkian Gallery of Ancient Middle Eastern Art.
The Reliefs of King Ashur-nasir-pal II
The twelve massive carved alabaster panels that line the walls of this gallery are but a small sample of the hundreds of such reliefs, all originally brightly painted, that once adorned the vast palace of Ashur-nasir-pal II, one of the greatest kings of ancient Assyria. Completed in 879 b.c. at the site of Kalhu (modern Nimrud) in what is now Iraq, slightly north of Baghdad, the palace was the heart of a vast empire.
Like modern billboards trumpeting the virtues of some authoritarian ruler, the reliefs in Ashur-nasir-pal II’s palace served a propagandistic purpose, proclaiming the king’s legitimacy. Because most people in the ancient Near East understood the administration of the state as a collaborative effort between the king and the gods, many of the reliefs show the ruler and his supernatural attendants celebrating religious rituals. The most common depict the ruler and his winged protectors (genies) tending a sacred tree, an ancient symbol associated with the divine power to bestow life. Other reliefs from the palace show Ashur-nasir-pal II engaged in such princely pursuits as warfare, hunting, or celebrating his victories at elaborate banquets.
Nearly all the royal reliefs contain the same inscription. The script is cuneiform, a highly stylized, wedge-shaped version of picture writing that began in Mesopotamia around 3100 b.c. The language is Akkadian, the language of international diplomacy in the ancient Near East. The text, known as the Standard Inscription, begins by tracing Ashur-nasir-pal II’s lineage back three generations. It recounts his military victories, defines the boundaries of his empire, and tells how he founded Kalhu and built the palace:
I am Ashur-nasir-pal the obedient prince, the worshiper of the Great Gods, the fierce dragon, the conqueror of all cities and mountains to their full extent, the king of rulers who tames the dangerous enemies, the [one] crowned with glory, the [one] unafraid of battle, the relentless lion, who shakes resistance, the king of praise, the shepherd, protection of the world, the king whose command blots out mountains and seas . . . . (Translation from Samuel M. Paley, The King of the World: Ashur-nasir-pal II of Assyria 883–859 b.c. [New York: Brooklyn Museum, 1976])
Such bombast, as well as the degree to which the reliefs of Ashur-nasir-pal II dominate this gallery, can leave a misleading impression of the importance of Assyria in the ancient Middle East. Although a great deal of the prophetic literature of the Bible tells of the threat of Assyria, and in 722 b.c. the Assyrians did finally conquer the kingdom of Israel, from its expansion in the ninth century b.c. to its defeat by the Babylonians and the Medes three centuries later, the Assyrian Empire was comparatively short-lived. The other treasures displayed here—the products of ancient Iran, Iraq, Syria, Israel, Arabia, and Turkey—show that Assyria was but one of many opulent cultures that flourished in that part of the world in antiquity.