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Babylonian Art

1792-539 BC: Ishtar Gate Babylon
Nebuchadnezzar, Hammurabi stele

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Babylon: Two Empires

The city of Babylon achieved initial prominence as a minor city-state, before becoming the famous capital of the First Babylonian Empire (1792-1595 BC) under Hammurabi (1792 BC), when the whole of Lower Mesopotamia became known as Babylonia.

A long series of ups and downs followed, during which Babylon managed to retain its importance as an urban and religious centre.

This culminated in Babylon's re-emergence as a centre of ancient art, during the Second Babylonian Empire (626-539 BC).

Historical Background

Before examining Babylonian art and culture, let's see how they fit into the chronology of the region, alongside rivals like Sumer, Akkad, the Kassites, and Assyria. (Note: all dates are BC.)

Sumer Culture: 4000-2334
Sumer - a loose network of 12 city-states, including Uruk and Ur - was the first civilization of the ancient world. The Sumerians dominated Mesopotamian art and culture, in the same way that the Ancient Greeks dominated classical antiquity.

Akkadian Empire: 2334-2154
Under Sargon I (r. 2334–2279 BC) and his grandson, King Naram-Sin (r. 2254–2218 BC), the Akkadian empire included most of Mesopotamia, but Sumerian remained the written language. Akkadians had little effect on the art or culture of Mesopotamia.

Neo-Sumerian Culture: 2112-2004
Power over the region finally went to the Sumerian city-state of Ur, under Ur-Nammu (r. 2112-2094 BC).

When the Persian Elamites finally overthrew Ur, it signalled the end of the city-state, and the end of Sumerian dominance. But the cultures who followed, adopted a good deal of Sumerian culture as their own.

Isin-Larsa Period: 2000-1800
For the next two centuries, southern Mesopotamia was dominated by the Amorite cities of Isin and Larsa, while Assyria was the leading power in the north.

However, neither the Amorites or the Assyrians made any significant contributions to Mesopotamian art, which stayed loyal to its Sumerian roots.

First Babylonian Dynasty: 1792-1595
Babylon rose to prominence when King Hammurabi created a unified Babylonian empire under his rule. Hereafter, Babylon remained the most important city in southern Mesopotamia until the death of Alexander the Great (323 BC).

However, the influence of Sumerian culture was so strong, that after Hammurabi's death it was Sumerian art, not anything distinctively Babylonian, that survived.

Hittites and Kassites: 1595-1155
Babylon was overrun by Hittites in 1595 BC. See Hittite Art (2000-750 BC).

They were succeeded by the Kassites, who ruled until 1160 BC, and who adopted Babylonian conventions as their own.

During this period, Mesopotamia was divided into two countries: Assyria in the north, Babylon in the south. While Babylon remained weak, Assyria enjoyed a gradual increase in influence across the region, culminating in the Neo-Assyrian Empire.

Neo-Assyrian Empire: 911–609
At its height, the Neo-Assyrian empire ruled all of Mesopotamia and the Levant. Assyrian art duly recorded most of these campaigns in its narrative reliefs in royal palaces.

During the reign of Sennacherib, in 689 BC, Babylon was sacked and all its buildings destroyed - an event which shocked people across the region, including the Assyrians, and many of their leaders.

Because, despite a series of Babylonian revolts, Assyrian kings hugely admired the great temples of southern Mesopotamia, and wanted to be accepted as legitimate rulers of Babylon.

In addition, they would have been aware of the monumental Ancient Egyptian temples at Thebes, and elsewhere.

Neo-Babylonian Empire: 626-539
The Babylonians defeated the Assyrians at Nineveh in 612 BC, after which they soon became the most powerful state in the region.

The Neo-Babylonian Empire eventually stretched from the Persian Gulf to the Mediterranean Sea.

Its founder and first king was Nabopolassar, who commissioned a new building program for Babylon, which was continued by his son Nebuchadnezzar II.

But the empire was short-lived. In 539 BC, less than a century later, Babylon was overcome by the Persian king Cyrus II.

Babylonian Art: 1792-1595

Babylonian art during the First Empire is best known for its architecture, relief sculptures, statues and fresco murals. Its most important characteristics, were as follows:

Architecture

The city of Babylon, located on the Euphrates River about 80 miles kilometres south of present-day Baghdad, was founded by Akkadians about 2300 BC.

It started as a religious and cultural centre, before King Hammurabi (r. 1792–1750 BC) made it the capital of his growing empire.

As Babylonia expanded into central and northern Mesopotamia, Hammurabi built Babylon into a major city encircled by giant walls.

As a result of its new-found status, Babylon eventually superceded both Nippur and Eridu as the region's holiest city, while the whole of southern Mesopotamia became known as Babylonia.

During Hammurabi's time, the city of Babylon had a population of about 25,000.

Unfortunately, our knowledge of Hammurabi's Babylon is extremely limited. This is partly because the water table has risen too high to allow the city to be excavated. In addition, the other other sources of information about Babylon - such as references in cuneiform texts, descriptions in the writings of Herodotus, and references in the Bible - sketch a contradictory picture of the place.

From what we know, Hammurabi and other early Babylonian kings commissioned three main types of monumental architecture: ziggurats, temples and palaces.

Ziggurats

Ziggurats (from 'ziqqurratum', the Assyrian word for height or pinnacle) were huge architectural structures made from mud-brick, supported by buttresses.

These stepped buildings usually had 2-7 floors, with each floor smaller than the one beneath it.

Each ziggurat had a flat top, which housed a shrine or temple to the local god. Access to the roof was by a series of staircases.

The entire structure was made of sun-dried bricks, with glazed fire-dried bricks making up the exterior.

Following Sumerian models, Babylonian architects used embedded pilasters as well as freestanding columns in their ziggurat designs, while decorations included fresco murals and enameled tiles, which were sometimes embellished with zinc or gold.

Ziggurats were not built for public ceremonies, but as dwelling places for the gods. The Babylonians believed that gods actually lived in the temple or shrine, so only priests and priestesses were allowed inside.

Each ziggurat was part of a temple complex that included a courtyard, living quarters for the priests, as well as administrative and storage rooms, and a place for public worship.

The most famous Babylonian example was the Etemenanki Ziggurat (1350 BC), next to the Esagila temple complex in Babylon.

This was destroyed in 689 BC by the Assyrian King Sennacherib, but later rebuilt by the Neo-Babylonian King Nebuchadnezzar II.

Note: think of ziggurats as mud-brick versions of the Ancient Egyptian Pyramids, which flourished in the Third Millennium BC. For more, see: Ancient Egyptian architecture (3000-60 BC).

Temples

Babylonian temples were often grouped along with others around the city's ziggurat, which would have dominated the skyline.

A large temple might comprise a labyrinth of courtyards, sanctuaries, shrines, places of offering, offices and workshops, usually spread over a large area. Single courtyards, for instance, could be 1600 square metres in size.

Palaces

We do not know what Hammurabi's own palace looked like, and there are precious few other Babylonian palaces from this period, to serve as models.

The foundations of one palace found in Larsa, are thought to be the remains of palace built by Nûr-Adad of Larsa (r. 1865-1850 BC), some fifty years before Hammurabi. It was a large rectangular building set well away from the temple complex, and built around a network of courtyards.

A better preserved specimen is the palace at Mari on the middle Euphrates. Founded about 2500 BC, it was restored in the early second millennium by King Zimri-Lim (r. 1775–1761 BC).

This palace was a huge fortified building, covering an area of 32 acres.

The main entrance was through the north wall and led, via a number of reception rooms, to a great public court with a well in the middle.

At one end was a raised reception room whose walls were decorated with fresco paintings. This area may have served as the venue for the majlis, or court, where local people had direct access to their ruler or his senior officials.

An entrance in the corner of this court, led into the great 'Court of the Palm', the heart of the palace complex. Here, a central door opened into the outer throne room.

Opposite this door, archaeologists uncovered the remains of a large colourful mural, covering an area of about 4.25 square metres, known as, The Investiture of Zimri-Lim.

The fresco, now in the Louvre, shows King Zimri-Lim receiving the rod-and-ring symbol from the goddess Ishtar. Other gods and godesses are in attendance, flanked by mythical beasts and foliage.

It is one of the great surviving examples of Mesopotamian painting.

Close to the great 'Court of the Palm', is the main throne room, where the king would have received important dignitaries. From here, stairs led upstairs to the king's private apartments.

The palace also included a large religious quarter, associated with the king's sacerdotal duties, as well as an extensive chancery quarter, which handled the administrative functions of the palace.

It also included important storage facilities, as well as a sumptuous set of apartments for the Queen.

Statues

Statue of Marduk

The Statue of Marduk was the physical representation of the god Marduk, the patron deity of Babylon, which was located in the Esagila, the city's main temple.

In all, there were seven statues of Marduk in Babylon: four in the Esagila temple complex; one in the Etemenanki Ziggurat, and two in other lesser temples.

The principal statue of Marduk in the Esagila - known as the Asullḫi - was housed in the cult room of Marduk, known as the E-umuša.

The Marduk statue, carved from a type of wood called mēsu, was decorated with gold and silver and dressed in ritual clothing, also partly covered with gold.

Another statue of Marduk (the Asarre), made from 'marḫušu' stone, was placed in a chapel dedicated to the god Ninurta.

Other statues of Marduk included a wood carving made from 'taskarinnu', housed in the E-kar-zaginna temple; a statue made from alabaster, in the temple of E-namtila; a hematite statue in the E-ḫursag-tilla temple; and a fourth work in the E-gišḫur-ankia temple.

It's important to realize that Babylonians believed the Asullḫi statue of Marduk was the actual god himself. They believed he lived in the temple, not in the heavens.

The Theft of Marduk

Imagine the popular horror, therefore, when the statue was stolen from the city by the Hittite King Mursili I, in 1595 BC.

It was returned to Babylon by King Šuppiluliuma I in 1344, but was again stolen by the Assyrian king Tukulti-Ninurta I, in 1225 BC, and taken to the Assyrian capital, Assur.

Although later returned, it was relocated to the nearby city of Sippar, where it was again stolen, in 1150 BC, by the Elamite King Shutruk-Nakhunte.

The statue was finally seized in Susa, the Elamite capital, by the Babylonian king Nebuchadnezzar I (r. 1125–1104 BC), during a campaign in Elam. The triumphant return of Babylon's patron deity was a monumentous event in the life of the city.

Digging Up the Past

For a short guide to digging up the ancient world, see: Archaeology: Prehistoric & Ancient. For a guide to archaeological terms, see: Archaeology Glossary.

Relief Sculptures

Reliefs were a common element in architectural decoration for interior and exterior walls, while more intricate reliefs were created for pottery, jewellery, and cylinder seals.

The two most celebrated relief sculptures carved by Babylonian sculptors during the First Babylonian dynasty, were the Stele of Hammurabi, and the Queen of the Night.

Queen of the Night

This fascinating terracotta plaque (also called the Burney Relief) is roughly 50 cm tall and 38 cm wide, and was modeled in high relief. The head of the figure projects roughly 4.5 centimetres from the surface.

The sculpture features a female nude figure viewed from the front, who wears the horned helmet of a Babylonian goddess and carries a rod and the ring of justice, as symbols of her divine status.

The deity has long wings, as well as talons instead of feet. She is standing over a pair of lions, flanked by two owls.

The figure represents the goddess Ishtar - Ancient Mesopotamian goddess of love, war, and fertility - or possibly Ishtar’s rival sister, the deity Ereshkigal, lord of the Underworld.

The Queen of the Night is now in the British Museum.

Stele of Hammurabi

The Stele of Hammurabi, roughly 2.25 metres tall, is a rounded stone slab, made of diorite, which dates to 1750 BC.

Its top register shows a relief carving of Hammurabi receiving his kingship from Shamash the sun god.

Underneath, are 3,600 lines of cuneiform characters, setting out the the Code of Hammurabi, the oldest set of written laws in history.

It is one of the most famous archeological discoveries of modern times, but its value is largely sociological. The workmanship is good but not distinguished, and shows no advance over average Sumerian sculpture.

The Stele of Hammurabi is now housed in the Louvre.

For details of Egyptian stelae, like the Rosetta Stone (196 BC), see Ancient Egyptian art (3000-30 BC).

Goldsmithery & Metalwork

Goldsmithing and other forms of metalwork were important types of art during the First Babylonian Empire, as shown by numerous gold and bronze artifacts, many engraved with elaborate patterns and motifs.

The gold pendants and beads in the New York Metropolitan Museum's Near Eastern Art collection, testify to the Babylonian craftsmanship of the period.

They include two female deities, with horned headdresses and long dresses, as well as disks with granulated rosettes, and more.

The artistic techniques used, were known throughout the first half of the second millennium BC, and necklaces with religious symbols can be seen on the figures of royalty in later Assyrian wall reliefs.

Bronze head of an Akkadian ruler

This bronze bust, decorated with detailed patterns and exaggerated facial features, was originally presumed to depict Sargon I of Akkad (2334–2279 BC).

Today, on stylistic grounds, it is thought to be Sargon's grandson Naram-Sin (2254–2218 BC).

Found in the Babylonian city of Nineveh, and dated to around 2000 BC, it is an excellent example of Bronze Age culture from southern Mesopotamia. It is now in the Rijksmuseum van Oudheden.

Other examples of Babylonian metalwork include swords, chariots and other weaponry made from silver, gold, and bronze.

Pottery

Ancient pottery was another regular feature of Babylonian art.

Ceramic ware from the First Babylonian Empire shows a return to painted abstract designs, complemented by an increased variety of forms and shapes.

Many ceramic containers displayed geometric patterns, which were added through a technique known as 'slip painting'.

A slip is a clay slurry which is dripped onto the surface of the pot. Images are then painted on this slip, with a fine brush.

But Babylonian pottery was no match for ancient Greek pottery, which emerged about the same time as the Neo-Assyrian Empire in Mesopotamia (911-609 BC).

For more, see: Timeline of Ancient Pottery.

Clay Tablets

Babylonian daily life and culture are well documented on the tens of thousands of clay tablets that have been found in excavations across Mesopotamia, during the Second Babylonian Empire.

For example, some 17,000 tablets inscribed with commercial and customs information, have been recovered from the cities of Ebla and Mari, alone.

These baked clay tablets have preserved a vast number of items written in cuneiform pictographs, which shed light on Babylonian history, customs, and culture.

Overall, while Babylonian art from the First Dynasty is rightly revered for its rareness and antiquity, its artistic quality adds little to the standards established by the Sumerians.

Neo-Babylonian Art: 626-539

The founder and first king of the Neo-Babylonian Empire was Nabopolassar (r. 626-605 BC).

He was followed by his son, Nebuchadnezzar II (r. 604–561 BC) who took his name from Nebuchadnezzar I (r. 1125–1104 B.C.), who recovered the statue of Marduk from Susa.

Neo-Babylonian art is best-known for its architectural achievements in the city of Babylon, notably: the Ishtar Gate; The Palace of Nebuchadnezzar II; and The Hanging Gardens of Babylon.

Neo-Babylonian Architecture

After taking power, King Nabopolassar ordered a new building program for the city of Babylon.

The city had been destroyed back in 689 BC by the Assyrian ruler Sennacherib. Reconstruction took 88 years.

Rebuilding Babylon

At its peak, Babylon was home to more than 200,000 inhabitants, and was the largest urban centre in the known world.

Etemenanki Ziggurat

The Etemenanki Ziggurat was a mud-brick structure which stood overlooking the Esaglia, on the east bank of the Euphrates River as it bisected Babylon.

First built between 1400 and 800 BC, before being destroyed in 689 BC, the ziggurat was dedicated to the god Marduk.

The Etemenanki is described in a cuneiform tablet found in Uruk, dating to 229 BC. It says the height of the tower was 91 metres (295 feet), and its square base measured 91 meters on each side.

A triple gate at the south side of the building, connected it with the Esagila. Another gate to the east connected it with the sacred Processional Path.

In 323 BC, Alexander the Great ordered the demolition of the ziggurat, to clear the ground for a completely new tower. Sadly, his death in the same year, put a stop to the reconstruction.

Esagila

Babylon's central architectural feature was the Esaglia - the temple of Marduk, protector and patron deity of the city, which was located just to the south of the Etemenanki Ziggurat.

The Esagila complex, completed by Nebuchadnezzar II, consisted of a large peribolos, roughly 40 X 70 metres, which contained a smaller inner court (ca. 25×40 meters), inside which was the central shrine.

This comprised an anteroom and the inner sanctum, the chamber containing the statues of Marduk and his consort Sarpanit.

Reconstruction of Borsippa

Nebuchadnezzar also began rebuilding the city of Borsippa, an important Sumerian city situated about 18 kilometres southwest of Babylon, on the east bank of the Euphrates.

He repaired the city's walls, restored the Ezida, the city's temple, as well as the ziggurat of the Ezida - the E-urme-imin-anki - and also rebuilt the temple of Gula.

Other building projects organized by Nebuchadnezzar included the Nar-Shamash, a canal to redirect water from the Euphrates to the city of Sippar, and the Median Wall, a large rampart built to defend Babylonia against invasion from the north.

The Ishtar Gate

The Ishtar Gate served as the main entry into Babylon from the north. It was the city's eighth entry gate and measured more than 12 metres (38 feet) in height.

It was constructed around 575 BC, and was dedicated to the goddess Ishtar.

The gate was built from enamelled bricks, in cobalt blues and sea greens, and decorated with more than 500 relief sculptures of bulls, lions and dragons, which honoured other Babylonian deities.

Bulls, for example are associated with Adad the god of storm and rain; dragons with Marduk, the patron saint of Babylon.

In case anyone was unsure who was responsible for this unique structure, there was a message from Nebuchadnezzar, inscribed in the limestone:

"I placed wild bulls and ferocious dragons in the gateways and adorned them with luxurious splendour so that people might gaze on them in wonder."

A reconstruction of the Ishtar Gate and the Processional Path, now stands in the Pergamon Museum, Berlin.

Hanging Gardens of Babylon

According to Greek and Roman historians, Nebuchadnezzar II was also responsible for the legendary 'Hanging Gardens of Babylon', designated as one of the Seven Wonders of the Ancient World.

They were described as an ascending series of tiered gardens bursting with a wide variety of trees, shrubs, and vines.

The gardens are reputed to have been created by Nebuchadnezzar for his wife, Amytis, because she missed the gardens of her homeland in Media, Ancient Persia.

They have also been attributed to the legendary queen Semiramis, allegedly based on the Babylonian Queen Sammu-Ramat (r. 811-806 BC), and are sometimes known as the 'Hanging Gardens of Semiramis.'

The Hanging Gardens are the only one of the Seven Wonders of the Ancient World, whose location has not been fixed. No surviving Babylonian texts refer to the gardens, and no archaeological evidence of their existence has been found in Babylon.

Three explanations have been offered for this:

Palace of Nebuchadnezzar II

Another marvel of Mesopotamian architecture from late Babylonia, was King Nebuchadnezzar II’s massive palace located in the Kadingirra district of Babylon, which is situated just south of the Ishtar Gate west of the Euphrates river.

Like the palaces of several of his Assyrian predecessors, like Ashurnasirpal II and Sennacherib, Nebuchadnezzar's palace contained a wide variety of magnificent sculptures and reliefs.

In addition, it had numerous multi-coloured glazed-brick mosaics, such as the famous Lion from a processional wall at the palace, dated to about 575 BC.

The work - one of many lions that decorated the walls in the corridors and ceremonial hall of the palace of King Nebuchadnezzar II in Babylon - is now part of the ancient art collection at the Vorderasiatisches Museum, Berlin.

The Neo-Babylonian empire was short-lived. In 539 BC, Cyrus the Great (600-530 BC) of Persia, overran Babylon, and created the Achaemenid Empire, the largest the world had yet seen.

Babylon became one of several Achaemenid Persian royal capitals, as well as an important centre of cuneiform scholarship. It was finally sacked by a Parthian army in 141 BC.

NEXT: see World's Oldest Art (from 540,000 BC).

References

(1) Bryce, Trevor (2016). Babylonia: A Very Short Introduction. Oxford University Press. pp. 8–10. ISBN 978-0-19-872647-0.
(2) Mesopotamia: The World's Earliest Civilization. Britannica Educational Publishing. p. 71. ISBN 978-1-61530-208-6.
(3) Sayce, Archibald Henry (1911). "Babylonia and Assyria". In Chisholm, Hugh (ed.). Encyclopædia Britannica. Vol. 3 (11th ed.). Cambridge University Press.
(4) Beaulieu, Paul-Alain (2018). A History of Babylon, 2200 BC - AD 75. Pondicherry: Wiley. ISBN 978-1405188999.
(5) Van De Mieroop, Marc (2005). King Hammurabi of Babylon: A Biography. Blackwell Publishing. ISBN 978-1-4051-2660-1.
(6) Baker, Heather D. (2012). "The Neo-Babylonian Empire". In Potts, D. T. (ed.). A Companion to the Archaeology of the Ancient Near East. Blackwell Publishing Ltd. pp. 914–930.

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