Babylonian and Assyrian art: First Babylonian period

The Neo-Sumerian political organization was swept away in 2015 BCE by an invasion of western Semites. The ancient capital of Ur was destroyed and its heritage was shared between various regional kings: the princes of Mari, of Larsa, of Babylon, and others. This situation lasted until Hammurabi, the king of Babylon, restored the Mesopotamian unity. During the period prior to this unification, a rich art of Semitic inspiration developed around Babylon.

One of the main centers for the development of this art was the distant city of Mari on the Middle Euphrates. The amazing thing about this new art period of Mari was the formidable development of architecture. Of the statues found in the temples of Mari it is worth quoting the “Goddess inhaling the scent of a flower”, now in the Louvre Museum, a female figure adorned with bracelets and a big necklace around her neck, she appears also crowned by the heavy helmet full of sacred horns typical of the Semites.

Low relief from Mari representing a goddess breathing the perfume of a flower (Louvre).

In the royal palace of Mari not only sculptures were found: many walls of its rooms and courtyards were decorated with murals* painted in bright colors using the tempera technique. The topics were varied: abstract geometric compositions, scenes of war, religious ceremonies and events of everyday life. The most notable is that these paintings, contemporary to the frescoes of the pre-Hellenic Crete palaces which we will discuss later, show certain stylistic relationships with them. Who influenced whom? It is known that Crete and Mesopotamia had economic and trade relations as evidenced by diplomatic archives written on clay tablets found in the palace of Mari.

Fragment of a wall painting from the palace of Mari known as the Organizer of Sacrifices describing a ritual scene (Louvre). To the right, a prominent character who is identified with the king, opens the courtship. He is followed by the sacrificer with baton in hand, assisted by a bearded assistant bearing the bull prepared for sacrifice.
Reconstruction of the temple of the goddess Ishtar-Kititum, in Ishchali from the beginning of the second millennium BCE.

Other important artistic centers of this Pre-Babylonian period were the cities of Ishchali and Larsa. The first has become famous for its temple dedicated to the goddess Ishtar. Conceived as home for the divinity, its structure with several rooms arranged around four courtyards resemble the general outline of the royal palace of Mari. The unique feature of this temple is that the patios were interspersed between a door and the sanctuary so that the three elements (patios, rooms, sanctuary) are arranged in a straight line following the same axis. Larsa’s prestige comes from the wonderful bronzes that have been found among its ruins. In these bronzes there is a remarkable Semitic influence showing movement and vitality. One of these bronzes depicts a group of three mountain goats standing on their hind legs and with heads plated with a gold lamina.

Bronze from Larsa representing a group of three mountain goats (Louvre). The goats are held in balance on their rear legs over a pedestal with two enigmatic bearded characters holding a sort of a bowl.

Of the various Semitic political centers, Babylon ended dominating them all. This unification was due to a great historical personality whose life we ​​know in detail: King Hammurabi who reigned between 1790 and 1750 BCE. In 1760 BCE he conquered and destroyed the city of Mari. Though his wisest conquest was his patience in waiting 25 years for his most powerful enemy, the king Rim-Sin of Larsa, to become old enough to be easily defeated. Hammurabi was also the first great legislator of History: the laws collected in his Code of 282 articles were influential even after the demise of the Babylonian kingdom.

The tablet of “The Code of Hammurabi” was found in 1902 in Susa, the ancient capital of Elam, where it was taken as a war trophy six centuries later. It is a vertical block of diorite similar to a column in which the Code’s articles were carved in parallel columns. At the top there is a wonderful relief in which we see the encoder King Hammurabi in conversation with Shamash, the sun-god. Shamash is depicted on top of a mountain suggested by the undulations designed under his feet.  Behind him, fire and flames arise over his shoulders. The god is dressed in the Babylonian garment but is still showing the wool skirt (kaunakes) typical of the Sumerian gods. He is holding in one hand the scepter and the circle and his head is crowned by a four-horned tiara. Hammurabi, who listens to him with one arm raised, is still dressed as Gudea with the mantle held in the left shoulder leaving the right arm naked. However, he has the big Semitic beard and his profile is also of another race than that of Gudea: the nose instead of extending from the forehead in a straight line has the typical curve of the Semites. Every detail of the relief is of surpassing beauty but what astounds the most is the way both characters look at each other.

The stele of the Code of Hammurabi (Louvre).

In the excavations made in the cities of the first Babylonian empire there have been found clay tablets representing gods and men with great familiarity. It is very characteristic the new representation of Ishtar, the ancient Sumerian venus, which the Babylonians represented naked with short hair and jeweled with necklaces. She often has her hands on her belly or holding her breasts. The same clay tablets depicted scenes from the daily life of the Babylonians, like the one representing a harpist sitting on a folding chair and plucking the strings of her harp.

Two Babylonian goddesses (Louvre) ca. 2000 BCE. To the left a goddess of fertility, identified with Ishtar, the ancient Sumerian Venus Hebrews called Astarte. The voluptuousness of these figures explain the abomination towards the worship of Astarte narrated in the Bible. On the right, a winged Venus with bird of prey feet, standing on two goats.
Terracotta plaque depicting a Babylonian harpist from the early second millennium BCE (Louvre).

During the first Babylonian empire the production of cylinders to seal documents written on clay tablets increased. The favorite topic is Gilgamesh the hero of an old Mesopotamian epic of Sumerian origin and depicted fighting with buffaloes and lions.

Seal of Babylon (British Museum) popularly known as “Cylinder of the Temptation”, ca. third millennium BCE. Represents the tree of life between a man, a woman, and two snakes.

The last phase of this period of Babylonian art developed under the foreign domination of the Kassites, invaders from Mesopotamia. The Kassites occupied Babylon around 1600 BCE and built a new capital Dur-Kurigalzu near modern Baghdad. In Dur-Kurigalzu have been found several Babylonian-type temples, a large palace with the typical structure of different sectors organized around large courtyards, and a magnificent ziggurat 60 meters high which dominates the field of ruins until today.

The most original objects inherited from the Kassite art were the use of molded bricks whose assembly made possible to build gigantic walls with great ceramic clay reliefs and some curious pieces of stone with reliefs and inscriptions called kudurrus*. This technique of the walls with ceramic reliefs was inherited by the architects of Elam, the Neo-Babylonian, and the Achaemenid Persians whom using this system created enduring works of art covered with colored enamel. The kudurrus were stone blocks generally made of black diorite which sought to define the limits of the properties and that were kept in the temples. Their long inscriptions described the boundaries of a property as well as the position of its limits, and ended usually with an invocation to the gods and terrible curse spells for those who dare to change these boundaries. The kudurru of king Melishipak (around 1200 BCE) has on its front side the image of the king himself offering his daughter to the goddess Nana and on the reverse, divided into five horizontal registers, have all the symbols of the Babylonian and Kassite pantheons.

Kudurru of Melishipak (Louvre) found in Susa. The scenes are arranged in a series of overlapping registers difficult to interpret. In the upper register is the supreme triad scene: the crescent of Sin, the star of Ishtar, and the radial disc of Shamash. In the second register, the gods of the underworld and war appear. In the lower register, there is a snake with horns and a scorpion.

This first Babylonian period ended with the arrival of the Assyrians and their powerful disciplined army, superiorly armed. Adding the period of the several regional Semite kings, the first Babylonian empire, and the period of Kassite domination, this period we just studied had lasted just a little over eight centuries.


Kudurru: (from ancient Akkadian meaning “frontier” or “boundary”). A type of stone document used as boundary stones and as records of land grants to vassals by the Kassites in ancient Babylonia between the 16th and 12th centuries BCE. The kudurrus are the only surviving artworks for the period of Kassite rule in Babylonia. The kudurrus recorded the land granted by the king to his vassals as a record of his decision. The original kudurru would be stored in a temple while the person granted the land would be given a clay copy to use as a boundary stone to confirm legal ownership. The kudurrus would contain symbolic images of the deities who were protecting the contract, the contract, and the divine curse that would be placed on a person who broke the contract. Some kudurrus also contained an image of the king who granted the land. As they contained a great deal of images as well as a contract, kudurrus were engraved on large slabs of stone.

Mural: Any piece of artwork painted or applied directly on a wall, ceiling or other permanent surface. A distinguishing characteristic of mural painting is that the architectural elements of the given space are harmoniously incorporated into the picture.