The Neo-Sumerian period or Third Dynasty of UR

Around 21-20 centuries BC Ur was restored as the Sumerian capital and the III Dynasty of Ur begun under the rule of the king Ur-Nammu. However, Akkadian influence is clearly detectable in the art of this period: although force and power returned to the forefront of artistic creation, a softening of the ancestral rigidity in the Sumerian art reflected the influence that Akkadian dominance had left.

King Ur-Nammu must have reigned 18 years and was succeeded by his son Dungi who reigned nearly half a century. Countless monuments whose bricks were sealed with the names of these two sovereigns showed the construction power of both kings. The first concern of Ur-Nammu was to fortify the capital so that it could withstand any attack. The walls of Ur built during this time were almost 25 mt. wide at the base. But this formidable work is by no means the most important building of the Neo-Sumerians. The ruins of the temple of Sin, the moon-god, was a ziggurat or stepped tower constructed so that the deity could descend from heaven to earth. Most Sumerian cities had similar constructions. These monuments had three to seven stories, each with a smaller base than the preceding, and corresponded to the type of building that the Bible describes as the “Tower of Babel”.

Reconstruction of the ziggurat of Ur-Nammu at Ur (circa 2100 BC).

The ziggurat of Ur, started by Ur-Nammu, was a three-story tower. The first story was completely solid and was 65 mt. long by 43 mt. wide with a height of 22 mt. Its walls were slightly inclined. The first  floor platform could be reached by three monumental stairs:  two laterals attached to the front and a third facing the front. These three stairs had 100 steps. Above this giant pedestal stood other two overlapping platforms on top of which was the temple for the god. Another temple at the base conditioned as home for the divinity transformed this building as a monumental stair to ascend or descend from heaven. The prophet Jacob, after visiting the land from where his father had came, must had remembered the religious ceremonies and processions that circulated in these giant stairs of the Ur’s ziggurat. Today is still amazing to think that these gigantic architectures were made of bricks none of which reaches 40 cm. Such constructions should required millions of these handmade pieces and overcome enormous difficulties to engage the whole building.

Statue of Gudea, Patesi of Lagash, in worship (Louvre), ca. XXII century BC.

We know the Neo-Sumerian sculpture by the findings in Lagash, a city whose sovereigns never had the title of king but were known as patesi or governors. According to ancient lists, the most important was the seventh called Gudea. This patesi, who ruled Lagash for just over 15 years, built temples and palaces and has left us a prodigious series of his portraits that are perhaps the most impressive group of sculptures done by the will of a single individual. We know today more than 30 of these statues carved in hard and shiny volcanic rocks: blue diorite and black dolerite. In all of them the patesi Gudea appears dressed as a monk in a robe that leaves bare right shoulder and arm, and always with hands clasped in prayer. The fineness of details like fingers, lips and eyebrows, and some subtly accented muscles on the body’s surface are in contrast to the severe simplicity of the gown. All the statues of the series not only produce an impression of serene majesty, but also of intense religious fervor.

Patesi Gudea (Louvre), Sumerian ruler of Lagash, ca. 2200 BC. He wears on his head a geometric band used in certain religious ceremonies, and his skirt has the text with the prayers.

Through millennia has came to us one of the most sacred objects of the trousseau of Gudea: the cup of libations that he used in religious ceremonies. It is a stone goblet whose reliefs tell us that, despite the humanization of the gods introduced during the Akkadian domination, the old divine monsters did not completely disappeared. Gudea’s libation cup have two standing dragons holding a spear with their front legs. They are terrifying monsters with snakehead, feline body, eagle’s wings and claws, and scorpion’s tail. Both monsters guard a cane on which two serpents twist and whose heads ascend to the rim of the cup as if they wanted to drink from the ritual’s liquid. This sacred symbol is already very similar to the Caduceus of the Greek Asclepius which was used by ancient physicians, and that still remains with some modifications as an emblem of pharmacy and medicine.

Libations cup of Gudea (Louvre). It was made in soapstone and dated from the XXII century BC.

Excavations of ancient Lagash have provided several statues that don’t represent portraits of kings: young men with face and head fully shaved, and various representations of women. The most important of all these female representations is a figure with hands joined in the same position as those of Gudea and dressed in tunic and mantle adorned with embroidered ribbons and whose curly hair is covered with a cloth headdress attached also with a ribbon. The majestic air of this image and a mystical sense that emerges from it accentuated by the prayer position of her hands have led many archaeologists to identify her as the own Gudea’s wife.

Woman with a headdress (Louvre), from Lagash. In this green soapstone bust archaeologists have believed to see a portrait of Gudea’s wife.

The Neo-Sumerian statues show us a completely original aesthetic interpretation of the human face. In this sense it is impressive the head of a princess found in Ur in 1927. She wears a smooth circular headband like a gold ring to hold her hair and, despite missing the bottom of her face, her eyes, inlaid in lapis lazuli, look at us with a millenary expression of astonishment.

Female head of alabaster (Museum of the University of Pennsylvania, Philadelphia), from Ur and dated around 2100 BC. It has been identified with a Neo-Sumerian princess and also with the goddess Ningal.
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