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Introduction to the Ancient Near East

By Dr. Senta German
​The Euphrates River in 2005
Map of the Ancient Near East (courtesy of the Oriental Institute of the University of Chicago)
Map of the Ancient Near East (courtesy of the Oriental Institute of the University of Chicago)

The Cradle of Civilization

Mesopotamia, the area between the Tigris and Euphrates Rivers (in modern day Iraq), is often referred to as the cradle of civilization because it is the first place where complex urban centers grew. The history of Mesopotamia, however, is inextricably tied to the greater region, which is comprised of the modern nations of Egypt, Iran, Syria, Jordan, Israel, Lebanon, the Gulf states and Turkey. We often refer to this region as the Near or Middle East.

What's in a Name?

Why is this region named this way? What is it in the middle of or near to? It is the proximity of these countries to the West (to Europe) that led this area to be termed "the near east." Ancient Near Eastern Art has long been part of the history of Western art, but history didn't have to be written this way. It is largely because of the West's interests in the Biblical "Holy Land" that ancient Near Eastern materials have been regarded as part of the Western canon of the history of art.
A fishing boat in the Euphrates Southern Iraq (photo: Aziz1005, CC BY 4.0)
A fishing boat in the Euphrates Southern Iraq (photo: Aziz1005, CC BY 4.0)

The Land of the Bible

Entrance to Ninevah Court, Illustration from: Sir Austen Henry Layard, The Ninevah Court in the Crystal Palace (London: Bradbury and Evans, 1854), p. 39.
Entrance to Ninevah Court, Illustration from: Sir Austen Henry Layard, The Ninevah Court in the Crystal Palace (London: Bradbury and Evans, 1854), p. 39.
An interest in finding the locations of cities mentioned in the Bible (such as Nineveh and Babylon) inspired the original English and French 19th century archaeological expeditions to the Near East. These sites were discovered and their excavations revealed to the world a style of art which had been lost.
Ancient Near Eastern art remains popular today; in 2007 a 2.25 inch high, early 3rd millennium limestone sculpture, the Guennol Lioness, was sold for 57.2 million dollars, the second most expensive piece of sculpture sold at that time.

A Complex History

The history of the Ancient Near East is complex and the names of rulers and locations are often difficult to read, pronounce and spell. Moreover, this is a part of the world which today remains remote from the West culturally while political tensions have impeded mutual understanding. However, once you get a handle on the general geography of the area and its history, the art reveals itself as uniquely beautiful, intimate and fascinating in its complexity.

Geography and the Growth of Cities

Mesopotamia remains a region of stark geographical contrasts: vast deserts rimmed by rugged mountain ranges, punctuated by lush oases. Flowing through this topography are rivers and it was the irrigation systems that drew off the water from these rivers, specifically in southern Mesopotamia, that provided the support for the very early urban centers here.
The region lacks stone (for building), precious metals and timber. Historically, it has relied on the long-distance trade of its agricultural products to secure these materials. The large-scale irrigation systems and labor required for extensive farming was managed by a centralized authority.
The early development of this authority, over large numbers of people in an urban center, is really what distinguishes Mesopotamia and gives it a special position in the history of Western culture. Here, for the first time, thanks to ample food and a strong administrative class, the West develops a very high level of craft specialization and artistic production.
Essay by Dr. Senta German

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  • piceratops seed style avatar for user Skyy Moore
    So, Mesopotamia is a name that could be used interchangeably with the Middle East or the Near East?
    (4 votes)
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  • mr pink red style avatar for user Zachary Mayberry
    this is sort of an off beat question and probably a little hard to know but when you say Mesopotamia was one of the first complex urban centers, about how many people actually lived there? how does it compare to a city like New York city?
    (5 votes)
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    • piceratops ultimate style avatar for user Kevin Gøhler
      The population is something that have changed rapidly over time, as civilization allowed more people to live together, specializing in different trades. One of the earliest larger cities of Mesapotamia was Uruk. It had an estimated 5000 inhabitants ine the year 4000 BCE, and grew to 50.000 inhabitants within the succeeding millenium. Compared to New York in our day, that's not much. But if we take the total world population in consideration, it is actually a very large city, of it's time.

      It is estimated (by McEvedy), that the World population of 3000 BCE was 14 million people. Thus the population of Uruk was 0.35 % of the total World population. Compare that with New York (0.12 %) and Uruk reveals it self as a rather large city.

      Bonus: Around the 1st century BCE the first cities reach a population over 1 million inhabitants. Those cities were Rome (Italy) and Alexandria (Egypt)
      (12 votes)
  • blobby green style avatar for user Alisa Pjetrovic
    What were the conventions of art in the Ancient Middle East?
    (3 votes)
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  • blobby green style avatar for user Ivan D. Lucio
    I think you should talk about Gobekli Tepe some where of this section...
    (3 votes)
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  • leafers seedling style avatar for user Rachel VanDusen
    What was excavated by the English and French in 19th century archaeological expeditions to the Near East?
    (3 votes)
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  • blobby green style avatar for user Javier Alvarez
    Do you think the wars in Iraq ( Desert Storm, Freedom Operation) destroyed much of the ancient art there? Do you think new finding will be made?
    (2 votes)
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  • aqualine seed style avatar for user Bill Warren
    reads like an encyclopedia article.
    (1 vote)
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  • old spice man blue style avatar for user Aaron Brockington
    How is the Euphrates river so big?

    Why would they need the river?
    (1 vote)
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  • leaf red style avatar for user ibell38
    In the sixth paragraph, how do they make irrigation systems? Do they dig?
    (0 votes)
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  • starky seedling style avatar for user ewood
    What does it mean other wise this is useless to me!
    (0 votes)
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    • aqualine tree style avatar for user David Alexander
      You may be right. For the time being, an introduction to the ancient near east may be useless to you. But in later years, the knowledge of another time and another place may come in handy. Of course, not if you aspire to work at a carwash or cell phone store, but if you're going to function in the wider society, it can be useful to know stuff like this.
      (2 votes)