Ancient Babylonian Art

Simply to say the word Babylon conjures up hanging gardens and ancient civilizations. Located near the Euphrates River in Mesopotamia (present-day Iraq), the ancient city of Babylon began to grow in prominence after the fall of Sumer. It’s earliest recorded mention dates to the twenty-third century B.C. But after Sumer was conquered by the Elamites, the Amorites became the dominate force of the Fertile Crescent, as the region was dubbed in the last century. Under the Amorites, Babylon became a powerful city state and conquered other cities to become an empire which is known as the Old Babylonian Period.

Of course, during the ancient period Babylon was ruled by various groups after the Amorites like the Hittites, Kassites, and much later the Assyrians. In many ways, the city became an ancient melting pot. Spoken language changed and culture adapted to various ruling groups though it must be noted that Babylon’s art actually influenced the art of its rulers, particularly the Assyrians, since Babylon was regarded in the ancient world as a cultural center and was highly influential for centuries. Its art is a focal point among the arts of antiquity.

During the Old Babylonian Period, the art of the city was showcased in frescoes and with enameled tiles. Frequently religious in subject matter, as with other ancient civilizations, it became more complex throughout its development. Unlike the Assyrians who preferred the bas relief form, the Babylonians specialized in free standing statuary. These figures were three dimensional and largely realistic. Among the earliest examples of Babylonian statuary are the Statues of Gudea carved mainly from diorite, though alabaster, steatite, and limestone were also used. Due to a scarcity of stone, Babylon’s artists treated it as a precious material and became adept at stone cutting and carving.

Of course, household items like vases and seal cylinders were also often rendered with artistic treatment. Such items might be decorated with human forms or animals. While the ziggurat temple form was already known to the Sumerians, it continued to be constructed by Sumerians who would decorate the walls with elaborate works of art. Examples of the art’s subject matter might demonstrate wishes for good harvests or fertility. Perhaps the crowning achievement of Babylonian art is evidenced by the famed Ishtar Gate which was created in c.575 B.C. under the direction of King Nebuchadnezzar II. It is known for its bas relief dragons and the accompanying Processional Way which was lined with statues of dragons.

According to legend, Babylon was regarded as one of the most beautiful of ancient cities. The city became famous for its lush palaces and courtyards. And though its mythic hanging gardens have not survived, many of its artistic relics have been unearthed to be showcased around the world in the most prestigious museums of art and history.