Visual History of the World




From Prehistoric to Romanesque  Art
Gothic Art
Renaissance  Art
Baroque and Rococo Art
The Art of Asia
Neoclassicism, Romanticism  Art
Art Styles in 19th century
Art of the 20th century
Artists that Changed the World
Design and Posters
Classical Music
Literature and Philosophy

Visual History of the World
First Empires
The Ancient World
The Middle Ages
The Early Modern Period
The Modern Era
The World Wars and Interwar Period
The Contemporary World

Dictionary of Art and Artists


First Empires

ca. 7000 B.C. - 200 A.D.


The Middle East was the cradle of mankind's first advanced civilizations. In Egypt and the Fertile Crescent, which extends in an arc from the north of the Arabian Peninsula east through Palestine to Mesopotamia, the first state structures emerged in parallel with the further development of animal husbandry, agriculture, trade, and writing. The first great empires, such as those of the Egyptian pharaohs, the Babylonians, the Assyrians, and the Persians, evolved at the beginning of the third millennium B.C., out of small communities usually clustered around a city. Similar development also occurred on the Indian subcontinent and in China, where quite distinct early advanced civilizations took shape as well.


The golden mask of Tutankhamun, a jewel of ancient Egyptian artwork,
 showing the pharaoh in a ceremonial robe decorated with the heraldic animals, the vulture and cobra, ca. 1340 B.C.



The Early States of Mesopotamia

CA. 3OOO-539 B.C.


In contrast to the desert of the Arabian Peninsula to the south and the rugged mountain ranges to the north, Mesopotamia ("land between the rivers"), situated between the Tigris and Euphrates. provided fertile land for cultivation. Early inhabitants, therefore, called their home 1 Sumer ("cultivated land"). One of the earliest civilization of the Near East developed here. Complex societies flourished and were later organized into city-states like Uruk. Over time, great empires developed who managed to extend their power well beyond the two rivers.

1 The bust of a Sumerian lady of the court at Ur wearing headgear and other jewelry, 300 B.C.


The City-States of Sumer

The advancement of hydraulic engineering led to the formation of the city-states, which were distinguished by functioning administrations.

The first communal settlements grew along the Tigris and Euphrates rivers in response to the development of organized irrigation systems. These settlements merged about 3000 B.C. to form irrigation and flood control provinces. Around 2800-2400 B.C.— the Early Dynastic period—centrally controlled city-states arose and competed with each other for political and economic dominance of the region.
The most significant of these were Ur, Uruk, Umma, Lagash, Adab, Nippur, and Kish—whose rulers are known to us through the surviving "kings lists."

Tombs with valuable 3, 6 burial objects testify to the high standard of living of the upper social level of the city-states, as well as the 4 hierarchical nature of these societies, which were dominated by princes, kings, priests, and state officials.

3  A Sumerian helmet made of gold from an Ur
king's tomb (third century B.C.)

6 "Tree of Life" sculpture, third ñ. â.ñ.

4 A mosaic from Ur, depicting groups of differing social status within the hierarchy

In addition to agriculture as the main economic engine, the mass production of pottery is apparent in archaeological finds. Minerals and raw material initially served as payment for the labor. Later, 2 cylinder seals provided a useful instrument for commercial control and the verification of the delivery of goods. Seals and counter markers served a well-organized food storage system and also property allocation by officials.

2 Cylinder seal, second century B.C., and modern molding

Some cities had seaports that later filled with sand as the water level dropped in the Persian Gulf. Through sea and land trade routes, the Sumerian culture expanded into northern Mesopotamia and northern Syria.




In 1977 adventurer Thor Heyerdahl proved that the ancient Sumerians were capable of constructing seaworthy ships by sailingareed boat replicated from the specifications of an original Sumerian boat.




One of the most powerful Sumerian city-states was Uruk in southern Mesopotamia.

From its founding around 4000 B.C. until about 2000 B.C. 7 Uruk was an important trading center. In the center of the city stood many great public buildings that probably served as meeting places and religious buildings.

7 A vase from Uruk decorated wlth animal depictions, ca. 3000 â.ñ.

Later these were built upon to create the chief shrine Eanna for the city's goddess 8 Inanna.
The oldest known written tablets, presumably concerned with commerce management, are from this period. At the time there were approximately 20,000 people living in Uruk and a further 15,000-20,000 in the immediate area.

8 Gilgamesh in battle with two bulls and a lion; modern molding of a cylinder seal from the third century B.C.

Depictions on cylinder seals testify to armed conflicts with neighboring peoples and the punishment of prisoners. The city was completely reconstructed between 3100 and 2900 B.C. A terrace was raised in the city center, upon which the main temple was built. The terraced temple became the predecessor of later temple towers of the Babylonians, the ziggurats. Writing also evolved, with pictographs transforming into cuneiform.

Uruk is thought to have been the home of the 5, 9 legendary ruler Gilgamesh, the hero of the most important ancient Sumerian epic.

Gilgamesh is said to have ruled sometime between 2600 and 2700 B.C. and is counted among the kings of the first dynasty of Uruk (ca. 2700-2350 B.C.). Besides numerous heroic deeds, Gilgamesh is credited with the construction of Uruk's six-mile-long (9,7 km) protective city wall. The epic, handed down in a number of ancient Near Eastern languages and in various versions from the third to the first millennia â.ñ, in some passages shows parallels to the Old Testament story of Noah and also to the saga of Hercules.

9 Facade of a temple of Inanna in Uruk, 15th/14th century B.C.

5 Statue of Gilgamesh with a lion,
from an Assyrian palace, eighth century B.C.

see also text

"The Epic of Gilgamesh"

The Construction of the City Wall by


"[The hero Gilgamesh] built the wall of Uruk-Haven ...
Look at its wall, which gleams like [copper?]...
Go up on the wall of Uruk and walk around,
examine its foundation, inspect its brickwork thoroughly.
Is not [even the core of] the brick structure made of kiln-fired brick?"

(Gilgamesh epic, first tablet)

The Deluge tablet of the Gilgamesh epic in Akkadian

see also text

 "The Epic of Gilgamesh"


Lagash and Umma

The history of the Sumerian city-state Lagash in southern Mesopotamia, which competed fiercely with neighboring Umma, is well documented. The rivalry between the city's princes and the priesthood are typical of the political conditions in the Sumerian city-states. Under the reign of Gudea the city enjoyed a period of great prosperity.

King Eannatum of the first dynasty of Lagash (ca. 2494-2342 B.C.) succeeded in temporarily subjugating Umma. The famous 1, 5 "Vulture Stele" depicts the vanquished enemy in a net cast by the city god Ningirsu. Internally Eannatum fought the influence of the priest caste, which won the battle by helping the usurper Lugalanda to power. Social tensions lay behind the ascension to the throne of Urukagina, who promptly canceled the debts of the poorer classes and cut back the income of the priests. With the help of these disgruntled clergymen, Lugalzaggesi of Umma then conquered Lagash somewhere around 2250 B.C .

He also controlled the cities of Urukand Adab, and thus declared himself "king of Uruk and of the Land of Sumer." His plans to unite Mesopotamia brought Lugalzaggesi into conflict with the powertul ruler of Akkad, Sargon I, who defeated him before going on to realize the project himself.

Lagash experienced its final period of prosperity during the 20 year reign of 3 Gudea.
His rule is associated less with military adventures than with the building of systematic irrigation works and temples of worship.

1 Vultures pick at the bodies of vanquished enemies;
detail from the "Vulture Stele," ca. 2454 B.C.

5 King Eannatum of Lagash leads his army in the battle against the city Umma,
fallen enemies lying on the floor; extract from the "Vulture Stele," ca. 2454 B.C.

3 Statue of Gudea of Lagash, 2141-2122 B.C.


Proto-Elam and Elam

2 Valley in Lunstan, southwest Iran

Concurrently with Sumer, another early high culture emerged
in the 2 southwest of present-day Iran.
The Elam kingdom produced the oldest known inter-state treaty.



This little-known culture, identifiable only by a form of script used around 2900 B.C., is referred to as Proto-Elam. Out of it rose the later kingdom of Elam, perhaps as early a: 2700 b.c. Around 2300 B.C. the Akkadians occupied the empire until Elam regained its independence in 2240 through an inter-state treaty—the oldest surviving in the world. Several royal dynasties followed, with a supreme monarch—resident in the capital Susa—ruling over several vassal kings.

Women generally played a larger role in Elamitic society than in neighboring Sumer and Akkad. The wife, and often the sister, of the king was a prominent figure. Upon his death, she married his successor. Occasionally successors in the female line predominated.

4 Women spinning, eighth ñ. â.ñ.

In the history of Elam, periods of rule by foreign powers alternated with times of Elamite expansion. Around 2004 B.C. the Elamites destroyed Ur. Six hundred years later Elam came under the rule of the old Babylonian Empire.

Then in 1155 B.C., the Elamites expelled the Kassitcs from Babylon, ruling until 1100 when Nebuchadressar I of the second dynasty of Isin pushed the Elamites back out of Babylon and pillaged their capital 6 Susa.

Only in 646 B.C. was Elam finally destroyed by the Assyrians. The area then fell to the Persians and became the central province of the vast empire forged by the powerful Achaemenid dynasty.

6 Reconstructed fortification of Susa, Iran


The Kingdom of Akkad and the Third Dynasty of Ur

The Kingdom of Akkad (ca. 2334-2154 B.C.) was the first large territorial state in Mesopotamia.

7 Sargon of Agade founded the Kingdom of Akkad in 2334 â.c. Íå also founded the new capital city of Akkad, which gave the kingdom its name. Sargon, which comes from the Akkadian title of Sharrukenu ("legitimate king"), conquered Kish.

He broke Uruk's domination of Sumer and extended his kingdom to the Mediterranean, Lebanon, and Àsià Minor in numerous 8, 9 military campaigns, ruling over many city-states and territories.

With his royal title of "King of the Four Corners of Earth," Sargon made perhaps the first claim to world dominance. Domestically, he trained administrators— the "sons of the palace"—and was the first monarch to maintain a standing army. The decline of the Akkadian kingdom began around 2250 B.C. The Guti, a mountain people from Iran, then gained dominance over Mesopotamia between 2230 and 2130. Subsequently, the kings Ur-Nammu and Shulgi of the third dynasty of Ur (ca. 2112-2004 B.C.) ruled the most important cities of Sumer and a large part of the Kingdom of Akkad, pronouncing themselves the "Kings of Sumerand Akkad."

The third dynasty of Ur strictly supervised the economy. Huge numbers of laborers and craftsmen were employed in the service of the state in the "grand households," which included the great temples and palaces. The chancelleries produced documentation which bears witness to complex administrative processes. A standardized form was established for the high temples—multi-storied structures with a central flight of steps—called ziggurats. This form was used for the religious edifices erected by and for the kings. The dynasty ended in 2004 B.C. with the destruction of Urby the invading Elamites. However, the administrative structures survived and were adopted and integrated by the new rulers who established themselves in the dynasty's place.

7 Bronze head of an Akkadian ruler, presumably Sargon of Akkad, 2334-2279 B.C.
8 Stele celebrating the victory of an Akkadian king, ca. 2200 B.C.
9 Procession of Akkadian prisoners, ca. 2340-2320 B.C.



Sargon of Akkad

"To Sargon, the king of the land, Enlilgave no enemy from the upper
to the lower sea.... Sargon, the king of the land, restored Kish, their
city he gave them as their abode... to Sargon, the king, Enlil allowed
no enemy to form. 5400 warriors daily eat their meal before him."

(Text from the Tablet of the Sargon)




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