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United Arab Emirates University

College of Engineering
ARCH 340: History and Theory of Architecture
NOTES: ANCIENT MESOPOTAMIA
(and other cities and civilizations in the Fertile Crescent)
Based on Textbook Chapter: The Growth of Cities: The Rise of Civilization from Jonathon Glancey, The Story of
Architecture, 2000

Ancient Mesopotamia and Region Cities and Civilization


PART A: MAIN POINTS (ideas and concepts)
1. Birth of Architecture
Early architecture typically took the form of permanent (not temporary or mobile) homes, shrines, temples and palaces
(and tombs). Architecture was only possible once cities were formed; cities were only possible once populations became
stable and settled; settlement required agriculture; agriculture required a steady source of water, normally irrigation from
rivers
2. Earliest Cities: Civilization
The word civilization comes from the Latin work civis, meaning city-dweller.
Cities required sources of fertile land, reliable irrigation waters, crop-conducive climates, nad culture willing to shift form
nomadic hunting and gathering to settled agriculture. This combination emerged in 2 places about the same time: Nile
River (Egypt) and The Fertile Crescent (stretching in an arc across Palestine/Israel, Iraq and Iran).
Earliest permanent homes currently known were built at Jericho at least 8000 BC, out of mud-brick. Earliest shrines form
about 7000 BC.
3. Wealth and Symbolic Need
What produced architecture out of simple practical building was a combination of enough wealth to allow extra to be
spend on unnecessary building and decoration, and the needs of priests and kings to show through symbols how
important or powerful they were. Priests temples. Kings -- palaces.
4. Early Temples and Palaces
The earliest temples were basically rectangular structures built in several stepped layers: ziggurats. They normally
functioned as practical places for worship, of course, but more importantly as signs of the important roles of priests who
were the ones who could speak directly to god for the people and their needs (rain, sun, good weather, bountiful crops,
protection from enemies, etc.)
The earliest palaces were similarly practical in the sense that they provided for the housing of the King and royal family
(etc.) and allowed for meetings of state and other events necessary for the ruling of a kingdom to take place. They were
also, however, just as symbolic as the temples in this case, they functioned to allow the king to demonstrate his wealth,
power as protector but also as absolute ruler and dispenser of justice to the people.
5. Differences between Then and Now
A special, point about many of these ancient civilizations is that they combined extreme sophistication (in art, decoration,
city planning, building construction, and other aspects of culture) with an extraordinary barbarism (in dealing with enemies,
criminal, rebels, and others who were a threat to the kings or priests.
This should remind us of one of the points we made about historiography early in the semester: we talk about history by
talking about 2 times: a then of the events and monuments, and a now of our interpretation and telling of the past. Today
we find it difficult to think that a culture, a people, or a person could be both sophisticated or highly educated, while also
being cruel and barbaric. There are some things about ancient cultures that we will never understand or grasp fully since
our time (now) is not the time of the past (then) that we discuss: the only way we could fully understand the past in some
of its aspects would be to be there when the past took place something obviously impossible. This is why history as an
activity and set of interpretations is always tentative, incomplete, and partial.
6. Empire and Hybridity
Prior of the Persian empire, the arts and architecture of the early civilizations (e.g. Sumeria, Mesopotamia and Assyria)
were relatively monolithic and consistent in materials, methods, forms, colors, styles (etc.). With the Persian empire, and
with all empires after them (Greek, Roman, Christian, Ottoman, etc.), the empires arts and architecture became freer in

form, more varied, fused with the expressions of the cultures the empire conquered the great empires produced great
hybrid expressions in art and architecture, mostly because they were so vast, and so many different aesthetic expressions
co-existed, that no single style could be legislated and forced upon everyone. Also, once so much variety could be seen,
appreciation for variety developed, and new ideas kept emerging.

PART B: IMPORTANT WORKS (examples of art and architecture)


1. Sumeria
Ziggurat of Urnammu, Ur (ca. 2125 BC)

Temple
Ziggurat form (a type of stepped pyramid)
Dedicated to the Sumerian moon god, Nanna
Siting: on a flat featureless plain, in the city of Ur
Towered over the low, densely packed city, and farmlands
Very large, rising like an artificial mountain; each level may have been planted with trees
Main feature: access by a monumental ceremonial stair
Construction: sun-dried mud brick
Built and modified over many centuries
Functioned as a sign of religious power for the population to see form all locations
2. Mesopotamia
Tower of Babel, Babylon (possibly ca. 600 BC)

Temple (probably the temple of Etemenanki)


Ziggurat form
Spiral structure
Faced in blue-glazed bricks
Base 90 meters on each side
Height seven stories (about 30 meters)

Nebuchadnezzars Palace, Babylon (ca. 600 BC)

Palace
Built on banks of the Euphrates river
Included Royal apartments, which led to the famous Hanging Gardens (part of the palace)
These gardens considered one of the 7 Wonders of the Ancient World
Vaulted construction, with water and ice storage under the vaults; tress and plants above
Artificial irrigation
The main entrance to the city guarded by the Ishtar Gate which led to a street running through the palace
grounds across the city to the main temple.
3. Assyria
Palace of Sargon II, Khorsabad (ca. 700 BC)

Temple
Another temple connected by a street to the city walls and a huge main gate
Gate (and the city) protected by terrifying sculptures of man-headed winged bulls.

4. Persia
Palace of Persepolis, Persepolis (ca. 500 BC)

Palace
Begun by King Darius I and completed by King Artaxerxes I
Raised on a mighty platform
Shallow stairs that horses could climb led to the top
Constructed of brick, stone and terracotta (earth ceramic)
Walls coved in relief carvings showing the people and warriors of Persia
Large: several hundred buildings, including harem
Giant throne room (about 70 meters on each side), painted timber ceiling and held up by many columns
Columns topped with capitals resembling bulls and unicorns
Very brightly colored and lavishly decorated
Achaemenid Tombs, Naksh-i-Rustum, (ca. 400 BC)

Tombs
Burial place for Achaemenid kings
Carved into a rock face
Very simple and profound