The various cultures of the Ancient Near East were extremely important in the development of architecture and the civic aspects of urban space. From the Sumerians, who developed the pyramidal religious structure called the ziggurat, to the Hebrews and the great Temple of Solomon known today only in written descriptions, to the legendary palace of Sargon I in a still undiscovered site near Akkad, to Nebuchadnezzar's "Hanging Gardens of Babylon" known as one of the classical "Seven Wonders of the Ancient World," the people of the Ancient Near East were some of the first to use architecture to organize society and affirm power. Much is known today of the ancient cultures found in the grassy western plains of Anatolia in modern-day Turkey, modern-day Syria, Iraq, Iran, and Israel and covering entirely the fertile area around the Tigris and Euphrates rivers, but continuing excavations and historic preservation in this wartorn region are important to our increased understanding of the area known to us today as the cradle of civilization.
   Remains of Neolithic culture date to around 9000 BC and are evident from north to south, as seen in the reconstructed site of Çatal Hüyük in western Turkey, the large Neolithic city of Jericho, and the even larger town of Ain Ghazal, or "Spring of the Gazelles," in Jordan. Begun around 7200 BC, Ain Ghazal came to consist of about 30 acres of mud-brick houses built on slightly elevated terraces reinforced with stone retaining walls. Jericho's Neolithic city was about six acres in size, and by 7000 BC its population was around 2,000. Çatal Hüyük, from around 6500 BC, was discovered in the 1950s when an earth mound was uncovered. This town housed about 5,000 people, who lived in one-story, mud-brick structures with shared courtyards and walls. Unlike the earlier Paleolithic peoples, these Neolithic peoples produced an abundance of food that needed to be stored and defended, and they also traded black obsidian used to make tools. As a result of their size and economic activity, their dwellings became increasingly complex, revealing a stratification of society with designated positions and a social hierarchy. A room at Çatal Hüyük also reveals one of the earliest religious shrines known, with an interior space divided into three parts, with molding and columnar structures attached to walls decorated with images of animal skulls, horns, and women giving birth. In particular, the image of the bull and the focus on fertility, so central to these ancient peoples, carried through into later cultures and times.
   The earliest city-state to develop along the Euphrates River was Sumer, dating to around 3500-2300 BC. Sumerian peoples are thought to have migrated to this southern area of Mesopotamia from the north and built some of the earliest monumental architecture. With the invention of the wagon wheel, they were able to transport building materials far more easily than previous cultures. The invention of the plow allowed them greater control over their agriculture and produced an agricultural surplus that needed to be stored and protected. What separates Sumer from previous prehistoric cultures, however, is the invention of writing, which in Sumer consisted of what was called cuneiform blocks (while hieroglyphic writing developed almost simultaneously in Egypt). Thus, through the earliest stories ever written, such as the Epic of Gilgamesh, one learns of the city of Uruk, built by this legendary ruler.
   Uruk, in modernday Warka, Iraq, was about 1,000 acres large, and had two monumental stepped pyramids, or ziggurats. Ziggurats were the largest of Sumerian structures, built over the generations with surrounding rubble to create a mountain-like structure with a shrine on top. Ziggurats were often decorated with painted clay mosaics, sometimes shaped like a cone, which would be pressed into wet plaster to create a beautifully colored and decorated exterior that would have shimmered in the distant sun. The Nanna Ziggurat at Ur, also in Iraq, is the best-preserved of these structures, having been partially reconstructed in recent years. Dated to around 2100 BC and dedicated to the moon goddess Nanna, it was built of mud brick in a huge rectangle that measures 190 by 130 feet. Three external stairways leading through three platforms create a grand entrance up to the shrine. The rectangular shape was oriented to the points of the compass, suggesting its use as an agricultural calendar. Its large scale was certainly meant to overwhelm the viewer and clarify the power structure within the region. Access to the uppermost shrine was restricted to the ruling elite, also known as the priest-kings. There, votive figures would be offered to the gods and storage space provided for the clay tablets that detailed stories of the gods and goddesses, as well as mathematical accounts of tributes paid to the ruler in exchange for protection throughout the region.
   The legendary Temple of Solomon, built by the son of David in the late 900s BC, was destroyed first by the Babylonians and then by the Romans. However, a description of construction found in the book of 1 Kings speaks of how timber was supplied by Chiram of Zor. Stone from Jerusalem was used for the walls, while timber from Lebanon was used for the floor and ceiling of this three-storied building. Two columns supported a porch over the entrance that led into a court-yard, and pillars lit with fire might have topped the porch, which was elevated a number of steps.
   In addition to these religious structures, people of the Ancient Near East also built palace complexes. The palace of Zimrilim, the Amorite King of Mari, currently being excavated in Syria, reveals some of the earliest murals of political ceremonies set amid beautiful gardens. The palace, with courtyards lined in alabaster, had superior plumbing that brought water to its many fountains. However, the water was not enough to prevent Hammurabi from burning Zimrilim's palace to the ground in 1757 BC. Later palaces were more heavily fortified, as seen in reconstructions of the Assyrian citadel and palace of Sargon II, from 721 BC. This northern Mesopotamian stronghold rose to power around 1400 BC and dominated the entire area all the way to Egypt. Assyrian citadels housed huge palaces built on top of a huge rectangular platform. The entire walled complex consisted of over 30 courtyards set in a labyrinth-like organization of over 200 rooms in buildings flanking the central palace. The palace could be entered only via a ramp that passed through a towered gate and then a large courtyard. Attached to the left side of the palace was a ziggurat. Low-relief carvings done on alabaster attest to the power of the king, seen dominating ceremonial lion hunts. Here the use of architecture as propaganda was fully realized.
   The use of painted glazed brick to decorate the exterior of these buildings can best be seen on the Neo-Babylonian Ishtar Gate, dated to around 575 BC and reconstructed today in the State Museum of Berlin. Nebuchadnezzar II, known in the book of Daniel, was a great patron of architecture, building the city of Babylon across the Euphrates River so that the city was joined by a monumental bridge. This gate is one small section of a city reputed to shine with brilliantly glazed bricks of blue, orange, yellow, white, red, and green that depicted images of lions, dragons, birds, and bulls sacred to the Babylonian god Marduk.
   Finally, the Persian Empire rose to power in the 500s BC to dominate the entire Near East, all the way to the Aegean Islands. Darius I (ruler from 521 to 486 BC) brought to his lands a standardized monetary system, an effective system of communication, and tolerance for diversity. He commissioned the construction of a palace complex first at Susa and then at Parsa, or Persepolis, in the highlands of Iran. The Apadana, or audience hall, is preserved in part today. It is arrived at via a monumental double stair that leads to a raised rectangular platform of tall columns that support open porches on three sides of a square hall large enough to hold thousands of people. The architectural sculpture of the palace is more complex than in previous Mesopotamian structures, given that artisans were brought from as far away as Egypt to work on this construction, thereby enriching the local visual repertoire. Across the front of the stairwell appears a low-relief image of people and animals paying tribute to Darius and then his son Xerxes I, in a potent symbol of regional prosperity and propaganda. It was not until 334 BC that the Ancient Greeks, led by Alexander the Great, swept across Mesopotamia, defeated Darius III, and destroyed Persepolis.

Historical Dictionaries of Literature and the Arts. . 2008.

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