Art of the First Cities
The Third Millennium B.C. from the Mediterranean to the Indus
May 8–August 17, 2003
Accompanied by a catalogue
Art of the First Cities surveys the evolution of art and culture in the land between the rivers Tigris and Euphrates and their impact on the emerging cities of the ancient world—from the Aegean and Eastern Mediterranean across Central Asia and along the Gulf to the Indus Valley—during one of the most seminal and creative periods in history. Some fifty museums from more than a dozen countries in Europe, Asia, and the Middle East have participated in this ambitious exhibition, lending national treasures that had rarely, if ever, been sent outside the walls of their art institutions.
The exhibition features about four hundred rare and outstanding works of art—including sculpture, jewelry, vessels, weapons, inlays, cylinder seals, and tablets—selected to demonstrate the quality of the art of Mesopotamia, its distinctive iconography and style, and the breadth of its influence during the thousand years in which the world's earliest cities were transformed into the world's first states and empires.
From the splendor of the Early Dynastic world, the exhibition explores the succeeding Akkadian period (2300–2100 B.C.), named after a dynasty of kings that united Mesopotamia in an empire, in which artistic achievement reached even greater levels of realism and quality. This is exemplified by beautifully modeled figural imagery such as that found on the extraordinary cylinder seal of the scribe of king Sharkalisharri, lent by the Musée du Louvre. The extent of the Akkadian empire is illustrated by the powerful image of the divine king Naram-Sin on a relief loaned by Eski Sark Museum, Istanbul. The exhibition also includes three uniquely important loans from the Directorate General of Antiquities and Museums of the Syrian Arab Republic—a powerfully recumbent, human-headed bull from Tell Brak (northern Syria); the well-known carved figure of Ishqi-Mari (a king of Mari), which combines daring iconography and powerful artistry; and an exquisite hammered gold and lapis lazuli image of the supernatural lion-headed eagle—an image that embodies aspects of the dust storm and torrential rains and is found throughout Mesopotamian art.
A unique aspect of the exhibition is the special emphasis it places on the interconnections between Mesopotamia and other contemporary cultures across the broad expanse of the ancient world. Luxury objects fashioned from gold, lapis lazuli, and carnelian attest to the extensive diplomatic, trading, and military activities that brought Mesopotamia into contact—directly or indirectly—with other regions extending from the Aegean and Anatolia to Central Asia and the Indus Valley. Each of these regions—centers of civilization in their own right—produced astonishing and dynamic art, including elaborately carved chlorite and plain alabaster stone vessels and stone sculpture. The finest of these works, including the celebrated Priest-King from the city of Mohenjo-daro in the Indus Valley, are presented to highlight local artistic traditions. Other works of art demonstrate the cultural interaction that united regions over the vast expanse of western Asia.
After the fall of the Akkadian Empire around 2100 B.C., political power within Mesopotamia shifted once again to the south. Some of the finest art of this period comes from the city-state of Lagash, under the rule of Gudea. Magnificent images of this ruler, such as the renowned, seated figure of Gudea holding a plan of a temple, lent by the Musée du Louvre, reveal the extraordinary skill and imagery of the Mesopotamian world at the close of the third millennium B.C.