Babylonian and Assyrian Culture

The following article is from The Great Soviet Encyclopedia (1979). It might be outdated or ideologically biased.

Babylonian and Assyrian Culture


the culture of the peoples who, in antiquity, between the fourth and first millennia B.C., inhabited Mesopotamia—the land between the Tigris and Euphrates rivers (the region of present-day Iraq). These peoples were the Sumerians, Akkadians, Babylonians, and Assyrians, creators of the great states of Sumer, Akkad, Babylonia, and Assyria. Their culture was characterized by a relatively high level of science, literature, and art, on the one hand, and by the predominance of religious ideology, on the other.

The material culture of the peoples of ancient Mesopotamia was on a comparatively high level. However, stone tools did not finally go out of use until the beginning of the third millennium B.C. Metallurgy in the middle of the third millennium consisted of casting, forging, engraving and coinage, making of gold and silver wire, and filigree work. The main building material was crude brick and, less commonly, kiln brick. The arch, the drainage system, and other structures were known but little used. Marked progress in technology was made later on. Military science was improved. Chariot armies were introduced (beginning of the second millennium). Armor made from copper metal plate (middle of the second millennium), cavalry, the sword, fortified military camps, and siege weapons (such as the battering ram) were other innovations. Stone bridges and floating bridges (on leather wineskins) were built. Iron tools appeared in Assyria and Babylonia in the first millennium B.C., and artisans began to use the diamond drill. Approximately between the end of the second and beginning of the first millennium B.C., a new irrigation technology developed with the waterwheel (sakieh) and “endless” rope with leather pails (cherd). The Assyrians built the first stone aqueduct in the seventh century B.C.

The most important factor in the development of science was the economic system which required, first of all, the elaboration of a system of measures and also the creation of methods for determining the area of fields, volume of granaries and artificial bodies of water, and calculation of work standards in digging canals, in building, and in handicrafts. Sumero-Babylonian mathematics was developed on this basis toward the end of the third millennium B.C. Babylonian mathematicians made extensive use of the sexagesimal positional system of counting created by the Sumerians. On the basis of this system they compiled various computation tables: division and multiplication, squares and cubes, square and cube roots, and so on. The Babylonians solved quadratic equations, knew the Pythagorean theorem, and were familiar with methods of finding all kinds of Pythagorean numbers (more than 1,000 years before Pythagoras). They solved not only planimetric but stereometric problems involving the determination of the volume of various kinds of spatial bodies. They drew plans of fields, localities, and individual buildings but usually not to scale.

The Babylonians made great advances in applied chemistry. Numerous formulas for making bronze have been preserved from the second millennium B.C. Enamel and multicolor glaze work on ceramics was known.

A “map of the world” showing the earth in the form of a flat surface intersected by the Tigris and Euphrates rivers flowing down from the northern mountains and surrounded by the world ocean, with the earth apparently floating on it, was an attempt to generalize geographic ideas. The ocean was shown to be surrounded by a “dam of skies” on which several (three or seven) firmaments were resting, and under the earth was thought to be the netherworld (“Great Mountain”). However, the geographical range of the practical-minded Babylonian merchants was much wider (from Spain to India by the first millennium).

Medicine also took a long step forward at this time. Surgical operations included amputations, mending of fractures, and removal of cataracts from the eyes. In the extant medical texts from the second half of the second millennium B.C. and first half of the first millennium B.C., the parts of the human body were already reduced to an anatomical system. Some diseases and the drugs used to treat them were also classified.

Records of astronomical and meteorological observations stimulated the development of astrology (not until the first millennium B.C.) and astronomy. The planets were identified and, unlike the fixed stars which were compared to calmly grazing sheep, planets were called bibbu, or “goats.” Each planet was given its own special name (except Mercury, which was called bibbu, that is, planet). Venus was called Dilbat; Jupiter, Mulubabbar (“star-sun”); Mars, Zalbatanu; and Saturn, Kaimânu. It was at that time that the movements of the planets began to be observed. Specifically, texts devoted to the study of the movements of Venus are extant. The comparatively advanced development of astronomy was apparently due to the requirements of the lunar calendar. At first every city-state had its own calendar, but after the rise of Babylon the calendar used in that city became common throughout the country. A year consisted of 12 lunar months with 29 or 30 days (synodic month, or period of succession of lunar phases equal to about 29½ days). Since the solar year is 11 days longer than the lunar year, an additional month was introduced from time to time to eliminate this discrepancy. The constellations were described and heliacal ascensions of celestial bodies were recorded by the middle of the second millennium B.C. Beginning in the middle of the first millennium B.C., firm rules were established for inserting intercalated months, and computational astronomy was developing vigorously; extant texts indicate the positions of the moon (or planets) at certain intervals of time for a particular year (or succession of years). A great contribution of Babylonian astronomers was the discovery of the saros, an interval of time after the elapsing of which solar and lunar eclipses are repeated in the same sequence.

The neighboring peoples—Elamites, Hurrians, Hittites, Phoenicians—were also familiar with the principles of Babylonian science. Assyria’s contribution was slight, but most of the Babylonian scientific writings have come down to us through the Assyrian libraries of the 12th-seventh centuries B.C. Ancient Greek science adopted some of the achievements of Babylonian science (apparently not directly, but through Phoenicia and Asia Minor). However, Babylonian astronomy, it seems, did exert a direct influence on ancient Greek astronomy.

The Sumero-Babylonian system of weights and measures became the foundation of several metrological systems in Southwest Asia, and the sexagesimal positional system of counting is still in use today, for example, the use of degrees (or hours), minutes, and seconds.

The account of historical events in the form of the Sumerian King List is an example of a kind of historical conception, the rudiments of history as a science. The list begins with the time when “kingship descended from heaven” and extends continuously from the oldest to the latest kings. This list was compiled about 2100 B.C. to justify the idea of absolute royal power.

The first writings of a scientific nature in ancient Mesopotamia were probably the lists of written signs, first pictorial and then the cuneiform symbols that evolved from them and the lists of terms recorded with these signs. Such lists were first compiled about 3000 B.C. Later on, certain knowledge in the field of philology was accumulated because of practical needs. For example, because the Sumerian language was no longer in regular use and Akkadian had become the everyday language, aids—lists of words and specialized terms of all kinds, including botanical, zoological, and mineralogical—were prepared to facilitate the study of Sumerian as the language of religion and the school. General and terminological Sumerian-Akkadian dictionaries appeared at the beginning of the second millennium. Attempts were even made to compile etymological dictionaries. Later on, and partly outside of Mesopotamia, multilingual dictionaries were also compiled, such as Sumerian-Akkadian-West Semitic-Hurrian and Sumerian-Akkadian-Hittite. Grammars were also written.

The center of science in ancient Mesopotamia before the middle of the second millennium B.C. was the so-called edubba, a type of secular academy, or school that trained mostly scribes, but there also seem to have been temple schools. Scribe was the honorary title of an educated man. About 20 kinds of scribes were distinguished according to the degree of learning and specialization. One of the didactic school texts was the Precepts for the Farmer, a kind of short agricultural handbook.

The myths that have come down to us reflect largely the ideas of peoples practicing irrigation agriculture and the ideas of settled hunters and cattle herders. The ancient peoples of Mesopotamia believed that a flat earth rests on the surface of the world’s waters, which surround it and appear in the form of well and river water. These waters are separated from heavenly waters by a “dam of skies” on which several solid firmaments rest—the firmaments of the sun, moon, planets, and fixed stars. Inside the earth is the gloomy city of the dead. The world was created either by a mother goddess or (in late myths) by a male god (Enlil, Marduk). Thus, according to a Babylonian myth (second millennium B.C.), in the struggle between the old gods and the new, the former were led by a monster, the goddess Tiamat (“Sea”), and the latter by the god Marduk. After killing Tiamat, Marduk cut her body in half, turning it into underground and heavenly waters. One of the important myths is about a flood and the only man saved from it on a ship, the wise Ziusudra (Sumerian; the Akkadian Utnapishtim). The fairly frequent destructive floods in Mesopotamia gave concrete features to this myth. According to the myth of the goddess Innin (Sumerian; the Akkadian Ishtar), she descended into the netherworld to dispute the supremacy of the goddess of the dead. She then escaped to the earth, leaving to the goddess of the dead her beloved Dumuzi as a ransom. The heroic myths are grouped together according to local cycles. The most interesting is the cycle of myths of the city of Uruk. This cycle is associated with the names of the heroes Enmerkar, Lugalbanda, and Gilgamesh. There is also the myth of the enmity between the eagle and the snake and the hero Etana’s attempt to fly to heaven on the eagle. Also extant are mostly records of official versions of myths reflecting man’s helplessness before the gods.

The religion of the ancient peoples of Mesopotamia did not constitute a harmonious dogmatic system. Rather, it consisted of separate local cults that did not exclude the worship of ancient deities. It underwent considerable changes in the course of social development. The beliefs of the Sumerians (third millennium B.C.) were dominated by the worship of gods and goddesses, protectors of individual communities. Regardless of the specific features ascribed to each deity, they usually were also gods of vegetation and irrigation agriculture. Several deities (the sun god Utu; moon god Zuen [Nanna]; god of heaven An; goddess of love and of the star Venus Innin [Inanna]; and god of underground water, patron of wisdom and cultural inventions Enki) were revered everywhere, although they also retained their local communal centers. Enlil was regarded as the supreme deity. Enlil, An, and Enki composed the triad of great deities. The worship of deities of vegetation, who die and are resurrected, as well as of deities of cattle raising—Dumuzi-abzu (Tammuz) and others—was very important. The world beyond the grave was conceived of as a gloomy underground city ruled by the goddess Ereshkigal (or the god Nergal). Beliefs in a variety of good and evil spirits were prevalent.

At the end of the third millennium B.C. the local cults were combined into a country-wide pantheon because of the consolidation of authority into a single despotic state. The role of the people in the religious system was reduced to that of slaves bringing sacrifices to the gods while the regal power was proclaimed divine.

The Semitic (Akkadian) population of Mesopotamia originally had their own tribal cults. However, by the middle of the third millennium B.C. the Sumerian cults became dominant even among the Semites of Mesopotamia. Moreover, some of the gods were given Semitic names in addition to or instead of the Sumerian ones (Enlil = Bel, Innin = Ishtar, Utu = Shamash, Enki = Ea, An = Anu, Nanna = Sin, and so on).

At the time of the rise of Babylon to importance (18th century B.C.) Marduk, the patron god of the city, was proclaimed the supreme deity. In the first millennium B.C. astral cults developed from the identification of some deities with celestial bodies. In northeastern Mesopotamia—in Assyria—the same pantheon with the addition of some local deities (Human and others) became popular, but the supreme god here was the protector of the main city of Assyria, Ashur, who had the same name as the city. Along with the supreme god (Enlil, Marduk, or Ashur) seven or 12 main deities were regarded as “great gods determining the fates (of people)” and constituting a council of elders in the community of gods.

Ideas going back to the worship of the leader as the embodiment of the vital forces of a community survived. A survival of the ritual murder of the aged leader was an annual rite in Babylon wherein the king’s place was temporarily taken by a poor man or slave who was beaten by the supreme priest.

The concept of sin and expiation flourished in the second and first millennia B.C., but it was taken mostly in the ritual sense (violation of magical prohibitions and rules for worshiping gods and expiating transgressions).

The professional priesthood arose very early in Mesopotamia, as early as the fourth millennium. The ruler (king) was also a priest. Starting in the fourth millennium B.C., special extensive temple establishments began to evolve from communal ones for purposes of worship; later they became a part of royal property.

The literature of the peoples of Mesopotamia was entirely oral in the first half of the third millennium B.C. Some of the extant Sumerian epic songs, set down in writing in the 19th and 18th centuries B.C., probably date back to this period. The cycle of songs about the heroes of the city of Uruk—Enmerkar, Lugalbanda, Gilgamesh, and others—contains some realistic details. The songs about the dragon fighter Lugalbanda, about the willow of the goddess Innin, and others are mythological in character. The religious epic song about the descent of the goddess Innin to the netherworld is archaic in nature. The etiological epic songs devoted to the golden age and to the origin of cultural inventions probably date to later times. The 24th to 21st centuries B.C. were a period when the historic-heroic epic in Sumerian and Akkadian of the deeds and campaigns of the kings Sargon and Naramsin flourished. They were also the subjects of moralizing priestly narrative poems with antimonarchical tendencies that accused the kings of impiety. The Akkadian epic poem of Gilgamesh, which tells with great artistic power of the tragedy of man’s fate and his search for immortality, probably goes back to the 22nd century B.C. Some official inscriptions (the inscription-poem about the building of the temple of Gudea and the inscription-poem about the victory of King Utukhegal over the Gutian hordes, both in Sumerian) are also from this time. The extensive didactic literature, known from records of the 18th century B.C. and later, apparently dates to the end of the third millennium B.C. It includes the aphoristic instructions attributed to Shuruppak and his son Ziusudra. Of interest are the penitential psalms, liturgical “lamentations,” sometimes genuinely lyrical, which reflect actual human sorrows, as well as two unique Sumerian wedding songs and two burial songs. The classical Akkadian literature was probably composed in the Kassite period of literature, 16th to 12th centuries B.C.: the long cosmogonic epic of seven songs which describes the creation of the world out of chaos, the struggle between the old and young generations of gods, and so on. There were also writings that expressed a skeptical and even critical attitude toward reality, such as the narrative poem Nippur Poor Man.

Almost no independent literary monuments have come down to us from the Assyrians. They wrote imitative narrative poems, hymns, and prayers in Babylonian genres; some of them were written by King Ashurbanipal. The royal annals are an independent genre of Assyrian literature. Some of them, written in rhythmic prose, sketch battle scenes in a lively and colorful manner, for example, the letter of Nabushallimshun to god about the campaign of Sargon II against Urartu in 714 B.C. Nothing of any significance appeared in the literature after the fall of Assyria at the end of the seventh century B.C. Monuments of the old Babylonian and in part Sumerian, mainly religious, literature were copied until the first century B.C. in the living Aramaic language. Except for the annals, chronicles, prophecies, and the like, all the literature of the peoples of ancient Mesopotamia was in verse.


The plastic arts of the tribes and peoples of Mesopotamia from the fourth to first millennia B.C. occupy an important place in the art of the ancient world. In Mesopotamia, as in ancient Egypt, many forms of architecture, sculpture, synthesized art, and representations of man and the surrounding world characteristic of the following epochs arose and developed. The backwardness of social development and subordination of art to religion made for the stability of artistic structures and principles of style.

The oldest artistic monuments of Mesopotamia (religious vessels shaped by hand from clay with painted rhythmic geometric patterns and stylized representations of birds, animals, and human beings; statuettes from clay) date to the fifth and fourth millennia B.C. The potter’s wheel appeared in the middle of the fourth millennium B.C., and the building of temples (the rectangular White Temple in Uruk on a high adobe platform) flourished. The walls of temples were sometimes adorned with a geometric mosaic design from multicolored heads of clay “nails.” Sculpture in the round (carefully modeled woman’s head from Uruk with severe, generalized features, early third millennium B.C., Iraq Museum, Baghdad) developed in the Jamdat Nasr period (end of the fourth to beginning of the third millennium B.C.) as did the principles of Mesopotamian relief sculpture (vessel from Uruk with tiers of bas-relief friezes showing regularly alternating genre scenes and processions of human beings and animals, Iraq Museum, Baghdad). Glyptic art (engraved cylinder seals with scenes telling a story, noted for their freedom of composition and feeling of movement) thrived.

Conventional and canonical features increased in art during the formation of the city-states (beginning of the third millennium B.C.). The strengthening of royal power and the influence of the priesthood during the period of Sumer’s eminence were responsible for the leading role played by temple architecture. The striving to confirm the power of the divinity was embodied in the magnificent geometric simplicity of the architectural masses. The temples were rectangular in arrangement and constructed with crude brick on filled platforms that protected the buildings against moisture. The walls were divided by rectangular projections and niches (the so-called Oval Temple in Khafaje, early third millennium B.C. to 22nd century B.C.). The type of multistage tower-ziggurat with the “abode of god” on top dates to the early dynastic temple architecture of Sumer. The ziggurat in Ur (22nd to 21st centuries B.C.) consisted of three truncated pyramids, one above the other. The terraces were connected by outside staircases, and the stages were painted in different colors. The residential buildings of Sumer, which influenced later temple and palace architecture, had flat roofs and an open rectangular inner court.

The small sculpture of Sumer (statuettes of supplicants made of stone and bronze) were formalized and smooth in form. Huge eyes encrusted with colored stones bulged on the frozen faces with their prominent noses. The pictures on the reliefs were flat and static; the heads and legs were usually shown in profile; the eyes and shoulders, full face. The figures of gods and kings stood out by size (stone stele of Eannatum, ruler of the city of Lagash, or the so-called Vulture Stele with war scenes arranged in stages, circa 2500 B.C., Louvre, Paris). Similar in style is the so-called standard from Ur—a mosaic of shells and lazurite with scenes of battles and victories (circa 2600, British Museum, London). The golden objects from the “royal” tombs of Ur—decorated helmet, diadem, and dagger with a scabbard of filigree work—and the very expressive bull’s head (adorning a harp) of gold and lazurite are remarkable. The engraved seals of Sumer are conventional and ornamental in form.

The few extant monuments of the period when Mesopotamia was united under the Dynasty of Akkad (24th to 22nd centuries B.C.) reflect an intensification of worship of the ruler. Although the conventional methods were retained, the reliefs exhibited a striving for greater freedom of composition, for more spacious figures, for showing the surrounding landscape (the stone stele of King Naramsin with battle scenes, Louvre, Paris, and cylinder seals with hunting scenes—all 23rd century B.C.). The sculpture in the round reflected a striving for more naturalistic features (bronze head of the ruler of Nineveh, 23rd century B.C., Iraq Museum, Baghdad). The technique of artistic treatment of bronze—casting, embossing, engraving—reached a high stage of perfection. The traditions of Akkadian art are preserved in the portrait art of the city of Lagash (statue of the ruler Gudea, 22nd century B.C., Louvre, Paris).

In the united state of the Third Dynasty of Ur (end of the 22nd through 21st century B.C.) under conditions of a priestly bureaucratic regime, the art workshops produced mainly reliefs with canonical scenes of the worship of gods, arid in form. A few monuments are preserved from the time of Babylon’s prominence (18th century B.C.): diorite stele with Hammurabi’s Code of Laws decorated on top by a relief showing the king praying to the god Shamash (Louvre, Paris); murals of the palace in Mari with scenes of worship and representations of gods, and others.

A new stage in the development of Mesopotamian art is connected with the rise to importance of Assyria. Assyrian art proper emerged in the second millennium B.C. under the influence of the cultures of the Akkadians and Hittites (reliefs of the palace in the city of Kar-Tukulti-Ninurta, 13th century B.C.). The flourishing of art in Assyria coincided with the peak of Assyria’s power and military expansion (ninth to seventh centuries B.C.). War and glorification of the conquering kings became the main themes. The palaces of the Assyrian kings, included in the regular planning of cities, were rectangular citadels on a filled terrace with numerous rooms grouped around asymmetrically arranged open inner courtyards. The main vaulted gate-portals were flanked by towers with monumental figures of the genii-protectors (in the form of winged bulls with a human head) at the base. The palace complexes contained rectangular temple chambers and ziggurats (Sargon II’s palace in Dur-Sharrukin, present-day Khorsabad, 712-707 B.C.). Limestone and alabaster reliefs with representations of mythological beings, war and hunting scenes, and court life were the major forms of decoration of the palaces. The ninth century B.C. reliefs arranged in friezes (Ashurnasirpal II’s palace in Calah, present-day Nimrud, ninth century B.C.) reflect a solemn static style, strict arrangement of representations in planes, and careful ornamental decoration of the patterns on clothing. The striving to glorify the physical might of man was manifested by the exaggerated musculature emphasized by deep lines and by the majestic plastic movement of the figures. Reliefs from the 8th-7th centuries B.C. that fill the surface of the walls more freely have a higher narrative content and try to show more lifelike scenes, landscapes, and spaces (reliefs of Sennacherib’s palace in Nineveh, present-day Quyunjik, 705-680 B.C.). In reliefs from the seventh century B.C., realism in depicting animals reaches a peak; dynamism and expression of images are intensified (the “Dying Lioness” relief from Ashurbanipal’s palace in Nineveh, seventh century B.C.). The surviving murals from the palace in Til Barsib (present-day Tell Ahmar, eighth century B.C.) are stylistically similar to the reliefs and are noted for their flatness and decorative colors. Assyrian palaces were also adorned with friezes of polychrome glazed brick and metal decorations, including reliefs (bronze facing of the gates from Balawat, ninth century B.C., British Museum, London). The few monuments of Assyrian sculpture in the round, which are closely linked to architecture, are marked by monumentality and solemn rigidness and smoothness of masses (statue of Ashurnasirpal II, ninth century B.C., British Museum, London). Applied art—such as making of cylinder seals, artistic weaving, carving on bone and wood, and metal working—flourished.

After the fall of Assyria (end of the seventh century B.C.) Babylonian art again experienced a brief renaissance (seventh to sixth centuries B.C., the so-called neo-Baby Ionian period). The layout of Babylon with its complex system of fortifications, wide straight procession streets, Nebuchadnezzar II’s palace, the temple complex of Esagila, and the 90-meter high ziggurat of Etemenanki was magnificent.

As a result of the Achaemenid conquest of Babylon (539 B.C.) and its becoming part of the Seleucid state (end of the fourth century B.C.), Babylonian culture showed the influence of Persian and, later, Hellenistic art. Babylonian art, in turn, influenced the development of Iranian and Parthian art.


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The Great Soviet Encyclopedia, 3rd Edition (1970-1979). © 2010 The Gale Group, Inc. All rights reserved.