Assyria flourished from the Old Assyrian period in the Middle Bronze Age until the Neo-Assyrian Empire in the Early Iron Age. Assyrians used art to not only educate and shape their own society and to establish human identity, but they also used art to influence other societies around them. Assyrian rulers found that if a society engages in creating and preserving culture through art, the society flourishes internally and spreads its influence through other regions.




Palace-Temples of Khorsabad, Nimroud and Kouyunjik

The capital, Ninus or Nineveh, was taken by the Medes under Cyaxares, and some 200 years after Xenophon passed over its site, then mere mounds of earth. It remained buried until 1845, when Botta and Layard discovered the ruins of the Assyrian cities. The principal remains are those of Khorsabad, 10 miles N.E. of Mosul; of Nimroud, supposed to be the ancient Calah; and of Kouyunjik, in all probability the ancient Nineveh. In these cities are found fragments of several great buildings which seem to have been palace-temples. They were constructed chiefly of sun-dried bricks, and all that remains of them is the lower part of the walls, decorated with sculpture and paintings, portions of the pavements, a few indications of the elevation, and some interesting works connected with the drainage, &c.


Design of Assyrian Buildings, Fortifications, Temples

The plans of all the Assyrian buildings are rectangular, and we know that long ago, as now, the Eastern architects used this outline almost invariably, and upon it reared some of the most lovely and varied forms ever devised. They gather over the angles by graceful curves, and on the basis of an ordinary square hall carry up a minaret or a dome, an octagon or a circle. That this was sometimes done in Assyria is shown by the sculptures. Slabs from Kouyunjik show domes of varied form, and tower-like structures, each rising from a square base. The resemblance between the ancient form of the dome and those still used in the Assyrian villages is very striking. Whether sloping roofs were used is uncertain. Mr. Bonomi believes that they were, and a few sculptures seem to support his view. Of the private houses nothing, of course, remains; but they are represented on the slabs as being of several stories in height, the ground floor as usual having only a door and no windows. All have flat roofs, and we gather from one of the bas-reliefs, which represents a town on fire, that these roofs were made, just as they now are, with thick layers of earth on strong beams. These roofs are well-nigh fire proof, and the flames are represented as stopped by them, and coming out of the windows. No remains of a window, or, so far as we are aware, of an internal staircase, have been found.

Of the fortifications we know much more. In the north wall of Nimroud fifty-eight towers have been traced, and at Kouyunjik there are large remains of three walls, the lower part being of stone, and the upper of sun-dried bricks. At Khorsabad there are the remains of a wall, still 40 feet high, built of blocks of stone 3 to 4 feet thick, and the evidences wanting as to finishing of these is completely supplied by the sculptures, which show an extraordinary resemblance to medieval works of the same class. Tier upon tier of walls are represented, enclosing a great tower or keep in the centre. The entrances are great arched gateways flanked by square towers. These and the other towers have overhanging parapets just like the mediaeval machicolations, and are finished at top with battlements, remains of which have been found at Nimroud and Kouyunjik, and at Kale Shortage, the supposed capital of Assyria before Nineveh.



Building materials

In Babylonia, an abundance of brick, and lack of stone, led to greater use of mudbrick; Babylonian temples are massive structures of crude brick, supported by buttresses, the rain being carried off by drains. One such drain at Ur was made of lead. The use of brick led to the early development of the pilaster and column, and of frescoes and enamelled tiles. The walls were brilliantly coloured, and sometimes plated with zinc or gold, as well as with tiles. Painted terra-cotta cones for torches were also embedded in the plaster. Assyria, imitating Babylonian architecture, also built its palaces and temples of brick, even when stone was the natural building material of the country — faithfully preserving the brick platform, necessary in the marshy soil of Babylonia, but little needed in the north.

As time went on, however, later Assyrian architects began to shake themselves free of Babylonian influence, and to use stone as well as brick. The walls of Assyrian palaces were lined with sculptured and coloured slabs of stone, instead of being painted as in Chaldea. Three stages may be traced in the art of these bas-reliefs: it is vigorous but simple under Ashurnasirpal II, careful and realistic under Sargon II, and refined but wanting in boldness under Ashurbanipal.

In Babylonia, in place of the bas relief, there is greater use of three-dimensional figures in the round — the earliest examples being the statues from Telloh, that are realistic if somewhat clumsy. The paucity of stone in Babylonia made every pebble precious, and led to a high perfection in the art of gem-cutting. Two seal-cylinders from the age of Sargon of Akkad are among the best examples of their kind. One of the first remarkable specimens of early metallurgy to be discovered by archaeologists is the silver vase of Entemena. At a later epoch, great excellence was attained in the manufacture of such jewellery as earrings and bracelets of gold. Copper, too, was worked with skill; indeed, it is possible that Babylonia was the original home of copper-working.


Sculptures, Bas-Reliefs

The sculptures lined the sides of the halls to a height of 10 feet. In them we see columns with both base and capital, and surmounted by entablatures. Sometimes the columns are combined with pilasters, as in the Greek porticos in antis. In one specimen the columns were carried on the back of bulls, as is shown by one of the bas-reliefs, and, more conclusively still, by the beautiful small model of a winged bull brought to England by Mr. George Smith, which has carved upon its back a base, just as is shown on the slabs.

In these bas-reliefs we have further-
1. The façade of a palace, having at top a grand row of window openings divided by Ionic columns.
2. A small building on the banks of a river, having two columns with bases and a kind if Ionic capitals, between two plain pilasters, and with rude indications of a cornice.
3. Another facade of two columns, with bases, and Corinthian capitals, between two pilasters, likewise with capitals. Over these is an entablature, somewhat rudely worked, but clearly showing architrave, frieze, and cornice, and antefixae over.
The latest of these slabs must have been carved many years before the earliest date assigned to any known Greek work. In view of these and similar remains the following words of Niebuhr are memorable: - "There is a want in Grecian art which no man living can supply. There is not enough in Egypt to account for the peculiar art and mythology of Greece. But those who live after me will see on the banks of the Tigris and Euphrates the origin of Grecian mythology and art."



An Assyrian artistic style distinct from that of Babylonian art (see Sumerian and Babylonian art ), which was the dominant contemporary art in Mesopotamia, began to emerge c.1500 BC and lasted until the fall of Nineveh in 612 BC The characteristic Assyrian art form was the polychrome carved stone relief that decorated imperial monuments. The precisely delineated reliefs concern royal affairs, chiefly hunting and war making. Predominance is given to animal forms, particularly horses and lions, which are magnificently represented in great detail. Human figures are comparatively rigid and static but are also minutely detailed, as in triumphal scenes of sieges, battles, and individual combat. Among the best known of Assyrian reliefs are the lion-hunt alabaster carvings showing Assurnasirpal II (9th cent. BC) and Assurbanipal (7th cent. BC), both of which are in the British Museum. Guardian animals, usually lions and winged beasts with bearded human heads, were sculpted partially in the round for fortified royal gateways, an architectural form common throughout Asia Minor. At Nimrud carved ivories and bronze bowls were found that are decorated in the Assyrian style but were produced by Phoenician and Aramaean artisans. Exquisite examples of Assyrian relief carving may be seen at the British and Metropolitan museums.