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Treasures of the World's Cultures: The British Museum after 250 Years
Fusion and Transformation: the Diverse Cultures of Mesopotamia

The term "Mesopotamia" comes from the Greek and means "land between the rivers", referring to the region lying between the Tigris and Euphrates Rivers. This area extends from the southern foothills of the Taurus Mountains in the north, south to the Persian Gulf, west to the Syrian Desert and east to the Zagros Mountains. Being a floodplain region, the terrain is flat and the earth quite fertile. People settled in the area particularly early, and this region became one of the greatest centers of civilization. During its early history, the area was occupied by a number of peoples, including the Sumerians, Akkadians, Babylonians, and Persians, who all at one time or another established kingdoms there. In 331 BC, the region was conquered and united under Alexander the Great, and in the first century BC, the Roman Empire annexed it as the Seleucid Kingdom.

The Sumerians were the first to establish a city in the land between the Rivers, developing a form of writing known as cuneiform and building magnificent shrines and palatial halls as well as creating beautiful ritual vessels, jewelry, sculptures, and carvings. The first people to set up an empire in Mesopotamia were the Assyrians, and it was Alexander the Great who brought Greek culture into the region. As a result, the cultures of Mesopotamia are defined by the long line of diverse peoples who have ruled this land between the Rivers.

Queen's lyre

Southern Iraq, Sumerian, about 2600-2400 BC
From Ur
Lapis lazuli, shell, red limestone and gold
H112 cm
Excavated by C L Woolley
ANE 121198a
Queen's lyre

Leonard Woolley discovered several lyres in the graves in the Royal Cemetery at Ur. This was one of two that he found in the grave of 'Queen' Pu-abi. Along with the lyre, which stood against the pit wall, were the bodies of ten women with fine jewellery, presumed to be sacrificial victims, and numerous stone and metal vessels. One woman lay right against the lyre and, according to Woolley, the bones of her hands were placed where the strings would have been.

The wooden parts of the lyre had decayed in the soil, but Woolley poured plaster of Paris into the depression left by the vanished wood and so preserved the decoration in place. The front panels are made of lapis lazuli, shell and red limestone originally set in bitumen. The gold mask of the bull decorating the front of the sounding box had been crushed and had to be restored. While the horns are modern, the beard, hair and eyes are original and made of lapis lazuli.

J Rimmer, Ancient musical instruments of Western Asia in the British Museum (London, The British Museum Press, 1969), p. 17, fig. 3

C L Woolley and others, Ur Excavations, vol. II: The Royal Cemetery (London, The British Museum Press, 1934), pp. 249-52, 74-77
Stone relief

Northern Iraq, Neo-Assyrian, around 645 BC
From Nineveh, North Palace of Ashurbanipal
H16.5, W30 cm
Excavated by W K Loftus
Gift of Miss Lilian Boutcher
ANE 1992.4-4.1
Stone relief

This small alabaster panel was part of a series of wall panels that showed a royal hunt. It has long been acclaimed as a masterpiece; the skill of the Assyrian artist in the observation and realistic portrayal of the animal is clear.

Struck by one of the king's arrows, blood gushes from the lion's mouth. Veins stand out on its face. From a modern viewpoint, it is tempting to think that the artist sympathized with the dying animal. However, lions were regarded as symbolizing everything that was hostile to urban civilization and it is more probable that the viewer was meant to laugh, not cry. There was a very long tradition of royal lion hunts in Mesopotamia, with similar scenes known from the late fourth millennium BC. The connection between kingship and lions was probably brought to Western Europe as a result of the crusades in the twelfth and thirteenth centuries AD, when lions begin to decorate royal coats of arms.

J E Curtis and J E Reade (eds), Art and empire: treasures from Assyria in the British Museum (London, The British Museum Press, 1995), p. 88, fig. 30

J E Reade, Assyrian sculpture (London, The British Museum Press, 1998), pp. 72-79, fig. 81

J E Curtis, 'The dying lion', Iraq, 54 (1992), pp. 113-18
A divine attendant

Northern Iraq, Neo-Assyrian, 811-783 BC
From Nimrud (ancient Kalhu)
H. 182.8 cm
Excavated by H. Rassam
A divine attendant

This is one of a pair of guardian deities who stand in an attitude of attendance. The figures originally flanked a doorway in the temple of Nabu, an important god of writing, at the Assyrian capital of Kalhu (modern Nimrud in northern Iraq). The cuneiform inscription carved around the body of the attendant states that the figures were dedicated to Nabu by the local governor, on his own behalf and on behalf of the king Adadnirari III (r. 811-783 BC) and of the queen mother Sammuramat (who was remembered in the later Greek period as the legendary queen Semiramis). The inscription ends with the request that the reader should "trust no other god". The statues were discovered in 1854 by Hormuzd Rassam who was excavating at Nimrud on behalf of the British Museum. According to his account, there were two pairs of statues, the other two were uninscribed and carried basins but these have not survived.

J E Reade, Assyrian sculpture (London, The British Museum Press, 1998), p. 44, fig. 45

C J Gadd, The Stones of Assyria (London, Chatto and Windus 1936), pp. 150-1.