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The Getty Villa
17985 Pacific Coast Highway
Pacific Palisades, CA 90272
E-mail: (for general Museum inquiries) gettymuseum@getty.edu
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Mesopotamia Civilization Begins
Through July 27, 2020

Ancient Mesopotamia, centered in present-day Iraq, occupies a unique place in the history of human culture. It is there, around 3400–3000 BC, that all the key elements of urban civilization first appear in one place: cities with monumental infrastructure and official bureaucracies overseeing agricultural, economic, and religious activities; the earliest known system of writing; and sophisticated architecture, arts, and technologies.

These developments were concentrated in southern Mesopotamia, where the dominant ethnic and linguistic group until about 2000 BC was the Sumerians, famous today for their hero-king Gilgamesh of Uruk, the treasures found in the Royal Tombs at Ur, and the strikingly beautiful statues of Gudea, ruler of Lagash. By at least 2700 BC, the Sumerians lived alongside Akkadians, whose king Sargon established the first lasting Mesopotamian empire, and whose Semitic language evolved into the dialects of the Babylonians and Assyrians. It was those cultures, adapting and extending the Sumero-Akkadian heritage, that built the great cities of Babylon and Nineveh, famed for their towering ziggurats, temples, palaces, and city walls; composed evocative creation myths, epics, hymns, and poems; and laid the foundations for future mathematics and astronomy.

For some three thousand years, Mesopotamia remained the preeminent force in the Near East. In 539 BC, however, Cyrus the Great captured Babylon and incorporated Mesopotamia into the Persian Empire. Periods of Greek and Parthian rule followed, and by about AD 100 Mesopotamian culture had effectively come to an end.

First Writing
Tablet with a Bilingual Dictionary from King Ashurbanipal’s Library, Neo-Assyrian period, 668–627 BC, terracotta. Musée du Louvre, Department of Near Eastern Antiquities, Paris. Géjou purchase, 1918. Image © Musée du Louvre, dist. RMN-Grand Palais / Thierry Ollivier / Art Resource, NY Photo: Franck Raux
Tablet with a Bilingual Dictionary from King Ashurbanipal’s Library, Neo-Assyrian period, 668–627 BC, terracotta. Musée du Louvre, Department of Near Eastern Antiquities, Paris. Géjou purchase, 1918. Image © Musée du Louvre, dist. RMN-Grand Palais / Thierry Ollivier / Art Resource, NY

The earliest known writing emerged in southern Mesopotamia around 3400 BC, originating as a system of pictographs that evolved by 2600 BC into the distinctive wedge-shaped script we call "cuneiform." It was used initially to record the Sumerian language, and from about 2400 BC Akkadian, which split into two dialects, Assyrian and Babylonian, around 2000 BC. Over the next two thousand years, the use of cuneiform scripts—both the Mesopotamian version and new forms adapted or invented to write some fifteen other languages—spread to Iran, Armenia, Syria, Turkey, Lebanon, Israel, Jordan, and Egypt. For much of this period, Babylonian remained the international diplomatic language between the region’s "great kings." Cuneiform finally died out in the late first century AD, overtaken by the simpler alphabetic scripts of Aramaic and Greek.

The vast majority of cuneiform writing was inscribed on clay tablets, which could also be impressed with a seal that acted like a signature. The hundreds of thousands of texts discovered by archaeologists include royal inscriptions, law codes, treaties, and literature, as well as everyday records such as receipts, contracts, letters, and incantations that reveal the intimate details of Mesopotamian social, religious, and economic life to an extent unmatched by any other ancient culture.

Extensive libraries of cuneiform texts were kept in temples and palaces, where scribes copied and recopied canonical compositions for millennia. Some kings, such as Shulgi of Ur (ruled 2094-2047 BC) and Ashurbanipal of Assyria (ruled 668-627 BC), claimed to read many languages and to be able to write cuneiform themselves.

Assyria: Palace Art of Ancient Iraq
October 2, 2019–September 5, 2022

In the ninth to seventh centuries B.C., the Assyrians, based in northern Mesopotamia (modern Iraq), forged a great empire that extended at its height from Egypt, Syria, Lebanon, Israel, Jordan, and parts of Turkey in the west, through Iraq to the mountains of Iran and Armenia in the east. To glorify their reigns, the Assyrian rulers built majestic palaces adorned with relief sculptures that portray the king as a mighty warrior and hunter, and confront visitors with imposing images of winged bulls, demons and other mythological guardians.

Assyria: Palace Art of Ancient Iraq, on view at the Getty Villa October 2, 2019 to September 5, 2022, presents a selection of these famous relief sculptures as a special loan from the British Museum in London. Among the greatest masterpieces of Mesopotamian art, the Assyrian reliefs have, since their discovery in the mid-19th century, fascinated viewers with their vivid depictions of warfare, hunting, building works, mythology, rituals, banqueting and other aspects of Assyrian court life. Often bearing cuneiform inscriptions, some scenes show characters, events and places known from the Old Testament and ancient Greek authors. Together they represent the richest body of narrative art and iconography to have survived from the ancient Near East.

“The British Museum possesses the largest and most important collection of Assyrian reliefs in the world. The fourteen panels on view at the Getty Villa create a compelling overview of the subjects, styles, and artistic achievements of Assyria’s sculptors, including outstanding masterpieces such as the ‘Banquet Scene’ of the last great king of Assyria, Ashurbanipal, reviled as ‘Sardanapalus’ in the Old Testament,” says Timothy Potts, director of the J. Paul Getty Museum. “At the time of their discovery, taste in Britain—and Europe generally—hewed strongly to classical models, by which standard some saw these Assyrian monuments as unrefined; but this attitude soon subsided, and they are now universally appreciated as artistic achievements of great visual and emotional power. In our own day the historical and cultural importance of these sculptures has increased with the tragic destruction by ISIS of many of the reliefs that remained in Iraq. We hope therefore that this display will raise awareness of the need to protect major heritage sites that remain at peril around the world.”

The Assyrian heartland lay astride the Tigris River in Mesopotamia, in what is today northern Iraq. The reliefs in this exhibition come from the palaces of kings Ashurnasirpal II (883–859 B.C.) and Tiglath-pileser III (745–727 B.C.) at Kalhu (Nimrud), Sargon II (722–705 B.C.) at Dur-Sharrukin (Khorsabad), and the last great Assyrian king Ashurbanipal (668–627 B.C.) at Nineveh.

In the mid-eighth century B.C. the Assyrian Empire expanded westward to the eastern shore of the Mediterranean and Egypt, coming into contact with the Greeks in Phoenicia, on Cyprus, and along the southern coast of Anatolia (Turkey), as well as in trading colonies in northern Syria.

Assyrian palaces were imposing complexes that served both as residences for kings and their families and as the venues for official diplomatic and ceremonial functions. The most important rooms within the palaces were decorated with reliefs. Scenes in the throne room and reception halls typically emphasized the king’s military prowess and his status as the all-powerful ruler, sometimes in graphically brutal terms. The king’s private quarters could include beneficent mythological creatures, rituals, and other themes. The hunt was one of the most frequently depicted royal activities, symbolizing the king’s supreme power over the most fearsome enemies.

The British adventurer Sir Austen Henry Layard (1817-1894), who led the excavations at Nineveh and Kalhu (modern Nimrud), published two series of folio-sized illustrations documenting his discoveries under the title The Monuments of Nineveh (1849-1853). Both series are on display in the exhibition, the complete sets of images being accessible on an iPad in the gallery. A number of reliefs on view in the exhibition were excavated by Layard in 1845-51.

This is the second long-term loan exhibition in the gallery devoted to The Classical World in Context, a new gallery at the Getty Villa highlighting cultures that influenced and interacted with the classical world of ancient Greece and Rome.

The exhibition will remain on view for three years, during which it will coincide with upcoming exhibitions on ancient Mesopotamia (March 18 – July 27, 2020), drawn from the collections of the Musée du Louvre, and ancient Persia’s relationship with the classical world (2021).

Assyria: Palace Art of Ancient Iraq is curated by Timothy Potts, director at the J. Paul Getty Museum, with assistance from Sara E. Cole, assistant curator of antiquities at the J. Paul Getty Museum.

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