Notebook, 1993-

[From: Woolley, Leonard. The Art of The Middle East, including Persia, Mesopotamia and Palestine. New York: Crown Publishers. 1961.]

1.Geography and History --- 2.Elam --- 3.Sumer --- 4.Sumer and Akkad --- 5.Syria & Palestine --- 6.Hurri & Hittites --- 7.Anatolia

The Art of The Middle East - Including
Persia, Mesopotamia and Palestine

Chapter One

The Geography of The Middle East and its History - down to 500 A.D.

I N D E X - [The following are discussed more or less in this order and elsewhere in the text]: Anatolia - Syria - Mesopotamia - Elam - Arabia - Khabur valley - Susa - Sumer - Semitic - Akkad - The Guti - The Hur [Hurri] - Hittites - Chalcolithic - Phoenician - Egypt - Hittite - The Elamites - Babylon - Hyksos - Kassites - kingdom of Mitanni - 1269 a treaty - The Levant. - Danaans from Cilicia Peleset or Philistines - Sherden - Shekelesh - Rushu - Ekwesh - Lycians - Minoan and Mycenaean sea power - Syro-Hittite states - Phrygians - Lydians - kingdom of Urartu - Cimmerian - Lydians - Assyria - Aramaean - Medes - Scythian - Babylon - Egypt - Persians - Alexander the Great - Hellenistic - Gauls - Pax Romana - the Parthians - Yue-chi nomads - Parthia - Sassanians. - Moslem conquest

The title of this volume calls for explanation, if not for apology. The term 'The Middle East' is used here to include the countries later known as Anatolia, Syria, Palestine, Iraq and Elam, which is part of Persia, together with the whole of the Arabian peninsula. Those countries differ widely from one another in character and climate; from the outside they were inhabited by peoples of very different stock, and in most of them the original inhabitants had, by the close of our period, been replaced by wholly alien folk; it might therefore be objected that there can be here no unity, that we are dealing with a congeries of independent cultures and should treat of them seriatim, that is, in fact, 'The Art of the Middle East' is a misnomer, and 'The Arts of the Middle Eastern Countries' would be our only proper title.

The diversity of the countries is indeed obvious, and it would be foolish to disregard it. On the contrary, it should be emphasized by the historian because it was so marked that the different areas became to a large extent complementary one to another. Economically and politically their inhabitants were forced to collaborate if they were to make real advance; for any of them isolation, even if it were possible, meant stagnation. The Middle East as a whole provided everything that man required to achieve civilization, but that was not true of any one of the areas that comprised it; none were self-sufficient. Great civilizations came to birth there, but each was obliged to acquire, by trade or by war, some or other essentials to progress which in their own land were lacking.

Although in dealing with the development of the arts we are obliged to employ such terms as Anatolian, Syrian, Mesopotamian, etc., implying a certain cultural unity, it must yet be insisted that none of these is a geographical unit. The deeply-indented western coast of Asia Minor, with its fertile river valleys, looks towards and by its chain of islands is connected with the Aegean rather than with the Asiatic hinterland from which it is cut off by mountain ranges. The central high plateau, parched in summer-time and in winter bitterly cold, is at best an inhospitable land, and only where it breaks down to the Halys basin do the conditions of life become more easy; but beyond [P. 15] this again the wild tangle of mountains stretching up to the Caucasus was more likely to shelter savagery than to encourage culture.

Cut off on its southern side by Taurus and Anti-Taurus from the Mediterranean Sea and from easy access to Syria, Anatolia might seem an isolated country with little prospect of advance. But there was alluvial gold in the western rivers, and the eastern mountains were astonishingly rich in metallic ores--silver, copper and iron, all essential to man's progress; the value of these was bound to outweigh the difficulties of transport across the mountain ranges. The narrow straits at either end of the Sea of Marmora brought the peninsula into touch with eastern Europe, and the coastal track along the eastern end of the Black Sea afforded a link with southern Russia; Anatolia indeed was to play the part of a land-bridge for commercial traffic and, at times, of a highway for invading armies.

Syria was the continuation of that land-bridge, whose southern abutment was Egypt. But here too there is great diversity. The Amanus and Lebanon ranges [in antiquity densely afforested] sometimes fall abruptly into the sea, sometimes leave along its marge a narrow strip of very fertile ground. Behind the mountains the Aleppo steppe and the long valley of the Orontes, including the Beka'a, is pre-eminently an agricultural land; but behind this stretches the Syrian desert with only the garden oasis of Damascus to relieve its vast expanse of barren gravel, where settlement was impossible and alone the Bedouin nomads passed in springtime seeking a scanty pasturage for their herds. To the south the hill country of Judaea enclosed a few fertile valleys such as that of Megiddo and the coastal plain that was to be Philistia, but the Jordan rift was for the most part unfit for cultivation and the open country round Beersheba allowed only of chance crops; to the east, beyond the mountains of Moab, lay the desert. In this long narrow land the manner of men's lives differed perforce. In the north a dense population could exist by tillage and on the sea coast a few cities could prosper; in the economy of the greater part of the country sheep and goats counted for more than agriculture and small towns served as centres for the semi-settled farming clans. Here there was no chance of unity, no common interest could bind together these disparate elements; even the sporadic raids of the desert peoples could not do that, because they were on a small scale and mere raids; either they could be met and driven off by the local levy or, if successful, they were over and the raiders had vanished before help could arrive from any distance; and against organized invasion from Egypt no [p. 18] coalition could stand. As a geographical term 'Syria' has a quite definite connotation; but there is no corresponding cultural entity; in the discussion of 'Syrian' art we shall deal severally with a whole number of provinces and peoples.

Mesopotamia continues eastwards the steppe country of northern Syria and then, with the bend of the river Euphrates, turns south to complete what has been called 'The Fertile Crescent', the great arc of grass-land and arable that encloses the Syrian desert. In this vast area there are no such striking natural differences as we have noted in Anatolia and in Syria; the whole plain bounded by the two rivers Euphrates and Tigris and the foot-hills of Anti-Taurus is a geographical unit and has often figured in history as a political unit; the one distinction that can be drawn, and it was to be one of supreme importance, was that in the north the farmer could depend for his crops upon the winter rains, usually sufficient for his needs, whereas in the hotter south rain is lacking and the fields must be watered by irrigation but, with irrigation, give two crops of unparalleled richness every year.

The long mountain chain that divides Mesopotamia from Persia, the rich valley of the Two Rivers from the arid desert, is broken down at its southern end by the watershed of the Karun. Here is Elam, an alluvial plain closed in on all sides except the western, but there open to the Gulf; it is really a part of Mesopotamia rather than of Persia, and whereas the wild tribes of the northern mountains were a constant threat to the Mesopotamian city states the Elamites, whether subject to the Sumerians or successfully at war with them, were always more intimately concerned with their western neighbours than with any to the north or east.

Finally, the term 'The Middle East' includes Arabia. Although during the last six thousand years the process of desiccation has been constant, yet even so long ago the country must have been but little more suited for human occupation than it is today. Then, as now, only the Yemen was fertile. There were oases to serve as centres for the nomad tribes, and along the coast of the Hadramaut and as far as Oman there were small low-lying plains with enough water and light soil to provide for a sedentary population; but for the rest it was a barren land where no grain could grow and the wandering herdsmen lived on the milk and flesh of their scranny beasts.

The introduction of agriculture signalised one of the greatest revolutions in man's history, Inevitably, it has left little in the way of [p. 17] monuments, and we do not know, and perhaps shall never know, exactly when and where people first grew grain and lived on bread. The sedentary life led to culture of a sort, but for culture to develop to any extent something more than a knowledge of primitive tillage was necessary. Up to the present archaeology has provided only two or three sites of little settlements of Neolithic man still at the beginning of the agricultural age; but the pre-pottery communities of Jarmo and Hassuna in northern Mesopotamia may fairly be regarded as typical; probably there were thousands such scattered over the Middle East wherever natural conditions favoured the cultivator, and probably many were, in point of time, far older, for the tempo of man's advance was still very slow and centuries might make little difference in his conditions. Startling evidence is given by the discoveries at Jericho where, long before he learnt how to make and fire clay pots, neolithic man fortified his settlement with massive walls of stone and, for some occult purpose, modelled in plaster upon human skulls the features of the living man with uncanny verisimilitude.

The one spring in the Jordan rift, the one patch of rich soil, which had attracted man to Jericho, also exposed him to the attacks of jealous land-grabbers, so that in self-defense he embarked upon a feat of building which to us seems almost incredible and is certainly unparalleled. It is a case of adaptation to circumstances. There may have been other neolithic fortresses unknown to us, where risks were urgent; certainly in the open country where opportunities were equal and there was no need to fear violent dispossession the primitive settlements were not walled. The precocious 'township' of Jericho does nor really imply cultural advance, and so far as we can see it was a barren development; civilization was nothing to the people of Jericho or to the Palestinians who in the end stormed their defenses and seized their land.

It was at least two millennia later, towards the close of the neolithic age, that the first cultures developed in which the continuous history of Middle Eastern art has its roots.

In northern Mesopotamia we find a hand-made painted pottery of high quality fired in well-designed kilns giving a heat of more than 800 degrees. Called after Tel Halaf, a site in the Khabur valley where it first came to light, this ware spread far and wide; it was made as far west as Carchemish, was exported to the Amq plain near Antioch, comes in early levels at Nineveh, and has been found in the neighborhood of Lake Van, while a related, but not identical, type [p. 18] occurs lower down the Euphrates valley at Samarra. Early in the chalcolithic period the potters of Arpachiyah in the Khabur valley carried on the Tell Halaf tradition with a technical ability and with a sense of artistry far superior to that attained by the earlier masters; their polychrome designs, executed in lustrous paint, show a richness of invention and a painstaking skill in draughtsmanship which is unrivaled in the ancient world.

Meanwhile another and a quite independent school of painted pottery was at work in Elam or its neighbourhood. The splendid vases from Susa represent a late stage in the history of a ware whose earlier phases are illustrated by the neolithic pottery from the Persepolis area and, less directly, by the painted pottery of Anau. It may well be that Elam was the westernmost branch of a Central Asiatic school, called into being by a migratory movement of peoples who settled down in the karun valley but subsequently sent out fresh waves of migrants to the west.

Certain it is that the first settlers in the southern delta of the Tigris [p. 19] and Euphrates came from the east, bringing with them a painted pottery which was closely connected--though not identical--with that of Susa. In the lowest levels of the city mounds of Sumer this pottery is invariably found. It had been developed elsewhere, for in Sumer it has no previous history; it is at its best at the beginning and degenerates in later centuries. In the course of time it spread widely; it reached the north and at first competed with the much superior Tell Halaf ware and later ousted it, apparently by violence, and was familiar to the natives of the Amq plain on the lower Orontes; but it is a decadent style that travels so far afield. Called, somewhat unfortunately, the al 'Ubaid ware [actually it was first found at Eridu, the southernmost and by tradition the oldest of the Sumerian cities], this painted pottery, with its designs in black upon a white, greenish or brownish ground, is the hall-mark of the earliest settlers in the delta, and its wide distribution testifies to the energy of the people who were to initiate the world's first civilization.

So far as we know, that first civilization arose in the land later called Sumer, that is, in the Euphrates delta. It is pertinent to ask why that should have been the case. The people were newcomers from the east, their primitive arts and crafts had been learnt elsewhere; yet they were destined to outstrip the kinsfolk whom they had left behind in their former home and to make their new land the cradle of a higher culture: why was this?

The delta was of recent formation. The vast deposits of silt carried down by the Karun river formed across the upper end of the Persian Gulf a bar which held up the flood waters of the Tigris and Euphrates so that their silt was deposited against the bar instead of being swept out to sea, and with the slackened current much was dropped higher up and gradually filled in the marshes, forming dry land through which the Euphrates cut its bed. The sedimentary soil was immensely fertile, and invited settlement; and from the east the settlers flocked into the valley. But rich as the soil was, and easy as was the tillage, yet to profit by its richness required much labour, and that on a big scale. It was not a land in which the isolated farmer could prosper. The seed had, of course, to be sown in winter; and in spring, just as the young corn sprouted, the river came down in flood, overran and scoured out the fields and destroyed al hopes of harvest. The river had to be kept in check by artificial banks; the land, if it was to yield a second crop, had to be irrigated by canals; the need was obvious, but the task was beyond the powers of any one landowner. [p. 20] Only by co-operative labour could prosperity be assured, and that meant organization and discipline. It was the communal, not the individual interest that had to be served, and this could best be done when men were congregated together at close quarters, ready for common action and obedient to authority; the township was more effective than the hamlet or the village. In time the delta was parcelled out into units of irrigation, a large part of the population of each concentrated in an urban centre; it became a patchwork of city states. The system assured great agricultural wealth; the soil would yield far more foodstuffs than the people required for their sustenance, and they could therefore enjoy the freedom from anxiety for the means of livelihood, and also the leisure, which are the first essentials of the good life. But beyond this the land yielded nothing. There was no stone in all the alluvial country--even the flints for the field-adzes had to be imported; there was no decent timber; there were no minerals. The farmers could stagnate in well-fed ease; if they were not content to do that, it must have been because of some quality in themselves that demanded progress.

Actually the wide distribution of al'Ubaid pottery shows that in the course of time the people had set themselves to make good the land deficiencies; apart from food, everything had to be imported, and the painted vessels had a certain value for barter. Even with such [p. 21] materials as lay to hand they had made considerable progress, as we shall see when dealing with architecture; but suddenly a stop was put to it which might well have been fatal. As the Sumerian historians succinctly observe: "Then came the Flood"; it was a disaster which spared the main cities, already raised high on the ruins of their past phases, but overwhelmed the entire countryside, drowning the villagers and laying waste the fields; only an impoverished remnant escaped.

To replenish the population there came settlers from the north; they were people accustomed to working in stone, and they brought with them the knowledge of metallurgy [the al'Ubaid people had had at most a few imported copper objects], but they were content to live side by side with the old stock and to profit by their arts, and this hybridization was all-important for progress. So completely did the old traditions survive that the king of Erech could, on historic grounds, claim suzerainty over Elam, and to the north and the northwest the boundaries of the deltic power were pushed steadily forward. It would seem that there was, later in what we call the Uruk period, an infiltration of easterners, from the mountains north of Elam, who eventually secured for themselves the leadership of what was not the Sumerian State, but shortly after 3000 B.C. the Sumerian element re-asserted itself and there began the Early Dynastic period in which Sumer was divided up into a large number of city states, each claiming independence and any one of them at times attempting to secure hegemony over the rest, as did Ur in about 2600 B.C.


[Woolley, Leonard. The Art of The Middle East, including Persia, Mesopotamia and Palestine. New York: Crown Publishers. 1961.]



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