West Asian Art Research Paper

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West Asia has a long and complex artistic tradition, beginning in the Neolithic era, during which indigenous forms of visual expression have been subjected again and again to new influences from both East and West. The spread of Hellenic culture in Ionia and the influx of Islam and the crusades, for example—appears in a number of media, from splendid mosques and mosaics and from knotted carpets to arts of the book.

In early times the main centers of artistic development in West Asia were focused in the cities of Mesopotamia, Anatolia, and the west Mediterranean littoral. The Persian and Helleno-Roman empires, including Byzantium, that ruled various parts of West Asia from around 550 BCE until 650 CE and beyond introduced artistic traditions with a broader range and wider geographical span. Finally, after the seventh century CE, Islamic art gradually became the dominant visual culture in West Asia, although other traditions continued as well.

Earliest Artifacts

Among the earliest forms of art surviving from West Asia are those from Neolithic settlements and from Mesopotamia. Catal Hoyuk on the south central Anatolian plain was settled from around 6500 to 5650 BCE, and excavations there have uncovered architecture, sculpture, beautifully decorated pottery, wall paintings, and the remains of what appears to have been a vibrant weaving tradition. The Ubaid culture of Mesopotamia, which flourished after 4300 BCE, appears to have provided a foundation for the later art of the Sumerians.

Due largely to twentieth-century excavations and scholarship, we now know of the artistic accomplishments of the great city-states of Mesopotamia, beginning with the Sumerian city of Kish, whose earliest inscriptions can be dated to around 2600 BCE, followed in later Sumerian times by Lagash, seat of the Sumerian ruler Gudea around 2050 BCE, and Ur, whose excavation has yielded remarkable royal and priestly objects, as well as a giant ziggurat constructed around 2100 BCE. In 2334 BCE the Akkadian king Sargon built a new empire, with Nineveh as its political and cultural capital, before falling to a Sumerian resurgence. One of the most remarkable artifacts from the period, a famous copper head of a Ninevah man, was stolen during April 2003 looting of the Iraq Museum in Baghdad. (Ironically, it is possible that the head had been symbolically mutilated during antiquity, much in the same way as contemporary Iraqis mutilated statues of Saddam Hussein; when the object was discovered its ears and the inlays that filled its eye sockets appeared to have been deliberately removed.) Among the thousands of other works pilfered was an iconic 91-centimeterhigh carved alabaster libation vase (circa 3500–3000 BCE) from Uruk and the carved marble female head of the same period and sacred region. The museum lootings prompted much reflection (and some excellent journalism) about the concept of historical consciousness and identity. Zainrab Bahrani, in his article “Iraq’s Cultural Heritage: Monuments, History, and Loss,” wrote in some detail about the stolen Uruk vase—one of the earliest examples of narrative art—noting as well the Mesopotamian anxiety about the safety of their monuments, texts, and works of art during times of war (an anxiety about the loss of both memory and identity, he interprets). Three days after he drafted the article, on 11 June 2003, three individuals in a battered car returned the Uruk vase to the museum.

Subsequently the Babylonian civilization flourished; under its greatest ruler, the lawgiver Hammurabi (d. 1750 BCE), sculptors created notable monuments. Babylonian dominance bowed in turn to the Assyrians, under whom artistic production reached new heights; their palace city of Khorsabad (c. 701 BCE) and later their reconstruction of Babylon, whose celebrated Ishtar gate (c. 575 BCE) is now located in Pergamon Museum in Berlin, were major centers of artistic activity in all media. Assyrian relief sculptures from Nineveh and Nimrud are now dispersed among museums worldwide.

In Anatolia, numerous civilizations with distinctive artistic traditions flourished in the two millennia before the common era. Among them were the Hittites, whose capital of Hattusas has yielded up remarkable stone and metal objects, the best of which are in the Museum of Anatolian Civilizations in Ankara. Urartians, Lydians, and Phrygians, among others, left their mark on the history of material culture in Anatolia, creating fortified cities with masonry walls and furnishing their courts with beautiful objects and well-crafted stone buildings.

The Persian Artistic Tradition

The Achaemenid Persian Empire (550–330 BCE), followed by Alexander of Macedon (Alexander the Great, 356–323 BCE) and the Seleucids (312–64 BCE), the Arsacids, (247 BCE– 224 CE), and the Sassanids (224/228–651 CE), created a continuing artistic tradition that in some ways can be traced in an unbroken line from the works produced in such great early centers as Persepolis, Susa, and Bisitun down to the art of the present day. The palace of Darius I at Persepolis (c. 500 BCE), with its huge, fluted columns and dramatic reliefs of royal ceremonies, conveys an idea of the pomp and majesty of Achaemenid court ceremony and sumptuary arts. Sassanid brick architecture was enormous in scale, as the ruins of the palace of Shapur I (250 CE) at Ctesiphon, with its huge catenary vault, suggest. Sassanid architectural and sculptural remains at Sarvistan, Taq-i Bustan, and Nakhsh-i-Rustam near Persepolis, and their iconography of Sassanid kings as warriors, hunters, and lawgivers, attest to the political importance of art under the Sasanians. Numerous objects in precious metals likewise demonstrate the rich Sassanid royal iconography, while Sassanid silk weaving was in its time the epitome of beauty, luxury, and technical virtuosity in both the East and West.

Greek, Roman, and Byzantine Art in Anatolia

The Hellenic colonizers in Ionia spread the Hellenic visual culture to much of West Asia; like Greek philosophy, much of Greek art appears to have taken form in the Ionian colonies. The succession of Greek classical architectural orders—Doric, Ionic, and Corinthian— and the full repertoire of classical and Hellenistic art is reflected in the excavations of Anatolian cities, from early sites such as Assos and Priene, to later Helleno- Roman sites such as Ephesus (whose temple of Artemis was one of the seven wonders of the ancient world), Halicarnassus (site of another of the seven wonders), and Pergamon, whose magnificent Altar of Zeus (c. 180 BCE) is now in Berlin. Both in the realms of architecture and sculpture, Ionia influenced the art of mainland Greece, and its great temples were far more splendid, and constructed on a much larger scale, than most of those of mainland Greece.

Under Roman dominance westernmost Asia underwent impressive urban expansion, and prosperity led to massive investment in art and architecture. The Romans spread the Helleno-Roman style to Syria and Palestine as well as to southern Anatolia and Egypt, and cities such as Palmyra, Baalbek, and Roman Ephesus display today the most impressive remains of the art and architecture of the ancient world. The Helleno-Roman cultural sphere encompassed indigenous peoples as well. Among these, perhaps the most famous were the Arab Nabataeans, whose great fourth-century BCE city of Petra, with its rock-cut monuments in Hellenistic style, demonstrates the pervasiveness of the classical artistic tradition. Archaeological remains from this period are found elsewhere as well, as far south as the Arabian Peninsula.

The establishment in the early fourth century CE of the capital of the Eastern Roman Empire at Constantinople was instrumental in the development of a new Christian artistic style in West Asia, especially in Anatolia and greater Syria. Drawing heavily on the technical and stylistic legacy of Rome, including the media of mosaic and classical architectural design, the Byzantine artistic style evolved from late classicism into the Middle Byzantine style by the ninth and tenth centuries. Roman and Byzantine engineering advances, such as the barrel and groin vaults and the pendentive (the concave triangular section of wall that forms the transition between a square or polygonal space and the circular base of a dome), greatly expanded possibilities for architectural interiors; the six-domed early Byzantine church of St. John at Ephesus (c. 525) and the famous Hagia Sophia in Istanbul (c. 537) exploited that new mathematical engineering. Byzantine Syria and Palestine saw the building of such monuments as the monastery of Simeon Stylites (c. 490) and the sixth-century structures associated with the Holy Sepulchre in Jerusalem. Around the same time the Armenian states in eastern and later in southern Anatolia began a centuries-long development of their own artistic tradition of exquisite cut-stone buildings and sculpture, as well as distinctive traditions of wall painting and manuscript painting. The Church of the Holy Cross at Achtamar, from the early tenth century, is perhaps the most famous of many sculpture-covered Armenian masonry churches of the Middle Ages, and the ruins of the Bagratid capital of Ani, ravaged by an earthquake in the eleventh century, still impress visitors to this day.

Early Islam in West Asia

With the explosive spreading of Islam from the Arabian Peninsula into the Middle East, North Africa, and Central Asia following the death of the Prophet Muhammad in 632, the arts of West Asia underwent major changes. Unlike the cultures of the Byzantine and Sassanid empires, which had deeply rooted traditions of artistic images of both kings and religious figures, Islamic culture reflected the Prophet’s deep distrust of figural art as potentially idolatrous and symbolic of luxury. The art of West Asia after the coming of Islam, as one might expect, therefore represents a syncretism of preexisting traditions adapted to new needs and beliefs. The first great Islamic building, the Dome of the Rock in Jerusalem (c. 680), reflects centralized church plans of Syria in its form and uses the Roman-Byzantine technique of mosaic in its decoration. The Great Mosque of Damascus, constructed in the early eighth century under the Umayyad dynasty (661–750), is in fact a recycled Christian edifice that was in turn converted from a Roman temple precinct. Scorning human and animal images in its public and religious art, early Islamic civilization developed the repertoire of Arabic calligraphy associated with the Qur’an, together with new adaptations of late Roman vegetal, floral, and geometric ornamentation that eventually took on the distinctive Islamic forms we today sometimes refer to as arabesque.

At the same time, in their private rural hunting lodges and urban palaces, the new rulers of the Islamic polity quietly adopted the sumptuous luxury arts and the court iconography of the Sassanid and Byzantine empires. Early eighth-century desert palaces in Syria were covered with mosaics and paintings, in some cases even including depictions of the hunt, genre scenes, and depictions of nude women as entertainers in the Islamic version of the Roman baths. The fall of the Umayyads to the Abbasids (749/750–1258), who moved the capital from Damascus to Baghdad, led to a period of artistic splendor chronicled in the Arabian Nights. The shift of the political center of gravity to Baghdad in the east also intensified the Persian cultural impact on the emerging Islamic style. At the same time, the importation of Turkic slave soldiers from Central Asia and trade with Tang dynasty (618–907) China over the Silk Roads opened the art of West Asia to influences from the north and east as well. In the prosperous towns and urban courts of east Persia in the tenth and eleventh centuries there developed an urban middle-class Islamic art of high taste and literary sophistication, in which familiar stories from narrative poetry were often reflected in the visual arts. The famous epigraphic ceramic wares of the period show the adaptation of the art of calligraphy to ceramic decoration, with the use of aphorisms and adages to ornament lovely tableware.

The destruction of much of the early Islamic art and architecture of the eastern Islamic world in the Mongol invasions of the thirteenth century has resulted in a relatively meager amount of early art surviving to our time, which makes the splendid material culture described in the surviving historical records of the era both less accessible and more intriguing.

Eastern Invasions and Art of the Later Islamic Empires

Beginning with the arrival of the Seljuk Turks in the eleventh century, West Asia was subject to periodic waves of invasion from the east. The Mongols in the thirteenth century, the Timurids in the late fourteenth century, and the Afghans in the eighteenth century all brought a mixture of destruction and renewal to the art of West Asia. Seljuk patronage in particular resulted in a very complex and rich expansion in all media; the four-iwan type of religious structure (an iwan is a vaulted space that opens out at one end) that later enveloped the entire Islamic world from Central Asia to Morocco, began in Seljuk Iran, the eleventh-century Great Mosque of Isfahan being its first major manifestation. Art under the Seljuks and their successors in Iran, the Jazira, and Anatolia frequently used human and animal imagery. Depictions of people, and both mythical and actual creatures, appeared in media as diverse as public stone sculpture, architectural decoration, and especially ceramics and arts of the book.

At the same time, East–West contacts developed through the crusades (beginning in 1095 and occurring periodically through 1291) further enriched both the development and the dissemination of Islamic art. Islamic media such as enameled glass, inlaid metalwork, and the ubiquitous knotted-pile carpet were traded and esteemed in Europe. By the second half of the fifteenth century, the art of West Asia had developed a truly international Islamic style found in Timurid, Uzbek, Turkmen, and Ottoman realms, manifested in the media of architectural decoration, arts of the book, and luxury arts. From Samarqand to Istanbul in the north, and with reflections in the Mamluk art of Cairo and Damascus in the south, this international Islamic style flourished under court patronage. Artists and works of art moved along commercial routes with ease, and inspiration from trade with China and with Europe enriched the art of Islamic lands in many ways. By the late fourteenth century Islamic carpets had become an essential aspect of the material culture of Europe, while silk commerce between Iran and Europe via the Ottoman Empire, and trade by ship across the Mediterranean between North Africa and both the Ottoman and European worlds, resulted in an enhanced commerce of both art and artistic ideas. The Mamluk rulers of Egypt (1260–1517), with their Turkic ethnicity, language, and customs, forged artistic links with Islamic lands farther to the east, and artists freely traveled between Iran and the Ottoman lands. After 1500, the Islamic art of West Asia was dominated by two great court styles, those centered in Ottoman Istanbul and those centered in Tabriz, Qazvin, and Esfahan, the successive artistic capitals of the Safavid Empire (1501–1722/1736). Safavid Esfahan was a planned city that took form during the reign of Shah ‘Abbas I (reigned 1588–1629). Among the great artistic personalities of the age were the Ottoman architect Sinan (1489–1588), whose greatest masterpiece was the mosque of Selim II in Edirne (c. 1572), and the Safavid court painters Sultan Muhammad (flourished 1520–1540) and Reza ‘Abbasi (flourished 1590–1635). The miniature painting and other arts of the book practiced by professional artists in Islamic courts, originally intended for a very limited audience of wealthy patrons, gained wider importance because of their impact on other art forms, such as carpets and textiles with figural decoration, and architectural decoration employing the wealth of vegetal, floral, calligraphic and geometric motifs first invented in the royal painting ateliers.

Later Art in West Asia

Artistic development in West Asia from the eighteenth through the twentieth centuries was subjected to the effects of both Eastern invasions and Western culture and commerce. European influence appears in Ottoman and Safavid painting as early as the seventeenth century, and the interplay between revivals of traditional styles and European cultural incursions continues to the present day. The eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries constitute a great age of calligraphy in the Ottoman Empire, and nineteenth-century Iranian art under the Qajars (1794–1925) led to many interesting innovations, especially in painting. In the twentieth century, traditional artistic forms were revived while simultaneously West Asian artists began to achieve reputations working in international techniques and media in architecture, easel painting, and sculpture; many of the twenty-first century’s most prominent West Asian artists attempt to achieve a fusion of Islamic tradition and modern genres and techniques.


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