The world’s first powerful kingdoms arose in ancient Mesopotamia in the third and second millennia BCE and were centered at the cities of Ur, Akkad, and Babylon. Monumental architecture grew with the rulers’ ambitions, incorporating elaborate sculpted and painted decoration. Administrative needs increased with the size of territory, resulting in complex systems of record-keeping and a thriving form of miniature art: personal seals with carved designs. Widely divergent in scale, architectural decoration and seals shared many of the same motifs, including encounters with animals and monsters; scenes of courtly life, such as the banquet and the hunt; and the worship of deities.
This gallery presents objects from Anatolia (modern Turkey) and Cyprus in the west to Central Asia in the east, dating from the third millennium BCE to the first millennium CE. Neo-Assyrian and Achaemenid Persian palace reliefs are prime examples of art in the service of kings, carved by sculptors whose individual identity mattered little. Ideas of kingship were also expressed in coinage, first in Anatolian Lydia and the Persian Empire, and later, after Alexander of Macedon’s (356–323 BCE) conquest of Asia, in the coins of his successors. The bronzes on display here highlight the importance of animals in the art of the region. Together, these objects offer glimpses of the profound legacy of the ancient Middle East, which extends from renderings of the human figure and a menagerie of monsters to alphabetic writing and so much more.