Assyria and Babylonia
- LAST MODIFIED: 12 January 2022
- DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780190922467-0068
- LAST MODIFIED: 12 January 2022
- DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780190922467-0068
This article discusses the architecture of Assyria and Babylonia, two kingdoms that were located in modern-day Iraq and surrounding parts of Syria, Turkey, and Iran. This region overlaps with Mesopotamia (an ancient Greek name for the region between the Tigris and Euphrates Rivers). The rise to prominence around c. 1800 BCE of the cities of Assur in northern Iraq and of Babylon in central Iraq is taken as the article’s starting point. The main focus is, however, on the later histories of Assyria (c. 900–612 BCE) and Babylonia (c. 626–538 BCE). Both kingdoms can be said to have reached an imperial scale during these periods (Assyria around 730 BCE during the reign of King Tiglath-Pileser III, and Babylonia when its armies conquered Assyria in 612 BCE). Both empires came to control large parts of western Asia and at times also Egypt. This chapter will, however, focus on Mesopotamia proper, what might be described as its architectural koine (a multiregional shared material culture). The conquest of Babylonia by the Achaemenid Persian armies in 538 BCE is taken as the end date. Architecture is an integral part of society and cannot therefore be studied on its own. The discourse on Mesopotamian architecture is notably sparse and uneven (as becomes apparent in this article). The limited nature of the discourse can be explained in several ways. First, although Mesopotamian architects created some of the most renowned buildings of their times, those architects did not write down their ideas, nor did they claim authorship. Ancient textual sources, although abundantly preserved, provide limited information when it comes to architecture. The activity of architecture was instead based on learned practice. Second, the architecture of the region was predominantly constructed of mud bricks supplemented with wood. More-extensive use of stones was generally limited to monumental buildings. Over the centuries, these buildings have collapsed and come to be buried under their own, and later, debris. Generally, only the lowest parts of the ground floor walls have survived. Our knowledge of ancient architecture is therefore dependent on archaeological excavations that commenced in the middle of the 19th century. Third, from the time the first excavations in the region commenced, archaeologists have focused mostly on the big urban centers and their monumental palaces and temples. Archaeologists have become more interested in other types of buildings and settlements over time, but our knowledge remains limited and biased to certain regions and periods. These biases, unfortunately, continue to shape the discourse and limit what can be referenced. Although this chapter does not aim to be comprehensive, it does include a substantial selection of the works that have been published on the architecture of the region.
Although architecture can be studied in numerous ways, the architecture of ancient Mesopotamia has been predominantly analyzed through the method of Formengeschichte, which focuses on the shape of spaces and the connections between them. Its main goals are to reconstruct the function of spaces and to trace historical typological developments. It has been quite successful in achieving these goals. The resulting studies are predominantly two-dimensional, with the floor plan representing the main and often only medium of analysis. The resources cited in this section offer overviews on the architecture of Mesopotamia between c. 1800 and 550 BCE. These works were written by some of the most influential architectural historians on ancient Mesopotamia. These include Heinrich 1982 on temples, Heinrich 1984 and Margueron 1982 on palaces, Castel 1992 and Miglus 1999 on residential architecture, Sollee 2020 on defensive architecture, and Novák 1999 on cities. These works share a focus on morphological analyses of floor plans, with an emphasis on typology and its historical development. A discussion of Formengeschichte is provided in Kertai 2020. Concise introductions to the architecture of Babylonia and Assyria are found in Kertai 2019a and Kertai 2019b.
Castel, Corinne. Habitat urbain néo-assyrien et néo babylonien: De l’espace bâti à l’espace vécu. Bibliothèque Archéologique et Historique 143. Paris: Librairie Orientaliste Paul Geuthner, 1992.
Detailed discussion of seventy-five houses and their spatial organization, with the aim to reconstruct how they were used by their original inhabitants. The main focus is on functional analyses of floor plans.
Heinrich, Ernst. Die Tempel und Heiligtümer im Alten Mesopotamien: Typologie, Morphologie und Geschichte. Denkmäler Antiker Architektur 14. Berlin: Walter de Gruyter, 1982.
The most complete, and arguably only, general sourcebook on temples from ancient Mesopotamian. Includes general descriptions that focus on floor plans, morphology, and typological developments.
Heinrich, Ernst. Die Paläste im Alten Mesopotamien. Denkmäler Antiker Architektur 15. Berlin: Walter de Gruyter, 1984.
The most complete, and arguably only, general sourcebook on palaces from ancient Mesopotamia. Includes general descriptions that focus on floor plans, morphology, and typological developments.
Kertai, David. “Assyria (Iraq), c. 1900–612 BCE.” In Sir Banister Fletcher’s A History of Architecture. 21st ed. Edited by Murray Frazer, 13–28. London: Bloomsbury, 2019a.
Encyclopedia article providing a succinct introduction to the different aspects of Assyrian architecture and some of its key buildings.
Kertai, David. “Babylonia (Iraq), c. 1800–539 BCE.” In Sir Banister Fletcher’s A History of Architecture. 21st ed. Edited by Murray Frazer, 29–40. London: Bloomsbury, 2019b.
Encyclopedia article providing a succinct introduction to the different aspects of Babylonian architecture and some of its key buildings.
Kertai, David. “Deconstructing the Canon of Ancient Near Eastern Palaces.” In Testing the Canon of Ancient Near Eastern Art and Archaeology. Edited by Amy Rebecca Gansell and Ann Shafer, 195–213. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2020.
This article on Mesopotamian palaces provides an overview of the ways Mesopotamian architecture has been analyzed and the prevalence of Formengeschichte (i.e., morphological and typological analyses of floor plans).
Margueron, Jean-Claude. Recherches sur les palais mésopotamiens de l’Age du Bronze. Bibliothèque Archéologique et Historique 107. Paris: Librairie Orientaliste Paul Geuthner, 1982.
The most detailed discussion of Mesopotamian palatial architecture of the 2nd millennium BCE, with an emphasis on functional analyses of spaces. Margueron’s work is noteworthy for reconstructing second stories in all palaces. This leads to—otherwise rare—three-dimensional discussions of palace architecture. The existence of second stories has not found general acceptance.
Miglus, Peter A. Städtische Wohnarchitektur in Babylonien und Assyrien. Baghdader Forschungen 22. Mainz, Germany: Philipp von Zabern, 1999.
The most complete sourcebook for residential architecture from Mesopotamia. Analyses focus on the floor plans and their morphological differences, as well as on functional analyses of spaces and installations. Among the few works to include a discussion of the methodology used.
Novák, Mirko. Herrschaftsform und Stadtbaukunst: Programmatik im mesopotamischen Residenzstadtbau von Agade bis Surra-man-raʼā. Schriften zur vorderasiatischen Archäologie 7. Saarbrücken, Germany: Saarbrücker Drückerei und Verlag, 1999.
Brief descriptions of the major cities from Mesopotamia from c. 2000 BCE to 1000 CE, with reference to their main features.
Sollee, Alexander. “Bergesgleich baute ich hoch”: Untersuchungen zur Architektur, Funktion und Bedeutung Neuassyrischer Befestigungsanlagen. Schriften zur vorderasiatischen Archäologie 17. Wiesbaden, Germany: Harrassowitz Verlag, 2020.
Although focusing on Assyrian cities, this book provides the most up-to-date and thorough overview of defensive urban architecture in Mesopotamia.
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