Old Treasures of the Middle East at the Louvre

Mohammed Elrazzaz, Monday 18 Mar 2013

An exploration of the Louvre's collection by ancient civilizations of Egypt, Mesopotamia and Persia

Griffin Frieze

Every day, thousands of tourists visit the Louvre, Paris attracted by its legendary collection of works by the Italian Masters. Nevertheless, those with the slightest  interest in the ancient history of the Middle East should head straight to the ground floor and first floor of the Sully Wing, where the Egyptian and Near-Eastern Antiquities are on show.

Among the artifacts on display are a full spectrum of objects ranging from statues and sarcophagi to clay tablets and friezes featuring a plethora of fantastic creatures. This article examines four of these masterpieces.

The Zodiac of Dendera (Egypt, Ptolemaic)

Once part of the ceiling of one of the chapels at the Temple of Hathour at Dendera, a bas-relief, dating back to the reign of the Ptolemaic Queen Cleopatra VII (1st century BC), depicts the Zodiac. It is one of the most treasured pieces in the Egyptian Antiquities collection at the Louvre; it left Egypt in the 1820s by Mohammed Ali Pasha’s consent.

The Zodiac features a complex symbolism combining several elements drawn from different cultures including  the Babylonian, Assyrian and Greek. A central disc is supported by four maidens situated on each of the four corners, and eight falcon-headed spirits stand in between. Within the disc, all twelve signs of the Zodiac are visible; some of them immediately recognisable, Sagittarius, Pisces and Cancer, while others are Egyptianised and require some understanding of the Egyptian deities and iconography in order to figure out what the shapes represent. In this category is Aquarius, represented by Hapi, god of the Nile and its annual flood. 

In addition to the signs of the Zodiac, some constellations are represented, most noticeably Ursa Major (a bull’s foreleg, also alluding to Seth and the myth of Isis and Osiris). The five planets known at the time are also present, while thirty-six spirits around the circumference of the disc allude to the ancient Egyptian calendar.

The Law Code of Hammurabi (Iraq, Babylonian)

Though not the oldest law code in recorded history, the Code of Hammurabi is, undoubtedly the most complete and well defined such code of its time (eighteenth century BC). The 282 laws comprising the Code are inscribed on a basalt stele over two meters high. Just as Moses had received the ten commandments from his biblical god, the Babylonian king Hammurabi is depicted on the top of the stele receiving the laws from the Mesopotamian god Shamash, god of justice.

In addition to its value as a testament of the social and cultural life at the time and of society’s idea about crime and punishment, the Code served as a model that inspired and influenced every other code in Mesopotamia for centuries to follow.

The Code tackles different sets of laws meant to govern all aspects of law, from family and civil to commercial and professional. Death, mutilation and slavery are among the harsh punishments established by the Code, while a particularly interesting detail is the law obliging whoever accuses anyone of murder to prove this charge in court, or else be executed themselves. This law, as do others, emphasise the central role of presenting evidence in the judiciary system, something quite progressive for the period.

Frieze of the Archers (Iran, Achaeminid)

Based on earlier Babylonian models, the Frieze shows a procession of bearded archers, each with a spear in his hand and a bow and quiver hanging from his shoulder. The frieze is rendered in polychrome glazed siliceous rock (with a high content of silica).

The frieze belonged to the Palace of Darius I at Susa (present-day Iran) and dates from the sixth century BC. Some historians speculate that the archers form part of ‘The Immortals,’ the name given by Herodotus to the legendary army of Darius I, but this intepretation lacks tangible evidence.

The frieze is part of an ensemble that once adorned the walls of the Susa Palace, along with other famous friezes including the Frieze of the Griffins, Frieze of the Sphinx and others.

Lamassu from Khorsabad (Iraq, Neo-Assyrian)

Upon entering Cour Khorsabad in the Richelieu Wing, one is immediately transfixed by the monumentality of the reconstructed halls of the Palace of Sargon II in Khorsabad (eights century BC).

The Lamassu (human-headed winged bulls) are of particularly striking scale and quality. Conceived as genies protecting the palace, these lamassu stand over four meters high, and no luxury of detail is spared in rendering the beards and the flowing hair of the human heads.

A simple trick of composition, through adding a fifth leg to the figures, makes the lamassu appear to be standing still when seen from a frontal view, and moving when seen in profile. One of them has its head turned sideways, in a gesture that lends it a sense of naturalism, and a reminder of its role as guardian of the gates.

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