Grand relics of a forgotten civilisation

By Alice Johnson

The rise and fall of Mesopotamia and its peoples have been brought back to life through artefacts that have stood the test of time

Grand relics of Mesopotamia, Saadiyat IslandFrom the discovery of artefacts, archaeologists can deduce that ancient Mesopotamia was inhabited from 6,000BCE (before common era).

Covering what is now modern-day Iraq and part of Syria, Mesopotamia consisted of three civilisations — in Assyria, Babylonia and Sumer.

Mesopotamia actually means “land between two rivers”, referring to the Euphrates and the Tigris rivers that still flow through the same land today. These two used to flood frequently, leaving behind a rich layer of silt, which fertilised the land when the waters receded.

In approximately 6,000BCE, the nomadic people that had inhabited the land began to keep livestock and grow crops. This led to villages springing up and gradually growing into towns, which in turn transformed into cities that flourished on account of trade and industry.

Ancient artefacts from this era are at present on display in Abu Dhabi, giving residents and tourists a glimpse into the past.

The exhibition, titled Splendours of Mesopotamia, is located at the Tourism Development and Investment Company’s (TDIC’s) Manarat Al Saadiyat exhibition space on Saadiyat Island, and is the first in a series of exhibitions that will be shown at the forthcoming Shaikh Zayed National Museum (which will open in 2014).

The pieces that are on display are from the British Museum’s Middle East collection and a dedicated room has on show artefacts which have connections to the United Arab Emirates, from the Al Ain National Museum.


The exhibition space is divided into geographic areas and civilisations — Sumerian, Assyrian and Babylonian. The areas are colour-coded by civilisation but not by any period in time.

The first part of the exhibition focuses on the people of Sumer — the Sumerian civilisation (colour-coded dark green).

The Sumerians are credited with the invention of the earliest forms of writing — first using pictograms and then cuneiform.

At this point in time, documentation on stone tablets was formally “signed” using either stamps or cylindrical seals.

A cabinet display in the first part of the exhibition highlights a range of intricately carved seals depicting different personas taking on differing tasks.

Rolling this seal across wet clay left behind a unique imprint; the seals could then be worn around the neck and were made of various types of rock, depending on the wealth of the owners of the seals.

A drawing of the major city of Ur goes a long way in helping to create some context in which to place the jewellery that are on display. This was discovered in some 16 tombs.

Sumerian priests were the only ones who were allowed to enter the civilisation’s temples and so the people had statues of themselves carved out and placed in the holy buildings. One of the statues on display in the exhibition has been perfectly preserved.

The Assyrian empire (colour-coded purple) boasted an efficient army and its dynasty dominated the Middle East between 943BCE and 609BCE, and its palaces have been home to some of the richest finds in archaeological history.

Giant relief sculptures decorated the walls of Assyrian palaces, depicting the king hunting, lions falling to the hunt and victorious battlefield scenes.

The detail on these relief sculptures is incredible, with even soldiers’ muscles standing out prominently in the stone.

The palaces were apparently magnificent, built in the capital cities of Ashur, Nimrud, Khorsabad and Ninevah in what is now northern Iraq.

Moving to the last section of the exhibition, visitors will discover the holy city of Babylon (colour-coded dark blue). After many years of invasion and siege at the hands of the Assyrian civilisation, Babylon’s fortunes eventually reversed as the empire grew weaker.

When in 612BCE the Babylonians and their allies conquered the Assyrians, Nebuchadnezzar made the city a great imperial capital.A scaled-down model of the enormous Ishtar Gate and giant Etemananki (a “ziggurat”, or temple) gives visitors an idea of how huge the city was.

Archaeological excavations in the early 20th century allowed the reconstruction of Nebuchadnezzar’s greatest building achievements.

An artistic rendition of the Hanging Gardens of Babylon is also displayed, alongside the original stone relief, which still holds some of the original paint.

Touring the exhibition

Curator and guide Kinda Sulaiman was knowledgeable and informative when taking a tour group around the exhibition, stopping at certain pertinent places in each section to explain what significance numerous pieces had to the ancient civilisations.

While some of the narrative was highly relevant, fascinating and instructive, other information took the form of obvious observations. Instead of describing the pieces in front of visitors, more relevance and context could be added to the narrative.

Manarat Al Saadiyat itself is spacious, airy, light and spread-out, with plenty of information plates for visitors to read about the individual pieces on display.

However, context is largely missing from the exhibition in general. While there may be some minimal description about each of the ancient civilisations, visitors need to keep their imagination in full flow to try and conjure up what life might actually have been like in the times gone by.

A couple of artistic renditions give an intimation of how the people may have lived but further imaginings of the general populations’ livelihoods, social standing, how they lived from day to day — particularly with the rise and fall of empires — would be more informative for interested parties.

Perhaps the title of the exhibition, Splendours of Mesopotamia, does give an indication of what lies in store for the people who visit it, as “splendour” can also be defined, in turn, as “magnificence”, “opulence” or “grandeur”.

Thus it can be assumed that content will focus on the splendour and grandeur of the three civilisations, rather than the everyday nomadic, farming or city life of the general population.

With a lack of such artistic renditions, the result is a highly informative but rather dry collection of artefacts. Reconstructions of the three ancient civilisations, depictions of their life and times, would give an in-depth perspective of the Mesopotamian civilisation, rather than just the elite, dynastic and monastic.


Numerous workshops and lectures have been organised alongside Splendours of Mesopotamia, which is open daily from 10am to 8pm. Workshops for children, teenagers and adults are available until the end of June, ranging from reconstructing Mesopotamian friezes and cultured lunches to artful afternoon teas. Weekend Review attended one such artful afternoon tea, which is complementary, although prior booking and registration are required.

Along with a group of 18 other adults, the workshop was an arts-based lesson in how to write cuneiform (Mesopotamian writing) in clay.

This first type of writing was created in approximately 3,000BCE: cuneiform documents were “written” on clay tablets using blunt reeds. The ends of the reeds used were triangular, allowing users to impress the cuneiform script in the clay in wedge shapes.

Participants of the workshop first listened to the art instructor and then “wrote” whatever they liked in cuneiform on their own clay tablet.

After a quick blow-dry with a hairdryer, the tablets were painted using a blend of colours designed to imitate stone.

While enjoyable, the context was again missing from why, where, how and who made such tablets containing the first script.

Spending a little time wandering around the exhibition after the workshop was fruitful but the tour and guide’s talk is advisable. The addition of an artful afternoon tea was very welcome to all the visitors who had booked.

Upcoming events include a children’s painted stone frieze workshop; a cultured lunch including art tour and workshop; a children’s cylinder seal workshop; and another artful afternoon tea.

Entry to Splendours of Mesopotamia is free.

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  • Keyy Shaiyangg

    susahh bangett niii tugass.. hufftt :(