The sculptors of the ancient Near East did not limit themselves to creating human forms. Often in praise of their gods, they sculpted figures or created mythological creatures that adorned the religious places and palaces of their kingdom. Although many of these depictions of gods or mythological creatures had their genesis in one culture, trade and inter-cultural exchange led to the spread of these ideas or to repurposing them to fill another role. The sphinx, famous for the Great Sphinx on the Giza plateau, can often be seen outside the realm of Egypt. Two sphinxes, one of the 8th century B.C. in Hittite Anatolia (Fig. 1) and the other of the 18th Egyptian Dynasty (Fig. 2), bare similar aspects that would accompany the same subject. Here, we see two different interpretations of the sphinx. Noticeably, the sphinx of Hittite shares in a form of head gear, possibly a mane, that resembles the Egyptian nemes (head dresses). Lesser parallels can be seen in the sculpting of the ears and of the paws. Showing the presence of international exchange, the Hittites and Egyptians depicted same subject and created images with distinct similarities in depiction.
Images of natural origin were also produced by the artisans of the ancient Near East. At the time of the Assyrians, Hittites, and Egyptians, the plains of Mesopotamia were abundant with the wild asses, horses, lions, and the ancient relatives of Cervidae family. Lions were of particular importance, often immortalized in the arts of the ancient Near East, they had differing symbolism and were used for a variety of purposes, often for the hunt. Assyrian, Hittite, and Egyptian cultures all created images of lions. And through the analysis of their features similarities arise that will provide further evidence of multinational trade and cultural exchange by way of trade.
A statue of a lion, originating in Assyria (c. 1500 – 1000 B.C.) (Fig, 3), shows aggressive and fierce facial features with a high level of ornamentation on head and body. A similar depiction of a lion can be found in a Hittite statue of the 8th century B.C. (Fig 4). The Assyrian and Hittite designs both show a fierce lion with large teeth and aggressive expression. The facial layout is generally the same; large teeth are created in an open mouth with a multitude of whiskers formed above by making shallow incisions, heading in an upward curve, that wrap around to the sides of the statue. Both statues have relatively small eyes that are set far back on the animal giving the muzzle an oversized appearance. A geometric style again becomes apparent in the body and head of the lions. On the Hittite depiction of lions, the body and head take a rectangular and box like figure that can also be seen in that of the Assyrian lion. Ornamentation of the body of the lion is also brought about in almost identical fashions. Extending along the fore part of the head, the neck, and the shoulders (and along the belly of the Hittite piece), a patterned mane can be observed on both. Closer analysis can bring about other similarities in their styling and design. For instance, the formation of the paws are both alike with their distinct separation of the toes, although the Assyrian form lacks the claws of the Hittite depiction.
An Egyptian lion from c. 2600 – 2490 B.C. (Fig. 5) shows the common differences and similarities in the Egyptian form from that of Assyria and the Hittites. The biggest commonality is the use and symbol of the lion as a theme. It is a theme that connotes bravery, power and dominance as a guardian figure (1). Some other similarities also exist such as the geometric aspects of the body and muzzle. The depiction of the lion’s paws also takes on the same style along with other things such as the ears.
There are some differences between the Egyptian lion form and that of the Assyrians and Hittites due to the elongation of its lines, showing a localized expression of a common cultural symbol. First and foremost, the pose of the lion in Egyptian culture differs from that of Assyria and Anatolia; instead of a seated or standing position, the statue takes a long stature that only increases the appearance of elongation in the design. This elongation of the Egyptian lion, gives the Assyrian and Hittite portrayal a more compact appearance by comparison. The major commonalities between the lions of the Near East is that of geometric form which shows itself, on a decreased magnitude, in the Egyptian depiction of a lion. Furthermore, although the geometric forms may not be as clearly seen in the Egyptian model as it is in the Assyrian and Hittite, the body still takes a slightly rectangular shape and it is also seen in the muzzle and head. Ornamentation is also different on the Egyptian depiction of a lion. Unlike the heavy stylized patterns seen on those of Assyrian and Hittite origin, the Egyptian work has little to no decoration with the only lines arriving by way of defining the body and musculature of the animal. These lines, however, can be seen as more graceful which is due to its lengthened body. The lines that accentuate the body of the lion are thin and areas such as the legs are much more sharp and geometric than that seen on other depictions throughout the ancient Near East.
The basic expression of the lion differs from that of Assyria and Anatolia to those of Egypt. While all three lions are expressions of the guardian spirit, the models from Assyria and Anatolia take a fierce and aggressive expression, the Egyptian lion is depicted with a more solemn pose.
As was noted with the human form, the Minoans often did not attempt any form of sculpture in the round and of the models that have been recovered, none have been depicting a lion or feline-like subject or theme. Thus, a lack of a Minoan parallel only further emphasizes the isolationism that surrounded the islands of Crete and other Minoan holdings. That they were active traders shows once again that this isolationism may have been as much self-sought as due to geographic location. The Minoans appear to consistently opt to not engage in long-term cohabitation.
- The Oxford Encyclopedia of Ancient Egypt pp 514; Ancient Mesopotamia pp 46.
- Hittite Statue base with Sphinx. Courtesy Wes Crnkovich/Istanbul Archaeology Museums
- Picture Courtesy: The British Museum
- Ancient Assyrian Lion statue. C1500-1000 BCE Courtesy Antakya Archaeological Museum
- Hittite Lion statue c1400-1200 BCE Courtesy Wes Crnkovich/Istanbul Archaeology Museums
- Egyptian 4th Dynasty c. 2600-2490 BCE. Courtesy The British Museum