Mesopotamian (Assyrian) era

September 25, 2009

Mesopotamian (Assyrian)

The following map of the physical environment of Mesopotamia, Assyria, Sumer, Ur, etc. is located between the Tigris and Euphrates Rivers and is known as one of the most important Fertile Crescents, places where civilization expanded due to the rich soil.  There is the earliest evidence of human culture in this region around 5000 BCE.  By 4700 BGE there is evidence of pottery, by 4400 BCE there is evidence of metal making, and by 3900 BCE there is evidence of temple building and other sophisticated architecture.  The first Sumerian dynasty of Ur is dated 2750 BCE, the old Babylonian period is from 1800-1170 BCE, the first known code of laws by Hammurabi is 1728-1685 BCE, the Assyrian period is from 1200-612 BCE.   While you need not memorize these dates, you should have a perspective of where the culture fits into other cultures we will examine.

The rivers were loosely parallel to each other and lead into the Persian Gulf.  Note the many cities located on these rivers.  You should also note the location of Egypt (Lecture #3), its placement on the Nile, another Fertile Crescent, and proximity to the Mesopotamia region.  They were roughly inhabited during the same time period.

Note Figure 1, a map of ancient Mesopotamia showing the location of the Euphrates and Tigris Rivers.  Because of the rich soil many tribes of people coming from north, south, east, and west, inhabited the region and battled to take possession.  The dominant cultures changed frequently over a 3000 year period. Therefore, wars were not uncommon, defensive posturing was predictable, and the people developed a warrior attitude.  There are many carvings depicting siege engines (highly developed equipment for warfare) plus the society employed highly skilled metallurgists for the Bronze Age.  Women were more isolated, and the cultures in Mesopotamia favored a muscular body build which can be seen in many reliefs and statues.

Human headed winged bull, 721-705 BCE.

The religion of the culture was important and mixed human images with animal images to create some of their gods.  Figure 2 and 3 show the mixture.

In Figure 3, a relief of a half-human, half-bird god of a neo-Assyrian period about 883 BCE (Before Common Era), notes the muscular development in the calves of the image.  Also note carefully the apparent strength of the forearms.

The relief in Figure 3 is wearing a kandys (candys) which is the short sleeved tunic that reaches from the neck to the mid thigh, and a fringed shawl wrapped around.

is the Eagle-Headed Deity, a relief carved between 883 and 859 BCE.  The winged deity stands facing a tree of life (you can only see the tips of the branches).  This figure was a small section of the wall decoration in the state apartments of the royal palace at Nimrud in northern Iraq.  The deity holds a bucket in one hand and in the other a spathe (leaf-like sheath for the flowers) of the date palm.  He is tending the tree, a symbol of vegetal life and fertility.  He, and many more like him, originally brightly highlighted with black, white, red, and blue paint, formed the ornamentation around a room near the throne room thought to have served as a place of ritual bathing.  The motif stresses the political and religious importance of nurturing both the kingship and the land for the prosperity of Assyria.  (from

The rich soil allowed the people to grow corn, dates, and figs.  They raised cattle and abundant sheep.  Early in their history they developed an irrigation system to regulate the rivers.  Trade and civilization thrived here around 2500 BCE.

Due to the raising of sheep, the Mesopotamians were highly skilled in the production of wool and cloth from the woolen yarns.  The fringed shawl evolved from the early development of wool.  At one point the Mesopotamians used the sheep skins that developed into a kaunakes style that appears to be bunches of wool.  However, they could also be fringes. (See Tortora illustrations and Figures 11, 12, 13, 14.)  Since no artifacts other than statues and reliefs have survived it is difficult to know for certain how these garments were made.

Costume is a complementary language through which civilizations have expressed themselves and revealed their manner of life.  Between 5000 and 4500 BCE Western Civilization had its beginning in the two great river valleys of the near east.  The Nile in Egypt and the Tigris-Euphrates in Mesopotamia.  The ancient civilization that evolved in Mesopotamia was a result of tribal wars and conquests made over and over again.  The people developed the first city-states and these governmental units were organized for military efficiency and dominated by religious supernaturalism.  They also gave the beginnings of a civil society, coded laws, divided labor, and fostered the arts.

The illustration of a clay tablet above is an example of cuneiform, one of the first methods of communicating and keeping records in a written form.  The Sumerian civilization is one of the oldest known and cuneiform is the language those people developed.  The Sumerian cuneiform characters were used phonetically in the Semetic-Akkadian languages until 3000 BCE, and still, during the first millennium BCE the scribes collected texts and copied them diligently in the Sumerian language which had been extinct as a spoken language for centuries.

Ziggurats were monuments to their gods and were basically a square structure that through steps got smaller and smaller at the tip.  Note the protruding structure near the top wall in Figure 5.  It is a ziggurat.  At the top of this a small structure was built to house a virgin maid.

Figure 6 shows the gates to the entrance of a palace.  Note the square, heavy feeling, and the reliefs at the base with strong animal depictions.

Figure 6. Gateway of Sargon’s Palace, 706 BCE

Since the tribes were constantly warring there is not a continuation of one culture (as you will find in the Egyptian culture of the same period) but a blend of Urs, Amazons, Semites, Akkads, Babylonians, Assyrians, Persians, Hitittes, and Mesopotamians.  The cultures vary somewhat, but they continued with the important developments and there are some basic clothing ideas that were passed through all of these cultures.  The concept that cultures borrowed from each other is very true, however, the degree of the “borrowing” went from a low percentage (close to 5% in the case of the Anglo-Saxons borrowing from the Roman) to a very high percentage (close to 90% in the case of the Romans borrowing from the Greeks).  The cultures of the Tigris/Euphrates Valley borrowed heavily from each other.  The Hitittes were far to the north close to the Tarus Mountains (see map), but their architecture, clothing, and artistic style resembles the Mesopotamia styles. Figure 6A.  Hititte crown with deer since a deer once cared for a Hititte leader in the wilderness and saved his life.  13th century B.C.

13th century B.C. Hititte carvings of soldiers.

Figure 6C.  13th century Hititte architecture.  Lion Gates, from the ruins at Hattusa Restoration Site, Anatolia, Turkey.

Brief Timeline

3000-2350 BCE      – Sumerian

2350-2218 BCE     -   Acadian

2140-2000 BCE    -    Sumerian Revival

1894-1595 BCE    -    Babylonian Empire

911-612 BCE       -     Assyrian Empire

550-330 BCE       -     Persian Empire

Female Clothing

Women are not frequently displayed so sources for their clothing are scarce.  However, in the early Sumerian period there are depictions of both men and women in the kaunakes style of tuffs of fur or fringes in the early Sumerian periods.  The rhino is a cape worn with the pagne (kaunakes style) skirt.  These two main items gradually develop into the kandys and the fringed shawl.  The kandys of the female covered the shoulders and upper arms and extended to the ankles.  These were made of finely woven wool.  Some of the kandys had designs of small motifs, but it is not known if these were woven in, embroidered on the surface, or printed.  The daisy motif was favored. (See figure 25)

Figure 7 – statuettes of women.  The woman on the left is wearing a rhino and pagne skirt.

The archeologist C. L. Wooley, found in the tomb of Queen Shubad (circa 2000 BCE) in Sumeria precious jewels, diadems of gold, ornamental and very long necklaces, a small box in malachite for cosmetics, and other articles for the toilette.  These support the notion that the Sumerians had a concern for beauty, luxury, and were a people who took extremely good care of their person and attire.

The women sometimes created dresses by employing a unique shawl wrapped spirally around the entire figure, up to the neck. See figure  8 and 9.  There were many ways of wrapping the shawl.  Note in all cases the shoulders were covered, the body was concealed, the legs were concealed.

Figure 8 and 9

While the hair styles of the women favored binding the hair into a back chignon held with a fillet, the women often wore shallow, bowl-shaped hats (See figure 10) and embellished them by adding spiral-shaped decorations.

Figure 10. Harpist with close cap, c. 2000-1600 BCE

The headpiece in Figure 10A was discovered in the 20th century.  It is from the 8th century BCE and found in a tomb below the harem rooms.  Clearly the wealth women used beautiful accessories.  Note the winged figures and the daisy motifs.

Figure 10A.  Crown

Male Clothing

The male of the ancient Sumerians often worn the pagne skirt in kaunakes style (a goat or sheep skin with long tufts of hair), but without a top.  This was long worn by the men a dress of honor for great warriors.

A banquet, 2700-2600 BCE, note the pagnes or kaunakes style of dress, musical instruments, baskets of wine, animals to be butchered.  Can you spot a woman?

As with the women the style developed into the kandys (a tunic-like garment worn with short sleeves and that reached to mid-thigh or to the ankles) around 2500 BCE.

Figure 14.  Illustration showing two different styles of kandys.  Note the same neckline, short sleeves, and tubular straight garment.

The men also wore a fringed shawl, a rectangular shaped fabric with long fringes around the edges and wrapped around the body in a spiral fashion.  Look carefully at Figure 15 and you will note the diagonal lines in the skirt of his garment.  These are the edges of the fringed shawl that have been wrapped in a spiral fashion around his body.

In figure 16 there is evidence of short fringes at the bottom of the kandys as well as on the edges of the fringed shawl, which wraps around the waist and over the shoulder of each man.  Again, note the muscular depictions in the forearms.  In addition, generally a wide cloth belt is worn around the waist with a narrow belt over it to hold knives.

Figure 16A.  13th Century BC ancient Hititte carving.   Note that the hair looks somewhat  like the Egyptian hair, but the muscular tone to the body, the short sleeved kandys, and the cape with a fringe on the edge definitely put this carving into the Mesopotamia era.

Figure 17.  From and early 20th century costume book, Tilke.  The six figures in this slide give several different ways of wrapping the fringed shawl.  The man in a blue kandys wraps his purple fringed shawl once around the body.  The two men on the right hand side of the illustration have wrapped the fringed shawl in the typical manner giving the spiral effect.  Three of the figures have belted their garments.

The garments of the Mesopotamians would be considered draped as well as composite.  The fringed shawl is a draped garment, but the kandys had to have some cutting and sewing to achieve the small sleeve and tubular effect.

Figure 18.  In this relief of a court scene, all the men are wearing soft hats.  These hats are gradually stiffened and evolve into the fez worn in many contemporary Mid-Eastern cultures.

Figure 19.  Idi-ilum, Governor of Lagash, 2350 BCE.  A statue with a missing head.  If you look closely you will note the curls of the beard on the chest of the figure.  This is a man in a kandys and fringed shawl.  The fringes have been tied into knots, so what we see are small circle knots along the edges of the shawl.

Note the abundance of facial hair in Figure 20. Facial hair of male very important in identification.  Highly curled, fastidious in control, immaculate in design.  Men obtained these curls through curling irons and spent hours making sure of the design and placement of each hair.  There is some status associated with the hair and the beard.  False hair pieces were not unknown.

Figure 20A is from a nineteenth century illustrated The History of Costume, 1861-1880 by Braun & Schneider.  It shows clarity of the fringed shawl and kandys.

Even the warrior helmet is fashioned with the curls, a fillet holding them in place, and the ear of the warrior.

Figure 24 is a very clear example of the attention paid to the curls in the hair and beard.  It is also a good example of the evolution of the fez, the masculine nature of the face, and the jewelry used by men.

Figure 24A, a 19th century illustration of Assyrian clothing, depicts the short sleeved kandys (one in green and two in blue) and shortened version of the kandys on the figure on the left, the fringed shawl worn in two different ways on the men on the right, tightly curled hair on all figures, fillets around the head on the two right hand figures, a wide belt on one figure, high arm bracelets on the two right hand figures, a wrist bracelet on the dominant figure, sandals, and some fringes at the bottom on the kandys.

Figure24A (below)


Both men and women used upper are bracelets of gold and other metals, earrings, embellished fillets, necklaces, and ankle bracelets.  The daisy motif was popular.    Note the horned hat with daisy motif background.  The six horns that almost meet in the center are important symbols.


The military was an important part of this culture since it was paramount to have strong defenses in such a desirable land.  Generally the military wore their kandys shorter since they had to be active.  However, in Figure 26 the military personnel on the right side of the relief have long kandys and fringed shawls, while the men in the center and on the left side tend to have shorter kandys.

Figure 26.  Relief of Ashurbanipal in his Chariot, 7th century BCE

Chariots and horses were used frequently by the Mesopotamians.  Note the use of umbrellas to protect dignitaries from the sun.

Figure 28.  This illustration is typical of reliefs found and also illustrate how difficult it is to see the images (refer to Lecture 1).  The relief is showing the sack of the city of Hamanu by Ashurbanipal, 650 BCE.

Figure 29.  Soldiers pulling a boat, 721-705 BCE.  Note short garments for strenuous work.

They are probably wearing loin cloths, a small diaper like garment worn around waist and through the crotch.  Loin cloths were the first garments worn by men, but quickly gave way to more elaborate clothing.  They were still worn occasionally and some cultures embellished them.

Figure 30. It appears that in this drawing the less active warriors, archers, are wearing a long kandys, while the more active foot solders (on the ladder) are wearing a shorter kandys.

Figure 31.  Shorter garment of the soldiers, but still note the curled hair and beards.

In Figure 32 the illustration depicts three soldiers with different duties.  Note the long kandys is worn by the archer who does not use his legs as much as his arms.  The evidence of fringes are seen in all and the evidence of meticulously groomed and curled hair and beards.  Who would have time to do this in battle, we might ask.

Dragon of Marduk, ca 604-562 BCE. Mesopotamia.  The mythical Dragon of Marduk with scaly body, serpent’s head, viper’s horns, front feet of a feline, hind feet of a bird, and a scorpion’s tail, was sacred to the god Marduk, principal deity of Babylon.   The striding dragon was a portion of the decoration of one of the gates of the city of Babylon.  King Nebuchadnezzar, whose name appears in the Bible as the despoiler of Jerusalem, ornamented the monumental entrance gate dedicated to Ishtar, the goddess of love and war, and the processional street leading to it with scores of pacing glazed brick animals;  on the gate were alternating tiers of Marduk’s dragons and bulls of the weather god Adad;  along the street were the lions sacred to Ishtar.  All of this brilliant decoration was designed to create a ceremonial entrance for the king in religious procession on the most important day of the New Year’s Festival.


Assignment:  Make sure you post your discussion for the Forum within two weeks of the assignment.

“Discuss the zeitgeist of the Mesopotamia culture as associated with the clothing.”  Be sure to give examples and use appropriate terminology.

Reading: Tortora and Eubank, Chapter 2

Additional websites:

As the Mesopotamian culture was known as one of the most important places, It became a place where war frequently broke out because other cultures wanted to take possession of their resources like soil. War also resulted in the passing of clothing through different cultures. One skill that the Mesopotamians had was their skill in the production of wool. With resources like wool and metals, no wonder why other cultures wanted to go to war because of their style.
The Assyrian female wore a Rhino and Pagne which was later altered into Kandy’s and Fringed shawl. Made out of wool, the women were covered up from shoulders to ankles; similar to the Assyrian male. Though Females rarely had a place in society, their emphasis was placed much more on their accessories. This also distinguished a sense of hierarchy. The more beautiful accessories, the more well off you were. Beauty and luxury were the two top priorities for females in the Assyrian culture.
The Assyrian male wears a pagne skirts similar to females except with no rhino. Facial hair is a must and is a symbol of status just like accessories are a symbol of wealth. Males were considered the warriors at battle. In battle, shorter kandy’s were worn for the more active male.
The culture of the Assyrian people was very male dominated. Therefore the males made most of the decisions. As far as wealth, it seemed like there was a rich and poor barrier based on what you wore and how you carried yourself.

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