In the ancient Near East, wall painting was one of the most widespread and important artistic media. Although less able to withstand the ravages of time than other art forms, it is widely attested among the sedentary cultures of western Asia in many periods and contexts—as private domestic decoration, on official religious and palatial buildings, and eventually in tombs as well. Essentially as old as architecture itself, the popularity of wall painting depended not only on its inherent potential for rich, colorful effect on any scale, but also on the tractable and relatively inexpensive nature of the technique. Generally, the paint consisted of earthen pigments suspended in a water medium and applied to a dry plastered (mud, lime, or gypsum) surface. As such it could easily reproduce the scale and effect of other, more costly media, such as monumental relief or textiles.
During the Neolithic period (ninth–sixth millennia), wall painting emerged initially as monochrome embellishment at sites across the Levant, Anatolia, and Iran; it remained current in the Near East for millennia. The first polychrome wall paintings were simple zigzags patterns, although more elaborate geometric compositions evolved fairly rapidly in the later Neolithic in the centuries before and after 6000 BCE. The wall paintings from Çatal Höyük in Anatolia include multicolored compositions of triangles and lozenges organized as larger panels; they have been dubbed the Kilim style because of their similarity to the patterns in the woven rugs and wall hangings still produced in modern Turkey. By the early sixth millennium, the painters of Çatal Höyük had developed fairly complex figural compositions: hunting scenes, large birds of prey in flight above schematic headless humans (see figure 1), and the first known landscape, with a volcano. While the imagery of these paintings seems to have focused on the natural environment and the role of hunting in the protourban economy, their significance and the function of the buildings they decorated (possibly religious) remain uncertain. [See Çatal Höyük.] The wall paintings in the Late Neolithic houses at Tell Bouqras and Umm Dabaghiyeh in Syria suggest that the animal and geometric repertory at Çtal Höyük was current over a broader area of the Near East then. [See Bouqras.] In the ensuing Chalcolithic and Early Bronze Ages (fifth–fourth millennia), geometric ornament became the dominant mode of painted wall decoration in Anatolia, Iran, the Levant, and Syria (see figure 2). Notable exceptions are the mid-fourth-millennium enigmatic paintings from Teleilat el-Ghassul in Jordan: in one highly stylized, masklike human faces and animals grouped around a large starlike emblem and in others, a leaping tiger and a group of standing and seated human figures. [See Teleilat el-Ghassul.]
What is known of wall painting in Mesopotamia begins with Sumerian culture in the fourth millennium, primarily in the Protoliterate period (3500–3000 BCE), in which the development of monumental religious architecture stimulated the production of large-scale programs of wall painting. The Late Protoliterate temple at Tell ῾Uqair continued the monochrome treatment and rectilinear ornament that had long been current in wall painting across western Asia. At ῾Uqair, however, the geometric repertoire was enriched by files or pairs of human figures (divinities?) and animals that would soon come to typify Sumerian, or Mesopotamian, glyptic art and sculpture. The private domestic wall painting of this and later periods retained the simpler monochrome or geometric format. The wall painting of the succeeding Early Dynastic era, and indeed of the entire third millennium, is poorly documented. The only surviving examples are the fragments of bulls and human figures from the Temple of Inanna at Nippur, and the related imagery in the Temple of Ninḫursag at Mari (Tell Hariri). Because the architecture of the Akkadian period is virtually unknown, no wall paintings of this era have yet been discovered. Even the well-attested Neo-Sumerian monuments of the late third millennium have so far failed to produce any remains of wall painting.
The rich array of paintings from the Amorite palace at Mari (Tell Hariri), datable to the Old Babylonian period in the nineteenth or eighteenth century BCE, constitutes the earliest known Near Eastern program of painted decoration from a royal residence. The Mari paintings display various scenes of ceremonial (especially worship or presentation) imagery, asserting the ruler's privileged claim to divine guidance and support, along with images of abundant water and vegetation, symbolizing agricultural prosperity (see figure 3). Since they conform only generally to the iconographic traditions of earlier Akkadian or Sumerian and contemporary Old Babylonian sculpture, the Mari paintings help to form some notion of the corresponding Mesopotamian wall painting of the later third millennium. [See Mari.]
While the Mari paintings demonstrate the impact of Sumero-Babylonian art on the Semitic cultures at the periphery of Mesopotamia, the landscape in the wall paintings of the level VII palace at Alalakh (Tell ῾Aṭchana, eighteenth century BCE), near the North Syrian coast, reflects the pictorial themes and sinuous dynamism of Minoan art. Also of Minoan inspiration are the painted imitations of stone wall orthostats and timber lacing in the level VII palace and the later second-millennium house 39/A of level IV at Alalakh, and in the palace at Qatna, somewhat farther south. [See Alalakh; Minoans.] The presence of Minoan ornamental motifs and fictive stonework in some of the Mari paintings also shows that the Syrian interior was not immune to such influence from the west at an early time. In the same way, the paintings of the Mitannian governor's palace at Nuzi betray the impact of Levantine traditions farther into Mesopotamia later, in the fifteenth century BCE. [See Nuzi.] There, the stylized, voluted sacred trees inserted amid a textilelike geometric polychrome framework reflect the fertility imagery of contemporary Syrian, or Canaanite, art; at the same time, the stylized bull heads and Hathor masks reflect the impact of Egypt on the Levant. The wall paintings of the Middle Assyrian king Tukulti-Ninurta I (1244–1208 BCE) at his palace in Kar-Tukulti-Ninurta (Tulul al-῾Aqir) near Aššur, adapt, in their turn, the sort of stylized trees and framework of the Nuzi paintings; they document further the assimilation of Levantine precedent that provided the basis for the sacred tree imagery of Neo-Assyrian art during the first millennium BCE. In contrast, the Late Kassite period paintings (twelfth century BCE) from the Babylonian palace at Dur Kurigalzu (῾Aqar Quf) represent a more local, Mesopotamian tradition; these consist of files of male figures, possibly officials, painted along the dados of deep doorways. Although the style is closely related to contemporary Kassite relief sculpture, the processional imagery also prefigures one of the major themes of later Assyrian and Persian art.
Wall painting continued to play a leading role in Near Eastern palatial decoration of the first millennium BCE. The finds from Nimrud (Kalah), Khorsabad, and Til Barsip indicate that such decoration was a standard feature of Neo-Assyrian palaces. The painting from residence K at Khorsabad (Dur Sharrukin, 722–705 BCE), where the king and an attendant reverently confront a standing deity, recalls the imagery of the Mari paintings a millennium earlier. The Assyrian taste for multiple, superimposed rows of stylized lotuses, palmettes, and other plants in the paintings from Khorsabad, Til Barsip, Nimrud, and Tell Sheikh Ḥamad also recalls the Middle Assyrian paintings of Tukulti-Ninurta I or those from Mitannian Nuzi. The extensive series of paintings from the provincial Assyrian palace at Til Barsip in Syria, datable to the ninth and eighth centuries BCE, closely parallels the kingly themes of court ceremony, military conquest, and hunting current in the monumental wall relief of Neo-Assyrian royal palaces (see figure 4). The Til Barsip paintings also provide important evidence for the polychromy of the corresponding wall reliefs that were originally painted. Above all, they suggest the significant role that monumental wall painting may have played in the development of such pictorial architectual relief in Near Eastern art of the first millennium BCE. The paintings at Tell Sheikh Ḥamad demonstrate the impact of palatial decoration on the houses of the wealthy elite. What is known of the painted embellishment of religious buildings at this time is unfortunately only fragmentary. [See Nimrud; Khorsabad; Til Barsip; Sheikh Ḥamad, Tell.]
In contrast to the rather slim and isolated evidence for the second millennium BCE in Anatolia, first-millennium BCE sites in the area are relatively rich in remains of wall paintings, especially to the east, in the Urartian kingdom of the Van region during the eighth and seventh centuries BCE. Despite their distinctive, local style, the paintings of divinities from the temple at Arin-Berd and the stylized floral frieze from the palace at Altintepe reveal the impact of Neo-Assyrian wall painting on that of Urartu. [See Urartu.] Egyptianizing features in the hunt scene from the palace at Arin-Berd, however, suggest connections with contemporary North Syrian, or Phoenician, art. A strong egyptianizing tendency is also evident in the fragmentary wall painting of a seated female figure at Ḥorvat Teiman in southern Israel, the only early first-millennium site in the Levant that has so far produced any wall painting. The style reflects not only proximity to Egypt, but the Egyptian orientation of the Canaanite and Phoenician art that exerted a formative impact on the art of the Israelite kingdom.
The first millennium BCE also witnessed a marked upswing in the currency of glazed ceramic brick and tile, which provided a more durable form of wall painting. Some were small-scale, with one or more figures or ornamental motives depicted per tile, but the technique could also be used for large-scale compositions consisting of many bricks. Eventually, the process was applied to brick relief sculpture as well. The Assyrians of the first millennium preferred the more painterly flat glazed tiles, but in Babylonia, and farther east, in neighboring Elam in southwest Iran, the flat variety was often used alongside polychrome glazed ceramic relief. The best-known monuments of this type are the monumental floral and animal compositions on the Ishtar Gate and the facade of the throne room at Babylon, constructed by Nebuchadrezzar II in the early sixth century BCE. In keeping with local Elamite tradition, the Persians of the Achaemenid period (559–332 BCE) retained the use of both flat and relief polychrome glazed brick. Decoration of this type figured especially prominently in the royal palace at Susa, the Persian capital, where the technique was used to depict the types of imagery executed in stone relief at the palace of Persepolis: figures of the king, composite animal guardians, and processions of soldiers and attendants. Remains of true wall painting, however, are exceedingly rare in Achaemenid Persia. Fragmentary remains from the palace of Artaxerxes II at Susa nevertheless indicate that like the Assyrians before them, the Persians too had an official tradition of wall painting that closely paralleled the themes and composition of contemporary architectural sculpture. The late sixth and early fifth-century BCE tomb paintings discovered in Lycia in Anatolia, at the western extreme of the Persian Empire, are essentially Greek in style or workmanship and local in function, although the ones at Karaburun depict Persian ritual and costume. [See Babylon; Lycia; Persepolis; Susa.]
The conquest of the Persian Empire by Alexander the Great (332–323 BCE) and the consequent imposition of Greek political, religious, and material cultural standards greatly altered artistic development in the Near East for centuries to come. The peoples of the more westerly and coastal regions of Anatolia had long before adopted the outward forms of Greek art, and during the Hellenistic period a similar situation developed under the Seleucid monarchy in much of Syria and the Levant. Even in Mesopotamia and Iran, which eventually shook off Greek political control with the advent of the new Iranian dynasty of the Parthians (171 BCE–249 CE), native Asiatic artistic traditions continued to coexist in fluid interaction with imported Greek conceptions. Although the evidence is fragmentary, wall painting figured prominently in the official buildings and wealthy villas of the Seleucid period. The remains of paintings from Aššur, the palace at Hatra, and central Asiatic sites such as Toprak-Kala and Kaltchayan demonstrate that the Parthians too made ample use of this medium. In the first- or second-century CE paintings at Kuh-i-Khwaja in eastern Iran, Greek themes and styles were mixed with poses and costume derived from central Asiatic art. Farther west, among the Semitic peoples at the frontier of the Roman Empire, the already synthetic Parthian artistic traditions interacted with Greco-Roman artistic concepts, a process perhaps best exemplified in the various wall paintings from the Roman caravan town of Dura-Europos. The votive paintings from the temples of Bel and Zeus Theos, and the temple of the Palmyrene gods, combine a strong emphasis on frontal pose, costume, and stylistic abstraction associated with Parthian art, alongside details of dress, military regalia, and winged victories of Greco-Roman derivation. A similar syncretism of Greco-Roman and hellenized Iranian artistic alternatives typifies the most famous of the Dura wall paintings—an extensive assortment of scenes from the Hebrew Bible produced for the synagogue shortly before the town was destroyed in 256 CE. These paintings constitute a rare exception to the ban on images customary for Jewish religious art, and they attest to the greater artistic flexibility that Jewish communities may have assumed in the mixed cultural environment of this region. Nevertheless, at times, the cultural balance could tilt decidedly: the New Testament imagery of the paintings from the Christian baptistery at Dura seem to relate more directly to Greco-Roman prototypes from the West, while the equestrian hunting and banqueting scenes in the mithraeum and house M7 reflect a more Parthian, or Iranian, taste. Farther west, in the wall paintings in the tomb at Tyre, the style, format, and mythological subject matter were entirely Roman. The winged victories and mythic subjects painted in the Tomb of the Three Brothers at Palmyra also attests to a more overtly Greco-Roman taste sometimes adopted among the local Syrian peoples. [See Dura-Europos; Palmyra; Parthians; Tyre.]
This situation continued to obtain down to the end of antiquity. Classical standards prevailed in the Roman or Early Byzantine provinces of Asia Minor and the Levant, but trailed off toward Mesopotamia and eastern Anatolia. Across the Euphrates River, under the rule of the Sasanian Persian dynasty that succeeded the Parthians (249–651 CE), a hellenized Iranian art remained broadly current across much of the Near East and was stimulated periodically by contacts with central Asiatic art, and even from the hellenized art of northern India. Sasanian wall painting has only rarely been preserved, but Roman literary sources attest to its importance in palatial decoration. [See Sasanians.] The third–fourth-century examples from Susa are still stylistically related to those from Kuh-i-Khwaja, just as they recall the Parthian hunting imagery of paintings at Dura-Europos. With the emergence of the Arab Empire and the end of Late Roman or Byzantine political authority in Syria and the Levant during the seventh century CE, the Asiatic transformation of Greco-Roman themes and styles also assumed a new momentum and vitality in the nascent art of Islam. Despite the Islamic ban, figural wall painting remained a significant medium for the secular sphere in wealthy private residences like the early Umayyad pleasure villas at Quṣayr ῾Amra in Jordan and Qaṣr al-Ḥayr West in Syria. [See Quṣayr ῾Amra; Qaṣr al-Ḥayr al- Gharbi.] The paintings adapted the courtly imagery and bathing scenes popular in Late Roman and Sasanian art. Such painting was still current in the ninth century ῾Abbasid palace at Samarra in Iraq. However, it was in the domain of arabesque and geometric ornament, in the more durable medium of glazed tile, that the old Near Eastern tradition of wall painting found its fullest expression under Islam. [See Samaria, article on Islamic Period.]
- Colledge, Malcolm A. R. Parthian Art. Ithaca, N.Y., 1977. See pages 80–121, 128–144.
- Colledge, Malcolm A. R. The Parthian Period. Leiden, 1986. See pages 31, 42–45.
- Ghirshman, Roman. Persian Art, 249 B.C.–A.D. 651: The Parthian and Sassanian Dynasties. New York, 1962. See pages 41–50, 141–147, 182–183.
- Gutmann, Joseph. “The Dura-Europos Synagogue Paintings: The State of Research.” In The Synagogue in Late Antiquity, edited by Lee I. Levine, pp. 61–72. Philadelphia, 1987.
- Gutmann, Joseph. The Dura-Europos Synagogue: A Re-Evaluation, 1932–1992. Atlanta, 1992.
- Perkins, Ann. The Art of Dura- Europos. Oxford, 1973. See pages 33–69, 114–126.
- Schlumberger, Daniel. L'Orient héllenisé. L'Art grec et ses héritiers dans l'Asie non méditerranéenne. Paris, 1970. See pages 56–59, 69, 88, 103–111.
- Weitzmann, Kurt, and Herbert O. Kessler. The Frescoes of the Dura Synagogue and Christian Art. Washington, D.C., 1990.
Astrid Nunn, Die Wandmalerei und der glasierte Wandschmuck im Alten Orient (Leiden and New York, 1988), is now the most thorough and inclusive treatment of wall painting and glazed brick in the ancient Near East preceding Alexander's conquest, with complete references to the earlier literature. This now supersedes Anton Moortgat, Alt-vorderasiatische Malerei (Berlin, 1959), which is in any case difficult to obtain. For Anatolian wall painting of the Neolithic period, see Brinna Otto, Geometrische Ornamente auf anatolischer Keramik: Symmetrien frühester Schmuckformen in Nahen Osten und in Ägäis (Mainz, 1976), which is not cited in Nunn.
For Greco-Roman painting, see Machteld Mellink, “Local Phrygian and Greek Traits in Northern Lycia,” Revue archéologique (1976), pt. 1, pp. 21–34. The Roman painting of the eastern provinces is treated in Roger Ling, Roman Painting, pp. 178–183 (Cambridge and New York, 1991). For the Early Islamic paintings, see Oleg Grabar, The Formation of Islamic Art, pp. 75–103, 139–187, rev. and enl. ed. (New Haven, 1987); and Richard Ettinghausen, Arab Painting (Geneva, 1977). No overall synthetic study is available for the Near Eastern wall painting of the Hellenistic, Parthian, and Sasanian periods. See the relevant sections of the following works: