As the house of the king, his customary residence, the palace contains everything that concerns the activities of daily life in any house, although possibly elaborated in accordance with the wealth of the individual and his family. Because the king exercised a specific function and possessed a unique nature, his house could include specific fixtures (such as a throne room) that would facilitate the exercise of power and of manifesting it materially.
A true palace can exist only in the context of a monarchy, and certainty on this point is possible only when there are texts. Historians date the birth of the first royal dynasties in Mesopotamia, as well as the appearance of the first palaces, to the beginning of the third millennium. The actual situation is, however, less clear. The royal institution was no more born in a day than the palace emerged one fine morning from the head of a genial architect. Throughout the Neolithic period in the Near East, the growing complexity of relationships among agricultural production, the need for exotic raw materials in the river basins, and social organization, all led to the development of a power that often manifested its existence in the creation of specific architecture. By the end of the fifth and in the early fourth millennium, with the first steps toward urbanization, social hierarchy was already marked by clear architectural differentiation. Tepe Gawra, in northern Mesopotamia, demonstrates this situation as early as level XI; the Round House (level XI–A) expresses the real hierarchical social structure because it is the house of the holder of power, sited there, at the summit of the mound. [See Tepe Gawra.] In the Uruk period, the great architectural complexes that have been recognized at Uruk itself, such as the E-anna, or at the sites of the Uruk expansion, such as Tell Kannas, also appear as centers of power (without presuming either a theocratic or secular nature). Thus, it is necessary to consider these structures if not palaces in the strict sense, at least as the architectural expression of the exercise of power in a hierarchical society. [See Uruk-Warka.]
Early Bronze Age.
Mesopotamia has yielded a number of buildings of the Early Dynastic period considered to be palaces, most often because of their scale rather than for precise morphological reasons. It seems, however, that the identification as palaces of the buildings uncovered at Kish (Palace A and the Plano-Convex Building), at Eridu, and at Tell Asmar/Eshnunna (the northern palaces) can be retained (see figure 1). [See Kish; Eridu; Eshnunna.] In these cases the palace appears as a complex comprising several autonomous buildings that are connected by long, peripheral corridors that circulated people as well as air and light. Because the palaces expanded to two levels, the definition of functions is a difficult and uncertain exercise. It seems likely, however, that the upper level was devoted to habitation and reception. Perhaps even the throne room, if in fact one existed then, was also located there; the ground floor served mainly for storage (the Akkadian palace at Tell Brak in Khabur) and secondarily as a workplace. The palaces of third-millennium Mari, in the process of excavation since 1964, display the unusual characteristic of being closely associated with a cult place, the Sacred Precinct, but with only this single example, it is difficult to define the existence of any fundamental relationship between palace and temple.
Outside of the Mesopotamian basin, there is still little evidence, for there are hardly any palaces. The discovery of Palace G at Ebla in Syria, and now the large building at Tel Yarmut in Israel, shows, however, that the institution was not confined to Mesopotamia. [See Ebla; Yarmut, Tel.] Nevertheless, in these two cases the buildings discovered do not permit a definition of their architectural traits as closely related to those of the region of the Tigris and Euphrates Rivers.
Middle Bronze Age.
With the third dynasty of Ur, Mesopotamia saw the birth of a new formula that dominated the river basin completely. Varied solutions were adopted simultaneously in the western (Syria-Palestine) and northern (upper course of the Euphrates) regions. It is at Ur, with the palace of Ur-Nammu and Shulgi, that the formula appears for the first time; it appears again in the palace at Eshnunna/Tell Asmar. Throughout a very long history, the palace formula was transformed many times; however, there is also continuity in the organization of the most significant sectors, such as the complex of official rooms at Mari (the Great Royal Palace and, doubtless, the earlier palaces of the Shakkanakku); at Larsa (the Palace of Nur-Adad, which appears as a veritable architectural drawing); at Aššur (the Old Palace); Tell er-Rimah; and, finally, at Uruk (the Palace of Sinkashid). [See Mari; Larsa; Aššur; Rimah, Tell er-.]
If Tuttul on the Balikh River has provided an example of a palace close to those at Mari, which belong to the Mesopotamian tradition, Syria and Palestine used formulae whose inspiration was clearly Mediterranean. Occupying a more restricted surface area, these structures developed vertically, occasionally reaching three stories, as was certainly the case in the palace of Yarimlim at Alalakh (eighteenth century BCE), or in the cities of the Upper Euphrates (e.g., Karahöyük). [See Alalakh.] There were numerous palaces at Ebla, but they do not seem to represent the morphological traits associated with royal functions that the palaces in Mesopotamia do; they may not be true palaces—places in which the king exercised his authority. The frequent use of the pillar in the columned porch, as well as the court that served as a light well, tended to systematize itself and became a distinctive mark of western architecture.
Late Bronze Age.
Mesopotamia does not occupy the foreground in the Late Bronze Age. A single palace, difficult to interpret because it differs totally from the others, and is only partially excavated, is that of ῾Aqar Quf (Dur Kurigalzu). The Mitannian period is well represented, however, in the provincial palaces at Nuzi and Tell Brak. [See ῾Aqar Quf; Mitanni; Nuzi; Brak, Tell.] In Syria-Palestine, the palace is in general small, as in the preceding period; the exception is Ugarit, where a true palatial complex evolved, closer to those of the great capitals of the empire than the Levantine cities. [See Ugarit.] Ḫattuša (Boğazköy), capital of the Hittite Empire, is a good example of the complex formed by the association of separate buildings to form a true fortress on an imperial scale. This formula seems to belong to Anatolia. [See Boğazköy.]
The evolution toward the formation of the great empires of the Iron Age partly modified the system because if a city possessed a palace, most often a royal governor resided in it. The king inhabited or constructed a palace in the capital city that had to appear in its splendor, dimensions, and wealth like those in other world centers. The Assyrians were particularly prodigious in palatial constructions at Nineveh, Nimrud, and Khorsabad (Dur Sharrukin); however, the approximately ten palaces recovered wholly or in part present great morphological similarities and correspond to a concept well defined by royal function. [See Nineveh; Nimrud; Khorsabad.] The Neo-Babylonian kings yielded to the Assyrians in this regard only because of the brief duration of their rule. In this context it is not always easy to know whether, in the Levantine cities, for example, the great residences should be considered royal palaces (which is, however, probable at Megiddo, Ramat Raḥel, and Lachish), or the seats of local governors. [See Megiddo; Ramat Raḥel; Lachish.] In the specific form of the ḫilani, whose origin goes back to the Late Bronze Age at Emar, the capitals of the small Aramean city-states had a royal building that became very popular, even with the Assyrian kings. [See Emar.] The ḫilani appears in a very compact form: a columned porch preceded a great elongated room surrounded by smaller rooms, with one or two stories constructed above the whole complex.
Expression of a Civilization.
In the course of three millennia in the ancient Near East, the palace has taken diverse forms. Fundamentally, however, the same functions recur, and the final result is always the fruit of a compromise between contradictory demands. Thus, the need to open the building to the city and the realm of which it is the supreme expression, in which the people must see itself, counterbalances the necessity to construct a protected place to assure the security of the king and his belongings and to guard the wealth accumulated there. The palace at Mari from the beginning of the second millennium BCE—because of its exceptional state of preservation and the wealth of the furnishings and archives recovered there, and in spite of its idiosyncrasies—has greatly advanced what is known of what a palace is and how it functioned (see figure 2). Thus, contrary to what is often stated, a Near Eastern palace is neither a city within a city, nor a miniature city. It is an organism that must satisfy specific requirements and whose content varies little.
Royal living quarters.
As the quarters of the king and his family, or at least a part of it, the first functions of a palace were consistently to provide comfort, whose nature might vary with the climate, and security. At Mari, the house of the king and the house of the women (the location of the queen, all the wives of the lower ranks, concubines, singers, and dancers) were clearly independent. Each was provided with living quarters for the personnel committed to the service of the king and his queens; this dichotomy is not always so clear at other palaces. The level of comfort was addressed generally by the quality of construction, the size of the rooms, and the character of the sanitary installations. The wealth of decoration that contributed to the splendor of the royal house was not only an aesthetic concern: paintings and reliefs served also to manifest royal power in its basic activities. The themes of the king as hunter, builder, conqueror, protector, and intermediary between the realms of gods and men were repeated endlessly in both the king's apartments and the official quarters.
The palace's official area was often closely connected to the living quarters of the king, who had direct access to it. The situation is not clear in the third millennium, but it becomes more apparent in the Amorite period. The official module at that time was a complex organized around a richly decorated great court, intended to enhance the religious aspect of the royal function (e.g., the Court of the Palm at Mari). This court gave access, by way of an intermediary room marked by a certain cultic character (at Mari the statue of a goddess with a flowing vase [now in the Aleppo Museum] stood there), to the throne room (25 m long × 12 m wide), where the king, seated at one end, held audience. Various ceremonies took place there, certainly including banquets, as the proximity of the kitchens found in room 31 in the palace of Mari suggests. In the Assyrian period, the room that formed an intermediate stage in the progression between the court and the throne room disappeared, but the principle remained the same.
A meticulous administration characterized the house of the king, but also that of the women. The administrative offices were located in the upper story, connected to the great room where the king presided over administrative operations. Administration was not limited, however, to the service of the king. It also concerned itself with the affairs of the realm, and the principal servants of the king, the viziers and stewards, were responsible for it. The king administered his country from the palace and maintained relations with provincial chieftains and foreign courts; a secretariat functioned to discharge these tasks. The palace steward played an essential role: placed at the doorway of the palace, he controlled entrance and egress and managed some part of the economic activity. In addition, the king was a great employer; he had to compensate his personnel, and for that purpose the palace storerooms contained provisions that were distributed as payment, including cereals, oils, and cloth. These provisions were compensation rather than reserves hoarded to meet future needs. The palace was not a workplace, however, except occasionally for a luxury craftsman. The agricultural estates depended on the palace, and workshops could be located either in the agricultural areas or in the city.
While specific aspects of the palace might vary in importance from one period to another, the arrangement of its various components change, and circumstances lead to the expansion of one characteristic at the expense of others, as a rule, the same functions appear behind the variety of forms. Throughout the history of the ancient Near East, the palace conveyed the very essence of Oriental civilization.
[See also Building Materials and Techniques.]
- Aurenche, Olivier, ed. Dictionnaire illustré multilingue de l'architecture du Proche-Orient ancien. Lyon, 1977. This reference work, completed by archaeologists and architects specializing in the ancient Near East, aims to clarify mainly technical questions; equivalent terms are given in eight languages.
- Garelli, Paul, ed. Le palais et la royauté: Archéologie et civilisation; compte rendu de la 19e rencontre assyriologique internationale. Paris, 1974. Contributions are generally philological.
- Heinrich, Ernst. Die Paläste im alten Mesopotamien. Denkmäler Antiker Architektur, 15. Berlin, 1984.
- Kempinski, Aharon, and Ronny Reich, eds. The Architecture of Ancient Israel: From the Prehistoric to the Persian Periods. Jerusalem, 1992. The most recent synthesis, which includes the latest archaeological discoveries in ancient Palestine.
- Leick, Gwendolyn. A Dictionary of Ancient Near Eastern Architecture. London and New York, 1988. Generally concerns the evolution of architectural forms and styles.
- Lévy, Edmond, ed. Le système palatial en Orient, en Grèce, et à Rome: Actes du colloque de Strasbourg, 19–22 juin 1985. Leiden, 1987. Contributions on the ancient Near East concern the first appearance of the palace, the organization of space in the palace at Mari and the economic role of the palace in the Old Babylonian period based on the texts, the Syrian palaces of the Bronze Age, and Minoan and Mycenaean palaces.
- Margueron, Jean-Claude. Recherches sur les palais mésopotamiens de l'âge du Bronze. 2 vols. Paris, 1982. By means of a very careful archaeological and architectural analysis, the author arrives at a complete vision of the monuments, which often contradicts accepted ideas, notably about the function and the reconstruction of elevations.
- Margueron, Jean-Claude. “Y a-t-il un tracé regulateur dans les palais mésopotamiens du IIe millénaire?” In Le dessin d'architecte dans les sociétés antiques: Actes du colloque de Strasbourg, 26–28 janvier 1984, pp. 29–45. Leiden, 1985. Includes five illustrations.
- Naumann, Rudolf. Architektur Kleinasiens. 2d ed. Tübingen, 1971. Synthetic reference on the architecture of the regions corresponding to modern Turkey from its origins to the eighth century BCE.
- Nunn, Astrid. Die Wandmalerei und der glasierte Wandschmuck im Alten Orient. Leiden and New York, 1988. Good compilation of mural decoration, from the Neolithic period to the Neo-Babylonian Empire, that treats palace architecture.
- Parrot, André. Mission archéologique de Mari II: Le palais, vol. 1, Architecture; vol. 2, Peintures murales; vol. 3, Documents et monuments. Paris, 1958–1959. A good number of the interpretations proposed by the excavator of this palace, the best preserved in the ancient Near East, are now out of date. Volume 2 is confined to a catalog.
Jean-Clau de Margueron
Translated from French by Nancy W. Leinwand