This gallery brings the Ancient Middle East to life. From Iran to the Eastern Mediterranean, across some 10,000 years, artefacts in this gallery reveal the lives – and deaths – of their owners. Discover how the objects came to the Museum, and try out interactives that let you have a go at rolling a cylinder seal and writing in cuneiform.

The Ancient Middle East gallery explores some of the most important developments in human history. By 9000 BC village communities at places like Jericho were constructing their homes from some of the first mud bricks.

Here you can come face to face with what may be the oldest portrait (around 7000 BC), a human skull from Jericho with plastered features and eyes inlaid with shells. Remembering a person in this way may have helped bind the community together.

Over 5000 years ago some towns in Mesopotamia (modern Iraq and eastern Syria) began to grow into the world’s first cities. Writing on clay tablets was developed for bookkeeping but was later adapted to record history, myth and science. The famous Sumerian King List (about 1800 BC) names the cities of Mesopotamia and their rulers as if in an unbroken sequence from before ‘the Flood’ to the time it was made.

Some kingdoms became powerful through trade and conquest. According to myth, kingship itself was lowered by the gods from heaven to the Mesopotamian city of Kish. The site was excavated between 1923-1933 by the University of Oxford and the Field Museum, Chicago, a story linked to colonialism and empire. The gallery contains extraordinary objects removed from Kish, including inlay decoration from Mesopotamia’s earliest royal palace. Rich finds from graves at this site are displayed with examples of jewellery from the Royal Graves of Ur.

While long distance trade between Mesopotamia, Iran and the Indus Valley (modern Pakistan) is revealed by finds from Kish, a truly international age emerged in the period 2000-1000 BC. Elaborate wall paintings from the site of Alalakh in modern Turkey reveal the close connections between the civilizations of the Mediterranean world and those of Syria and Mesopotamia.

The Near East was increasingly unified politically from around 900 BC with the expansion of the Assyrian, Babylonian and Persian empires. Finely sculpted stone reliefs of supernatural spirits and scenes of conquest from the Assyrian capitals of Nimrud and Nineveh are displayed at one end of the gallery. Wall cases contain objects excavated from these sites, including masterpieces of ivory carving, as well as from cities like Jerusalem that fell under the authority of these powerful states.


The Dying Marshes by Rani Ibrahim

The dying marshes: Iraqi heritage under threat: Rana Ibrahim, 2022

By Rana Ibrahim

Portrait Photograph of Rana Ibrahim, Founder and Director of Iraqi Women Art and War, by Ian Wallman

Rana Ibrahim © Ian Wallman

Rana Ibrahim’s artwork tells the story of the humanitarian, political and environmental crisis threatening the marshes of Southern Iraq, an UNESCO world heritage site, and highlights the suffering of the people and animals who live there. 

This artwork combines contemporary and ancient imagery and texts, through the medium of collage - all designed to bring this devastating crisis to life.  The marshes are drying up and disappearing for two reasons: the impact of the damming of the Tigris and Euphrates rivers, the result of years of war and conflict, and climate change. A whole way of life is being destroyed, which dates back to ancient Mesopotamia.   

Here Rana Ibrahim gives us some insight into the imagery in the artwork and her creative process: 

'The process of creating this collage was inspired by a hashtag in Arabic and English used by the Iraqi Women’s Academic Network (IWAN) to highlight this crisis: #Save_Iraqi_Marshes.

'As an Iraqi artist I wanted to help raise awareness, so began to gather together all sorts of materials to tell this story – you’ll see magazine and article cuttings, photographs, words, and different paints and textures, including shredded paper to represent the reeds and boats. I’ve particularly focussed on the impact on people and animals, as their home is being destroyed.

'You’ll see lots of fishes, birds and buffalo who are dying out as the marshes dry up – and some of the women who produce and sell Geymar, a delicious cream made from Buffalo milk, traditionally eaten at breakfast served with honey, bread and date's syrup.

'These are amazing, strong women, but their livelihoods and identity are under threat. I represent women frequently, shown praying for help or as powerful women.

'The famous Iraqi stamp dated 1971 represents the heyday of tourism in Iraq, when visitors came to the marshes before the war started in the early 1980s.  

'I’ve also included images of ancient Mesopotamian objects and cuneiform to connect past and present. The ancient people of the marshes relied on making a living from life on the water, just as people do today.'

Discover more about Rana's work and Iraqi Women Art and War


الأهوار تحتضر: التراث العراقي مهدد بالاندثار. 

يحاكي عمل رنا إبراهيم الفني قصة الأزمة الإنسانية والسياسية والبيئية التي تهدد اهوار جنوب العراق، وهو موقع تراث عالمي لليونسكو، ويسلط الضوء على معاناة الناس والحيوانات الذين يعيشون هناك.

يجمع هذا العمل الفني بين الصور والنصوص المعاصرة والقديمة، من خلال الكولاج - وكلها مصممة لإحياء هذه الأزمة المدمرة. تجف الأهوار وتختفي لسببين: تأثير سد نهري دجلة والفرات، نتيجة سنوات من الحرب والصراع، والتغيير المناخي. لقد تم تدمير طريقة حياة كاملة، والتي يعود تاريخها إلى بلاد ما بين النهرين القديمة.

تقدم رنا إبراهيم نظرة ثاقبة على بعض الصور في العمل الفني وعمليتها الإبداعية:

"استلهمت عملية إنشاء هذه الكولاج من هاشتاج باللغتين العربية والإنجليزية تستخدمه الشبكة الأكاديمية النسائية العراقية (IWAN) لتسليط الضوء على هذه الأزمة. #أنقذوا_أهوار_العراق. "بصفتي فنانة عراقية، أردت المساعدة في زيادة الوعي حول هذه المأساة، لذلك بدأت في جمع جميع أنواع المواد لرواية هذه القصة - سترى قصاصات المجلات والمقالات والصور الفوتوغرافية والكلمات والالوان المختلفة، بما في ذلك الورق المبشور لتمثيل القصب و القوارب. لقد ركزت بشكل خاص على الناس والحيوانات، حيث يتم تدمير منازلهم. سترى الكثير من الأسماك والطيور والجاموس الذين يموتون مع جفاف الأهوار - وبعض النساء اللواتي ينتجن ويبيعون القيمر(الگمير)، وهي كريمة لذيذة مصنوعة من حليب الجاموس، تقدم تقليديا مع العسل والخبز ودبس التمر ,فطور عراقي اسمه گاهي و گيمر. هؤلاء نساء مذهلات وقويات، لكن سبل عيشهن و هويتهن مهددة. أمثل النساء بشكل متكرر، وأظهرهم يطلبن المساعدة بصلاة أو يظهرن كنساء قويات. يمثل الطابع العراقي الشهير المؤرخ عام 1971 ذروة السياحة في العراق عند توجه السواح إلى الأهوار قبل بدء الحرب في أوائل الثمانينيات. لقد أدرجت أيضا صوراً لمقتنيات بالكتابة المسمارية من بلاد ما بين النهرين القديمة والربط الماضي والحاضر. اعتمد الناس القدماء في الأهوار على كسب لقمة العيش من الحياة على الماء، تماما كما يفعل الناس اليوم".