TASTE OF THE PAST > The ancient eyes of the Near East

Niki GAMM Hürriyet Daily News

In works of art that have survived for centuries we can see different conceptions of how to portray the eye, that most important organ of the body

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Among the Egyptians, the treatment of the eye artistically depends on the kind of  materials in use. Often the eye would be sculpted and then
painted on the stone.

Among the Egyptians, the treatment of the eye artistically depends on the kind of materials in use. Often the eye would be sculpted and then painted on the stone.

A recent Scientific American article suggested that eyes may have begun developing as a means of seeing nearly 800 million years ago. The proposal is controversial, of course. By the time we get to the historical era, eyes are fully developed in all living beings whatever their size, shape or type.

In works of art that have survived over the centuries we see different conceptions of how to portray the eye, that most important organ of the body, whether animal or human. Among the Egyptians there were treatises about the eye and in particular about diseases of the eye as there were and still are today many different ways in which the eye can be damaged or even destroyed. The treatment of the eye artistically depends on the kind of materials in use. Often the eye would be sculpted and then painted on the stone. The black outline drawn around the eye was the kohl that the men and women of ancient Egypt used, in part to protect their eyes against diseases and in part for cosmetic purposes.

In sculptures made from wood, for instance, the eyes would be inset. These were made of transparent and semi-transparent stones to resemble the white, iris, pupil and cornea. Peter Nevill, in his work, Egyptian Art, writes of the eyes, “their shape is given a priori, but in each individual the nuances provide an opportunity for a highly sensitive appreciation of shape. Other points to be taken into consideration are the inner and outer corners that determine the position of the eye, the width of the upper lid, the line of the brows, and, in plastic depiction, the modeling of the lower lid. Among these general features, some details are more important than others, varying from case to case.”

The “Eye of Horus” in Egyptian civilization represented the sky god Horus who was depicted with a falcon’s head on a human body, but was more often than not simply represented by a stylized eye. The symbol contained six parts that represented the six senses - touch, taste, hearing, thought, sight and smell. It was also used as a protective amulet, in particular against the evil eye.

Laws related to the eyes

The inhabitants of Mesopotamia, such as the Sumerians and Assyrians don’t seem to have left us any treatises about eyes the way the Egyptians did, but they have passed down laws related to the eyes. The most famous of these belong to the Laws of Hammurabi that have come down to us primarily through the Bible’s Old Testament. Hammurabi was the king of Babylon between 1792 and 1750 B.C. He codified existing laws and had them inscribed on steles. Among the laws that prescribed punishments are those that became known as the lex talionis or law of retaliation. We know it today as “an eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth.” The statues that have been found in Mesopotamian lands most frequently are missing their eyes. This suggests that they were made from precious metals and stones. Further examination shows that the eyes were abnormally large and round, unlike those on Egyptian statues.


Suppiluliuma, statue of
the Hittite king from Tell
Tayinat in Anatolia.

Since the Hittites of Anatolia were in close contact with civilizations of Mesopotamia, it’s not surprising to find a statue with strikingly large eyes. The image of Suppiluliuma I, a king of the Hittites who reigned in the second half of the 14th century B.C., depicts him with huge, artificial white eyes and black pupils. [See Hurriyet Daily News, July 30, 2012]. It was found among other artifacts at Tell Tayinat during excavations that began in 2004.

The ancient Greeks were more disposed to a realism that was lacking in the Mesopotamian depiction of eyes, unless one accepts that the humans in that area had huge, round eyes. A series of Greek philosophers between the seventh and the fifth centuries B.C. are known for their interest in the question, “What is the essence of things?” Called the Pre-Socratic philosophers because they mostly wrote prior to the time of Socrates, they interested themselves in finding rational reasons for what was previously thought of as mythological explanations. The fifth century Pre-Socratic Empedocles, however, postulated that the goddess Aphrodite had fashioned the eye out of fire, air, earth and water, the four elements that made up all matter. In making the eye, “she lit the fire in the eye, which shone out from the eye making sight possible.” In short we see objects because rays of light shine out of our eyes and touch objects.

Although Empedocles is credited with coming up with this theory of vision, one can’t help but wonder if he didn’t simply describe what everyone already thought they knew. The idea of the evil eye had been known for 3,000 years or so before the philosopher lived. People were credited with wishing something evil might happen just by staring at them. Blue eyes in particular were considered the most threatening amid the brown-eyed people of the Middle East. The idea that the eye of Horus could protect a person may have originated from this postulate.

Origin of the evil eye bead

The origin of the evil eye bead that is still with us today likely has its origin in the idea that eyes projected one’s vision. The bead is supposed to protect one against the evil emanating from the eye. The eye of Horus is still manufactured today, not because anyone believes in its efficacy but because it makes a nice piece of jewelry.

Later Greek philosophers like Aristotle refuted Empedocles’ theory. Aristotle believed that light was “reflected by an object and somehow then transmitted by a medium into the eye.” This is similar to what is believed today. Ancient Greeks’ portrayal of the human eye travels a similar route. The first sculptures portray an eyeball that is round and stylized and bulges from the eye socket. Later it becomes realistic and assumes its normal shape in the body.

The Arabs and later the Ottomans had no sculpture because of the prohibition on reproducing the human form. The Arabs did, however, continue to pursue theories of vision as they inherited the works of the ancient Greek and the Roman philosophers. The Arab philosopher Al-Kindi based much of his work in the ninth century A.D. on the later Greco-Roman works of Euclid and Galen in addition to Aristotle. He had a significant impact on later European works on vision and optics.


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