When the Assyrian king Ashurbanipal took the throne in 669 BC, his empire was at its height. As well as defeating enemies in violent confl ict and hunting lions, Ashurbanipal saw himself as a scholar and amassed a vast royal library. A major exhibition at the British Museum takes a close look at this self-described ‘king of the world’ and the Assyrians in Iraq, Syria, and beyond. Lucia Marchini went along to find out more.
In the mid-19th century, Assyria was à la mode in Britain. Finds from the excavations at Nimrud and Nineveh by Austen Henry Layard – and later his former assistant Hormuzd Rassam – went on display at the British Museum and in the Great Exhibition, held in the spectacular ‘giant greenhouse’, the Crystal Palace. Winged bulls from these sites near Mosul in Iraq made their way into Dante Gabriel Rossetti’s poetry and adorned colourful ceramic jugs, porcelain bookends, and fine gold jewellery. Nineveh, thanks to its biblical associations, proved particularly popular with the Victorian public, but more recent years have seen appalling destruction there, as well as in Mosul, Nimrud, and other sites in Iraq, at the hands of Daesh.
It is from his capital of Nineveh that Ashurbanipal ruled the Assyrian Empire in the 7th century BC, as explored by the exhibition I am Ashurbanipal: king of the world, king of Assyria at the British Museum. (The museum set up the Iraq Emergency Heritage Management Training Scheme in 2014 to help counteract Daesh’s devastation.) His North Palace at Nineveh was full of majestic sculptures and carved gypsum reliefs that lined the walls, and in 1853-1854 a celebrated collection of wall panels was unearthed at the palace, many showing Ashurbanipal displaying his might in the royal lion hunt.
These remarkably detailed reliefs show a richly clothed Ashurbanipal on horseback firing arrows at lions, or, on foot, slaying a rearing lion with a sword, in emulation of the image shown on the Assyrian imperial seal. He dutifully pours a libation of wine over the bodies of dead lions, and, unusually, carries a stylus tucked into his belt, which suggests that, even in the context of the hunt, Ashurbanipal was keen to promote his intellectual status. Lions are released from cages by children or small adults, who are themselves in cages, presumably for protection. The lion hunt was a status sport in Assyria, and indeed in other societies, and through earlier reliefs we see Ashurbanipal’s predecessors engaging in the practice too. At the North-West Palace at Nimrud, for instance, wall panels show the 9th-century king Ashurnasirpal II shooting a lion from his chariot, and pouring a libation over a dead animal to the accompaniment of two harpists.
Magnificent human-headed winged bulls and lions, known as lamassu, stood at major gateways of cities and in palaces to offer protection. Such guardianship could also be given by the important spirits, the seven Sebetti gods – a panel from Ashurbanipal’s throne room at the North Palace in Nineveh depicts three of these deities, wearing horned hats with feathers and carrying a small axe in their raised right hands and a dagger in their left. Intriguingly, the figures were initially carved carrying bows (traces can still be seen today), but these were rubbed down and replaced by daggers, in keeping with the descriptions of the gods from texts. This correction hints that, in Ashurbanipal’s royal palace, getting the details right truly mattered.
Wall panels like these were originally painted in vivid colours. In some cases, patches of red and black pigment survive, while other colours have been detected through new scientific techniques. Special lighting in the exhibition projects colour onto some of these reliefs at intervals to give a glimpse of how they may have once appeared.
Colour is more clearly visible on other decorative elements from Assyrian palaces and temples. Glazed terracotta tiles from Til Barsip in Syria and the North-West Palace in Nimrud, dating to the 9th century, have been painted with exquisite figures, their clothing complete with the floral motifs and detailed fringing that can also be seen in garments depicted in carved reliefs. Similar flowers appear on an intricate rectangular limestone door-sill from Ashurbanipal’s North Palace at Nineveh, which has been designed to look like a carpet. Bronze and ivory furniture fittings played a part in the imperial decorative screen too. Some of the finely worked ivories, however, were later discoloured, as they were burnt in the sacking of Nimrud and Nineveh. The flames had their effect on cuneiform tablets as well, baking the clay and at times vitrifying them – and, in doing so, preserving them and their contents for modern eyes.
While hunting lions was a pursuit of other Assyrian kings, Ashurbanipal was unique in his scholarly boasts. Cuneiform inscriptions on clay tablets, prisms, and cylinders give an insight into the king’s intellectual interests. On one tablet, he writes, ‘I learned the craft of the sage Adapa, the secret and hidden lore of all of the scribal arts. I am able to recognise celestial and terrestrial omens and can discuss them in an assembly of scholars. I am capable of arguing with expert diviners… I can resolve complex mathematical divisions and multiplications that do not have an easy solution. I have read cunningly written texts in obscure Sumerian and Akkadian that are difficult to interpret. I have carefully examined inscriptions on stone from before the Deluge that are sealed, stopped up, and confused’.
A towering display in the exhibition showcases a selection of the more than 10,000 works from Ashurbanipal’s library. Some were inherited from his father, and some were commissioned by the king from skilled professional scribes who used the clearest script and finest clay for the task. Many of the works are textbooks relating to divination to help the king communicate with the gods and reveal the future, while others contained calendars, hymns, and medical instructions.
Other cuneiform texts include letters that shed light on such diverse topics as sibling rivalry, Assyrian board games, teaching, and the training of the king. Scattered throughout the exhibition, they add another dimension to interpreting the artefacts on display. A few of the documents were written by Ashurbanipal himself (including one example featuring the large handwriting of someone still honing their skills), and fittingly it is from one such royal inscription that his exhibition takes its title: ‘I am Ashurbanipal, great king, mighty king, king of the world, king of Assyria.’
I am Ashurbanipal: king of the world, king of Assyria runs at the British Museum until 24 February. Tickets are £17 (concessions available). See britishmuseum.org/Ashurbanipal for more information.
This review appeared in CA 347.