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I am Ashurbanipal: king of the world, king of Assyria


Amongst strong competition from other London exhibitions, the British Museum’s exploration of the rise and fall of the last great Assyrian king, Ashurbanipal, stands out. It is a stunning exhibition, and one not to be missed.


Relief detail of Ashurbanipal hunting on horseback. Nineveh, Assyria, 645 – 635 BCE © The Trustees of the British Museum

In one of the strongest autumns of recent years for exhibitions opening in London, the British Museum’s exploration of the rise and fall of the last great Assyrian king, Ashurbanipal, stands out. It is a stunning exhibition. Over and above what we learn about the Assyrians through the life of the self-styled ‘king of the world’, one thing is clear: their art was outstanding.

The exhibition blurb promises “to transport you back to ancient Iraq in the 7th century BCE, when Ashurbanipal became the most powerful person on earth.”

And what a good job it does, with its grand and at times entrancing exhibition design (the lighting above all) and over 200 objects from all corners of the Assyrian empire taking us from sumptuous palace life and Ashurbanipal’s upbringing, to crisis to battle zone to retaliation, on to Ashurbanipal’s shadowy death and empire falling apart. Then, coming to more modern times, sections on excavation (Austen Henry Layard’s principally, the cities of Nimrud and Nineveh between 1845 and 1851), and legend (for instance, the Assyrian revival jewellery that became a fashion in the 19th century when Layard’s discoveries sparked a taste for winged bulls, lions and such like), as well as the task of preserving Iraq’s past for the future.


Discovery of Nimrud Frederick Charles Cooper (1810–1880), Nimrud, mid-19th century, watercolour on paper © The Trustees of the British Museum

Ashurbanipal’s reign (r.669-c.627 BCE) marked the highpoint of the Assyrian empire. Ruling from his capital at Nineveh (in modern-day northern Iraq), Ashurbanipal shaped the lives of millions of people in a vast and diverse empire stretching from the shores of the eastern Mediterranean to the mountains of western Iran.

Through a plethora of huge reliefs, from scenes of lion hunts, and pleasure gardens, to serried ranks of soldiers or captives, and gory battle scenes - depicted in astonishing if stylised detail - and here made the more dramatic as by spot-lighting, an inspired touch - to his famed library of clay fragments at Nineveh, we encounter Ashurbanipal as “warrior, scholar, empire builder, king slayer, lion hunter, librarian.”

The gigantic gypsum friezes on display are the British Museum’s, but more than half were not on public view before. And although the most famous ‘lion hunt’ frieze of all remains in the Museum’s Assyrian galleries, too great to move, there are so many extraordinary quality reliefs here one barely notices its absence.

“As present day Iraq looks to recover the history of damaged sites at Nineveh and Nimrud, this exhibition allows us to appreciate and relive the great achievements of an ancient world and celebrate its legacy.”

Curator Gareth Brereton


The sumptuous displays of the Ashurbanipal exhibition. Image © F. Richards

The lion hunts were more than sport, more symbolic than actual. Ashurbanipal was perceived as a mortal representative of the gods, so it was his duty to protect the people and conquer the forces of chaos (nature). Displays of his bravery and strength as a lion hunter were therefore just the thing, comparable to slaying enemies.

The ‘hunts’ were judiciously managed, taking place in enclosures outside Nineveh, armed guards protecting the king and the lions released from cages to be shot with arrows or speared. One relief shows a presumably not angry enough male lion having its tail tweaked! These and the many scenes of conflict are wonderful sculptures, although blood thirsty. One extraordinarily well-observed relief shows a lion, blood pouring from its mouth, every muscle tensed and vein strained, giving in to its deadly wounds. Apparently, the sculptor portrayed the lion’s agony not out of pity but to symbolise the king’s triumph over dangerous forces.


The lion that was not fierce enough - having his tailed pulled by a King's courtier. Image © F. Richards

This was an age of conflict. Ornate chariot fittings and elaborate weaponry reveal the constant rivalry between kings fighting for power and glory. Vividly detailed wall panels extol victories as the tumultuous story of Ashurbanipal’s reign unfolds: his conquest of Egypt, the crushing defeat of his rebellious older brother, his ruthless campaigns against all who defied his rule. And clever spot-lighting on the reliefs emphasise the narrative: the Assyrians using siege ladders to scale the walls of an Egyptian stronghold (archers halfway up, soldiers tumbling to their deaths); the Assyrian cavalry in pointed helmets charging down the Elamite soldiers, the enemy and their horses falling into the river awash with fish.

Ashurbanipal was proud of his scholarship. He claimed to be unlike his predecessors for he could read, write and debate with expert scholars. In a practice letter written to his father in his best cuneiform script on a miniscule clay tablet, the 13 year-old Ashurbanipal boasts of his achievements in “the scribal arts”. Later in images he appears with a pen in his belt, and sometimes with both pen and sword.


Ivory plaque of a lioness mauling a man, ivory, gold, cornelian, lapis lazuli, Nimrud, 900 BCE – 700 BCE. Image © The Trustees of the British Museum

One of his greatest achievements is said to be the great library he assembled at his palace at Nineveh. At its peak comprising 10,000 tablets, made of fine clay and inscribed in neat rows of wedge-shaped cuneiform script, it speaks of great organisation and bureaucracy. The library was destroyed in an assault on the city in 612 BCE, but its remains brought to the British Museum by Layard in the 19th century now make an impressive display in the exhibition.

Exhibition curator Gareth Brereton says, “Although he depicts himself as a brave and powerful warrior in the friezes, he liked to rule from the safety of his palace. For Ashurbanipal, control of empire rested on knowledge. His library was a state tool.”

The library mostly contained textbooks to help Ashurbanipal communicate with the gods and for his astrologers to divine the future and help decision making, but he also had several sets of the Epic of Gilgamesh, the most famous work of Mesopotamian literature. Some of the best-preserved fragments are on display.


Iraqi archaeologists undertaking training as part of the British Museum’s Iraq Emergency Heritage Management Training Scheme. Image © The Trustees of the British Museum

Many of the objects in the British Museum’s exhibition come from the archaeological sites of Nineveh and Nimrud, sites that have been targeted and destroyed by Daesh (also known as ISIS or IS), from 2014-17. The exhibition ends by highlighting the challenges faced in protecting the Iraqi cultural heritage under threat and showcases a British Museum scheme in response to the destruction.

The exhibition aims to “transport us back to ancient Iraq in the 7th century BCE” and it does so vividly, but the interviews and film footage shown at the end, especially aerial shots of the remains of Ashurbanipal’s palace and the pockmarked landscape at Nineveh (in the outskirts of Mosul) bring us sharply back to the present day.

I am Ashurbanipal: king of the world, king of Assyria

British Museum, London

Showing until 24 February 2019

For more information, CLICK HERE

Information on the Iraq Emergency Heritage Management Training Scheme can be found at: http://www.britishmuseum.org/about_us/museum_activity/middle_east/iraq_scheme.aspx

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