“The royal lion hunt”, 645-640 BC, North Palace, Nineveh, Iraq
These panels, which depict Ashurbanipal hunting lions, are among the most famous works of Assyrian art. Since their rediscovery at Nineveh, they have astounded viewers with the intricate iconographical detail of the king’s clothing and headwear, while the realism of the lions’ taut musculature lends great dynamism to the scene.
Lion hunts like these were public ceremonies. They enabled the king to cast himself before his subjects in the role of royal hero, taming the wild forces of nature. The roots of this symbolic act extend deep into the past; when, in one scene in the upper register, Ashurbanipal raises a lion to its hind legs by its throat, he strikes a pose that had adorned the imperial Assyrian seal for more than two centuries. Yet the artist of these panels also reveals how Ashurbanipal had modernised the image of king. There is a small reed pen protruding from his belt: the proud emblem of his learning.
Stone stele depicting Ashurbanipal (right), shown with a ritual basket on his head with cuneiform inscription (668–65 BC), South Iraq, Marduk temple (Babylon). His brother Shamash-shumu-ukin (left) carved with cuneiform inscription (668–55 BC), South Iraq, Temple of Nabu (Borsippa)
Together, these sculptures offer a remarkable insight into how Ashurbanipal sought to present himself as a dynamic, constructive ruler – and how he would silence conflicting interpretations. In the stele to the right, Ashurbanipal is depicted, with all the customary finesse of detail in his beard, clothing, and conical ruler’s headdress, restoring a temple in Babylon, a territory in Assyria. Cuneiform text lists his achievements.
Babylon, however, was ruled by Ashurbanipal’s older brother, Shamash-shumu-ukin. Their father, king Esarhaddon, had left the throne of Assyria to Ashurbanipal, his favourite son, and had sought to placate Shamash-shumu-ukin by installing him as king of Babylon. Steles like this show how Ashurbanipal undermined his brother’s rule by undertaking building projects in regions under his jurisdiction.
Shamash-shumu-ukin revolted against his younger brother in late 652 BC, supported by a coalition of Assyria’s enemies; less than four years later, after a long and brutal siege at the gates of Babylon, he was dead. Tellingly, the image of Shamash-shumu-ukin carved in the stele on the left – engaged in the restoration of the Temple of Nabu, alongside his brother – was defaced in the years following his failed rebellion.
Fragment of a wall panel showing the head of a eunuch, 710-705 BC, Khorsabad, Iraq
The breadth and diversity of Ashurbanipal’s empire demanded extensive infrastructure and efficient bureaucracy. The king created an innovative “Royal Mail” service, by which information could be dispatched quickly and effectively between the officials in command of the empire’s various states. These officials, known as “magnates”, were often eunuchs who had submitted to castration to prove that they prized loyalty to the king over continuing their bloodline. The beardless features of this official indicate that he belonged to this elite group.
A significant proportion of the clay tablets found in Ashurbanipal’s library are letters, documents and other ephemera, detailing the minutiae of his rule. They give evidence of the extensive organisational structure that enabled him to extend the boundaries of his empire further than any of his predecessors.
“The Banquet Scene of Ashurbanipal”, 645-640 BC, North Palace, Nineveh, Iraq
Most surviving Assyrian art depicts battles and animal hunts, so this bucolic panel is unusual. It shows Ashurbanipal, relaxing at a banquet in the palace gardens with his queen, Libbali-sharrat, surrounded by date palms and vines burdened with ripe grapes. His bow rests on the table at his side, and behind him, slaves stand fanning his back. At the left of the panel, however, there is a grisly reminder of the expense at which this peaceful moment has been bought. From a tree – directly in the king’s eyeline – hangs the severed head of Teumman, the defeated king of Elam.
Cuneiform clay tablet vitrified in the intense heat of the burning of the South-west Palace in Nineveh”, 700-600 BC, Nineveh, Iraq
Less than two decades after Ashurbanipal died, his kingdom lay in tatters. In around 609 BC, the Babylonians invaded and sacked the palace at Nineveh, setting fire to the great library. However, although the Babylonian’s act of arson destroyed many of the clay texts Ashurbanipal had so meticulously compiled, many more were hardened in the flames, preserving them for posterity. You can’t help but reflect on the vicissitudes of destruction and preservation over the course of history – the remarkable tales of how knowledge has been transmitted across millennia, or else lost irrevocably.
This process, of course, continues to the present. When Islamic State established their caliphate in Mosul, between 2014 and 2017, they took to the “heathen” effigies of Ashurbanipal’s palace with pickaxes and bulldozers. Aptly, the exhibition concludes with a look at the work of the Iraq Emergency Heritage Management Training Scheme, established by the British Museum in order to develop the skills of archaeologists in the region, such that Iraqi heritage might be preserved in the event of future conflicts.
I am Ashurbanipal, king of the world, king of Assyria British Museum until February 24th 2019