I Am Ashurbanipal King of the World, King of Assyria
British Museum, 15th February 2019
Crikey. Those Assyrians had a way with reliefs carved in gypsum/alabaster. Even if it was primarily all in the service of terrifying aggrandisement. The King hunting, the King and his soldiers slaying his enemies, the King relaxing with the ladies. It is all about the big man. Seeing these panels adorning the main rooms of the Empire’s palaces, painted in bright pigments, you certainly would have known who was the boss.
The Neo-Assyrian Empire took in most of modern day Iraq, Syria and Iran from 911 BCE to 612 BCE and Ashurbanipal was in the hot seat at its zenith from 668 BCE to 627 BCE. One way or another the Assyrians had been a big noise in the region for the previous 1500 years or so but it is only when the factions came together, and decisively defeated their neighbours, that the Empire was able to take in Cyprus, the Eastern Mediterranean, Eastern Turkey, Egypt and the Persian Gulf. The Neo-Assyrian Empire kicked off with Adad-nirari II but it was Ashburanipal’s daddy, Esarhaddon, the son of a “palace-woman” not the Queen, who did the blood-thirsty groundwork for his favourite son. Even so little Ashurbanipal had to initially share with big brother Shamash-shum-ukin who ruled the rebuilt Babylon.
Whilst Ashurbanipal’s geographical inheritance was vast it needed looking after. First he had to take on the various Empires in Egypt including the Nubians. Then he had to decisively crush the Assyrians’ arch-enemies, the Elamites, and finally he had to take on his own older brother when Babylon rebelled. There is plenty of pictorial and written evidence to show just how cruel Ashurbanipal could be when it came to waging war but, as all you students of ancient history know, you can’t build an empire on brain-dashing alone. You needs brains that stay in heads as well. And this is where the exhibition steps in showing just how learned the great king was, (he had been trained to rule, and to spy and intrigue, from an early age), as he amassed his great Library, oversaw an unrivalled system of communication across the Empire, negotiated treaties and vassalships too hold together his various, proud peoples and turned Nineveh into the greatest city on Earth. He wasn’t troubled by modesty mind as the translations show. It all went to sh*te when he died, isn’t that always the way, but what is on show graphically reveals just how magnificent, (assuming you were on the right side, and ideally you weren’t a lion), it all was at its peak.
Now the British Museum has the lion’s share (haha) of the world’s Assyrian artefacts so curating this exhibition wasn’t too much of a struggle, I imagine. Even so much of this material is not on permanent display, there are plenty of astonishing loans on show and the way the story is told, as is usual at the BM, is superb. Most Assyrian art was lifted in the mid C19, (the Victorians went mad for it), having previous been ignored by scholars in Europe and the US. You can argue about the ethics of such an enterprise, but then again you might also want to consider the centuries before when the exquisite calcite alabaster palace reliefs, lamassu and large scale statuary went walkabout, and you also need to think about the wholesale destruction of what remained in situ by ISIS especially around Mosul. At the end of the exhibition this part of the story is highlighted including the work of the BM in supporting and training local archaeologists to examine and conserve what is left.
Highlights? The small-scale lion hunts, (though I reckon, based on the casual manner in which Ashurbanipal is despatching the beasts, that these reliefs may incorporate a little poetic licence even if they are anatomically perfect) . The Garden Party in the palace of Nimrud. (Let us hope Queen Liz doesn’t take up the custom of decorating the Buck Palace gardens with enemy heads). The wall of cuneiform on clay tablets, a summation of the Knowledge of the day, (a word to the wise – if you want your library to resist a fire, use clay). The copy of the Epic of Gilgamesh, the first ever work of literature. The battle scenes illuminated with modern technology. The “painted” relief similarly enhanced. The lamassu, the human headed bull/lions with wings that stand guard. (How do you move these things? With great care I should imagine and without enlisting the services of the congenitally weak and clumsy like the Tourist). The sphinx of his arch-enemy. Taharqa. The imported Nimrud ivories. The decorated bronze helmet.The tiles. The obelisks. The statue of the big fella himself, alongside his bro. The Elamite art, pedestrian when compared to its Assyrian overlords.
The thing with the reliefs is that not only are they historically and aesthetically pleasing and interesting but they also tell an immediate story. It is this clear, (well, with a bit of help from the curators comments), narrative which makes this art and this exhibition special even if you aren’t normally one for the “dusty” as LD terms most History. Obviously some of the content, the pre-flaying, tongue-ripping, the bone-grinding, the beheading, appeals to our voyeuristic cravings, (don’t worry it isn’t TOO realistic), but it is the muscle, the movement, the energy, the vivid impression of something happening (even if the perspectives are that odd mix of profile and frontal/three-quarter that characterised pre-Grecian art), that makes it special.
And a lesson to all would-be tyrannical despots. If you are going balls-out to subjugate your people, do show an interest in reflecting your “glory” in art. Otherwise no-one will remember you.