I’m lucky enough to be a regular visitor to the British Museum, and on a recent trip was excited to be able to see the latest exhibition, ‘I am Ashurbanipal: king of the world, king of Assryia’, which explores the life and world of Assyria’s last great king who reigned in the seventh century BC, controlling an empire which encompassed the area from Cyprus to Iran. I’ve long been enthralled by the world of the first millennium BC and, in fact, it’s what started me on the road to becoming an archaeologist in the first place, seeing the British Museum’s winged lions (called lamassu) from the ancient Assyrian city of Nimrud (Iraq) standing side by side in their gallery. I’d gone to London with my brother to go record shopping – this was 1992 – and came back with my head filled with ancient worlds and a new path ahead, albeit one to muddier Northern European landscapes.
The exhibition showcases parts of the British Museum’s Assyrian collection which are not normally on display (with other important objects on loan from other museums). It’s a perfectly-paced exploration of the Assyrian world told predominantly through the sculptural reliefs found at Ashurbanipal’s palace at Nineveh (Mosul, Iraq) although there are plenty of other contemporary objects to see too.
Given that these reliefs all adorned the palace walls of Nineveh, the overall concern is the display of the power and greatness of both of the king and his empire, and they were no doubt designed to have overwhelmed the viewer visiting the palace. There was no doubt who was in charge. Much of this is pretty brutal stuff, from lion hunting to the treatment of prisoners and the forced re-settlement of whole peoples. But alongside all of the hunting, war and glorification we get to see so much more, generally as incidental details explaining the bigger themes. There are musicians playing in processions and rituals, attendants at a banquet carrying different foods, gardens of trees and grape arbours, rivers filled with fish, ships, horses in decorated harnesses, intricately weaved carpets, the architecture of cities and more besides. They’re all so carefully produced, real masterpieces of ancient art which I could stand and explore for hours. It’s hard to believe that they’re over 2,600 years old.
Alongside these reliefs, one highlight for me was the display of cuneiform tablets from the library at Nineveh, Ashurbanipal being as proud of his scholarship as his martial skill, a wall filled with clay tablets impressed with the wedges of this early form of writing containing everything from law and economic text through magical spells and rituals to the story of Gilgamesh, the precursor to the legend of Noah. Being a library I felt quite at home!
The largest section focuses on the broader world of the Assyrian Empire, a huge map covering the floor space showing the eastern Mediterranean to the Zagros mountains illustrating how much of the ancient world they controlled, with each area furnished with cases showing objects and a historical narrative from that place. It gives an easy, flowing view of their broader world, clearly presenting the difficulties of running an empire and how problems built up within its constituent parts.
One of the showpieces here is a massive relief showing the battle at the Ulaya river between Assyrian forces and the Elamites from what is now Iran, ending in the latter’s defeat and king Tuemman’s execution- the panel includes Ashurbanipal reclining in his garden, surrounded by attendants, a quite tranquil scene until you realise that hanging from a nearby tree by a large metal ring is the head of the vanquished Tuemman.
In its last section, we are presented with the end of Ashurbanipal, a surprisingly ill-documented death about which we know very little, followed just a few decades a later by the fall of Assyria itself to various enemies in 612BC. Before leaving are two films which look at Nineveh today, the excavations and the sad destruction wrought by Isis in the last few years. But it does end on a positive note highlighting the work that is now being undertaken again on ancient Nineveh. A great exhibition which I thoroughly enjoyed. Now, where’s that book on the Assyrians…
More information: ‘I am Ashurbanipal’ runs until 24th February 2019, with more information available here. The Assyrian galleries are permanent and open throughout the year. For information in permanent gallery displays visit the British Museum website here.