Ashurbanipal at the British Museum
A major exhibition framed around the brutality and achievement of an Assyrian king hints at Britain’s own relationship with the region
Inside the British Museum, a beam of light dances over a huge gypsum relief which was once set into the walls of the South-West Palace of Nineveh, the capital of ancient Assyria. It lingers on scenes of brutality and exploitation: the torture of prisoners, the execution of a defeated king, the humiliation of his allies, forced to wear the heads of the defeated around their necks as they pay homage to their conqueror in his chariot.
These reliefs record the Battle of Til-Tuba in 653 BCE and its aftermath, when the Assyrian king swept down on his recalcitrant Elamite subjects. Presented as a continuous narrative, these images were meant to overwhelm visiting dignitaries as an example of Assyria’s belligerent justice. It is a work of fearsome propaganda, focused on the aggrandisement of one man: Ashurbanipal.
These violent reliefs form the centrepiece of I Am Ashurbanipal: king of the world, king of Assyria, an exhibition which basks in Assyria’s brutal reputation while exploring its achievement in science and culture beside its global relationships. Opening up the reliefs like storyboards are sophisticated light projections, identifying key episodes and resurrecting the vibrant pigmentation of carvings where they have faded.
Ashurbanipal ruled his mighty empire from 669 to 631 BCE from his capital in Nineveh, near modern Mosul in Iraq. A pair of magical spirits which once protected Nineveh’s North Palace introduce you to a room designed to evoke palatial grandeur. Recovered objects show how they would have been lavishly decorated with textiles and furniture, accompanied by incense burners and court musicians. In the grand reliefs which Nineveh’s nineteenth-century excavators found lining palace walls, Ashurbanipal pictured himself receiving tribute from his subjects, commanding vast military hosts, and thrusting blades into wild lions. They represent his control over territory that stretched from Egypt to Persia, as well as his godlike mastery over nature’s chaos.
Yet if you look closely at the scenes of the famous lion hunt, you will see that the king has a stylus in his belt. It is consistent with the image he cultivated as a scholar: “I can resolve complex mathematical divisions and multiplications that do not have an easy solution,” he boasted, “I have read cunningly written texts in obscure Sumerian and Akkadian that are difficult to interpret.” This he proved most magnificently with his collection of over 30,000 tablets in his library at Nineveh.
Written in cuneiform (‘wedge-shaped’) script, these tablets record a range of writing activity, from administrative records to physicians’ letters, although their main preoccupation is the vital pursuit of discerning the will of the gods. They were either produced by scribes, including captives, or acquired from conquered cities. Among Ashurbanipal’s collection was the Epic of Gilgamesh, the tale of a legendary king dispatching monsters and cutting down a sacred cedar, which includes an early account of the Deluge.
A remarkable presentation of tablets in an illuminated shelf suggests the knowledge of Ashurbanipal’s court and the majesty with which it was regarded. But his surveillance was not just some abstracted hobby. It facilitated administration of the greatest empire on Earth, the scale of which is communicated by an array of objects from across the Mediterranean and Asia Minor.
Then, all of a sudden, Ashurbanipal’s empire collapsed. In 612 BCE, a coalition of neighbours from Babylonia and Media embittered by Assyria’s exploitative campaigns rendered Nineveh a “mound of ruins”. The destruction was so severe that two centuries later the Greek Xenophon would stumble upon the old capital and remark on “a great stronghold, deserted.” The soldiers who stormed Ashurbanipal’s palace destroyed not only his image, but the tail by which he grasped onto a symbolic lion.
Given the reluctance of institutions to engage with challenging conversations about the ownership and decolonization of their collections (days before I visit, a delegation from Rapa Nui publicly requested the return of its ancestor statue Hoa Hakananai’a), the curators’ tentative steps towards recalling the exhibition’s own colonial legacy is unexpected.
The exhibition’s denouement remembers the “pioneering archaeological discoveries in Iraq” through their public reception in London, and remembers Nineveh’s excavators Austen Henry Layard, his Iraqi protégé Hormuzd Rasam and their French contemporary Paul-Émile Botta. It notes how impressions were coloured by Biblical interpretations of Assyrians as morally corrupt heathens, which altered following the discoveries in the 1840s.
Though museum trustees at first rankled at this “very bad art”, a collection of paintings, books and jewellery employing Assyrian motifs recall a short-lived Assyrian Revival in Victorian London. This coincided with an intellectual deployment of Assyria as a progenitor of Western civilization and empire—a phenomenon perhaps most evident in Germany, where pseudo-scientific ideas of race coalesced into calamitous revisions of national identity.
Meanwhile, amassing remains was an arena for geopolitical rivalry between France and Britain. This meant the artefacts were dislocated from the region’s contemporary inhabitants and associated with empire. “The Arab knows not,” went one prize-winning poem, “though around him rise / The sepulchres of earth’s first monarchies.” This exhibition, on the other hand, ends with a reminder of the local importance of Assyrian cultural heritage and the museum’s programme of conservation training for Iraqi experts.
BP’s sponsorship looms over the exhibition, however, whose own relationship with Iraq has been associated with environmental destruction and Western occupations entailing the destruction of cultural heritage.
This does not render this exhibition—presenting Ashurbanipal’s fearsome and advanced empire, resurrected with digital technology—anything less than spectacular. But it reflects on the different ways Britain remains bound to Iraq.
I am Ashurbanipal: king of the world, king of Assyria is at the British Museum until 21 February, 2019. For more information, visit the British Museum’s website. Featured image: © Trustees of the British Museum