And in order that he might not fall into the hands of the enemy, he built an enormous pyre in his palace, heaped upon it all his gold and silver as well as every article of the royal wardrobe, and then, shutting his concubines and eunuchs in the room which had been built in the middle of the pyre, he consigned both them and himself and his palace to the flames.
The British Museum’s current blockbuster exhibition is on the Assyrians. Herodotus never got round to writing about the Assyrians, although scraps have survived from other writers such as Diodorus. Ashurbanipal is perhaps the Sardanapalus who he claimed (falsely) had self immolated himself at the moment of his defeat. Jonah preached in Nineveh of its coming destruction and the people converted. As such it is largely remembered by its remains.
The first major excavations at Nineveh was undertaken by the French archaeologist Paul-Émile Botta in 1842. The items unearthed were sent to the Louvre. Austen Henry Layard begin excavating at Nimrud in 1845. The items he uncovered were sent to the British Museum, and others sold or given to individuals have eventually ended up at the Met. Scholars of Assyria were drawn to the field by their interest in biblical history. In the Bible Assyria is presented as a powerful and overproud nation. Something that its own self presentation does not dispel. Assyrian archaeology was also linked to the European colonial project and there is something of its own pride in displaying items
The Assyrians today are Chaldean Christians. Largely centred on Northern Iraq in the City of Mosul, they experienced the worst of Daesh. Along side the destruction of their communities, Daesh set out to systematically destroy history. From the Muslim and Christian communities of Iraq, are rising the next generation of scholars and archaeologists.
The Assyrian came down like the wolf on the fold,
The Assyrians are remembered today as ferocious warriors. The art does not dispel this image. Great reliefs show images of cities besieged and falling, rivers chocked and running red with fallen combatants and executions.
Even the peaceful scenes of rest and relaxation are fearful. The kings of Assyria enjoyed lion hunting with fearsome mastiff type dogs, muscles bulging. It is perhaps strange to see images of gardens and al fresco dining, even if it one such image a decapitated enemy head is hung from the branch of a tree.
King of the world
It has become common place to compare every historical period to Games of Thrones, yet in the case of Assyria this is perhaps true. The Assyrian monarchy was an uneasy combination of election and inheritance. Ashurbanipal was not the eldest son. Some have even suggested that his first training was as a priest. Yet he gained the throne, over an elder brother.
Ashurbanipal was a learned man. Literate and cultured, he patronised the creation of a major library. It holds 30,000 tablets, written in cuneiform, from two separate libraries. Several tablets contain texts of prophecies (from dreams, spleens and stars), but also a few tablets of literature.
The most famous text from this region was the Epic of Gilgamesh. It tells the story of Gilgamesh and his friend Enkindu, the wild man of the worlds and of Gilgamesh’s inconsolable grief at the death of his friend. In a side story, Utnapishtim tells Gilgamesh of the great world flood and how he survived it by building a boat. Its rediscovery set Victorian scholars into a tizzy.
Even at his most cultured, Ashurbanipal was a ferocious man. His reign was one long series of military engagements both within the heart of his empire and on the edges. His first concern was Egypt, which had been causing trouble to the Assyrians since his father’s reign. Egypt was ruled by a puppet pharaoh, but intervention ensured continuing support for Assyrian hegemony.
He even went to war with his own brother, who rebelled against him for his powerbase of Babylon. Ashurbanipal besieged Babylon for two years, before he put the city to the flame.
The exhibitions great strength is its innovative use of digital technology to complement the items on display. The exhibition uses lights to picks out details or colours stone reliefs in a non-intrusive way. In a major battle scene, the technology is used almost cinematically to pick out sections in the narrative and in the frieze. Combined with sound, its an effective and dramatic way to tell history, or at least the Assyrian version it.
Polychromy was central to the art of the ancient world and adds a level of luxury and verisimilitude to the art, which the bare stone work does not always reveal. Reconstructing coloured statues can sometimes be hard. When we compare an ancient polychromatic artwork, say like the Nefertiti bust, to a modern reconstructed bust, the reconstruction is flat. It does not have the gradual shades of human skin tone which make such art look tangibly real.
Yet there can be a tendency to read into skin colours, racial identities. In one frieze the clothes of Assyrians are painted by coloured lighting, but not the rest of the person. It is a shame that the captions do not foreground this curatorial decision. By not asking these questions, we sometimes follow colonial assumptions. A small issue which touches on a major theme in decolonialised history.
All in all, Ashurbanipal comes across like a well rounded psychopath, deserving his own HBO show, a brilliant exhibition. Once in a generation. Terrific. ★★★★★