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“Look on my works ye mighty and despair”
Review of Assyrian King Ashurbanipal exhibition at the British Museum
Country Life, January 9, 2019

I am Ashurbanipal, King of the World, King of Assyria

On one level this exhibition is a bit of a cheat, as most of the prize exhibits live in the British Museum, and have just been moved around the corner (or up from the basement stores) for this fee-paying show. On every other level it is a triumph. It is highly accessible (without dumbing down), tightly focused on a single life span (King Ashurbanipal, who reigned 668-627 BC) yet culturally diverse since it includes artefacts from half a dozen of Assyria’s subject-allies like Cyprus and Phoenicia as well as some of her foes - Urartu to the north and Susa to the east).

The exhibition shows the British Museum in the best possible light: engaged in relevant research (for the last 170 years the museum has been patiently reassembled a three-dimensional jig saw puzzle formed from the shattered clay tablets of the royal library of Assyria) and deeply invested in the training of a new generation of Iraqi archaeologist-restorers in their own homeland. In my youth, the quasi-Imperial role of the British Museum was faintly embarrassing (even to my own patriotic eyes it sometimes looked like a pirate’s hoard of loot) but since the iconoclasm of ISIS in both Syria and Iraq, we can now take justifiable pride in the British Museum as a safe (and free) place for the preservation of world culture.

The first star of the show is King Ashurbanipal as he cares to show himself to us, through a series of vast, and magnificently detailed, carved reliefs that once decorated the walls of his North Palace within the royal citadel of the vast walled city of Nineveh. We see him in the formal occasion of a royal lion hunt, through the incidents of half-a-dozen military campaigns and then finally in his garden palace under a trellis of vines on a couch beside his wife. Assyrian stone carvers delight in hairstyles (which double as ethnic identifiers), every detail of horse trappings (which indicate rank) and the musculature of knee and calf.

Ashurbanipal was not brought up within the murderous atmosphere of the ruling palace, for as the youngest son of the youngest (and bastard) son of King Sennecharib, no one thought him likely to sit on the throne. Yet despite this, during Ashurbanipal’s reign the Assyrian Empire reached its territorial apogee. We see these conquests in the carved reliefs: the Assyrian army subduing Egypt, wage war against the camel-riding Bedouin tribes of the Arab desert, besieges Elamite fortresses in the foothills of the Zagros mountains and is consumed by a savage civil war fought out beside the rivers of Mesopotamia.

Ashurbanipal was a most unlikely character to rule over a terrifyingly efficient military state. The Assyrian Empire funnelled all its resources into maintaining a professional standing army which went on campaign every year, year after year, for over a thousand years. It was the duty of every free-born, male Assyrian to serve in this army, and new dynasties were invariably founded by successful generals. Yet King Ashurbanipal never went to war and never led an army in the field. Instead he was an exceptionally well-educated, scholarly prince, who could read the signs of ritual divinations and translate any ancient script as well as his scribes or priests. He assembled a vast royal library of over 10,000 clay volumes, which by a happy freak of history, was preserved for us by being baked in fire when Nineveh was destroyed. Thus, and only thus, have we been able to read the story of Gilgamesh and also ponder on how their mythic tales of the flood and creation influenced the Bible. For Assyria was always proudly conscious of it’s direct cultural link back to ancient Akkad, whilst also presiding over the emergence of the first universal language, Aramaic.

And this is where we meet the second star of this show - the person who designed the lighting. I normally hate anything that smacks of a “son et Lumiere” but I was amazed by the ingenious use of highly focused spot-lit colour to elucidate just three carvings. Suddenly the monotone of the grey stone is coloured as it originally would have been. First the irrigation channels flow with blue, then the walled paradise garden turns green again, and finally the temple-sanctuary glows with gold and scarlet. Later two vastly confusing battle scenes (carved on four, cartoon-like registers) come alive as individual scenes are outlined and pinpointed, accompanied by martial music and textual translations of the cuneiform. Thus we can follow the narrative sequence, while also appreciating that two quite separate events have been combined. I will not ruin the story, except to say that even the nicest Assyrian monarch took pride in state terrorism.

Is this mere propaganda? Did a peaceful intellectual monarch need to look tough to his own generals (in the manner of the Emperor Claudius), or did he delight in the distant military victories, like our own Prince Regent, proudly telling stories about Waterloo? We will never know, for Ashurbanipal’s palace was burned to the ground less than twenty years after his death.

But this exhibition makes it all horribly fascinating.


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