Art

I am Ashurbanipal: King of the World

I am Ashurbanipal: King of the World – by Pat Levy

British Museum – until 24 February. Admission £17 adults, age 16-18, unemployed and disabled £14, accompanied children under 16 free.

Opening: 10am to 5.30pm daily, late opening Fridays.

The British Museum, that great repository of all the stuff collected in the nineteenth century by the British landed gentry’s more superfluous sons has excelled itself yet again with this really stunning exhibition of relics from the reign of Ashurbanipal, the last great king of Assyria, an empire extending across the Middle East, including Mesopotamia, Egypt, the eastern coast of the Mediterranean, and parts of today’s Turkey, Iran and Iraq, and lasting for three hundred years. The city of Mosul in Iraq resonates with us for the chaos, death and destruction caused there in recent times but back in the 7th century BC it was the part of the hinterland of Nimrud, the capital of Ashurbanipal’s empire. After the fall of the empire the city, like its neighbour Nineveh sank into the sands, only to be rediscovered by wealthy British explorers in the nineteenth century who shipped off much of its architecture to museums in Britain and America and in the light of the looting and destruction of the various wars played out there in the last decades perhaps that was a good thing.

Ashurbanipal, not having the midnight twitter statements available to modern rabble rousers, had his exploits carved into the walls of his palace and it is these which dominate the museum’s exhibition. One huge sheet tells the story of the sacking of Elam, one of his rival states. The enormous intricate panel shows a great mass of tiny carvings made sensible by the museum’s magical highlighting of each part of the story from the battle to the humiliation and mutilation of his enemies, its leaders spat upon and eventually flayed alive. Nice guy that Ashurbanipal. Other friezes depict his skill at killing lions, his beautiful gardens, and in one memorable frieze Ashurbanipal sits peacefully in his lovely garden with his wife surrounded by date and palm trees, celebrating his victory. On close inspection you can see the decapitated head of his enemy hanging from one of the trees.

There’s not much social history here – some cooking pots in one case, friezes depicting the gardens and fields with their intricate system of irrigation, details of the complex postal service operating between the various parts of the empire and the story of his vast library where archaeologists found among the thousands of cuneiform clay tablets the story of the flood written into the epic of Gilgamesh, pre-dating by many years the story written in the Old Testament.  Theirs was a connected empire and it brought to Nimrud art and craftwork from all corners of its territory. From Urartu in the far north came sophisticated metalwork and one wall panel shows a Phoenician war galley sailing down the Euphrates. Ashurbanipal was the last of the great emperors of Assyria which fell apart shortly after his unrecorded departure from the world.

After all the death and mutilation of the alabaster friezes the exhibition ends with information about the current state of the archaeology in Iraq. In 2015 ISIS took bulldozers to Nimrud, and there is something ironic there in the final destruction of a city built on the cruelty laid on its opponents by another culture defined by its atrocities.

The exhibition continues until 24 February. Admission £17 adults, age 16-18, unemployed and disabled £14, accompanied children under 16 free.

Opening: 10am to 5.30pm daily, late opening Fridays.

Images Above –

1. Lioness plaque Ivory plaque of a lioness mauling a man, ivory, gold, cornelian, lapis lazuli, Nimrud, 900BC – 700BC © The Trustees of the British Museum

2. Relief detail of Ashurbanipal hunting on horseback. Nineveh, Assyria, 645–635 BC © The Trustees of the British Museum

3. Shamash-shumu-ukin and Ashurbanipal Stone stele depicting Ashurbanipal (right), shown with a ritual basket on his head with cuneiform inscription, South Iraq, Marduk temple (Babylon), 668BC – 665BC. His brother Shamash-shumu-ukin (left) carved with cuneiform inscription, South Iraq, Temple of Nabu (Borsippa), 668BC – 655BC © The Trustees of the British Museum

4.   Striding sphinx. ‘Fort Shalmaneser’, Nimrud, Iraq 900 -700 BC © the Trustees of the British Museum

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Categories: Art, Header, Things to do

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