The king Ashurbanipal was the king of Assyria at the height of the Assyrian Empire’s power. I recently visited the excellent Ashurbanipal exhibition at the British Museum, which is well worth a visit.
Ashurbanipal ruled between 669 and about 631 BC and was one of the last kings of the Assyrian Empire, before it was overthrown by the Babylonians. He was also one of the greatest, styling himself as “king of the world”, with some justification, as the exhibition explores. He also portrayed himself as a warrior, a scholar, and a lion hunter, all with some justification.
For the Assyrians, kings were seen as responsible for bringing about order out of chaos: lion hunts, conquests, gardens, and buildings were all part of this overarching project. These were built in part by those defeated and deported by the Assyrians.
This policy of wholesale deportation of people by the Assyrians is mentioned in Ezra 4 (amongst other places in the Bible), where both Ashurbanipal (verse 10) and his father Esharhaddon are named.
There were therefore stone reliefs, from the palaces, showing Ashburbanipal fighting and killing lions, who were seen as a symbol of chaos. These lion hunts were more like modern-day bull fights in Spain than hunting lions in the wild. The archaeology suggests that there was a lion hunting arena just outside the capital city, where the citizens could watch the king. The reliefs themselves show the lions being released from cages (by a child in a smaller cage!), and soldiers assisting Ashurbanipal.
The reliefs themsevles are incredibly detailed, showing the anatomical details of people and animals, whilst Ashurbanipal is usually shown with a writing stylus in his belt, to show off his skills in this area at the same time as he is showing off his prowess in hunting!
One of the many good parts of the exhibition was the use of digital projectors on a couple of the reliefs to show what they would have looked like when they were new in all their painted multi-coloured glory. Given that this still appears to be controversial (not amongst scholars, but parts of the public) this was a good reminder of this. It was done very well, with the colour being ‘painted’ on, remaining for a short while and then disappearing again, to show what the stone looked like now. Particularly impressive was the scene of the rivers and surrounding trees, where the colour flowed down the river and then into the surrounding area.
Especially striking for me was another relief, one of a lion peacefully living in a royal garden, which seems to be the sort of imagery that Isaiah is drawing on in Isaiah 11:6-9:
“The wolf will live with the lamb,
the leopard will lie down with the goat,
the calf and the lion and the yearling together;
and a little child will lead them.”
The exhibition also showed Ashurbanipal’s achievements in other areas. A particularly personal detail was a clay tablet with the writing of the 13-year old Ashurbanipal on it. There were also letters of international diplomacy, arguing about the exact terms of treaties, and whether they had been kept or not, and other arguments about extradition requests, and people seeking asylum based on fears of persecution. All of which may seem very modern, without reminders like this that humans generally act in the same sort of way.
One of Ashurbanipal’s achievements was the library he built up from copying clay tablets all over his empire. There were over 10,000 items in it, including the epic of Gilgamesh, and which has been one of the most significant sources for our understanding of the period and of the literature. It was preserved due to the burning and destruction of the library by the Babylonians, which buried and burned the clay tablets. Seeing two huge cases of the tablets gave a striking sense of what the library would have been like.
Also in the exhibtion were artefacts from the surrounding cultures that the Assyrians either conquered or influenced, or both. There was gold, glass, bronze, stone carving, letters written, styles of Assyrian art copied by other kings and nations. This included the Phoenicians, who were encouraged in the maritime trading by the need to placate their Assyrian overlords. There was also a selection of artefacts from the kingdom of Judah, showing the diplomatic balancing act required by the smaller states to stave off the Assyrian war machine.
Because, there was also a significant set of reliefs whicih showed some of the conquests that Ashurbanipal undertook. One of the highlights of this was the use of projectors to illuminate and tell the story of a particular conquest. This showed the battle, the flight of the kings, their capture, slaughter and beheading of them, and the flaying alive of others. Originally, of course, this would have been in colour on the wall of the palace!
One of the other threads through the exhibition was the sibling rivalry between Ashurbanipal and his older brother, Shamash-shum-ukin, who had been made king of Babylon, instead of Assyria. There are letters to and from the brothers, and artefacts illustrating the souring of relations between them, the eventual rebelion of Shamash-shum-ukin and his defeat by Ashurbanipal.
Another relief showed Ashurbanipal and his queen relaxing in a garden, having brought order to the world, as shown by the detailed depictions of the spoils surrounding them, from all Ashurbanipal’s conquests, while the severed head of a defeated king hangs in the branches!
The exhibition finished with Ashurbanipal’s failure to bring about the order that his propoganda claimed. He vanishes from the records, so it isn’t known exactly what happened to him: death? abdication? removal? Or, indeed, exactly when it happened.
Ashurbanipal was replaced by three short-lived kings, who were in turn defeated by uprisings from Babylon and elsewhere.
This led to the rise of the neo-Babylonian empire, who, amongst many other things finally defeated the kingdom of Judah and led many of the people into Exile.
There exhibition finished with a brief display on the rediscovery of the Assyrians, followed by another modern wave of looting and destruction at the hands of Da’esh, and how the British Museum is taking a welcome lead on training a new generation of Iraqi archaeologists to restore some of the damage and to excavate new sites.
By telling the story of one king, the exhibition illuminates a whole period of history and a way of life, some of it strange, much of it recognisable. As a story of one king, the lives of the majority of the population weren’t explored, but this remains an excellent and helpful exhibition.