Art

Stories of an Assyrian King and What Became of His Empire

A new exhibition at the British Museum underscores the material remains associated with the Assyrian king Ashurbanipal, and their display alludes to Britain’s long and fraught history with Iraq.

Wall relief panel depicting an “urmahlilu” (Lion-Man) (645-640 BCE), a protective spirit, North Palace, Nineveh, in the I am Ashurbanipal: king of the world, king of Assyria (unless noted otherwise, all images by Carole Raddato via Flickr)

LONDON — I am Ashurbanipal: king of the world, king of Assyria is an exhibition presented by the British petroleum company BP. The company has been involved in the Middle East since the early twentieth century; first as the Anglo-Persian Oil Company (1909–35) and then as the Anglo-Iranian Oil Company (1935–54), prior to being renamed the British Petroleum Company (BP) in 1954. The ethics and alleged “whitewashing” involved in the oil magnate’s funding of the exhibition was at the heart of the controversy surrounding the launch of the exhibition in early November. As Hyperallergic reported, protesters at the opening pretended to sip oil-contaminated champagne and chanted slogans noting the company exploitation of Iraq’s natural resources.

 The controversy over the funding of the exhibition is a salient reminder of Britain’s long history of taking both oil and objects of cultural heritage from the region, a fact attested to not only by protestors but by the very objects presented within I am Ashurbanipal. Nevertheless, BP’s patronage cannot detract from the Assyrian reliefs that are themselves magnificent to behold and provide a window into a world too few know about.

Relief of “The royal lion hunt”, detail depicting a wounded lion, North Palace, Nineveh (645–635 BCE),British Museum exhibition I am Ashurbanipal king of the world, king of Assyria

In the 7th century BCE Ashurbanipal oversaw an expansive and impressive empire and ruled from the capital city of Nineveh in present-day Iraq. In comments to Hyperallergic, Moudhy Al-Rashid, a postdoctoral researcher at the University of Oxford who studies Assyriology, helps put his accomplishments into perspective.

Ashurbanipal was the king of what was, at the time, the largest empire in the world, which spanned from Iran to the eastern Mediterranean, from Turkey to the Persian Gulf. He was as much a scholar as he was a warrior and hunter, according to the sources. Some of the palace reliefs on display at the exhibition show King Ashurbanipal with a stylus tucked into his belt while wielding a bow and arrow, or driving a spear into the throat of a lion during the hunt. He could read and write, and he dispatched messengers throughout his vast empire to bring back copies of scholarly works for a library that had been gradually assembled over the course of centuries by his ancestors, but that took its name from its most avid collector, Ashurbanipal.

The famed Library of Ashurbanipal is a collection of over 30,000 cuneiform tablets, a fraction of which are now on display in the museum. Recently, Jonathan Taylor, a curator for the cuneiform collections and Mesopotamia at the British Museum, remarks in a blog post on the library that the collection is a rare look into Assyrian culture:  “Nineveh was consumed by fire in around 612 BC. But while paper books are destroyed by fire, the clay tablets were in most cases baked harder, making them among the best preserved documents from thousands of years of Mesopotamian history.” In 2002, the Ashurbanipal Library Project was created by the British Museum in cooperation with the University of Mosul in Iraq in order to digitize and make these records accessible online.

Al-Rashid notes the care with which these tablets are now displayed within the museum:

It felt like the display’s deliberate lighting and towering height honored the tablet’s contents and contributions to history, the work that went into each individual wedge, and the cultural resonance of cuneiform itself.

The British Museum acquired the vast cuneiform archive after their discovery by the British diplomat and archaeologist Austen Henry Layard, and then attained more tablets after numerous dig seasons from the late 1840s to the 1930s. The British Museum funded many of Layard’s later expeditions, and his richly illustrated publications became well known back in Britain, particularly his 1849 publication, published with a title and religious bent sure to attract English audiences: Nineveh and its remains: with an account of a visit to the Chaldæan Christians of Kurdistan, and the Yezidis, or devil worshippers; and an inquiry into the manners and arts of the ancient Assyrians.

Depiction of Layard directing work at ancient Nineveh as local workers excavate, as published in 1852 (image via Hathitrust Digital Library)

The Assyrian reliefs are a testament to Britain’s involvement in the Ottoman Empire in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. They also illustrate how nineteenth-century Christians living in Britain connected to the cultures of the Near East through religion. In 1853, Hormuzd Rassam, an archaeologist and early Assyriologist who identified as Assyrian was born in Mosul to a family within the Church of the East. He excavated the famed reliefs from the palace of Ashurbanipal and then sent them to the British Museum. Rassam had long worked with Layard as an assistant and mentee, before taking up a formal course of study at Oxford and later returning to take over excavations at the sites of Nimrud and Nineveh.

Publications and drawings connected to the excavations from the mid-19th century

Layard stoked great public interest in Assyria with the publication of his book, Nineveh and its Remains (1849). He had also emphasized a connection between East Syriac Christians and the ancient Assyrians. It was this common thread of religion, Biblical archaeology, and an genealogy that in part piqued the interest of those back home who wished to see antecedents of Christianity in the region. Aaron Michael Butts, a professor in the Department of Semitic and Egyptian Languages and Literatures at The Catholic University of America, noted the connection in his work on Assyrian Christians:

The connection between East-Syriac Christians and Assyria was popularized by the British traveler and archaeologist A.H. Layard (1817-94). In his Nineveh and Its Remains (1849), Layard argued that there were good reasons to suppose that the Christians whom he met were [as Layard himself noted] “the descendants of the ancient Assyrians.”

In his book, Empires of the Imagination: Politics, War, and the Arts in the British World, 1750–1850, historian and professor Holger Hoock, argues that the British Museum’s cultural riches from the region began to make their European rivals a bit envious. In 1851, the French Minister of the Interior glimpsed at the British Museum’s growing collection of Assyrian art and ordered that casts of Lycian and Assyrian reliefs be made and new French expeditions into the area of ancient Mesopotamia be funded. Hoock remarks that in 1853, when Rassam discovered Ashurbanipal’s famed lion hunt relief, he claimed it for Britain. He then quotes Rassam as later remarking: “because it was established rule that whenever one discovered a new palace, no one else could meddle with it, and thus, in my position as agent of the British Museum, I had secured it for England.”

Within only a few years, agents from the Smithsonian in the United States and museum representatives from Austria and Sweden requested casts of the sculptures from ancient Assyria.

The upper scene of this panel shows the lush orchards and gardens of Ashurbanipal’s palace with irrigation canals fed from an aqueduct, North Palace, Nineveh, (645-640 BCE) in the I am Ashurbanipal king of the world, king of Assyria at the British Museum

A little over two decades after Assyria mania had commenced in Europe, the Ottoman Empire began to put into place more antiquities laws: legislation that would have had a great impact on everything from the Elgin Marbles to the Pergamon Altar if they had been put into place earlier. Morag Kersel, a professor of archaeology at DePaul University, notes in her work on Middle Eastern archaeology during the colonial era, that the Ottoman antiquities law passed in 1874 was enacted in direct reaction to European interest in the region. A stronger antiquities law in 1884 established national ownership over cultural heritage within the empire. Although later, after the breakup of the Ottoman Empire, the British were successful in getting an antiquities law passed (1924) that allowed for some objects to travel outside Iraq, the director of the Iraq Museum was then vested with the ability to choose which objects remained within the country.

While the colonial history of the collection is by no means ignored within the exhibition, it is not the primary focus of I am Ashurbanipal. A key emphasis is rather using technology to reimagine these great works in their original context with their vibrant colors restored. The use of light to reapply the polychromatic pigments which would have decorated many Assyrian reliefs have been beautifully reapplied to a number of reliefs. As digital archaeologists such as Li Sou, a PhD candidate in archaeology at the University of Bradford, have pointed out, the use of digital techniques to restore the pigments once applied to Neo-Assyrian reliefs has the ability to reveal much new nuance and meaning for researchers today. Sou remarks on the Neo-Assyrian use of color to underscore certain features: “Polychromy was used on select parts of Neo-Assyrian reliefs, allowing specific features to be highlighted; for example, martial gear, human features and costume.”

Much like the Europeans of the mid-nineteenth century, I am Ashurbanipal is sure to inspire new audiences to take interest in the material culture of the Assyrian Empire. However, this time around, there is much more popular understanding of provenance and the import of cultural heritage to a country’s identity — and the need for responsible acquisition by modern museums. Al-Rashid remarked on the forward-looking nature of the exhibition’s conclusion:

Ancient history and cuneiform culture remain a core element of local identities in Iraq, and the exhibition concluded with an important reminder about the local importance of cultural heritage, especially in the wake of over a decade of destruction through conflict, looting, and vandalism. Cultural heritage can provide a catalyst for rebuilding communities and strengthening civil society in Iraq, so revitalising and preserving Iraq’s ancient history is not just about the past, but about the future.

I am Ashurbanipal: king of the world, king of Assyria, mounted at the British Museum (Great Russell Street, Bloomsbury, London) runs until February 24.

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