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End of Empire, part 1: In the Den of the Lion King

Assyrian treasures at the British Museum

‘I am Ashurbanipal, King of the World, King of Assyria’, the British Museum’s new exhibition, highlights the sophisticated brilliance of the Empire’s art and the ruthlessness of its ruler

  • The mounted Ashurbanipal spears an attacking lion. Lions were still commonly seen near Nineveh when these carved wall panels were uncovered in 1853–54

The Assyrians were at the height of their powers, and their capital, Nineveh, at the height of its glory, when Ashurbanipal, self-styled “king of the world”, ascended to the throne in 669 BC. And, as the Old Testament prophets delighted in warning, for this legendarily warlike, proud and decadent people, there was a long way to fall. “This is the exultant city that lived securely, that said in her heart, ‘I am, and there is no one else,’” wrote Zephaniah. “What a desolation she has become.” Indeed. The remains of exultant Nineveh are to be found in northern Iraq, in war- ravaged Mosul on the east bank of the Tigris. But a wealth of her treasures rests in the British Museum, where I Am Ashurbanipal, King of the World, King of Assyria explores the Empire’s history through the life and legacy of its last great ruler, in his day the most powerful man on earth.

Nineveh was the nerve centre of the world’s largest empire. An expansion which had begun in the 14th century BC from the small city-state of Ashur, 700 years later commanded territories reaching from Egypt to the mountains of western Iran, from the Persian Gulf to the Taurus Mountains of southern Turkey and the central Anatolian steppe. The city, within its massive walls, was advanced, vibrant and cosmopolitan, with palaces and temples adorned with monumental sculptures. Aqueducts and canals carried water to game parks and royal pleasure grounds. The city gates and palace doors were guarded by formidable lamassu, winged bulls and lions with human heads. A colossal lion towered at the entrance to the Temple of Ishtar, goddess of war.

We owe what we know of life in the citadel, and of Ashurbanipal himself, to the state archives – thousands of tablets in cuneiform script – and to wall panels uncovered by Austen Henry Layard, an English adventurer, archaeologist, art collector and cuneiformist. In 1845, when the Ottoman Empire dominated the Middle East, Layard began excavations of Nineveh. He had the backing, first, of Sir Stratford Canning, British ambassador to the Sublime Porte, and later of the British Museum, with permission from the Ottoman government to ship out whatever he chose.

He also had the assistance of Hormuzd Rassam, a Mosul-born Chaldean Christian of Assyrian descent. Almost at once they discovered the Southwest Palace of Ashurbanipal’s grandfather Sennacherib (r705–681 BC). His “Palace without Rival”, designed to be “an object of wonder for all the people”, had two miles of wall reliefs, Layard estimated, depicting military triumphs and grand building projects, the degradation of enemies, court life, banquets, music, hunting… We know from Layard and his assistants’ drawings of 1847–51 (below) how dramatic and colourful Sennacherib’s wall panels were, but little of them remains.

What we can see (albeit without their original colours) are the powerful wall reliefs from Ashurbanipal’s “North Palace”. In the later years of his reign, after conquering Babylonia and Elam, he built this new royal residence, decorating it with brightly coloured narrative reliefs of his exploits that glorified his achievements yet further. It is these that form the most significant part of the exhibition.

A persistent theme of royal art was the lion hunt, with many depictions of the king pursuing and killing the lions of Mesopotamia, which “abounded”, even in Layard’s time: “I have seen them frequently, and… at Niffer we found fresh traces of their footsteps almost daily,” he wrote. Hunts were great public spectacles, staged in the game parks, but images of the king slaying the beasts were deeply symbolic, representing his ability to protect his subjects from malign forces. In one scene he has killed 18 of the big cats – the enemy vanquished at each of the city gates.

As an absolute ruler and the gods’ earthly representative, an Assyrian king was duty bound to punish the Empire’s foes. Captive leaders of turbulent vassal states were ritually humiliated, made to wear the heads of their co-conspirators around their necks, chained up like dogs or harnessed to chariots. In one panel we see the king reclining on an elaborate couch at an al fresco feast with his queen, as a musician plucks a harp and servants bring delicacies, while a bow on the table hints at hunting prowess. Date palms and trailing vines hang heavy with fruit. Here is an evocation of the bountiful peace and plenty that the ruler has brought to the kingdom. On the left, hanging from a tree, is the head of the Elamite king. In truth Ashurbanipal rarely went into battle, nor had he, despite his claims, personally executed his rival, but the message was potent. “I had the sanctuaries of the land of Elam utterly destroyed and I counted its gods and its goddesses as ghosts,” he boasted.

And yet there was another, more cultured side to this ruthless despot. In his rigorous preparation for kingship he had learnt the skills of archer, horseman and charioteer. He shadowed his father, learning about the empire of which he would be master. He took pride in his scholarship, and a relief of a lion hunt shows him with a stylus tucked into his belt as a mark of his literacy. Ashurbanipal created the world’s oldest surviving royal library. Its “books” were inscribed clay tablets, of which 30,000 are in the BM, covering subjects from medicine to magic, including literary and historical texts, legal documents and letters. Most notably, the “Flood Tablet”, telling the story of the Great Flood, is part of the Epic of Gilgamesh, considered one of the oldest works of literature on earth.

Royal mail was delivered via a system of roads along which envoys were dispatched, reaching the far corners of the Empire within days. Only the king and his closest officials could use this system, each entrusted with a signet ring bearing the image of the king slaying yet another unfortunate lion.

Ashurbanipal was not the last Assyrian king, though it pleased romantics to believe it. Delacroix would make a lurid painting of his death, as Byron before him had almost glorified Sennacherib’s destruction, for always there was this feeling: the Assyrians had it coming to them. Nor, by the normal rules of succession, should Ashurbanipal have been king at all, as the third son of a third son. His grandfather, Sennacherib, and father, Esarhaddon, had both lost their firstborn sons and passed over the second – a sure recipe for family strife. Supporters of Ashurbanipal’s uncle had assassinated Sennacherib, but Esarhaddon had taken the throne nonetheless, and appointed Ashurbanipal his successor instead of his brother (“My father greatly preferred me,” he smugly related). He would reign for some 38 years, continuing to record his triumphs in the annals. What he could not relate was the nature or date of his death, which remain a mystery.

The end for Nineveh and for the Empire came barely 20 years later, in 612 BC, when the Babylonians rose up against their masters and were joined by the Medes from western Iran. The invaders rampaged through the palaces, disfiguring the king’s image, looting, smashing tombs, starting fires, and that great, exultant, complacent city (“I am, and there is no one else”) went up in flames.

Yet so much survived, and the current exhibition tells a far more interesting story than one of just another Sodom or Gomorrah. It brings together more than 200 objects from the Empire, gathered from the BM’s own collections, and from museums around the world – from Paris, St Petersburg, the Vatican City, Nicosia, Yerevan, Berlin…

Ashurbanipal, says the exhibition’s curator, Gareth Brereton, was a kind of “psychopathic bookworm” and “the greatest king you never heard of”.

● The BP exhibition I am Ashurbanipal, King of the World, King of Assyria is at the British Museum, Nov 8 – Feb 24;

● Order the catalogue (Thames & Hudson, £40), from

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