“I am Ashurbanipal, great king, mighty king, king of the world, king of Assyria.”
With over 200 extraordinary objects, the British Museum is exploring the life of King Ashurbanipal of Assyria (r.668-627 BC). In his own words, Ashurbanipal was “king of the world”, but if he was so great, why is he not well-known today? Those familiar with the Assyrians have likely come across references in classical sources or the Bible. Assyria and its capital city, Nineveh, feature in Biblical stories such as Jonah when the Lord commands the prophet to “Go to the great city of Nineveh and proclaim to it the message I give you.” (Jonah 3:2 NIV) The eventual fall of Nineveh is written about in the book of Nahum but the supposedly most powerful individual on the planet never earned a mention.
The British Museum begins the exhibition I am Ashurbanipal with a brief history of the empire up to the reign of the great and mighty king. At the time of his reign (668 BC), the Iron Age Mesopotamian empire Neo-Assyria was the largest empire in the world. Assyria was originally an Akkadian kingdom which had begun to evolve as early as the 25th century BC, however, its most important period began in 911 BC with the ascension of Adad-Nirari II.
By the time Ashurbanipal became king, Assyria stretched from Cyprus in the west to Iran in the east, its capital city – the biggest city in the world – falling where Iraq is today. With an empire covering such a considerable amount of land, Ashurbanipal was not far off with his boast about being king of the world. Yet, being the youngest son of the previous king, he was never destined for the throne.
When King Esarhaddon’s (r.680-668 BC) eldest son died, he ignored his next eldest son, Shamash-shumu-ukin, making Ashurbanipal the crown prince instead. In order to attempt to keep the peace between the brothers, Esarhaddon gave Shamash-shumu-ukin the kingdom of Babylon, which he had rebuilt during his reign. This, however, as the exhibition proves, only stirred up more antagonism. Despite being a kingdom, Babylon was part of the Assyrian empire, thus the king of Babylon was subject to his baby brother.
Ashurbanipal reigned from the city of Nineveh in Upper Mesopotamia, on the outskirts of what is now the major city of Mosul in Iraq. During the time of the Neo-Assyrian empire, there was a significant architectural expansion of the city, eventually making it the largest in the world. The man mostly responsible for this endeavour was Ashurbanipal’s grandfather, King Sennacherib (r.704-681 BC).
Sennacherib laid out new streets and squares to help the old provincial town grow into a magnificent city. Towards the south-west of the city, Sennacherib built a palace, which he boasted to be a “palace without a rival”. It is thought to have contained over 80 rooms and had the approximate dimensions of 503 by 242 metres.
“I enlarged the site of Nineveh, my capital city. I broadend its squares, making them as bright as day. I had an inner and an out wall built and I raised them as high as mountains.”
– King Sennacherib
The British Museum displays the remains of wall panels and carvings that have been recovered from the remains of the palace’s site as well as the North Palace that Ashurbanipal built in about 645 BC on the citadel mound of Nineveh. The outer walls were most likely constructed of mud brick and plaster, while cedar wood beams were used to hold up the roof. The grander rooms of the palaces contained narrative scenes and protective figures carved into gypsum panels.
The main doorways were probably flanked by colossal stone lamassu figures. These were protective deities, often depicted with a human head but the body of a lion or bull. Whilst these have not survived to the present day, the museum has a couple of examples of protective spirits on wall panels, which, along with the stone figures, were revered as magical guardians who would protect the palace from malevolent supernatural forces, particularly those that could harm the king.
There are three spirits on the wall panels in the exhibition, each with different physical characteristics. One is called Lahmu or “the hairy one”, recognised by his elaborate ringlets, which also denote his divine status. Another is considered to be a “House God”, whose divinity can be determined by his headdress. These deities both have human heads, however, the one positioned between them has the head of a lion. Known as Ugallu, “Great Lion”, or “Big Weather-Beast”, this monstrous-looking deity or demon was believed to ward off evil and disease using threatening gestures with his dagger and mace.
Other carvings and statues of magical creatures were also found in the ruins of the ancient palaces, for example, the stone face of a sphinx that may once have formed part of a column base. A sphinx was believed to have similar powers to the human-headed lamassu figures, however, the sphinx usually looked more animalistic. With the haunches of a lion, a human head and often bird-like wings, the Sphinx was usually carved from one piece of limestone, however, Sennacherib also used other materials.
“Sphinxes of alabaster, as well as sphinxes of cast copper overlaid with silver … I erected over them columns of ebony, cypress, cedar, juniper and Indian wood, with gold and silver inlays.”
– King Sennacherib
The British Museum has examples of Assyrian wall reliefs in abundance and it is easy to be overwhelmed with the number of scenes they depict. These are some of the finest examples of Assyrian art, however, after continuously seeing one after another, they begin to all look the same. Nonetheless, these reliefs show some of the most important parts of Ashurbanipal’s reign and emphasise his importance and power throughout Assyria.
After being appointed crown prince by his father, Ashurbanipal began training to be king. Whilst living in a palace known as the “House of Succession”, the prince was taught royal etiquette, important military and leadership skills and was instructed in Mesopotamian scholarship. He also shadowed his father in court and was given the position of spymaster general, tasked with gathering information about Assyria’s allies and enemies throughout the empire.
“I cantered on thoroughbeds, rode stallions that were rearing to go; I held a bow and made arrows fly as befits a warrior …”
– King Ashurbanipal
As many of the wall reliefs show, Assyrian kings and warriors were famed for hunting lions, the most dangerous creature in the empire. This was considered a royal sport and represented the king’s ability to protect his nation against the dangers of the world. Assyrian kings were also believed to be the human representative of the gods, so these lion hunts were also a way of proving that they had divine protection from harm.
Ashurbanipal recorded his experience of lion slaying, describing how he seized a wild lion by the tail and “through the command of the gods” killed it by shattering its skull with his mace. Whilst this seems cruel and inhumane, these triumphs were celebrated at the time of the Neo-Assyrian empire, hence the number of reliefs depicting the feat.
When Ashurbanipal was not killing lions, he enjoyed reading and writing, which was rather an unusual hobby for a king. As well as being a good commander, Ashurbanipal believed that to have control over an empire, he needed to have knowledge too. He loved to boast about the extent of his scholarship and was proud of his education, especially after having studied with one of the top scribes of the time. As a result, many surviving images of the king depict him with a stylus for writing tucked into his belt.
“I have read cunningly written texts in obscure Sumerian and Akkadian that are difficult to interpret.”
– King Ashurbanipal
When he became king, Ashurbanipal inherited an enormous collection of specialist writings, which eventually became the foundation of the largest and most extensive library the world has seen. In total, it is believed Ashurbanipal owned at least 10,000 works.
The works in Ashurbanipal’s library were written on freshly made clay tablets and the British Museum has assembled a huge sample of the remaining fragments. Assyrian books were written in a script called cuneiform, which had first been developed by the ancient Sumerians of Mesopotamia around 3000 BCE. The system of writing was read left to right and looked like a series of wedge-shaped marks. In fact, cuneiform simply translates as “wedge-shaped”.
Ashurbanipal’s library provided him access to texts and references of all types of knowledge, including rituals, calendars, prayers, magic and medicine. Mostly, Ashurbanipal used the books to help him communicate with the gods and determine what the future held.
“I, Ashurbanipal, learned the wisdom of Nabu [the god of writing], laid hold of scribal practices of all the experts, as many as there are, I examined their instructions.”
Fortunately for scholars all over the world, when Ashurbanipal’s palace was eventually destroyed, the library was buried underneath the rubble where it stayed hidden for 2000 years. As a result, excavators were able to find examples of many of the significant works in Ashurbanipal’s collection. One of these works, The Epic of Gilgamesh, is the most famous of Mesopotamian literature.
As well as being the most famous Mesopotamian work, The Epic of Gilgamesh is also considered to be the earliest surviving piece of literature. Written in the form of an epic poem, it tells the adventures of Sumerian Gilgamesh, the king of Uruk, which include killing the monster Humbaba and searching for immortality.
A large part of the exhibition concentrates on the areas that were owned by the Assyrian empire. By the time Ashurbanipal came to power, Assyria controlled a huge territory, which was divided into several provinces. Each province was supervised by a governor who had been appointed by the king, for example, his brother who ruled Babylon. Other provinces included the Levantine kingdoms, Cyprus, Urartu, Western Iran, and Aramaean kingdoms, such as Syria and Turkey. The British Museum documents each place with examples of ancient relics, many of which may have been spoils of war.
Ashurbanipal was involved in many wars during his reign, particularly ones that helped to expand the empire’s borders or stamp out usurpers. The Assyrians were not deterred by violence, believing it was a just punishment against those who had slighted the king or the gods.
During the first half of his reign, Ashurbanipal sent his armies to the west to conquer Egypt and its neighbouring regions. His success came about by defeating his enemies and capturing the city of Thebes, however, in the East, other problems were brewing.
Whilst Ashurbanipal was busy dealing with Egypt, the kingdom of Elam tried to rise up against Assyria. The king’s armies quickly quashed the revolt and the threat abated until the Elamite king died later in the year. Rather than the rightful heir, Ummanigash, take the throne, his uncle Teumman seized the position. Fearing for his life, Ummanigash fled with his family to the safety of Assyria. Naturally, Teumman was displeased with this turn of event and demanded that Ashurbanipal force his nephew to return. Instead, the Assyrian’s retaliated by attacking the Elamite usurper. After Teumman’s defeat, his head was paraded through the streets of Nineveh.
“I cut off the head of Teumman, their presumptuous king who had plotted evil. I slew his warriors without number. I captured the fighting men alive.”
– King Ashurbanipal
Ashurbanipal took the credit for the defeat of Teumman claiming that he personally killed the Elamite king and his son with his own sword. In reality, Ashurbanipal never entered the battle in Elam, remaining in safety back at his palace in Nineveh. Nonetheless, the death of the usurper was permanently recorded on wall friezes depicting the king of Assyria relaxing in his garden. On a tree nearby, hangs the head of the ex-Elamite king.
For Ashurbanipal, the empire was the most important thing in his life, more important than family, including his brother. Shamash-shumu-ukin never got over his father’s choice to make his younger brother the crown prince of Assyria. Whilst he was given the kingdom of Babylon to rule over, Shamash-shumu-ukin was extremely displeased to be under the thumb of Ashurbanipal. In secret, he began to conspire against his younger brother, creating a coalition with other areas of the empire. Unfortunately for Shamash-shumu-ukin, Ashurbanipal caught wind of his vicious plot.
Initially, Ashurbanipal attempted to maintain peace with Babylon but his brother’s persistent rebellion sparked a war in 652 BC, lasting for four years. Although Shamash-shumu-ukin had the support of foreign rulers, the king soon had the upper hand. The Assyrians eventually laid siege to the city of Babylon for two years during which time the Babylonian’s suffered from lack of food and disease. The siege ended after Shamash-shumu-ukin perished after setting his palace on fire to avoid capture.
By the end of Ashurbanipal’s reign, he had ruthlessly crushed Assyria’s enemies, thus fulfilling his kingly duty to restore order in the world. Despite having a well-documented life, the final years of Ashurbanipal’s long reign have not been recorded or, at least, not been discovered. As a result, it is impossible to determine how or when he died; some scholars believe his reign ended as early as 631 BC, whereas others report that it was as late as 627 BC. What can be proved, however, is that after his death, all Ashurbanispal’s hard work began to unravel.
Just as Nahum prophesied in the Bible, the city of Nineveh was destined to fall: “he [God] will make an end of Nineveh; he will pursue his foes into the realm of darkness.” (Nahum 1:8 NIV)
Ashurbanipal was shortly succeeded by his son Ashur-etil-ilani until 624 BC and possibly another son, Sin-shar-ishkun until 612 BC. It was during this time that things began to fall apart, beginning with a general called Nabopolassar seizing the throne of Babylon in 626 BC. This caused a civil war that left the Assyrian empire fighting for survival.
The Iranian Medes joined the war, sacking cities and desecrating the tombs of past Assyrian kings. By 612 BC, Assyria’s enemies had fought their way to the capital city Nineveh which they razed to the ground, causing the death of King Sin-shar-ishkun, the last ever King of Assyria.
The British Museum ends the exhibition with an insight into the work taking place in Iraq, including the ancient site of Nineveh. Archaeological discoveries relating to the Assyrians were first made in the 1840s, however, recent events have destroyed a lot of remaining cultural heritage. The Gulf War (1990-91) and invasions between 2003 and 2011 resulted in the loss and vandalism of many ancient relics. Further irreparable damage was made during Daesh from 2014 to 2017. The British Museum is currently one of a number of organisations working with the Iraqi State Board of Antiquities and Heritage to salvage what they can plus rebuild and preserve Iraq’s cultural heritage.
I am Ashurbanipal is on view in Room 30 of the British Museum until 24th February 2019. Ticket prices are £17, however, under-16s may visit for free when accompanied by a paying adult.