A new big-time exhibition at the British Museum opens a graphic and disturbingly familiar window on the leader of a world power that you’ve probably never heard of.
Ashurbanipal was his name and he ruled the Assyrian empire for some forty years, beginning in 669 BCE. Predating the rise of the mighty Persian empire and coming three centuries before Alexander the Great, this earlier episode in imperial rule has largely escaped the kind of popularisation that feeds aspects of the ancient world into modernity’s visual memory.
But it should be more familiar because Ashurbanipul was the leader of a very recognisable kind of empire.
The highlight of the exhibition are the sculptured panels that once decorated the walls of Ashurbanipal’s palace at Nineveh.
This was his capital city, the largest urban centre in the world, and it stood on the outskirts of what is now Mosul in the north of Iraq.
The Assyrian empire it commanded, in existence long before Ashurbanipal became king, stretched from Egypt and the eastern Mediterranean to western Iran.
The wall panels were discovered by a British diplomat who in the 1840s began excavating the large mounds on the eastern side of the river Tigris that flows through Mosul.
He shipped them home to the British Museum, where they have been stored ever since but never before exhibited in such an engrossing and educational manner.
Ashurbanipal celebrated himself and his realm in the accustomed style of powerful rulers seeking to aggrandize their sense of self-worth.
The wall panels chronicling foreign conquests, like the ruthless war against upstart Elam, are stone-chiselled versions of the Bayeux Tapestry; depictions of weaponized armies are the equivalent of the military parades that characterized Soviet rule; Ashurbanipal’s eulogies to himself are not unlike Trump’s self-congratulations.
Royal lion hunts were public spectacles designed for propaganda purposes and one suspects that from the start of the shows the poor lions were as fatally disadvantaged as the animals in modern bullfights.
Just another war-mongering despot, true, but the British Museum also showcases what is genuinely worth celebrating about the Assyrians.
Theirs was a connected empire and it brought to Nineveh art and craftwork from all corners of its territory. From Urartu in the far north came sophisticated metalwork and a gypsum wall panel shows a Phoenician war galley sailing down the Euphrates.
The world’s first known library was instituted in Nineveh and hundreds of texts written in cuneiform, including an invaluable copy of the Mesopotamian “Epic of Gilgamesh”, have survived the passing of nearly three millennia.
The “I am ashurbanipal” exhibition is engrossing and educational in equal measure. It concludes with information about present-day attempts to rebuild and protect Iraq’s heritage.
Film footage shows the challenging work of Iraqi archaeologists as they struggle to recover what their country lost as a result of a modern imperial war and the Islamic State it helped engender.
“I am ashurbanipal” is at the British Museum until February 24. The accompanying book, with the same title, is published by Thames & Hudson.
(Photos provided by all from the British Museum press office)