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'I am Ashurbanipal: King of the World, King of Assyria'

This article was previously published in Issue 19, ABSENCE (December 2018).

‘I am Ashurbanipal, great king, mighty king, king of the world, king of Assyria.’

The British Museum’s new exhibition explores the reign of King Ashurbanipal, who ascended to the throne in 669 BC, ruling at the height of the Assyrian empire which then extended from the eastern Mediterranean to western Iran. ‘The greatest king you’ve never heard of’, Ashurbanipal has been thus far largely absent from the canon and this exhibition is attempting to change that.

The first/main part starts by looking at how the older South-West and newer North palaces at Nineveh, including their interiors, work as a display of the king’s power. These include panels depicting hunting scenes and protective guardian spirits such as The Sebetti Gods that decorated the throne room. Both this and the Aqueducts and Canals panel are periodically lit up with projected colour that imitates paint in an increasingly popular form of non-invasive reconstruction.

Ashurbanipal Exhibition, 2018, British Museum (Image: Francesca Vine)

What differentiated Ashurbanipal from his predecessors was that, despite being just as skilled in warfare, he never personally led his troops into battle. Instead, he regarded knowledge as an equal means of controlling his empire. There are a large number of texts from his library on display, including the most famous work of Mesopotamian literature, The Epic of Gilgamesh, which details the adventures of its eponymous hero.

The exhibition then sets the king’s reign within a broader context of trade and shows how other areas, including the Aramaean kingdoms, were subsumed by the ever-growing Assyrian empire. One of these was Egypt, a war inherited from Ashurbanipal’s father, King Esarhaddon, which ended in the sacking of Thebes and the pillaging of its treasures. Another was the war with Babylon, when his brother, King Shamash-shumu-ukin, plotted an uprising. The Battle of Til-Tuba is a relief depicting the Assyrian victory over the Elamites, one of Ashurbanipal’s brother’s supporters. Different sections of the relief are alternately illuminated in outline by projectors and accompanied by a small section of explanatory text, thus effectively drawing the viewer’s attention to individual details.

The next section describes the fall of Nineveh following Ashurbanipal’s death or abdication in about 631 BC. The Babylonian Chronicle and the Fall of Nineveh recounts how the Babylonians and Medes captured the city in 612 BC, resulting in the death of one of Ashurbanipal’s sons; the second and final king to hold the throne after his death.

The second/smaller part of the exhibition is divided in two. Firstly, it deals with both contemporary and later attitudes towards Assyria, the fall of which is recorded in the Bible and in Greek and Roman literature, and shows how these were tested by the archaeological finds of the nineteenth century. Secondly, a video made by the British Museum explains how, of the excavated and restored remains, 80% in Nimrud and 60% in Nineveh have been destroyed by ISIS. The three-month Iraq Scheme at the Museum takes Iraqi professionals from the country’s State Board of Antiquities and Heritage and trains them in the rescue and retrieval techniques needed to combat this destruction. They then finish their training on two excavation sites in Iraq before returning to the Mosul Museum to begin the mammoth task of preserving these extraordinary artefacts for the generations to come.

The Ashurbanipal exhibition is subtly innovative in form and tries to contextualise both the ancient and modern, but without ever losing sight of its main, linear narrative. By taking a lesser known, but very important, figure as a starting point, rather than pursuing broader overview, the British Museum effects an inspired re-imagining of the blockbuster exhibition.

The exhibition runs until 24 February 2019.

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