8 November 2018 -24 February 2019
Standard ticket £17
“I am Ashurbanipal, great king, mighty king, king of the world, king of Assyria”
Ashurbanipal was king of the Neo-Assyrian Empire. At the time of his reign (669–c. 631 BC) it was the largest empire in the world, stretching from Cyprus in the west to Iran in the east, and at one point it also included Egypt. Its capital Nineveh (in modern-day Iraq) was the world’s largest city. The British Museum recently opened its doors to a new exhibition about this interesting historical figure. The entire floor of the exhibition is a map of Ashurbanipal's Empire.
Despite being one of Assyria’s greatest kings, Ashurbanipal wasn’t destined for the throne, as he wasn’t the eldest. When Ashurbanipal was appointed crown prince, he started his training to be king. He learnt royal etiquette, important military skills and was instructed in scholarship.
The very first panel of the exhibition displays this. It reads like a story, showing the hunting of lions, which were considered the most dangerous animal in the kingdom. The engravings are very life-like: each detail is presented, even the pattern on the king’s dress. The mane of the lions has been beautifully carved. As the human representation of god, it was the king's duty to recreate the perfect world. By hunting lions, Ashurbanipal defeated forces of chaos and maintained world order.
As part of his military training, the young crown prince was taught to drive chariots, ride cavalry horses, and develop skills such as archery. He also learnt how to hunt lions. In Assyria, lion hunting was a royal ‘sport’. Although this perhaps seems cruel to modern eyes, killing lions represented the king’s ability to protect his nation against all that was wild and dangerous in the world.
Ashurbanipal enjoyed scholarly pursuits. He could read and write, which was unusual for a king. He loved to boast about his scholarly abilities, and he even represented himself in his palace reliefs with a stylus (used for writing) in his belt, along with his sword. He developed the first systematically collected and catalogued library in the world. He wanted a copy of every book worth having and sent his minions across the empire to gather all the knowledge in the world. Assyrian books were mostly written on clay tablets, not on paper, in a script called cuneiform, which used little wedges to make up symbols. In total, he gathered hundreds of thousands of these tablets, around 30,000 of which are now in the British Museum. Among the works was the Epic of Gilgamesh, now considered one of the oldest works of literature in the world.
The Assyrian kings recorded their accomplishments on clay prisms that were buried under the foundations of important buildings. There is a massive glass display of writings on slabs of stone in the museum. Here there are tablets of all sizes, they are records and letters, literature and reading, magic and medicine as well as questions and answers.
There is also a display of a board game. The race game played on this board had been popular across the Middle East for 1000 years before this lavish example was made for the king’s father. The track is marked out by holes. Two layers used dice to get all their stick pieces on, around, and off the end first. Fragments from several broken boards show that the game was popular in courtly circles at Niveh.
Ashurbanipal reigned from his royal capital at Nineveh. The Assyrian kings built on a lavish scale. Many decorative elements added to the splendour of the palace interior. Glazed terracotta plaques were set into the walls a little above head height. Human-headed winged bulls and lions called Lamassu flanked major gateways in Assyrian cities, they protected the king from dangerous supernatural forces. Aside from panels that were displayed in place walls, there are the ornaments and fine drinking material used inside such as his table wear and glass jars made from pouring molten glass into moulds. Vessels had kings named and pictures of lions.
The Museum uses modern technology to show us what the panel’s real colours would have been. A panel showing the royal gardens and irrigation canals light up with the use of a projector. The royal gardens at Nineveh were spectacular. They were irrigated by canals, which stretched over 50km into the mountains to make them a year-round oasis of all types of flora.
Ashurbanipal’s life is well documented, but his death remains a mystery. Before archaeological discoveries were made in the 19th century, Ashurbanipal was known through later writers as Sardanapalus and was romanticised as the last king of Assyria.
The British Museum has set up an incredible display of art from the Assyrian empire. They left no stone unturned, and the entire display is an incredible history lesson. “I am Ashurbanipal” is a must see to discover this unsung empire.