Our contributor, Jo Hemmings, glimpses ancient grandeur, the story of Gilgamesh and a King who loved to hunt lions in the British Museum’s latest show, I am Ashurbanipal.
I am Ashurbanipal. King of the world, King of Assyria: this is the tagline of the British Museum’s recent exhibition, and it is a powerful one.
But who was Ashurbanipal? Ancient Assyria is simply not as well known as Ancient Greece, Ancient Rome or Ancient Egypt. Ashurbanipal does not feature in our popular culture in the same way as, say, Alexander the Great, Julius Caesar or Cleopatra. It is not a period that is taught in our schools.
This is not just a terrible shame, it is spectacularly misleading. For the ancient civilisations of Mesopotamia can truly be seen as the birthplace of western civilisation. Cities, palaces, the wheel, pottery, art and sculpture, and – most importantly – writing and numbers developed in this area long before we see them in other civilisations. And Ashurbanipal, King of Assyria between 669 and 631 BC, really did have credibility in claiming he was King of the world, at least as far as he knew it, controlling lands between Cyprus and Iran from his magnificent palace in his lush capital of Nineveh (near present day Mosul in northern Iraq).
So any exhibition that shines light on this period is to be welcomed. But this exhibition at the British Museum goes beyond its mere educational value. The artefacts exhibited here are truly astonishing and the period fascinating. The creative and innovative display techniques fully enhance our understanding. Viewing it is an aesthetic and deeply moving experience in its own right.
The first sight upon entering the exhibition is an impressively detailed scene of Ashurbanipal as the heroic hunter of lions, in a stone wall carving from his specially-built palace. Lions are the key symbol in ancient Assyria. Depictions of Ashurbanipal defeating lions show that he is defeating the forces of chaos and maintaining world order, thought to be a King’s duty as the human representative of the gods. Lions feature throughout the artefacts in this exhibition – on wall carvings, furniture, cups, dishes, decorations, jewellery. Another wall panel shows three Sebetti gods – important protective spirits – that decorated Ashurbanipal’s throne room. In an inspired stroke of artistry, the British Museum projects moving coloured lights onto the stone panel suggesting how it might have looked when originally painted. This was done so neatly and effectively that I was certainly not the only visitor craning my neck up to see how they did it.
Ashurbanipal’s long reign is noticeable in terms of warfare for his conquering of Egypt (Ashurbanipal’s own take: ‘I carried off substantial booty, which was without number from the city of Thebes’) and for crushing Elam (modern south-western Iran, a constant thorn in the side of Assyria). The largest and most impressive projected light display of the whole exhibition – one that kept large numbers of visitors mesmerised as if watching a film – was a large wall panel depicting the Battle of Til-Tuba, in which the Assyrians forced the Elamites to retreat in panic down the side of a hill.
My personal interest in Ashurbanipal has always been sparked by two simple words: Ashurbanipal’s Library. For Ashurbanipal was an unusual King in that he was trained to read and write by a top astrologer. The records show him boasting about this himself: ‘I can resolve complex mathematical divisions and multiplications that do not have an easy solution. I have read cunningly written texts in obscure Sumerian and Akkadian that are difficult to interpret.’ (These languages had died out a thousand years before Ashurbanipal was on the throne but continued to be used in writing – a little like the longevity of Latin in Europe.) He was very proud of his knowledge of ‘the secret lore of all the scribal arts’ and was often depicted with a stylus in his belt, even when out hunting his lions.
It is because of his scholarly aptitude that Ashurbanipal became obsessed with collecting all kinds of writing from across his kingdom, having scribes copy out existing works for his personal collection. His library contained at least 10,000 works, many labelled with his name, and covered a wide range of topics: literature, magic, medicine, divination, hymns, prayers, official records, and letters. The majority were textbooks to help Ashurbanipal communicate with the gods and divine the future, through a complex system of signs. The exhibition displays the texts imaginatively, lit up in huge floor-to-ceiling glass cabinets.
It is incredible that such a great part of Ashurbanipal’s library has survived across the millennia. Writing in ancient Mesopotamia was done on clay tablets, using a stylus, in a script called cuneiform. The origins of cuneiform were invented thousands of years before Ashurbanipal came to the throne of Assyria. And what is so very fortunate is that clay tablets – unlike papyrus, as used by the ancient Egyptians – are not destroyed by fire. Rather, fire bakes clay tablets hard, preserving them all the better.
The highlight of Ashurbanipal’s library for me – for any lover of literature – has got to be the epic of Gilgamesh. It tells the surprisingly sophisticated story of Gilgamesh (a real-life ancient King of Uruk), covering his defeat of the monster Humbaba, his desolation at the death of his best friend Enkidu and subsequent quest for immortality, followed by his return back home. First written thousands of years before ancient Greek epics such as the Iliad or the Odyssey, it deserves its place among the best of classic literature. Ashurbanipal appears to have had various copies of Gilgamesh – a story across twelve tablets – in his library. In a display case, the exhibition contains recovered fragments of different copies of the Gilgamesh story carefully placed in order, in this way demonstrating just how many gaps remain in the story as we know it today. This is all very remarkable, but – if I have one small quibble with this otherwise excellent exhibition – it is a lack of information about Gilgamesh. It is well known that one of the Gilgamesh tablets is the ‘flood tablet’, containing an account of a world-destroying flood and its survivors many centuries before such a story was written down in the Bible. There was a public outcry when the flood tablet was first deciphered in the 1870s. But the flood tablet was not even identified.
Another fascinating part of Ashurbanipal’s story concerns his relationship with his family. His father, King Esarhaddon, appointed Ashurbanipal as the crown prince ahead of his older brother, Shamash-shumu-ukin. His brother was consoled by being set up as the King of Babylon, an inferior position in the south of present day Iraq. His father even had a succession treaty drawn up – which is here in the exhibition – setting out punishments if his orders were not followed, ranging from curses such as bad breath to death. Perhaps surprisingly, given the violent succession disputes common in Assyria, the succession plan worked.
But what really brings us nearest to Ashurbanipal as a real person are the cuneiform letters we have from him and his family. In particular, we have a letter from his brother in Babylonia, when relations between the two were at their very worst, in which he promises to beat Ashurbanipal, as he did in the board games they played together as children. Displayed alongside the cuneiform tablet is part of a board from this very game, a race game of twenty squares for two players using dice. To me, it suddenly brought these ancient kings to life.
This moment is especially moving when we learn the extent of the long and bloody confrontation that eventually played out between the king and his older brother. Following Ashurbanipal’s discovery of a plot against him, battles were fought all over Babylonia, and there was a siege of Babylon, ending only with the death of Shamash-shumu-ukin in a fire. Again, it is told most effectively in Ashurbanipal’s own words, biased though we must presume them to be: ‘Shamash-shumu-ukin, my unfaithful brother…forgot these acts of kindness that I had done for him and constantly sought out evil. Aloud, and with his lips, he was speaking friendship, but deep down in his heart he was scheming for murder.’
The end of Ashurbanipal and his reign remain a mystery. His death is not recorded. But from a series of tablets recorded by the Babylonian victors it would appear that the city of Nineveh was sacked and left in ruins not long after Ashurbanipal’s reign ended, his son dying during the assault. The world’s greatest city was burnt to the ground. Ashurbanipal was its last great King.
There is a recurrent debate around the British Museum’s past acquisition practices. The conclusion of the exhibition unobtrusively covers the excavations of the artefacts in the 1850s – stated to have been done with full permission of the government at the time under the Ottoman Empire – and draws attention to the British Museum’s ‘Iraq Scheme’ designed to support heritage management in modern Iraq.
For there is an added poignancy to this exhibition. Nineveh and Nimrud, near Mosul in modern day Iraq – the original sites of the artefacts in this exhibition – have now been deliberately destroyed by so-called ISIS or Islamic State. A full assessment of the damage has not yet been possible but, based on 2015 videos showing axe-wielding and large scale explosions, the destruction is thought to be devastating.
It makes it all the more special that we have all this, here, immediately before us, now.
I am Ashurbanipal: king of the world, king of Assyria was shown at the Britism Museum from 8 November 2018 – 24 February 2019. See here for the British Museum’s upcoming shows and events.