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The Assyrian king who kept on killing lions

9 February 2019

In the event of a threat or bad omen, the kings of Assyria had a ritual. The ruler would go into hiding, disguised as a farmer, and a substitute was chosen to replace him; this might be a particularly loyal subject, a political rival, or a fool. The substitute would take a queen and sit on the throne for up to 100 days. Then, when the threat had passed, the false king was killed and given a royal burial. Fate had been tricked. The paranoid Esarhaddon is thought to have performed this ritual at least three times.

His third son, Ashurbanipal, was not meant to be king; the powerful queen mother ensured a smooth succession. ‘I am Ashurbanipal’, which embraces his long reign (669–631[?] BC) and vast empire, is a catalogue of more or less brutal attempts to keep peril at bay. One way of doing this was killing lions. The opening display, a carving of the royal hunt on slabs of gypsum, reads as a portrait of a man at war with the threat of disorder. The eye travels left along the taupe strip. A child releases a lion from its cage, then several kings attack several lions with arrows, swords, and spears, but it is always the same king and the same lion: a recurring nightmare. The work of taming chaos is never done.   

Panels like this lined the walls of the royal palace at Nineveh. In scenes of play and slaughter, Assyrian carvers translated the textures of their world into stone: the crimps and eddies on a horse’s tail, a clenched calf muscle, a braid of wine. A doorsill, whittled into rosettes and tassels, remembers the carpets it mimics. The agony of animals is intensely observed (a delta of blood rills runs where each point meets pelt) but human distress is a risky subject for official art. There are signs of a delicate imagination working to express the singularity of pain in a style designed for formal movement. Disgraced guards kneel awkwardly in empty space, hovering like angels.

Panel, 900–700 BC, excavated at ‘Fort Shalmaneser’, Nimrud, Iraq. British Museum, London, photo: © The Trustees of the British Museum

Panel (900–700 BC), excavated at ‘Fort Shalmaneser’, Nimrud, Iraq. Photo: © The Trustees of the British Museum

It was the king’s duty to recreate the perfect world the gods had made at the beginning of time, but there was nothing abstract about the darkness at the gates. Ashurbanipal’s grandfather had been murdered by his son; now the king’s older brother, who had been placated with the vassal state of Babylonia, was plotting against him. Doorways, dangerous places, were flanked by protective spirits in low relief: baroque-bearded men in kilts, and eagle-footed figures holding daggers. The magical defence of the palace was carefully planned by scholars. Sheep entrails were the preferred method of divining risk.

As crown prince Ashurbanipal had been spymaster to his father, collecting information about Assyria’s enemies. As king he was portrayed with a stylus in his belt. Hunger for knowledge distinguished him. The library he compiled gave us Gilgamesh, though it was more concerned with understanding the will of the gods than telling stories. Tablets devoted to abnormal birth omens alone were over three times more numerous than the creation epic. There were anti-ghost spells, guides for interpreting rain, a teaching tool in the shape of a lung. Some of these works were written in the palace, including by captive scribes in chains; most were plundered from abroad.

Mail travelled fast around the realm thanks to a relay system of messengers (one small tablet is presented emerging from a tubular clay envelope). So did styles and ideas: the lotus and bud motif came from Egypt; contemporary griffins are found on the rims of cauldrons in Cyprus, on bronze fittings in Turkey, and on glazed tiles in Iran. The exhibition performs a double movement – we venture out of the royal palaces and gardens to the empire’s borders, but the fringes have plenty to say about the centre. The economies of client states transformed to feed Assyria’s desire for raw materials and exquisite things. Egyptian obelisks were melted down and their metal used to decorate the capital’s temples. An ivory panel found at Nimrud, of a lioness devouring a young man, inlaid with carnelian and lapis lazuli, is thought to have been made by Phoenician artisans; heavy tribute payments spurred their port cities to become centres of luxury goods.

The winged bulls found by Austen Layard at Nimrud, mid 19th century, Frederick Charles Cooper,

The winged bulls found by Austen Layard at Nimrud (mid 19th century), Frederick Charles Cooper. Photo: © The Trustees of the British Museum

Beauty and violence are laced together in queasy ways. The carved panel depicting the Battle of Til-Tuba, in which Ashurbanipal’s army crushed the soldiers of Elam and went home with the head of their king, is a hellscape of arrows and severed limbs. Serried profiles come apart as fighters overspill their bands and tumble into the river. Fish nibble their quivers. The impassive, hieroglyphic style has given way not to chaos, but to a departure in form: a new sophistication in the portrayal of suffering. Nineveh fell to the Babylonians and the Medes in 612, and these triumphalist works in turn became casualties of war. One of the hunt scenes has come to include a moment of poetic justice: the king holds a standing lion by the tail, ready to brain it. His other arm, raised to strike, is missing; the king’s upper body was defaced when the palaces were looted and wrecked. The vandals also ‘liberated’ the lion by chipping away at its tail. An image designed to convey wealth and power has become a testament to their fragility.

The excavation of Nineveh, begun in the 1840s by Austen Henry Layard, was continued by Hormuzd Rassam, an Assyrian Christian from Mosul. It was on one of Rassam’s moonlit expeditions (he worked by night to evade the French mission digging there) that he found one of the lion panels. ‘In my position as agent of the British Museum,’ he wrote, ‘I had secured it for England.’ Nearly all the sculptures were sent on rafts downriver to Basra, and from there to London. The museum played an active role in these unearthings, and in the creation of Assyriology as a discipline, but this history is hardly mentioned in the show (although it is discussed in the catalogue). Provenance is more usually listed in the sale of art than in its display, but in the absence of any information on who found these objects and when, the sense is that they have ended up here by force of natural law. As the Tigris flows into the sea, so do antiquities to Bloomsbury.

‘I am Ashurbanipal: King of the World, King of Assyria’ is at the British Museum, London until 24 February 2019.

From the February 2019 issue of Apollo. Preview and subscribe here.

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