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Exhibition review: Assyria at the British Museum  

11 January 2019

Nicholas Cranfield sees the Assyrian exhibition at the British Museum

 © The Trustees of the British Museum

Relief detail of Ashurbanipal hunting on horseback; from Nineveh, Assyria, 645-635 BC

Relief detail of Ashurbanipal hunting on horseback; from Nineveh, Assyria, 645-635 BC

The Assyrian came down like the wolf on the fold,
And his cohorts were gleaming in purple and gold;
And the sheen of their spears was like stars on the sea,
When the blue wave rolls nightly on deep Galilee.

GENERATIONS of schoolchildren across the Empire would once have known Lord Byron’s rollicking anapaestic tetrameters by heart. They could even have been relied upon to find the account of how Sennacherib reduced Jerusalem to vassalage in 701 BC (2 Kings 18-19).

I doubt that Byron has survived the political thought police of schools’ curricula any more than have the likes of Kipling, Browning, and Wordsworth. His poem, however, was written in the year of Waterloo and, therefore, predates the archaeological recovery of Assyria and the lost cities of Nineveh (modern-day Mosul), Nimrud, and Babylon.

The slow recovery of that culture by a British Resident at Baghdad and an erudite French consul (they do exist) in Mosul a few years later led to more systematic excavations in the 1840s. These revealed the extent of the Assyrian kingdom.

In 681 BC, Sennacherib had been brutally murdered by his dispossessed son, who then installed his younger son, Esarhaddon (681-669), who in turn excited fratricidal plans in his own family by appointing the younger son (Ashurbanipal) as King of Assyria and offering the elder the title of “King of Babylon”.

Ashurbanipal (669-631 BC) was scarcely being immodest when he claimed, “I am Ashurbanipal, great king, mighty king, king of the world, king of Assyria.” This same man had, as a 13-year old, cheerfully written to his father to show off his handwriting.

That we know so much of the goings-on of the royal family is because of an obsessive culture of scribal accountants, who kept records on clay prisms that were then buried in the foundations of the buildings of an ever-expanding empire. That stretched from the Eastern Mediterranean to the border with the Elamites on the Persian Gulf. The survival of a library of cuneiform tablets, strikingly displayed here as a wall of learning, allows us an unprecedented day-to-day study of a culture.

Although the press term this region (largely Iraq) the Middle East, it is properly the Near East, as archaeologists, independent travellers, and biblical scholars know full well. The disputed borders of the region are the subject of an associated display, “No man’s land”, in Room 3 from until 27 January.

For those who have not seen them before, the gypsum relief panels from the palace at Nineveh (dated around 645 BC) will be the main reason to go back, as the individual details in chronological sequence capture the violent consequences of war and the royal display in lion-hunting with amazing detail. Fragmentary as they are now, I was sorry that the exhibition did not arrange them more closely.

Each is rich in incidental details: the use of teenage boys to risk opening the lion cage before the royal hunt; a river crab about to eat a fish it has captured, unaware, as it were, of a Phoenician warship bearing down upon it; the speed with which the messengers at the battle of Til-Tuba (653 BC) set off in a chariot holding the executed enemies’ heads before them as if they already stank.

© The Trustees of the British MuseumShamash-shumu-ukin and Ashurbanipal Stone stele depicting Ashurbanipal (right), shown with a ritual basket on his head with cuneiform inscription, South Iraq, Marduk temple (Babylon), 668-665 BC. His brother Shamash-shumu-ukin (left) carved with cuneiform inscription, South Iraq, Temple of Nabu (Borsippa), 668-655 BC

The outstanding collection in the BM was one of the real highlights of Bloomsbury, but the lower-floor Assyrian gallery closed about a decade ago (the pretext was “access”), about the time that Iraq was in the headlines for rather different reasons. I hope that this exhibition is in support of the Iraq Emergency Heritage Management Training Scheme and that we will see the permanent display restored.

The works that have been brought out of storage are shown with other exceptional loans that illustrate the further reaches of this seventh-century world power in this new (paying) exhibition. The artefacts from Nicosia evidence a now somewhat debated imperial shift from Phoenicia to the island, while those from Yerevan and St Petersburg underscore the eastern reach of the empire at its height of power. The Vatican and Berlin, too, have loaned.

We get to see astounding bronze, delicate jewellery, and delightfully painted murals, statuettes, and grave markers. The details demand our time and attention.

The best illustrated introduction to the BM’s amazing collection of sculptures remains Julian Reade’s 1983 Assyrian Sculpture. Reade was formerly a distinguished Assistant Keeper in the Department of the Ancient Near East at the Museum; so the omission of the bibliography in the present catalogue is puzzling. It has been frequently reprinted, most recently in 2016, and is still on sale in the BM bookshop, currently at one third of the price of the coffee-table catalogue.

“I am Ashurbanipal, king of the World, king of Assyria” is at the British Museum, Great Russell Street, London WC1, until 24 February. Phone 020 7323 8181.


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