Ashurbanipal,  King of the World at the British Museum

Ashurbanipal, King of the World at the British Museum


I am Ashurbanipal, King of the World, King of Assyria.                  

       ” Forget Death and feed life”


         ( Ancient Mesopotamian Inscription from Nineveh)


” I am Ashurbanipal, King of the World, King of Assyria”, claimed Ashurbanipal himself in a cuneiform inscription. It would appear from archaeological  evidence and literary references that he was not far from the truth.


Ashurbanipal reigned from his Palace in Nineveh, capital of ancient Assyria ( now in Northern Iraq ),  from 669 BC to 631 BC. His Empire stretched from Cyprus in the Mediterranean to Iran and at one time included Egypt. At this time Athens and Sparta were small city states and Rome was but a settlement.


When Ashurbanipal was created Crown Prince over his elder brother, Shamash shum- Ukin, which later caused trouble, he immediately started training for Kingship. He learned royal etiquette, military skills, serious scholastic subjects and gained much knowledge from agents across the Empire of his father. Thus, in the future his enemies would be known to him.  His training involved driving chariots, riding cavalry horses, archery skills and lion hunting, a royal sport. Killing lions symbolised that he could protect his peoples from all danger. Ashurbanipal was popular with his people, but his defeated enemies were brutally treated. He was proud of his brutality and boasted about it.


He ruled over what was the first true empire, with governors ruling separate provinces, a net- -work of state roads and a royal mail service. It was a template for other ancient empires of the future.


His empire suffered attacks. When the state of Elam rose up against him, they were defeated and any survivors were made slaves. His brother Shamash, whom he had superseded, attacked him, which resulted in Babylon being besieged for two years and his brother dying in his burning palace, rather than become Ashurbanipal’s prisoner.


However, Ashurbanipal was a scholar and his library is a great tribute to him. It was the first library to be systematically catalogued. It was his ambition to have a copy of every worth-while book ever published, in fact, a copyright library! Of course, Assyrian books were written in cuneiform on clay tablets. This was fortuitous as when the library was burnt after the empire had fallen, they did not burn.


The death of Ashurbanipal remains a mystery. There were frequent attacks on his empire during his reign, but after he died the empire lost power and various groups sacked Nineveh and the Assyrian cities. Thus the ancient Kings continued to fight for power and glory. Little is known of Ashurbanipal’s successors which adds to his greatness as a warrior, empire builder, lion hunter and librarian.


The British Museum has not allowed Ashurbanipal to be forgotten and has staged a spectacular Exhibition for him, which would have greatly appealed to his ego!


They created an ingenious lighting  effect on the intricately carved relief sculptures which colour up as you look at them and give them life, drums give sound effects as you look at the battle scenes. The lighting technology really does work well.


More than two hundred objects are displayed including monumental sculptures of stone, cuneiform documents, rare wall paintings, painted glazed bricks. The gold jewellery and intricate metal work are very impressive.


A fine relief from Nineveh, Dated c 645 BC to 635 BC shows Ashurbanipal on horseback hunting with a bow and arrow. The sculpture is surprisingly advanced for the time, the figures having some movement. Notice the detailed pattern on the clothes and his stylised hair and beard. Even the horse’s mane is stylised into the same curls! Its nostrils are realistically flared. There are many such reliefs showing hunting and battle scenes; lion hunting and fighting lions appear to be especially popular subject matter. One splendid example shows Ashurbanipal thrusting a spear down a lion’s mouth from horseback. Another shows him strangling a lion with his bare hands. Both figures bristle with power. An ivory plaque shows a lioness mauling a man.


The Exhibition evokes the splendour of Ashurbanipal’s Palace with spectacular sculpture and sumptuous furnishing. Paintings by Sir Henry Austen Layard give an idea of the impressive entrance, which was flanked by two massive human headed, winged bulls, known as ‘lamassu’, who protected the King from supernatural sources.


The exotic gardens were irrigated by canals stretching fifty kilometres into the mountains so they bloomed all year round. Rumour has it they may have been the famed ‘Hanging Gardens of Babylon’ and there was confusion of names by later writers.


The recreation of the library in the Exhibition is well designed. It gives an idea of the monumental scale used. This was more than a library , it was an exercise in state power, created to house all the knowledge in the world. It contained a tablet telling of the hero, Gilgamesh.

This is one of the oldest works of literature in the world and refers to the ‘Flood’ story. It discusses the meaning of life and describes Kingship


   “Supreme over other Kings, lordly in appearance

     he is the hero, born of Uruk, the goring wild bull

      he walks out in front, the leader,

       and walks at the rear, trusted by his companions.


        ( from the Epic of Gilgamesh)


The British Museum is pleased to highlight the work of the Iraqi Emergency Heritage Management Training Scheme which oversees training of Iraqi Archaeologists.  They are aiming to save threatened sites.


Nineveh was plundered and vandalised in 2014 by militants.

About author