From lion-wrestling to long divi­sion

The Daily Telegraph - Review - - FILM -

bar­barism and ex­cess of an an­cient king­dom in the Mid­dle East – is The Death of Sar­dana­palus (1827), a vast oil paint­ing more than 16ft across, by the French Ro­man­tic artist Eugène Delacroix.

One of the master­pieces of the Lou­vre, it was in­spired by Lord Byron’s now lit­tle-known 1821 tragedy, Sar­dana­palus. Byron be­lieved that Sar­dana­palus was the last king of the an­cient Assyr­ian em­pire, which stretched, at its peak, from the Mediter­ranean to the moun­tains of western Iran. As it hap­pens, Byron was a lit­tle hazy on the his­tory. “Sar­dana­palus” is a cor­rup­tion of Ashur­ba­n­i­pal, who, upon his as­cent to the Assyr­ian throne in 669 BC, be­came, in the words of the cu­ra­tor of a ma­jor new ex­hi­bi­tion at the Bri­tish Mu­seum, “ar­guably the most pow­er­ful in­di­vid­ual on the planet”.

In fact, Ashur­ba­n­i­pal was not the last Assyr­ian king – that dis­hon­our goes to one of his two sons who ruled af­ter him. Yet, within 20 years of his reign end­ing around 631 BC, the cen­turies-old Assyr­ian em­pire had dis­ap­peared. It had been “the first true em­pire”, says the Bri­tish Mu­seum’s Gareth Br­ere­ton. “The Baby­lo­nian and Per­sian em­pires, even Alexan­der the Great, all fol­lowed the Assyr­ian way of do­ing things.”

In Byron’s day, the em­pire’s prin­ci­pal cities had yet to be ex­ca­vated. Nin­eveh, near Mo­sul in mod­ern-day Iraq, is men­tioned in the Bible as a den of de­bauch­ery and sin, but it wasn’t un­cov­ered un­til the mid-19th cen­tury, when ex­traor­di­nar­ily in­tri­cate re­liefs were sent from there to the Bri­tish Mu­seum by the ar­chae­ol­o­gist Austen Henry La­yard, spark­ing an “Assyr­ian re­vival”. To­day, the name Nin­eveh is prob­a­bly more fa­mil­iar from news footage than from the Bible, as one of the sites sys­tem­at­i­cally de­stroyed by the Is­lamic State.

Pre­sent­ing al­most 250 ob­jects – in­clud­ing bronze caul­drons, carved ivories, glass ves­sels and lots of gold – the Bri­tish Mu­seum’s ex­hi­bi­tion will evoke Nin­eveh as an oa­sis of civil­i­sa­tion. Ashur­ba­n­i­pal ruled from a spec­tac­u­lar mud brick palace set within lux­u­ri­ant, land­scaped gar­dens wa­tered by aque­ducts. In­side, he was sur­rounded by elab­o­rate fur­ni­ture, car­pets and gyp­sum wall re­liefs de­pict­ing mag­i­cal li­on­headed guardians and his own mil­i­tary vic­to­ries.

In one, we see Ashur­ba­n­i­pal in full ac­tion-hero mode: fighting and killing lions. A high point of Assyr­ian art, these royal lion hunt re­liefs – which de­pict the slaugh­tered beasts with sur­pris­ing nat­u­ral­ism and sen­si­tiv­ity – at­test to his de­sire to be seen as a strong­man. Yet, even though he also con­quered Egypt, Ashur­ba­n­i­pal – who may have trained as a priest – was more book­worm than great war­rior.

Un­like ear­lier Assyr­ian kings, for in­stance, he did not lead his pow­er­ful army into bat­tle, pre­fer­ring, in­stead, to stay at home. He is also de­picted with a sty­lus tucked proudly into his belt. “I can re­solve com­plex math­e­mat­i­cal di­vi­sions and mul­ti­pli­ca­tions that do not have an easy so­lu­tion,” he boasted on one of the 30,000 frag­men­tary clay tablets re­cov­ered from his vast li­brary. “I have read cun­ningly writ­ten texts… that are dif­fi­cult to in­ter­pret.”

He used his in­tel­lect to man­age his em­pire ef­fi­ciently, too. It was con­nected by a net­work of “royal roads”, with a fast-track mail ser­vice. Pro­vin­cial gov­er­nors were is­sued with golden signet rings bear­ing the royal seal, so that, as Br­ere­ton puts it, “the king could be in many places at once”. These were all things that the Per­sians and Baby­lo­ni­ans later em­u­lated.

Yet for all his ad­min­is­tra­tive bril­liance, he couldn’t avert a show­down with his el­der brother, Shamash-shum-ukin, who had been given the throne of the vas­sal king­dom of Baby­lon, about 50 miles south of mod­ern Bagh­dad. This was a sop – their fa­ther, Esarhad­don (who reigned from 681-669BC), pro­claimed his sons were “equal”, but ev­ery­one knew Ashur­ba­n­i­pal would re­ally be in charge. For the first 15 years of their reigns, they co­ex­isted peace­fully, but Ashur­ba­n­i­pal kept in­ter­fer­ing in Baby­lo­nian af­fairs. Even­tu­ally, Shamash-shum-ukin had had enough, and mus­tered a coali­tion of for­eign king­doms un­happy with Assyr­ian rule to wage war against his brother.

The Bri­tish Mu­seum holds a cu­nei­form tablet record­ing an ex­tra­or­di­nary let­ter in which Shamash-shum-ukin goads Ashur­ba­n­i­pal by re­call­ing “the game of 20 squares”, which they had played as chil­dren. Es­sen­tially, the el­der brother is telling the younger: de­spite your con­fi­dence, ul­ti­mately, I will win, with a sin­gle bold move.

It turned into all-out con­flict, cul­mi­nat­ing in a two-year siege of Baby­lon that started in 650BC and was dis­as­trous for its cit­i­zens. Ac­cord­ing to an­cient sources, the Baby­lo­ni­ans had to eat the flesh of their sons and drink their daughters’ blood. Af­flicted by “plague, pesti­lence, [and] ill­ness”, they “with­ered away” and “be­came like corpses”.

Even­tu­ally, Ashur­ba­n­i­pal tri­umphed. “He went on a cam­paign of re­tal­i­a­tion against all the kings who had sup­ported his brother,” says Br­ere­ton, “lay­ing them to waste.”

Ashur­ba­n­i­pal is a paradoxical fig­ure: a scholar-king who liked fighting lions (if those royal re­liefs are to be be­lieved); a con­nois­seur of an­cient texts who en­joyed flay­ing cap­tured en­emy lead­ers alive. “For me,” says Br­ere­ton, “Ashur­ba­n­i­pal was one of the great­est Assyr­ian kings.” He smiles. “But whether he was ‘good’ or ‘bad’ – that’s up to the vis­i­tor to de­cide.”

I Am Ashur­ba­n­i­pal: King of the World, King of Assyria

‘THE WORLD’S MOST POW­ER­FUL IN­DI­VID­UAL’A relief of Ashur­ba­n­i­pal hunt­ing on horse­back; and above right, The Death of Sar­dana­palus (1827) by Delacroix

OA­SIS OF CIVIL­I­SA­TIONThe Mon­u­ments of Nin­eveh by AH La­yard, 1853

Newspapers in English

Newspapers from UK

© PressReader. All rights reserved.