I am Ashurbanipal: King of the world, King of Assyria
British Museum, London. Showing until: 24 February 2019
In one of the strongest autumns of recent years for exhibitions opening in London, the British Museum’s (BM) exploration of the rise and fall of the last great Assyrian king, Ashurbanipal, stands out. It is a stunning exhibition.
The BP exhibition, I am Ashurbanipal: King of the world, King of Assyria promises ‘to transport you back to ancient Iraq in the 7th century BCE, when Ashurbanipal became the most powerful person on earth.’ And what an excellent job it does, with its grand, and at times entrancing, exhibition design (the lighting above all) and over 200 objects from all corners of the Assyrian empire. Taking us from sumptuous palace life and Ashurbanipal’s upbringing, from crisis to battle zone to retaliation, on to Ashurbanipal’s shadowy death and the empire falling apart - this is all a delight to behold.
Then, coming to more modern times, sections on excavation (Austen Henry Layard’s principally, the cities of Nimrud and Nineveh between 1845 and 1851), and legend (for instance, the Assyrian revival jewellery that became a fashion in the 19th century when Layard’s discoveries sparked a taste for winged bulls, lions and such like), as well as the task of preserving Iraq’s past for the future.
Ashurbanipal’s reign (r.669-c.627 BCE) marked the highpoint of the Assyrian empire. Ruling from his capital at Nineveh (in modern-day northern Iraq), Ashurbanipal shaped the lives of millions of people in a vast and diverse empire stretching from the shores of the eastern Mediterranean to the mountains of western Iran. He was also able to read and write, unlike his predecessors. (Don’t miss his practice letter written to his father in his best cuneiform script on a minuscule clay tablet, where the 13 year-old Ashurbanipal boasts of his achievements in ‘the scribal arts’.) Clever spot-lighting on the reliefs emphasises the narrative and helps to create another superb BM exhibition. www.britishmuseum.org
Relief detail of Ashurbanipal hunting on horseback. Nineveh, Assyria, 645–635 BCE