I Am Ashurbanipal, King of the World

…is the title of the British Museum’s big Winter exhibition. I went to see it earlier this week and it was well worth a visit.

The title echoes Shelley’s poem OzymandiasMy name is Ozymandias, Look on my works ye mighty and despair‘, which was the Greek name for Rameses II, who ruled Egypt 1,300 years BCE.  This was much earlier than Ashurbanipal, Great King of the Assyrians (c.661 – 631) and indeed Ashurbanipal ruled a much wider area than did Rameses. From his capital at Nineveh, with its great Library and its hanging gardens ( many archeologists believe that it is here rather than in Babylon that this particular wonder of the ancient world existed ), Ashurbanipal ruled over an empire which included Egypt in the south, all of modern-day Iraq, parts of Iran, Georgia and Azerbijhan, modern Syria and parts of Turkey.

Nineveh is shown in maps and recreated in pictures. Its Victorian excavator from the British Museum, Sir Austen Henry Layard painted what he thought it looked like based on what he had found (see right) and very charming it must have been.  Gardens feature in this exhibition quite a lot, in sculpture and other artwork – the Ninevans must have been great gardeners.  Hormuzd Rassam, Layard’s Iraqi right-hand man, who began as a payclerk and ended up, via Oxford and his own expeditions, meeting the Queen, is represented here too and the tradition of encouraging indigenous archeologists goes on today in the current BM raining scheme for Iraqi students.

Tablets from the Library have a wall all of their own ( see The First Library ) There are plenty of very beautiful things which evidence the fine craftsmanship and artistic skills of the Assyrians, as well as monumental sculpture and decorative art ( some of those flower-inspired designs looked distinctly like William Morris & Co designs to me, maybe he came across them and they inspired him ). Yet at the same time there are echoes of the Bible everywhere in this exhibition, even to this atheist visitor. It’s hard not to think of childhood tales like Daniel in the Lion’s Den when one sees Nebucadnezzar mentioned, or references to Ur and the Chaldees. The timelines on the walls of the exhibition are useful to put all this into context.

It’s an evocative exhibition, especially given that many of the pieces on display are partial ( but put into physical context by coloured lighting or drawing ) or are friezes and wall sculptures. These stories in stone are very well explained, but take time to view properly. I wished I had more time, or could revisit, as it’s difficult to concentrate for long periods on this type of art. The friezes are densely populated and tell the tale of the war against Elam, or of a King’s Hunt ( lions feature quite heavily too ).  The representations of animals is very fine – these artists understood how horses worked and moved and the sculpted frieze of the dying lioness is very poignant.

The exhibition runs until 24th February 2019, it costs £17 to enter, £14 concessions and is well worth visiting.

For more on the British Museum try               The Land of the Two Rivers               On the Wings of Imagination                      Maggi Hambling          Political Pots

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