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British Museum’s new blockbuster show celebrates savage and sadistic Middle Eastern king

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Treasures drenched in blood: British Museum’s new blockbuster show celebrates savage and sadistic Middle Eastern king who skinned his enemies alive, fed them to the pigs or forced them to live with dogs

  • The story of King Ashurbanipal, who ruled over Assyria between 668 and 631 BC, is documented in exhibition 
  • Exhibition features over 200 artefacts including stone palace sculptures and hundreds of cuneiform texts
  • The exhibition’s curator, Gareth Brereton, describes King Ashurbanipal as a ‘psychopathic bookworm’
  • He was a figure made all the more intriguing for the fact that his blood-lust was combined with great intellect 

By David Leafe for the Daily Mail

Published: 17:15 EST, 7 November 2018 | Updated: 19:28 EST, 7 November 2018

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Serenaded by harp music and feasting on such delicacies as roast mice and fried locusts, guests at the alfresco banquet hosted by King Ashurbanipal of Assyria might have been more relaxed had it not been for a macabre ornament dangling from one of the trees in the royal garden.

Caked with dried blood, and swarming with flies, it was the severed head of the monarch of the neighbouring state of Elam who had dared to challenge Ashurbanipal’s control of an empire stretching from Egypt to present-day Iran.

That feast, in 653 BC, was being held in celebration of Ashurbanipal’s victory over King Teumman’s forces and took place in the palace at Nineveh — today the war-torn Iraqi city of Mosul, but then the capital of Assyria.

Amuseum employee stands next to a statue of a scorpion bird man at the exhibition 'I am Ashurbanipal: king of the word, king of Assyria' at the British Museum in London 
Amuseum employee stands next to a statue of a scorpion bird man at the exhibition 'I am Ashurbanipal: king of the word, king of Assyria' at the British Museum in London 

Amuseum employee stands next to a statue of a scorpion bird man at the exhibition 'I am Ashurbanipal: king of the word, king of Assyria' at the British Museum in London 

Samaria, the fortress city of Israel, is painted here falling to the Assyrians during a brutal battle. The artist behind this work is Don Lawrence who died in 2003
Samaria, the fortress city of Israel, is painted here falling to the Assyrians during a brutal battle. The artist behind this work is Don Lawrence who died in 2003

Samaria, the fortress city of Israel, is painted here falling to the Assyrians during a brutal battle. The artist behind this work is Don Lawrence who died in 2003

This stone relief from the Palace of Ashurbanipal shows detail from the hunt of lions. The king is pictured mounted on his horse driving a spear into the mouth of a lion. It portrays a time between 668 and 627 BC
This stone relief from the Palace of Ashurbanipal shows detail from the hunt of lions. The king is pictured mounted on his horse driving a spear into the mouth of a lion. It portrays a time between 668 and 627 BC

This stone relief from the Palace of Ashurbanipal shows detail from the hunt of lions. The king is pictured mounted on his horse driving a spear into the mouth of a lion. It portrays a time between 668 and 627 BC

Afterwards, the severed head was moved to the city gates, where it remained for the next few weeks, sending a clear message that Ashurbanipal would stop at nothing in eliminating his enemies.

That lesson had already been learnt by King Teumman. He was humiliated by being forced to drag Ashurbanipal’s chariot through the streets of Nineveh before being beheaded.

And he was not the only member of his family to suffer. Ashurbanipal’s troops also cut the throat of Teumman’s brother and chopped his body into small pieces, which were then distributed around the country as souvenirs.

Even that fate seemed bearable compared to that of Elam’s military commander, who was skinned alive. Such punishments were typical of those imposed by the Assyrian kings, a dynasty of despots who were the scourge of the Middle East for many centuries until the death of Ashurbanipal — the last major ruler in the line — in around 627 BC.

King Ashurbanipal of Assyria (669 to 631 BC) was the most powerful man on earth and reigned from the city of Nineveh (now in northern Iraq) which stretched from the shores of the eastern Mediterranean to the mountains of western Iran 
King Ashurbanipal of Assyria (669 to 631 BC) was the most powerful man on earth and reigned from the city of Nineveh (now in northern Iraq) which stretched from the shores of the eastern Mediterranean to the mountains of western Iran 

King Ashurbanipal of Assyria (669 to 631 BC) was the most powerful man on earth and reigned from the city of Nineveh (now in northern Iraq) which stretched from the shores of the eastern Mediterranean to the mountains of western Iran 

A museum employee poses for photographs next to a relief depicting 'The Battle of Til-Tuba' at the exhibition 'I am Ashurbanipal: king of the word, king of Assyria'
A museum employee poses for photographs next to a relief depicting 'The Battle of Til-Tuba' at the exhibition 'I am Ashurbanipal: king of the word, king of Assyria'

A museum employee poses for photographs next to a relief depicting 'The Battle of Til-Tuba' at the exhibition 'I am Ashurbanipal: king of the word, king of Assyria'

This artefact is one of seven senior officials known as magnates that formed the Assyrian King Ashurbanipal's cabinet
This artefact is one of seven senior officials known as magnates that formed the Assyrian King Ashurbanipal's cabinet

This artefact is one of seven senior officials known as magnates that formed the Assyrian King Ashurbanipal's cabinet

More than 200 artefacts will go on show including carved ivory furniture, large stone sculptures, a huge collection of cuneiform documents and lavish wall paintings
More than 200 artefacts will go on show including carved ivory furniture, large stone sculptures, a huge collection of cuneiform documents and lavish wall paintings

More than 200 artefacts will go on show including carved ivory furniture, large stone sculptures, a huge collection of cuneiform documents and lavish wall paintings

WHAT WILL FEATURE AT THE BRITISH MUSEUM'S KING ASHURBANIPAL EXHIBIT?

The story of King Ashurbanipal, who ruled over Assyria between 668 and 631 BC, is set to be showcased in a new exhibition at the British Museum in London.

The exhibition features more than 200 artefacts including stone palace sculptures and hundreds of cuneiform texts that survive from his library.

Massive stone sculptures, intricately carved reliefs, painted glazed bricks and rare wall paintings evoke the splendour of the cities and palaces around Ashurbanipal's capital in Nineveh, in Mosul, modern-day Iraq.

Delicately carved ivories, extravagant metalwork, cosmetic vessels and gold ornaments show how the elites lived in splendour.

Ornate chariot fittings and elaborate weaponry reveal how this was an age of conflict, as rival kings fought for power and glory.

Ashurbanipal's prowess as a valiant warrior is recorded on a series of vividly carved reliefs in the British Museum's collection that depict the royal lion hunt.

Lion hunts were drama-filled public spectacles staged within the hunting grounds at Nineveh.

Many of the objects featured in the exhibition come from archaeological sites in Iraq such as Nineveh and Nimrud that have been systematically targeted and destroyed by the Islamic State. 

Their favourite sport was ‘hunting’ lions, a spectacle which saw the creatures released from cages into an arena where they could be shot with bows and arrows — or stabbed to death by those kings brave enough to get close. Although cruel to modern eyes, such contests between man and beast demonstrated a monarch’s ability to protect his nation against all that was dangerous in the world.

And whether they were dealing with wild animals or human enemies, they approached the task with great brutality — as will be revealed in a major new exhibition about Ashurbanipal which opens at the British Museum today.

The exhibition’s curator, Gareth Brereton, describes Ashurbanipal as a ‘psychopathic bookworm’, a figure all the more intriguing for the fact that his blood-lust was combined with great intellect. He is said to have established the world’s first library, a collection of more than 30,000 inscribed clay tablets which, with the use of paper still to become widespread, served as early versions of books.

Remarkably, many of those tablets survived to be discovered by Victorian archaeologists and they reveal Ashurbanipal’s wide range of interests — from divination of the future by investigating sheep intestines, to incantations for the cure of epilepsy.

Objects include a number of his stone palace sculptures, hundreds of cuneiform texts (pictured) that survive from his library, and a wealth of other objects discovered by archaeologists working in the region around Nineveh
Objects include a number of his stone palace sculptures, hundreds of cuneiform texts (pictured) that survive from his library, and a wealth of other objects discovered by archaeologists working in the region around Nineveh

Objects include a number of his stone palace sculptures, hundreds of cuneiform texts (pictured) that survive from his library, and a wealth of other objects discovered by archaeologists working in the region around Nineveh

King Ashurbanipal ruled over Assyria between 668 and 631 BC, a period when the empire was the largest and most powerful in the world. This image shows a lioness plaque which shows a lioness mauling a man
King Ashurbanipal ruled over Assyria between 668 and 631 BC, a period when the empire was the largest and most powerful in the world. This image shows a lioness plaque which shows a lioness mauling a man

King Ashurbanipal ruled over Assyria between 668 and 631 BC, a period when the empire was the largest and most powerful in the world. This image shows a lioness plaque which shows a lioness mauling a man

As part of his military training, the young crown prince was taught to drive chariots, ride cavalry horses, and develop skills such as archery. Many ancient stone sculptures depicting Ashurbanipal show him slaughtering lions
As part of his military training, the young crown prince was taught to drive chariots, ride cavalry horses, and develop skills such as archery. Many ancient stone sculptures depicting Ashurbanipal show him slaughtering lions

As part of his military training, the young crown prince was taught to drive chariots, ride cavalry horses, and develop skills such as archery. Many ancient stone sculptures depicting Ashurbanipal show him slaughtering lions

Assyrian civilization pictured in a seventh century relief. It is said to feature the battle of Til-Tuba which took place between 660-650 BC. The image was taken from the Palace of Ashurbanipal at Nineveh, Iraq
Assyrian civilization pictured in a seventh century relief. It is said to feature the battle of Til-Tuba which took place between 660-650 BC. The image was taken from the Palace of Ashurbanipal at Nineveh, Iraq

Assyrian civilization pictured in a seventh century relief. It is said to feature the battle of Til-Tuba which took place between 660-650 BC. The image was taken from the Palace of Ashurbanipal at Nineveh, Iraq

And yet a number of the tablets are deeply disturbing, detailing the Assyrians’ reliance on unadulterated terror in vanquishing their opponents, a key tactic in their remarkable rise to power.

In 2600 BC they were still only a small community trading on the banks of the Tigris River in the ancient city of Assur, about 150 miles north of Baghdad.

But, in the words of one historian, they grew to become ‘a race of warriors, mighty in muscle and courage, abounding in proud hair and beard, and bestriding with tremendous feet the east-Mediterranean world’.

Those feet were clad in one of the Assyrians’ most important inventions, the army boot.

Replacing sandals with this knee-high leather footwear, hobnailed and with iron plates protecting the shins, enabled them to fight in all weathers and on any terrain.

They were also the first to use weapons made of iron. Harder than bronze, and keeping its lethal edges sharper for longer, this gave them a deadly advantage over their enemies, as did the psychological warfare embraced by Assyrian rulers such as Shalmaneser I, who reigned in the 13th century BC.

The exhibit runs from November 8 to February 24 2019 with adult tickets priced at £17 ($22), while children under 16 go free. Pictured are sculptures of Assyrians kings Shamash-shumu-ukin (left) and Ashurbanipal (right)
The exhibit runs from November 8 to February 24 2019 with adult tickets priced at £17 ($22), while children under 16 go free. Pictured are sculptures of Assyrians kings Shamash-shumu-ukin (left) and Ashurbanipal (right)

The exhibit runs from November 8 to February 24 2019 with adult tickets priced at £17 ($22), while children under 16 go free. Pictured are sculptures of Assyrians kings Shamash-shumu-ukin (left) and Ashurbanipal (right)

Pictured s a burnt ivory figurine found in Nimrud, Iraq. Ashurbanipal described himself as 'king of the world', and assembled the greatest library in existence during his reign, in-part to boast of his ability to read and write - skills that were rare among kings of the time
Pictured s a burnt ivory figurine found in Nimrud, Iraq. Ashurbanipal described himself as 'king of the world', and assembled the greatest library in existence during his reign, in-part to boast of his ability to read and write - skills that were rare among kings of the time

Pictured s a burnt ivory figurine found in Nimrud, Iraq. Ashurbanipal described himself as 'king of the world', and assembled the greatest library in existence during his reign, in-part to boast of his ability to read and write - skills that were rare among kings of the time

WHO WAS KING ASHURBANIPAL, 7TH CENTURY RULER OF THE ASSYRIAN EMPIRE?

King Ashurbanipal ruled over Assyria between 668 and 631 BC, a period when the empire was the largest and most powerful in the world.

At its peak, Ashurbanipal's empire stretched from Egypt all the way to modern day Turkey, Iraq and Iran.

Ashurbanipal claimed to be unlike his predecessors for he could read, write and debate with expert scholars. 

Ashurbanipal described himself as 'king of the world', and assembled the greatest library in existence during his reign, in-part to boast of his ability to read and write - skills that were rare among kings of the time.

Knowledge was power; this library was a practical tool that helped the king to manage his empire.

The monarch was known for his ruthless campaigns against all who defied his rule, including a crushing defeat dealt to his rebellious older brother.

As part of his military training, the young crown prince was taught to drive chariots, ride cavalry horses, and develop skills such as archery. He also learnt how to hunt lions.

In Assyria lion hunting was a royal ‘sport’. Although this perhaps seems cruel to modern eyes, killing lions represented the king’s ability to protect his nation against all that was wild and dangerous in the world.

Many ancient stone sculptures depicting Ashurbanipal show him slaughtering lions.

When his army went to war with the kingdom of Mitannia which lay to the north, he ordered that 14,000 enemy captives should each have one eye gouged out, thus deterring others considering taking him on.

Pictured is a statue from the Persian civilization in ninth century BC. The state is of King Ashurbanipal
Pictured is a statue from the Persian civilization in ninth century BC. The state is of King Ashurbanipal

Pictured is a statue from the Persian civilization in ninth century BC. The state is of King Ashurbanipal

By the 14th century BC, the Assyrians had subjugated much of the Middle East. Their rulers believed it was their duty to inform the gods of their campaigns, which they did in numerous bas-reliefs and inscriptions. Once adorning the walls of their palaces, they are now held in museums around the world and illustrate their ruthless approach to war.

Captured cities were usually plundered and burned to the ground and soldiers were rewarded for every severed head they brought in from the battlefield.

Scribes stood by to count the numbers killed by each soldier.

As for the nobles among the defeated, they were often given special treatment: they were often thrown from high towers.

Some even faced the horror of being roasted to death on open fires, with their children revolving on the spit alongside them. One typically bloodthirsty campaign was led in the ninth century BC by King Ashurnasirpal II. Leaving Nineveh with his soldiers and chariots, he sped along the Tigris valley in pursuit of enemies who had fled into mountains ‘as sharp as the tip of a dagger, and which only the birds of the sky could reach’.

After scaling the peaks, the Assyrians took 200 prisoners, whose ‘corpses were strewn like autumn leaves all over the mountains’, wrote Ashurnasirpal.

Meanwhile, depictions in the commemorative reliefs found at Nineveh of the Assyrians laying siege to the city of Lachish in Judah the following century show several local dignitaries impaled on stakes while still alive.

The Assyrian Empire was a complex Mesopotamian civilisation dating from 2,500 BC to around 600 BC. Mesopotamia, an area of ancient Asia, was where people first gathered in large cities, created governments, and learned to write. Pictured is an artist's impression of ancient Nimrud in what is now Iraq - once a key Assyrian city
The Assyrian Empire was a complex Mesopotamian civilisation dating from 2,500 BC to around 600 BC. Mesopotamia, an area of ancient Asia, was where people first gathered in large cities, created governments, and learned to write. Pictured is an artist's impression of ancient Nimrud in what is now Iraq - once a key Assyrian city

The Assyrian Empire was a complex Mesopotamian civilisation dating from 2,500 BC to around 600 BC. Mesopotamia, an area of ancient Asia, was where people first gathered in large cities, created governments, and learned to write. Pictured is an artist's impression of ancient Nimrud in what is now Iraq - once a key Assyrian city

Ashurbanipal's vast empire, which stretched from Egypt to modern-day Turkey, was based Nineveh, in Mosul, modern-day Iraq
Ashurbanipal's vast empire, which stretched from Egypt to modern-day Turkey, was based Nineveh, in Mosul, modern-day Iraq

Ashurbanipal's vast empire, which stretched from Egypt to modern-day Turkey, was based Nineveh, in Mosul, modern-day Iraq

Yet Sennacherib, the monarch who presided over such eye-watering savagery, had great pretensions to be a cultured ruler. He built at Nineveh what he called his ‘palace without rival’, a wondrous structure with grounds irrigated by canals that stretched 30 miles up into the mountains to provide a year-round oasis.

So magnificent were these cultivated terraces that some archaeologists believe they may have been the true site of the Hanging Gardens, one of the Seven Wonders Of The World and long thought to have been in the ancient city of Babylon.

If so, they must have provided welcome respite from the gruesome artworks with which the new palace was decorated.

Its 70 great halls contained two miles of reliefs and Sennacherib surpassed even his predecessors in the grisly details of his wars, including an account of a battle with the Assyrians’ old enemy Elam in 693 BC.

‘I decimated the enemy host with arrow and spear. My prancing steeds plunged into the streams of their blood as into a river.’

For reasons unknown, Sennacherib designated his younger son Esarhaddon as his successor, infuriating his two older sons.

They plotted to kill their father and in 681 BC he was assassinated, most likely crushed to death by a huge stone statue which was toppled onto him while he was at prayer.

Following Sennacherib’s death, Esarhaddon somehow clung to power but failed to learn from the lessons of the past.

When his eldest son died, he repeated Sennacherib’s mistake and instead of choosing the next son in line as his successor, he turned to his younger son Ashurbanipal instead.

On taking the throne in 668 BC, Ashurbanipal found himself fighting off threats from other rulers in the region.

WHAT WAS THE ASSYRIAN EMPIRE?

The Assyrian Empire was a complex Mesopotamian civilisation dating from 2,500 BC to around 600 BC.

Mesopotamia, an area of ancient Asia, was where people first gathered in large cities, created governments, and learned to write. 

Alongside other Mesopotamian groups like ancient Babylon and the Sumerian cities, the Assyrian Empire was one of the earliest civilisations in history.

As its height, the empire stretched from Egypt up through what is now Syria, Iraq, Lebanon and into Turkey.

As its height, the Assyrian Empire (red) stretched from Egypt up through what is now Syria, Iraq, Lebanon and into Turkey
As its height, the Assyrian Empire (red) stretched from Egypt up through what is now Syria, Iraq, Lebanon and into Turkey

As its height, the Assyrian Empire (red) stretched from Egypt up through what is now Syria, Iraq, Lebanon and into Turkey

Turkey's Kültepe district was home to a settlement of the Old Assyrian Empire from the 21st to 18th centuries BC.

Over 1,000 cuneiform tablets were found in the area in 1925, revealing a rich and complex cultural heritage.

Much of our knowledge of early human societies comes from stone tablets such as these, leading some scholars to label Mesopotamia 'the place where history began'.

Among those who suffered defeat at the hands of Ashurbanipal’s troops was a king of Arabia who was brought to Nineveh, where he was forced to live in a kennel alongside the dogs and jackals guarding the city gates. Given Ashurbanipal’s taste for barbarity it was somewhat unwise of his aggrieved elder brother — who, as a sop for being deprived of the throne, had been made King of Babylon — to declare war against him but in 652 BC.

In response, Ashurbanipal marched his armies to the walls of the city of Babylon and began a siege which lasted two years. From within the city walls there were reports of people eating their own children to avoid starvation but Ashurbanipal did not relent.

In the end his brother committed suicide by making a pyre of his palace. ‘As for those still alive I myself laid flat those people as a funerary offering,’ wrote Ashurbanipal of those who had survived the blaze. Within a few years Ashurbanipal would himself be killed in circumstances which remain mysterious to this day. One Persian account said that he killed himself rather than face defeat when Nineveh fell to his enemies, ordering that his palace be set on fire and dying there alongside his gold, silver and concubines.

In fact, the archaeological evidence suggests that Nineveh did not fall until a number of years after his death, but fall it eventually did. Lost beneath his burning palace walls, his library remained buried for nearly 2,000 years.

But in 1851 its ruins were discovered by the English archaeologist Sir Austen Henry Layard. Rather than destroying the tablets, the great heat of the fire had caused them to become partially baked and preserved them.

And so it is that history has been able to build its case against the king who thought of himself as scholarly and well-read, but will be remembered as the last in a line of tyrants who were surely among the most merciless the world has ever known.

  • I Am Ashurbanipal is at the British Museum, London, from today to February 24.
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