A few weeks before departure, my trip was booked in 2 days with 5 friends and 1 intent – to visit the “I am Ashurbanipal” exhibit at the British Museum in London, England.
The comprehensive exhibit was showcasing the life and accomplishments of King Ashurbanipal in a manner that was never presented before. He was king of Assyria between 669 – 631 BC, at a period when the empire was most expansive – it encompassed land as east as modern day Cyprus to the mountains of Western Iran. What differentiated him from other kings was not just his military ingenuity but also his refined ways – he was a scholar and a librarian.
Upon arrival to the British Museum on Saturday morning of February 16, 2019, I was surprised at the winding spiral of people outside waiting in line to enter the museum. I remember thinking to myself, surely this is atypical, not all these visitors are to see the exhibit, are they?
The museum’s columns were flanked by large posters showcasing the exhibit. If one didn’t know this exhibit was high profile and backed by the support of B.P, they would quickly learn.
As if being in one of my favorite cities wasn’t enough excitement for me – I was barely containing it once I entered the museum. The museum’s ceiling is a beautiful lattice of glass crosshatches and streaming light which always makes the entry so majestic, a pre-cursor to the exhibit before us. I walked toward the exhibit – swiftly moving down the corridor of light, past bustling conversations and echoes of footsteps building up – like a crescendo. I went through the doors and instantly noticed the contrast in environments- quiet, barely audible voices, a level of reverence present (similar to one you would find in church).
Clusters of people gathered around reading what included an outlined timeline of Assyria and King Ashurbanipal, but what strikes me most were the powerful words above one of the first installations – a black panel with bold white font in English and cuneiform, “I am Ashurbanipal, great king, mighty king, king of the world, king of Assyria.”
Below it, a relief depicting King Ashurbanipal in various battle scenes with a pole striking a lion, a bow and arrow constricted. It is important to note that although he is depicted in battle, he often did not engage.These reliefs would have been found in his palace in what is now modern day Nineveh. The relief’s intricate details demonstrate both his military prowess and scholarly nature. His beard a series of perfectly etched coils, defined muscles in his arms and calves – representative of his masculinity; his eyes fierce and focused on the enemy, a pen – like/reed on his belt a mark of his scholarly nature, every detail etched so delicately, and so beautifully.
I walked away from the relief to enter the main part of the exhibit. I stood in place and did a 360 of the room, taking everything in – every sound, every spark of light, every elevated bust or fixture overlooking the exhibit, and every person -- an artifact shielded from his a child’s curious hands, an elderly couple, other fellow Assyrians and lovers of history. My eyes danced from one installation to another trying to decide where I should look next-- they stopped on a piece that was brought to life with a range of color. The lights were seeped into the relief – rising from the base and then filling in the three figures coming to life, known as the Sebetti gods, which were considered protective spirits in Assyria. This piece was thought to have been in King Ashurbanipal’s throne room in the North Palace in Nineveh, an ancient regal piece brought to life with digital technology. The palace was decorated to highlight his reign and accomplishments with many narrative pieces. King Ashurbanipal made it a point to use the finest material available to him. The palace walls were constructed of mud, brick, embossed with a glossy white plaster, or constructed with colorful bricks or tiles. The roof was built of cedar wood from Lebanon.
Moving past other pieces, my attention was then drawn to what is another favorite installation at the exhibit -- an enclosed glass bookcase of writings with glimmers of light shining on an impressive collection of clay tablets whose sized ranged from that of a coin to an 8’x11’ page. The subjects covered topics from magic to medicine. These tablets are essential in understanding and defining King Ashurbanipal as a scholar king, and the Assyrian culture. He was educated by one of the top scribes of Assyria at the time and as King, had the ability to debate with scholars and explain complex mathematical formulas, unlike kings who came before him. He derived much pride from his abilities. His father, King Esharddon, had passed a collection of writings that King Ashurbanipal then compiled into a library that was unparalleled at that time. I found it difficult to step away from the bookcase– wishing the cuneiform could be unraveled to tell me a story or teach me a lesson.
The end of the exhibit came to a close with the fall of the Assyrian empire and how the death of King Ashurbanipal remains a mystery. I begrudgingly walked out of the exhibit, not wanting to leave a piece of our history that has survived antiquity, but knowing it is our responsibility to preserve and perpetuate the Assyrian culture within the framework of modernity.
- Rema Shamon