I am Ashurbanipal

An ancient king who ruled with an iron fist, but could do his sums, fascinates John Westbrooke

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Ashurbanipal was not a modest man, and didn’t need to be. “I am Ashurbanipal, great king, mighty king, king of the world, king of Assyria, king of the four quarters of the world,” he announced. Assyria, based in what is now northern Iraq and stretching from the Mediterranean to Iran, was the greatest empire in the Middle East, and he ruled it for an impressive 40 years, from about 670 BC to 630 BC.

The British Museum’s exhibition focusing on the mighty king showcases gold and jewels, pottery, ivories, bronze furniture, but most remarkably the wonderful wall relief carvings the museum acquired after excavations in his fabled capital, Nineveh, in the 19th century. Many of those in the exhibition haven’t been seen in public for years.

Perhaps the most striking show him hunting lions, beautifully carved in lifelike detail. A child lifts the front of a cage and a lion charges out. The king, on foot (and with a shield-bearer in front of him, just in case) fells it with an arrow. Then, on horseback, he spears another lion.

But the first lion has got up and is attacking a horse just behind him, while his attendants, who have fallen too far back, gallop up frantically. Ashurbanipal has to finish it off with a sword. While he admires the bodies, perhaps planning to pour a libation of wine over them, the guilty attendants prostrate themselves, seeking mercy.

They might not have got it. Ashurbanipal did not need to be a nice man, either. Another relief, depicting victory over the Elamites, is full of small but gruesome depictions of the fates of losers. The museum has arranged a little light show, in which individual scenes are picked out one at a time with an explanation of what’s going on – a useful and innovative piece of presentation, that also allows a few reliefs to have colours projected on them, showing how they originally looked.

So some hapless victims have their tongues torn out, before being flayed alive. Another awaits execution; his head may be the one depicted in a different relief, hanging from a pine tree at Ashurbanipal’s garden party. Others are set to work grinding their fathers’ bones to dust. The luckier survivors might have been sent off to populate and cultivate empty areas of the empire. You crossed the great king at your peril.

In fact, we don’t know a lot about Ashurbanipal’s personality. His appearance in relief is much the same as that of his forefathers over the centuries, including a regal beard. But for all the manly lion-hunting, he seems to have been more of a scholar than a warrior – one relief actually shows a stylus tucked behind his belt – and didn’t go into battle at all, except in re-enactments.

He was literate and numerate, and proud of it. A clay tablet has him claiming “I learned the secret lore of all the scribal arts. I can recognise celestial and terrestrial omens. I can resolve complex mathematical divisions and multiplications” – not a boast made by other Assyrian rulers. It wasn’t just him, either – his sister wrote sternly to his wife: “Why don’t you write your tablet and do your homework?” Sometimes Ashurbanipal sounds like a forerunner of el rey papelero – Phillip II, Spain’s diligent “Paperwork King” and husband of England’s Queen Mary I.

He built up a huge reference library in Nineveh, holding tablets dealing with all sorts of administrative matters, letters, historical texts, instructions for contacting the gods and so forth, which is one reason we know so much about a man who lived 2600 years ago: the library burnt after his death, but 30,000 clay tablets survived, well baked, in the ruins; there’s a whole wall of them in the exhibition. Among the extraordinary items found were his school exercise books – tablets on which he practised his cuneiform writing, carefully signing each one “I am Ashurbanipal”.

It wasn’t easy running an empire. His grandfather Sennacherib may have built the Hanging Gardens of Babylon, and was the subject of Byron’s poem (“The Assyrian came down like a wolf on the fold…”); but he was apparently killed by his brother. He left the empire to his sickly younger son Esarhaddon, who left Assyria to his younger son, Ashurbanipal, and the lesser prize of Babylon to his eldest.

Sibling rivalry meant this ended in tears too. Besieged by Assyria for two years, Babylonians were reduced to eating their children; the king died in a fire. With Assyria’s victory, order returned to the world; the god Ashur was pleased – and whatever they did in battle, the main task of emperors was represent Ashur on Earth..

With other nations subdued, the way was clear for Ashurbanipal and Assyria to grow ever greater. It didn’t happen. Oddly enough, we know nothing about the great king’s death. He was last mentioned in 638BC, and then silence. His two sons followed him to the throne, but Nineveh fell to a Babylon-led alliance of its enemies and was razed to the ground. Within about 20 years of Ashurbanipal’s death, his mighty empire was no more.

The destruction continued recently, when Isis set out to remove all traces of Assyria (because it wasn’t Islamic, being a millennium or so too early). Nineveh, whose ruins were in what is now Mosul, was an obvious target; 70 per cent of the site was destroyed and antiquities were looted to be sold on the internet.

Sometimes it’s as well that ancient treasures are held in western museums, even if they’re hidden in the basement. This is a fascinating exhibition about a man who ruled with great cruelty but was good at multiplication and division too; we’re lucky so much has survived.

I am Ashurbanipal runs at the British Museum until 24 February 2019. Entry £17, children free, concessions available; fees apply to online and phone bookings.