The Assyrians placed sculptures of winged human-headed bulls (lamassus) at the entrances to their capital at Nineveh, in modern Mosul, to ward off evil. The mighty lamassu to the right of the Nergal Gate had been on guard for some 2,700 years when Isis vandals took a drill to it in 2015 and blew away its face. Today a copy, crafted out of date syrup cans, stands on the Fourth Plinth in Trafalgar Square. It wears the oblong beard and proud look of the Assyrian kings.
The original sculpture dated to the time of Sennacherib, who ruled Assyria from 705 to 681 BC, and transformed Nineveh into a magnificent metropolis. No stranger himself to violent desecration, he made his eldest son king of Babylon, but went on the rampage when the Babylonians rebelled and had the ruler dispatched. Sennacherib was later murdered in a conspiracy forged by his elder sons after appointing a younger son heir to his empire.
By the time Sennacherib’s grandson, Ashurbanipal, came to the throne in 669 BC, the succession seemed to be going the way of the ancient storybooks; Babylonian and Sumerian myths brimmed with tales of unexpected usurpations and warring kin. While his older brother had to make do with Babylon, Ashurbanipal assumed power over the more illustrious Assyria, which he would expand until it reached from Egypt to western Iran.
Ashurbanipal was a hunter, a scholar, but above all a boaster. The walls of this tremendous exhibition resound with his words of self-praise. ‘I have read ingeniously written text in obscure Sumerian and Akkadian that is hard to decipher,’ he wrote. There is little reason to doubt him. Four towering bookcases constructed at the centre of the gallery offer the most mesmerising display of a few hundred of the 10,000 clay tablets he owned. On excavating a great number of them at Nineveh in the mid 19th century, the archaeologist Austen Henry Layard wagered that they ‘probably exceed all that have been afforded by the monuments of Egypt’.
Ashurbanipal collected works inscribed in cuneiform (‘wedge-shaped’) script on divination and magic, medicine and myth, and had them classified, shelved and recorded in inventories. He was clearly a perfectionist as well as a dreamer. The best preserved collection of the 12 chapters of the Epic of Gilgamesh, one of his favourite books, is one of the quieter highlights of the show.
Like Gilgamesh, Ashurbanipal proved his strength as a lion hunter, adorning his new North Palace at Nineveh with awe-inspiring gypsum panels to illustrate his prowess. One moment he approaches on foot, a pen tucked safely inside his belt (a scholar is never without his pen), the next, he seizes ‘a lion that was born in the steppe’ by its tail and prepares to beat it with a mace. A speared lion, all muscle and ligament, vomits its lifeblood. The king pours libatory wine on four more which lie dead at his feet. It is a wonder Ashurbanipal didn’t drive the species to extinction.
The Assyrians were unashamedly brutal when it came to defending their empire from enemies, be they lions or men. As the curator Carine Harmand explains: ‘All this violence was actually justified through theological reasons because, for the Assyrians, anything which was outside Assyria was chaos, and when the gods appointed a king, his divine duty was to expand the borders of his empire and to transform this chaos into order.’
Ashurbanipal overcame chaos by conquering Egypt, campaigning against Phoenician Tyre, and warring against the Elamites of south-western Iran. One of the most arresting sculptures in the exhibition shows him dining with his wife in the luxurious gardens of his palace in the aftermath of his victory over Elam. He reclines beneath a particularly luscious grapevine (his gardens were irrigated by a network of artificial channels); the head of the Elamite king is staked on the branch of a tree.
Assyrian artists were peculiarly adept at combining the macabre and the beautiful. Ashurbanipal exulted in having ‘filled the plain of Susa [one of Elam’s two capitals] with bodies like baltu and asagu shrubs’. Another panel from his North Palace shows a fish-filled river washing away the enemies’ corpses and horses in a dire celebration of nature and destruction.
It was ultimately Ashurbanipal’s conflict with his sidelined older brother, the king of Babylon, that proved Assyria’s undoing. Although Ashurbanipal was triumphant, Assyria failed to maintain its grip on Babylon, and in 612 BC, perhaps 20 years after his death in unknown circumstances, the Babylonians and Medes stormed Nineveh. It is devastating to think of how many monuments that survived the sacking then have been obliterated only now. Seventy per cent of what was preserved at Nineveh is said to have gone. The romantic scenes of the fall of Nineveh captured by artists such as John Martin have ceded to desolation.