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Although Assyrian civilization, centred in the fertile Tigris valley of northern Iraq, can be traced back to at least the third millennium BC, some of its most spectacular remains date to the first millennium BC when Assyria dominated the Middle East.
The Assyrian king Ashurnasirpal II (883-859 BC) established Nimrud as his capital. Many of the principal rooms and courtyards of his palace were decorated with gypsum slabs carved in relief with images of the king as high priest and as victorious hunter and warrior. Many of these are displayed in the British Museum.
Later kings continued to embellish Nimrud, including Ashurnasirpal II’s son, Shalmaneser III who erected the Black Obelisk depicting the presentation of tribute from Israel.
During the eighth and seventh centuries BC Assyrian kings conquered the region from the Persian Gulf to the borders of Egypt. The most ambitious building of this period was the palace of king Sennacherib (704-681 BC) at Nineveh. The reliefs from Nineveh in the British Museum include a depiction of the siege and capture of Lachish in Judah.
The finest carvings, however, are the famous lion hunt reliefs from the North Palace at Nineveh belonging to Ashurbanipal (668-631 BC). This king is also renowned for the vast library he created at Nineveh.
Copies of some of the greatest literary works from ancient Iraq, including the “Epic of Gilgamesh” as well as writings on divination, astrology, medicine and mathematics, are among the thousands of tablets now in the British Museum.
Image caption: The Dying Lion, a stone panel from the North Palace of Ashurbanipal Nineveh, northern Iraq. Neo-Assyrian, around 645 BC
The Dying Lion, a stone panel from the North Palace of
Nineveh, northern Iraq Neo-Assyrian, around 645 BC
The triumph of the Assyrian king over nature
This small alabaster panel was part of a series of wall panels that showed a royal hunt. It has long been acclaimed as a masterpiece; the skill of the Assyrian artist in the observation and realistic portrayal of the animal is clear.
Struck by one of the king's arrows, blood gushes from the lion's mouth. Veins stand out on its face. From a modern viewpoint, it is tempting to think that the artist sympathized with the dying animal. However, lions were regarded as symbolizing everything that was hostile to urban civilization and it is more probable that the viewer was meant to laugh, not cry.
There was a very long tradition of royal lion hunts in Mesopotamia, with similar scenes known from the late fourth millennium BC. The connection between kingship and lions was probably brought to western Europe as a result of the crusades in the twelfth and thirteenth centuries AD, when lions begin to decorate royal coats of arms.
J.E. Reade, Assyrian sculpture-1 (London, The British Museum Press, 1998)
J.E. Curtis and J.E. Reade (eds), Art and empire: treasures from (London, The British Museum Press, 1995)
J.E. Curtis, 'The dying lion', Iraq-7, 54 (1992), pp. 113-18