July 29, 2021

The treasures of Asurbanipal, scholar and owner of the first empire of antiquity | Culture

The treasures of Asurbanipal, scholar and owner of the first empire of antiquity | Culture


I am Ashurbanipal: king of the world, king of Assyria. With that unusual cover letter in the first person, he titled British museum an exhibition dedicated to the legacy of the last of the great Assyrian monarchs, to highlight the symbiosis between the vast empire that he led in the 7th century BC and his status as the most powerful man on earth. The deployment in London of a fabulous collection of vestiges of its palaces and cities wants to vindicate the figure of a ruler who was both warrior and erudite, and whose imprint ended up following further powers of antiquity.

A woman looks at the relief of an officer of the Assyrian king Asurbanipal, in the London exhibition.
A woman looks at the relief of an officer of the Assyrian king Asurbanipal, in the London exhibition.

The reign of Ashurbanipal was the forerunner of the most famous empires of Egypt, Greece or Rome, argue the architects of the exhibition about a political pioneer in the establishment of administrative provinces and a network of roads with postal services that linked their domains, fruit of the expansion from its headquarters in Mesopotamia (the current north of Iraq). The best and most exquisite materials, coming from territories that stretched from the east coast of the Mediterranean to the gulf, nourished the splendor of a court established in Nineveh and oriented, beyond the luxury that history attributes to it, also towards innovation and the knowledge.

The absolute king was a despot who at the same time did not deny the arts of diplomacy, and who liked to boast of his dexterity in writing, the ability to solve mathematical problems or to debate with scholars of various disciplines. The result of that vocation was the assembling of a visionary library in the then capital of Nineveh, reflection of the effort to bring together under one roof records, letters and above all the knowledge gathered about literature, medicine and other sciences among which the ancients included magic. What today's experts consider the first library in history ended up destroyed in the decline of the empire, but the archaeological rescue between its embers of thousands of clay tablets with inscriptions (a format equivalent to today's book), together with the proverbial eagerness British Museum collector, who owns the bulk of the collection, have allowed to recreate it for the exhibition that opens this Thursday.

Relief of King Ashurbanipal in the hunting of a lion, in the British Museum.
Relief of King Ashurbanipal in the hunting of a lion, in the British Museum.

A set of Assyrian reliefs that the underground store of the London museum has been stored for two decades also comes to light on the occasion of the exhibition to show scenes of a Ashurbanipal lion hunter, although well marked in the belt the tongue used as a pencil in his time. The king who controlled the most lethal war machine of his time never came to lead the troops on the battlefield: he preferred to send them to devastate the enemy from his beloved library. Or parapetado in a court whose opulence reflects the enormous stone sculptures that flanked the entrance of palace, the images of splendid celebrations recorded in murals (with porters of grapes, pomegranates and dates), or the delicate carvings in ivory and intricate ornaments in gold and other metals favored by the elites. The loans of the museums of the Louvre of Paris, the Hermitage of St. Petersburg, the Vorderasiatisches of Berlin or the Vatican.

The family drama is also part of that historical journey through a reign whose head ascended to the throne in 669 BC, despite not being the first in the line of succession. The constant challenge of his dethroned older brother (Asurbanipal came to offer his weight in gold to whoever captured him) denotes the insecurities of a ruler whose empire, inherited by his children, ended however succumbing only 20 years after his death. And, with it, a myth of his time fell that the British Museum now intends to rescue from unjust oblivion.

Inheritance without protection

The British Museum wields the support of the Government of Baghdad in this exhibition that closes its journey vindicando the protection of the historical and cultural heritage of Iraq with the weapon of cooperation. The bulk of the exhibited jewels come from archaeological excavations in the enclaves of Nineveh (present-day Mosul, in the north of the country), and Nimrud, on the banks of the Tigris. To the vandalism and looting suffered in the chaotic days of the first Gulf War (1991), and the ravages of a new invasion 12 years later, has been added the recent threat of terrorism with the signature of the Islamic State, ready to blow up that irreplaceable legacy of antiquity.

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