The Assyrian King Ashurbanipal Conquers The British Museum In This Spectacular Exhibition

I Am Ashurbanipal, The British Museum ★★★★★

The Assyrian King Ashurbanipal Conquers The British Museum In This Spectacular Exhibition I Am Ashurbanipal, The British Museum 5
Ashurbanipal looking heroic as he hunts on horseback. © The Trustees of the British Museum

The British Museum’s latest blockbuster exhibition is on the Assyrian king Ashurbanipal. Most people would be forgiven for thinking Ashurbani-who? If Ashurbanipal was still alive to hear of this he’d be livid that he’d been forgotten. After all he once proclaimed:

I am Ashurbanipal, great king, mighty king, king of the world, king of Assyria.

He clearly wasn't the most humble of leaders as shown in a panel depicting him heroically killing the most royal of creatures, a lion. Never mind that the lion had already been shot with an arrow and a shield bearer prevented the lion attacking the king.

A youth is killed by a lioness in this ivory plaque. © The Trustees of the British Museum

Another gory panel shows him hardly breaking a sweat as he stabs his sword into the heart of another lion. He looks positively calm, with his lengthy beard letting others know how virile he is — virility being an important attribute of a leader in Assyria.

It’s just one of many magnificently carved panels on display in this superb exhibition offering insights of an empire we knew little about.

The Assyrian empire under Ashurbanipal stretched from Egypt to Iran, encompassing most of modern day Iraq. While crushing enemies was a large part of it, so was bureaucracy. There are hordes of clay tablets containing letters, decrees and stories and they are remarkably well preserved with every little indentation still visible.

A map of where the Assyrian empire stretched to. Mao produced by Paul Goodhead.

When the empire was sacked by the Babylonians and they burned the vast library, the fire burned the paper but baked the clay tablets and thus helped preserve them. It’s our gain as The British Museum has used this information to paint an impressively rich history of an empire from over 2,600 years ago, including an efficient royal mail service using horses to relay messages across the empire.

With an empire so vast, war inevitably played a large part and there are massive wall panels showing dead bodies covering a battlefield as vultures pick at the corpses. Enemies are beheaded, have their tongues cut out and humiliated as they have to serve guests at a dinner hosted by Ashurbanipal — two sons are even forced to grind the bones of their father. This blood-fest of an exhibition isn't for the light hearted.

What makes these panels extra special is the museum has used projector technology to highlight particular sections and overlay the surrounding walls with text to tell the story on the panels. It’s smartly done as when visitors switch to the battle scenes, the war drums kick in from the speakers and it brings dramatic flair to telling these tales of war and death. We were half expecting the figures in front of us to animate and start moving.

A vicious looking lion carved in bronze sitting atop a furniture fitting. © The Trustees of the British Museum

Another great use of technology is projecting colours on to panels so we can see what they would have looked liked when they were originally painted. A blue aqueduct breathes fresh life into the green vegetation around it and Assyrian gods look resplendent in their white robes.

We’re big fans of using technology in exhibitions to make them come to life, and we’d like to see this type of projection used more widely in future exhibitions.

The show ends by switching to what's happening in Iraq today, where many of the remaining Assyrian ruins are located. Much has recently been destroyed by Daesh (so called Islamic state) including the collection in the museum in Mosul. The British Museum has been helping to train Iraqi archaeologists, and listening to Iraqi historians speak about how they want to restore their home and the museum to the place that filled them with awe as children is inspiring.

There’s no doubt this is a massive exhibition that visitors could easily spend several hours in and it’s full of rich history and jam packed with fascinating stories that meant we were rapt throughout.

I Am Ashurbanipal, king of the world, king of Assyria is on at The British Museum until 24 February. Tickets are £17 for adults.

Last Updated 06 November 2018