I am Ashurbanipal, king of the world, king of Assyria, British Museum, December 2018

With Christmas round the corner, presents to wrap, festive drinks to be consumed and family to visit, who has the time to read let alone write a blog review? So, I am going to keep this short and sweet. Ashurbanipal is very, very good, you should seriously go and see it. At £17 for an adult ticket it certainly isn’t cheap, but it is, I feel, worth it. Also don’t forget under 16’s are free when accompanied by a paying adult. So there you go, job done.

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Ashurbanipal impressive beard is a sign of his virility.

If you have a little more time I can tell you why it captured me. Three things: lighting, story telling and objects. Ashurbanipal reigned between 669-631BC and was, for a while, the most powerful man on Earth with an Assyrian Empire that at it’s height stretched from the Eastern Mediterranean to the mountains of Iran.

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Assyrian Empire under Ashurbanipal.

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Ashurbanipal on a ritual lion hunt.

You can read more about the story of Ashurbanipal on a hundred better websites than this, but I don’t think you need to be well versed in the history of the time to thoroughly enjoy the exhibition.

The lighting is stunning, from early on you get to meet the protective spirits from a forgotten kingdom. The panels come from Ashurbanipal’s palace in Nineveh, these guardians protect the King and his people from malevolent supernatural forces. The light renders the images so crisply, you can really appreciate the beautiful carving and they leave you with an unsettling impression. It is as if they still retain the power to protect and frighten.

 On this prism King Sennacherib describes how he rebuilt the city of Nineveh over several years, using forced labour from conquered lands.

Lighting is used so well all the way through, in particular to highlight the mysterious cuneiform writing exemplified with this clay prism buried under the foundations of an important building.

What really marks this exhibition out is how light transforms objects. There are a number of sections where light projections materialise like magic, they show how panels would have originally been coloured. The effect completely transforms these artefacts, they take on new power and immediacy, it is like seeing colour television for the first time after decades of watching in black and white.

The lighting also becomes the voice of the story teller, deciphering crowded panels which can overwhelm with detail. You are taken through sections and moments that bring the power of the images to life. You re-live battles, glories and murderous shocking brutality that feels like it could have happened yesterday not thousands of years ago.

This storytelling is echoed in object selection and interpretation that I find utterly compelling. We are shown a king exerting power and influence through propaganda but there are many objects that round out that single message.

Illustrations of musical instruments, gaming boards, and carvings of banquets bring to life the people who had to live under Ashurbanipal’s rule. There are stories that are very recognisable in a 21st century world, they completely wipe away the impenetrable years between now and then including the fantastic letter from Princess Sheru’a-etirat, sister to Ashurbanipal who berates her sister-in-law Libbali-Sherrat for neglecting her studies.

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In this letter, the Princess Sheru’a-etirat, Ashurbanipal’s sister berates her sister-in-law for neglecting her studies. ‘Why don’t you write your tablets and recite your exercises?’
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Ashurbanipal owned at least 10,000 works. Each newly made from the finest clay and written in the clearest script.

I am in awe of the remains of Ashurbanipal’s 10,000 clay tablets from his library. I love how they are displayed, it adds such complexity to Ashurbanipal’s character, a warrior king, brutal, but also someone who revered words and learning, who seated his power in knowledge just as much as the sword.

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Lioness devouring a youth. Gold leaf decorates his short kilt and tightly curled hair. In the background, lotus and papyrus flowers covered in gold leaf are inlaid with lapis lazuli and carnelian. The plaque was probably part of an ornate piece of furniture.

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There are so many objects that stop me in my tracks, there is such beauty and craftsmanship. I have never seen clam shells carved into luxury cosmetic containers before, a little ‘wow’ escapes my lips when I see the spectacular decorated cauldron found in a tomb in Salamis, Cyprus.

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Vultures peck at the eyes of the dead, who lie naked on the battlefield.

“I cut off the head of Teumman, their presumptuous king who had plotted evil. I slew his warriors without number. I captured the fighting men alive. I filled the plain of the city of Susa with their bodies… I made the Ulai River blow with their blood; I dyed its water red like red-dyed wool.” Ashurbanipal

What stays with me over and above the spectacular objects and the clever story telling is the shocking brutality depicted. This is the cruel crushing reality of such an empire, there are decapitations, heads piled up in shows of victory, headless bodies trampled to dust and vultures feasting on the headless corpses.

I think the sign of a great exhibition is I always want to go straight back. With Ashurbanipal, particularly the final section, it makes you think about the rise and fall of empires. What makes people band together, conquer, rule and how all that can be broken and how impenetrable walled cities, libraries of great knowledge and absolute rulers can crumble and fall.

As we go through political upheaval, it makes you wonder about the people who lived under Ashurbanipal. Did they fear for the future or believe that such a great and powerful Assyrian Empire would last forever?

So there you have it in a nutshell: beautiful objects, mesmerising storytelling and shocking brutality, a recipe for exhibition success that I highly recommend you check out in 2019, warning: you only have till February!

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I am Ashurbanipal, king of the World, king of Assyria is on at the British Museum from 8 November 2018 – 24th February 2019. For ticket prices and opening times please see the website. https://www.britishmuseum.org/whats_on/exhibitions/ashurbanipal.aspx

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