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The biblical ruler who wanted to be ‘king of the world’

Ashurbanipal

Ashurbanipal ruled the vast Assyrian Empire when it was at its height – and also had the world's largest library

The “great and illustrious Ashurbanipal” is mentioned in the Bible, in Ezra 4:10 – and there was good reason for him calling himself “king of the world”. From his splendid palace at Nineveh, his rule over Assyria from 669 to c. 631 BC was the highest point of the Assyrian empire, which stretched from the eastern edge of the Mediterranean as far as Iran, and from present-day Turkey to Kuwait. It included the kingdom of Israel, whose inhabitants had been exiled half a century before Ashurbanipal came to the throne, around 720 BC – leading to the myth of the Lost Ten Tribes of Israel. (The more famous Babylonian captivity of Judaea happened half a century after his death.)

The exhibition I am Ashurbanipal, in its last few weeks at the British Museum, is a showcase of the museum’s many artefacts from the king’s reign. Most prominent are the carved stone wall panels, in immaculate condition. Some tell of Ashurbanipal himself, promoting his strength and bravery – but with a disarming honesty. The great king is shown slaying a lion with a spear – but the storyboard, almost like a comic strip, shows a child opening a cage to let the lion out; the lion, old, sick or injured, limps towards the king who, protected by his armed guards, kills it.

Other huge and detailed panels show the progress of battles and wars across the region, including against his own brother, the king of Babylon, who had plotted against Ashurbanipal.

Creative use of lighting means that a selection of stone carvings are shown in their original painted colours, while in the complex war scenes, different areas are illuminated while the action is being explained.

The British Museum has thousands of clay tablets from Ashurbanipal’s era; he undoubtedly had the largest library of his time, with over 10,000 works. There’s a wall full of writings, in tiny wedge-shaped cuneiform writing; it’s fascinating to today’s eyes that the clay tablets are much the same size as small phones, for letters or details of transactions, or of computer tablets for longer documents.

Two in particular catch the eye: a letter written to his father when Ashurbanipal was 13, and tablets with the original text of the Epic of Gilgamesh – the gaps in our present translations stemming from cracks, holes and missing corners in the sometimes fragmentary tablets.

Nineveh is now part of Mosul in northern Iraq, a city which was seized by ISIS in 2014, with much deliberate destruction of priceless historical artefacts, both statues and buildings, for being “blasphemous”; 20 miles south of Mosul, some 80 per cent of the archaeological site of Nimrud was destroyed. The Museum of Mosul has now reopened, and its first exhibition of contemporary art inspired by conflict and reconciliation, Return to Mosul, began last month.

Restoring the damage, and protecting cultural sites damaged in war, is highly specialist and hugely complicated work. For the last two years small groups of Iraqi archaeologists have been coming to London to be trained in restoration work at the British Museum in the UK government-funded Iraq Scheme, before returning to their historic homeland to put their new skills into practice.

I am Ashurbanipal: king of the world, king of Assyria is at the British Museum until February 24