The King of Kings

Rating: 5

By Robin Dutt

Ashurbanipal was a globally celebrated and feared ancient king. His one aim was to be immortal, referenced in praising texts, telling of his exploits, triumphs, personal bravery, sophistication and wide knowledge. He knew that to be a warrior alone has something of the barbarian about it, but a soldier-scholar was a completely different entity. He had to be the ‘Heroic King’ – the stuff of legend – to the extent that the future to him was more vital than the moment he was living in.

More rapacious than even the Medes, Persians or Egyptians, his personal identity was the only thing that mattered. Here he is, time and again, depicted atop a horse, drawn bow in hand (but writing reed tucked into his belt – the sign of a scholar) quelling Assyria’s most ferocious wild beast, the desert lion. There he is pouring out a libation or enjoying an elaborate feast with his queen. Other slices of gypsum tell stories of battles fought, enemies routed. These are intensely carved treasures.

To many ancient kings, knowledge is certainly emblematic of power and the divine. As Alexander Pope had it, ‘A little learning is a dangerous thing.’ Imbibe all, to be all.

The artefacts in this show are strategically lit, and some tower over the visitor, such as the alluring cabinet of curiosities, containing dozens of cuneiform records, letters and ledgers on learning, magic and medicine. Depictions of fabulous beasts of the imagination, such as winged bulls with haughty human faces, svelte chariot horses and exotic sphinxes, make impressive additions to the acreage of words. Another king, Sennacherib, speaks of his command to have sphinxes carved out of alabastar and cast copper shown with ‘columns of ebony, cypress, cedar, juniper and Indian wood with gold and silver inlays’. The show’s exquisite catalogue has several essays exploring the complexities of this empire and its significance then and today. 

The design is sublime and atmospheric, and the use of the scale of the rooms and lighting contributes to this, whilst the floor itself is a map of the ancient world. The final wall of the main section is devoted to a film projected on to a vast wall, of the rolling smoke of destruction, as a dramatic pointe finale.

It is impossible not to compare Ashurbanipal with Shelley’s Ozymandias. The latter’s empire collapsed as surely as the former’s. As the poet has it…

My name is Ozymandias,
king of kings;

Look on my Works, ye Mighty, and despair! 

Ashurbanipal’s empire crumbled to dust in 627BC. 

Until 24 February at the British Museum, London WC1: 020-7323 8000,