Saturday, 7 April 2012


Whenever I travel to London I always try to find time to visit the British Museum, in order to see the Assyrian reliefs, which were excavated in the 19th century from the ruins of the ancient cities of Nimrud and Nineveh in northern Iraq. They were carved on slabs of alabaster, and were originally painted. Some show kings and monsters, often more than life-size, with inscriptions in cuneiform writing.

The most famous carvings show King Assurbanipal hunting lions, depicted with savage realism.

Others show battle scenes. The Assyrians created the first great empire of the Iron Age, and an extremely brutal one. From their base on the upper Tigris river after 900 B.C. their armies conquered all the surrounding lands of Iraq, western Iran, Syria and Palestine, down as far as Egypt. When cities which resisted them were taken, the nobles were gruesomely executed and the common people deported to distant parts of the empire, as happened to the "lost ten tribes" of Israel.
The next slab is one of a series depicting the storming of the city of Lachish, south of Jerusalem, as recorded in the Bible.

The names of the great kings from the mid-8th century are like a splendid litany: Tiglath-Pileser III, Shalmaneser V, Sargon II, Sennacherib, Esarhaddon, Assurbanipal. (In fact these are only Biblical approximations of the kings' real names in the Assyrian language, but they have become familiar to us through the Bible, and so continue to be generally used even by scholars)

In 621 Nineveh fell to Nebuchadnessar, King of Babylon, in alliance with the Persian and Mede clans of northern Iran, and the empire came to an end. The Assyrian cities were buried and forgotten, though their names lived on in the Bible. They were excavated in the 19th century and their treasures discovered, including the royal library of 22,000 clay tablets. Among these were fragments telling the story of Gilgamesh; an epic far older than Assyria, dating back to the ancient Sumerian civilisation of southern Iraq almost two thousand years earlier. The tablet shown below caused a sensation when it was deciphered, because it told of how Gilgamesh met Utnapishtim, the only man to survive a great flood which the gods sent to destroy the earth. They had found the Assyrian account of Noah's flood!

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