From the ninth to the seventh centuries BC, the Assyrians emerged as the dominant power in the Near East, controlling all of present-day Iraq, Syria, Jordan, Lebanon, Israel, and Egypt, as well as large parts of Turkey and Iran. It was the largest empire known until that time. In their homeland in northern Iraq, in the area of Mosul, the kings built splendid palaces, their gates flanked by colossal human-headed bulls and lions, their walls lined with great stone slabs intricately carved in relief with scenes memorializing in fascinating and sometimes grisly detail the king’s exploits in warfare and in hunting, palace life, and court rituals.
After the fall of Assyria, the kings’ palaces were deserted and covered with sand, their names and those of the kings who built them remembered only in the Bible and by Greek historians. In the 1840s and 1850s, French and British explorers dug up the mounds covering these palaces, revealing the glory of ancient Assyria and the fabled cities of Nimrud and Nineveh. British archaeologist Austen Henry Layard excavated literally miles of reliefs and sent the most interesting to the British Museum. After the Second World War, excavations were carried out under Sir Max Mallowan (the husband of mystery writer Agatha Christie). The finds were divided between England and Iraq and, as a result, the British Museum today holds the largest collection of Assyrian art outside of Iraq itself.
“Art and Empire: Treasures from Assyria in the British Museum” includes the most powerful and moving of these reliefs. Military dress and equipment and horse trappings and harnesses illustrate life in the army. Carved ivories, furniture fittings, and metal vessels showcase the luxurious, cosmopolitan lifestyle enjoyed by the king and his court. An array of three-dimensional objects—figures of deities, clay tablets, clay seals and sealings—address the administration of the empire, trade, legal and social issues, and interrelationships between religion, magic, and medicine. Exorcisms, omen texts, mathematical texts, and literary compositions from the royal library (where the king sought to gather together all the world’s learning in one place) enshrine the wisdom of ancient Mesopotamia, the cradle of western civilization.