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In these panels of alabaster bas-reliefs, horsemen (upper-right part of the panels) appear to drive/lure lions towards the king’s chariot. After approaching the chariot, the lions will be hunted/killed. In this relief, two lions and two lionesses were hit by many arrows and are already dead note their flat facial expressions, closed eyes, and different postures. The third lion, who is already hit by an arrow in his head, is jumping and leaping towards the royal chariot. He receives two spears from the king’s attendants, who are trying to ward him off the chariot. From Room C of the North Palace, Nineveh (modern-day Kouyunjik, Mosul Governorate), Mesopotamia, Iraq. Circa 645-535 BCE. The British Museum, London. Photo © Osama S.M. Amin.
By Osama S. M. Amin
Osama graduated from Baghdad University, College of Medicine and was the valedictorian student in internal medicine. He got membership diplomas of the Royal Colleges of Physicians of Ireland (MRCPI) and Glasgow (MRCP Glasg) and then became Board-certified in neurology. Osama is a Fellow of the American College of Physicians (FACP), Fellow of the Royal College of Physicians and Surgeons of Glasgow (FRCP Glasg), Fellow of the Royal College of Physicians of Edinburgh (FRCP Edin), Fellow of the Royal College of Physicians of Ireland (FRCPI), Fellow of the Royal College of Physicians of London FRCP Lond), and Fellow of the Stroke Council of the American Heart Association/American Stroke Association (FAHA). Currently, he is a Clinical Associate Professor at the Clinical School of the International Medical University, Malaysia. Osama published more than 50 articles in international peer-reviewed neurology journals and 5 self-assessment books for the membership diploma of the Royal Colleges of Physicians of the United Kingdom and Ireland. He is an associate editor, guest editor, reviewer and former editor-in-chief in several international peer-reviewed internal medicine and neurology journals. Osama is very interested in Mesopotamian history and always tries to take photos of archaeological sites and artifacts in museums, both in Iraq and around the world. He is a contributor/team member of "Medical MasterClass," the online educational arm of the Royal College of Physicians of London, UK.
An Enveloping Battle Between Kings
Section of the lion hunt reliefs.
A roaring lion, reared up on his hind legs, an arrow through his brow, faces his opponent: a king who holds him at arm’s length with one bare hand and plunges a short sword through his stomach with the other. This king, muscles visible in his forearm, embodies might, the victor even in a one-on-one battle with a ferocious king of beasts.
On its own, this powerful scene would stop many museum-goers in their tracks. Yet it is just one image in a roomful of them, artfully carved into alabaster panels that are collectively known as the lion hunt reliefs. Housed since 1856 at the British Museum, they date to seventh-century B.C. Assyria and rank among the finest relics of ancient civilization.
The panels were discovered in 1853 by Hormuzd Rassam, an Assyrian supervising a dig for the British in territory controlled by the Ottomans. Rassam and his team first found a slab in a mound at what once was Nineveh, across the Tigris River from Mosul, Iraq (which, sadly, is one of many archaeological sites that Islamic State has deliberately destroyed or heavily damaged in recent months). Digging further, they uncovered a palace that had been buried for more than 2,000 years. It had been built by King Ashurbanipal, who ruled Assyria from 668 to 627 B.C., the height of an empire that at times included much of the present-day Near East.
Ashurbanipal made war, expanding his domain, and he was something of a scholar, learning to read and assembling a famous library of cuneiform tablets (much of it also at the British Museum). He was a builder, too—erecting, enlarging and embellishing temples, town defenses and residences. When Ashurbanipal extended the royal quarters at Nineveh with a vast new North Palace, he lined some of its passages with bas-reliefs, including the lion hunt.
Lion hunting was a royal pastime in ancient Assyria, and Ashurbanipal commissioned these reliefs to demonstrate his prowess at this sport of kings. Once colored but now faded to neutral, they resemble a modern-day storyboard or, as some commentators have noted, unfold like an ancient comic book. Ashurbanipal appears in them again and again as vanquisher, thus reassuring his people. With such unsurpassed power, who could question his ability to defend and protect his kingdom?
Visitors to the lion hunt gallery in the British Museum enter Ashurbanipal’s world: The panels, plus some fragments, hang along the sides of a long, narrow, dramatically lighted gallery. Viewers experience the epic drama enveloping them almost as if they were in a cyclorama. There is Ashurbanipal, always taller than his attendants, racing around in a chariot, spraying his arrows at one lion after another. There is the king, in full regalia—including a tall, cylindrical hat—on horseback, drawing back on his bow and arrow, a lion in his sightline. There he stands with four dying lions at his feet.
His wounded prey is everywhere. Some lions writhe in agony blood gushes from their wounds. A crippled lioness lies on her back, fighting death. A lion turns his head away as a spear-bearer thrusts his weapon through the animal’s neck. Another—not stopped by four arrows—rushes the king’s chariot in counterattack, only to confront two spear-bearers ready to plunge their weapons into his throat. In another scene, a similarly situated lion meets a sword wielded by the king as well as two spears. Finally, the king’s attendants carry four dead lions off the field on their shoulders.
It is not long before it becomes clear to viewers that this is not a lion hunt, per se, at all. These reliefs depict a brutal massacre—if a strikingly beautiful massacre—not a heroic drama. The lions have been released from cages, indicating that they have been captured in advance or possibly, historians have written, even raised in captivity. The action takes place in an arena. In the distance, the king’s subjects watch from a hill. They are attending an event, a pageant of propaganda for the king.
Rather than waging a fair fight between man and beast, Ashurbanipal struts on a stage, like an Englishman riding to hounds. Viewers feel pathos for the animals, not admiration for the king.
The artist—experts believe that one master designed these panels, which many artisans then carved—provides clues to that conclusion in his renderings. The king and his men stand rigidly, stone-faced, as they kill. The lions, on the other hand, are realistic, lifelike. You can see their rage, almost feel their pain. At the start, Ashurbanipal’s horses are clearly nervous, kept behind a screen to prevent their sight of the lions. But never do the cold-blooded humans who control this event seem to show emotion.
At the same time, these reliefs are justly renowned for their incredible and vivid details. The king’s clothes are embroidered with tiny rosettes and fancy borders. His bracelets bear a lion’s head, as does the end of his bow. Beards and hair are curled or combed in place. The lions show their muscles, their wet snouts and whiskers. The horses, with groomed manes, wear bridles decorated with medallions. There is movement, tension and grandeur in these panels, artistry that surpasses anything else that preceded it.
And, some would say, even much ancient art that followed it—such as classical Greek art. In a 1976 book titled “Sculptures From the North Palace of Ashurbanipal at Nineveh, 668-627 B.C.,” R.D. Barnett, a keeper at the British Museum, wrote: “There is nothing in Greek art, with its careful restraint of movement, and idealizing of emotion and its anthropocentric world, to compare with this astounding portraiture of the extremes of animal behaviour, of limitless bravery, ferocity, anguish, terror and death.
“Nor indeed does there seem to be in any other art,” he added.
&mdashMs. Dobrzynski writes about culture for many publications and blogs at www.artsjournal.com/realcleararts.
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Masterpieces of the British Museum - The Assyrian lion hunt reliefs
Those people are in for a rough time when they find out what the Assyrians did to other humans.
Truly beautiful work of art that deserves the recognition it is now starting to get. Cross post from r/Assyria.
Thanks, this was most interesting. A fun little connection I made while watching this was how the ancient greeks always regarded the eastern cultures to be more effeminate, while these reliefs depict an Assyrian king killing a lion in hand-to-hand combat, heh.
Great video - thanks for sharing. I was fortunate enough to go to the British Museum a few years ago, and it was amazing to be able to walk through works that exhibit so many cultures and moments in history. Thanks for taking me back there :)
When I first saw these, my thought was, how sad that these aren't on display where they were originally found, were taken from Mesopotamia. Now I think, well, at least they're not in danger of being bombed, or smashed.
If only all of it had been taken out from the middle east :(
Lots of the Mesopotamian artefacts went into the museum of Baghdad, but were looted after Saddam Hussein died. That's not going to happen in London at least, and more people will see it.
Typically, in the past, I would put on my smarmiest internet tone and point out that the British Museum shouldn't have these artifacts.
Now, I don't think most counties in the region are capable of preserving their own history. It is literally being destroyed by their own religion and unsolvable ethic strife.
If it doesn't get out, we can pretty much write it off those chapters of human history.
The royal lion hunt.
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Assyrian Lion Hunt Relief - History
Watanabe Chikako Esther. The lion metaphor in the Mesopotamian Royal context. In: Topoi. Orient-Occident. Supplément 2, 2000. Les animaux et les hommes dans le monde syro-mésopotamien aux époques historiques.
THE LION METAPHOR IN THE MESOPOTAMIAN ROYAL CONTEXT
The aim of this paper is to discuss the way in which the lion metaphors are used in the royal context in Mesopotamia and how they function in relation to the king. The association of royalty with the lion is common even at the beginning of a new millenium. It featured typically in the Disney film «The Lion King » which is the story of a young lion who struggles to establish his rightful kingship which was forcefully deprived him by his uncle. Another example is found in the context of English royalty: the crusader Richard I was called «Richard, the Lion-Heart ». He was also the first English king to adopt the coat of arms showing the three gold lions or leopards of England, and this emblem has been used by every dynasty since. The earliest evidence for using lions as a heraldic device, however, comes from Geoffrey, count of Anjou, who, in the mid-twelfth century, depicted rampant golden lions on his shield, for the first time in European history. In ancient Mesopotamia, the royal association of the lion is well attested in numerous lion metaphors applied to the king in both Sumerian and Akkadian texts as well as in artistic evidence, a typical example of which is the royal lion-hunt scene depicted on the so-called «Assyrian royal seal ».
In 1981, Elena Cassin published her article «Le roi et le lion » in Revue de l'Histoire des Religions 198.4. She examined the relationship between the king and the lion in Mesopotamian textual evidence, and successfully established their associative link. Her work should be regarded as pioneering and is the first serious study to examine the royal association of the animal. It is, however, not sufficiently dealt with in Cassin's study what particular traits of royalty can be articulated by the expression of lion metaphors according to the specific contexts, and how the metaphoric expressions can effectively evoke ideas appropriate for royalty by referring to the animal. An explanation for the symbolic association of the king with the lion is sometimes provided in terms of
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Hormuzd Rassam, (born 1826, Mosul, Ottoman Mesopotamia [now in Iraq]—died 1910), Assyriologist who excavated some of the finest Assyrian and Babylonian antiquities that are now in the possession of the British Museum and found vast numbers of cuneiform tablets at Nineveh (Nīnawā, Iraq) and Sippar (Abū Ḥabbah, Iraq), including the earliest known record of archaeological activity.
He first served as an assistant (1845–47) to the famed British Assyriologist Austen Henry Layard and participated in the excavation of Nimrūd (Khorsabad, Iraq). After studying at the University of Oxford, he again accompanied Layard (1849–51) and took part in the excavation of Nineveh. Layard entered political life shortly thereafter, and in 1852 Rassam was retained to continue excavating antiquities for the British Museum. At Nineveh, Nimrūd, and elsewhere he unearthed notable sculptures, stelae (carved slabs), and inscriptions. In 1853 he discovered at Nineveh the well-known lion-hunt relief of King Ashurbanipal. Shortly thereafter he found the remainder of the royal library, including much of the ancient Epic of Gilgamesh and a terra-cotta prism inscribed with the annals of Ashurbanipal’s reign. Subsequently, he held British political appointments in Aden and Ethiopia for a number of years.
In 1876 he again became the British Museum’s supervisor of Mesopotamian excavations. His final efforts (1878–82) yielded important results. About 15 miles (24 km) from Mosul, at a mound known as Tell Balawat, he excavated the palace of Shalmaneser II and found a pair of great bronze gates that are now one of the glories of the British Museum. Possibly his most valuable contribution to Mesopotamian studies was his discovery in 1880 of a tablet of King Nabu-apal-iddin, which identified the site as the temple of the sun god Shamash in the city of Sippar. In the following 18 months Rassam excavated about 170 chambers surrounding the temple and found 40,000 to 50,000 inscribed cylinders and tablets. One cylinder recounted how Nabonidus (reigned 555–539 bc ), the father of Belshazzar and the last king of Babylon, had excavated the temple to its original cornerstone, laid 4,200 years earlier by Naram-Sin, the son of King Sargon of Akkad. Rassam recounted much of his work in Asshur and the Land of Nimrod (1897).
Assyrian Lion Hunt Relief - History
The Neo-Assyrian Empire (934-610 BCE or 912-612 BCE) was, according to many historians, the first true empire in the world. The Assyrians had expanded their territory from the city of Ashur over the centuries, and their fortunes rose and fell with successive rulers and circumstances in the Near East. Beginning with the reign of Adad Nirari II (912-891 BCE), the empire made great territorial expansions that resulted in its eventual control of a region which spanned the whole of Mesopotamia, part of Anatolia, the Levant, and Egypt. They fielded the most effective fighting force in the world at that time, the first to be armed with iron weapons, whose tactics in battle made them invincible. Their political and military policies have also given them the long-standing reputation for cruelty and ruthlessness. (18)
Assyrian Arts and Politics
The Assyrian state proved masterful in promoting their ruthlessness and vigor through visual representation.
Lion HuntsFigure 2-8: Ashurbanipal’s Lion Hunt by Mark.murphy is licensed under CC BY-SA 3.0
Lion hunter was one role of the Assyrian king. We know this primarily from lion hunt steles located in Nineveh dating back to the reign of Ashurnasirpal II. These steles illustrate the king capturing and killing lions. Without a doubt, these steles functioned as propaganda, promoting the virility and might of the king through his ability to conquer the fiercest of beasts.
Political ServitudeFigure 2-9: Jehu King of Israel giving tribute to King Shalmaneser III of Assyria cropped by Steven G. Johnson is licensed under CC BY-SA 3.0
The Assyrians made public their dominance over lesser nations by illustrating the kings of conquered nations bowing before the Assyrian king. In the relief above from the Black Obelisk Inscription, the stele portrays the Israelite king Jehu of Israel paying tribute to the Assyrian king and bowing in the dust before the Assyrian king Shalmaneser III. The cuneiform text on the obelisk suggests that “Jehu the son of Omri” brought gifts of gold, silver, lead, and spear shafts as a sign of loyalty to the Assyrian state. (19)
Mass DeportationFigure 2-10: Lachish Inscription by Mike Peel is licensed under CC BY-SA 4.0
On conquering lands in rebellion, the Assyrians would regularly relocate the conquered peoples from their home territory to another portion of the empire. This became known as exile or mass deportation. The stele above represents the Assyrian deportation of the population of Lachish, following their defeat at the hands of the Assyrians in 701 BCE.
The Assyrian Capital of NinevehFigure 2-11: Nineveh map city walls & gates by Fredarch is licensed under CC BY-SA 3.0
Nineveh was an ancient Assyrian city on the eastern bank of the Tigris River, and the capital of the Neo-Assyrian Empire. Its ruins are across the river from the modern-day major city of Mosul in Iraq.
Today, Nineveh’s location is marked by two large mounds, Kouyunjik and NabÄ« YÅ«nus “Prophet Jonah,” and the remains of the city walls. These were fitted with fifteen monumental gateways which served as checkpoints on entering and exiting the ancient city, and were probably also used as barracks and armories. With the inner and outer doors shut, the gateways were virtual fortresses. Five of the gateways have been explored to some extent by archaeologists.
Nineveh was an important junction for commercial routes crossing the Tigris. Occupying a central position on the great highway between the Mediterranean Sea and the Indian Ocean, Nineveh united the East and the West, and received wealth from many sources. Thus, it became one of the oldest and greatest of all the region’s ancient cities, and the capital of the Neo-Assyrian Empire. The area was settled as early as 6000 BCE, and by 3000 BCE had become an important religious center for worship of the Assyrian goddess Ishtar.
It was not until the Neo-Assyrian Empire that Nineveh experienced a considerable architectural expansion. King Sennacherib is credited with making Nineveh a truly magnificent city during his rule (c. 700 BCE). He laid out new streets and squares and built within it the famous “palace without a rival”, the plan of which has been mostly recovered. It comprised at least 80 rooms, many of which were lined with sculpture. A large number of cuneiform tablets were found in the palace. The solid foundation was made out of limestone blocks and mud bricks. Some of the principal doorways were flanked by colossal stone-door figures that included many winged lions or bulls with the heads of men. The stone carvings in the walls include many battle and hunting scenes, as well as depicting Sennacherib’s men parading the spoils of war before him.
Nineveh’s greatness was short-lived. In around 627 BCE, after the death of its last great king Ashurbanipal, the Neo-Assyrian empire began to unravel due to a series of bitter civil wars, and Assyria was attacked by the Babylonians and Medes. From about 616 BCE, in a coalition with the Scythians and Cimmerians, they besieged Nineveh, sacking the town in 612, and later razing it to the ground.
The Assyrian empire as such came to an end by 605 BC, with the Medes and Babylonians dividing its colonies between them. Following its defeat in 612, the site remained largely unoccupied for centuries with only a scattering of Assyrians living amid the ruins until the Sassanian period, although Assyrians continue to live in the surrounding area to this day. (19)