Wall Reliefs: Ashurnasirpal II at the North-West Palace
“(Property of) the palace of Assurnasirpal (II), vice-regent of Assur, chosen of Enlil and Ninurta, beloved of Anu and Dagan, destructive weapon of the great gods, strong king, king of the universe, king of Assyria, son of Tukulti-Ninurta (II), great king, strong king, king of the universe,…”
This is how Ashurnasirpal II, a harsh king, described himself at the beginning of his “Standard Inscription”, which was carved horizontally onto the North-West Palace’s wall reliefs at Nimrud. A real terror of the Middle East, Ashurnasirpal II decisively crushed any revolt, massacred defeated rebels, and even burned children and women after an uprising; heartless and merciless!
The Assyrian literature told us that the North-West Palace of Ashurnasirpal II was a wonder at that time, mid-9th century BCE. The King had feelings to enjoy art! At the heart of the Assyrian Empire, this palace was built as part of a large-scale renovation plan to revive the ancient city of Nimrud (ancient Kalhu; Biblical Calah) in Mesopotamia, modern-day Iraq. The site became the royal residential and administrative city of the Assyrians for almost 150 years.
As in any other building during that time, the walls were composed of mud-bricks, which were reinforced by timber. Then, thick slabs of alabaster covered these walls as sculpted revetments, depicting various scenes, as a film or comic book in stone. The scenes were carved in low reliefs, ranging from superficial incisions to deep cuts. At the upper part of these slabs, a multitude of colorful fresco paintings were inserted; the King had taste!
How to portray the owner of this Palace, Ashurnasirpal II? After all, it is a one-man show conducted by a ruthless King! Sculptors had to work closely with architects. But, there is another group, composed of priests, diviners, and magicians, who had to be involved! The latter team had to ensure that the supernatural realm and magical spirits were placed in their appropriate locations, so that they can ward off evils and offer the best protection to the King and his Palace.
Room 7 on the ground floor of the British Museum is part of the marvellous Assyrian Galleries. If you ever visit this room, you must consider yourself part of something timeless. Thanks to the great work of Sir Henry Layard and his workmen, any person from any part of the globe can enjoy the scent of history and appreciate with their own eyes these astonishing masterpieces from Nimrud.
There are 2 types of slabs housed in Room 7. On the right side, Ashurnasirpal engages in victorious war scenes and dangerous lion hunting activities; I will be discussing these in another article. Here, I will be addressing a multitude of 2-meter high courtly and ritual ceremonial scenes of the King himself, not the guardians and not the protective spirits. It’s all about the King, Ashurnasirpal II (reigned 883-859 BCE), and nothing but the King.
The left side of the gallery is decorated with complete slabs, and sometimes, fragments of these slabs. The image of the King can be found 9 times. The King was portrayed twice within one complete scene within a large stone wall panel, which was found behind the throne. There is a small square-shaped fragment depicting the King’s head only; this was purchased by the British Museum. The King and a royal attendant appear in a horizontal rectangular fragment of a large slab; the lower part of this slab is housed in another museum. Therefore, the King’s whole image appears in 6 complete large wall panels.
Ashurnasirpal II was depicted either standing (6 times) or sitting. In one slab, he sits on his throne in a courtly ritual scene; this sitting posture is found once only. Two slabs depict the King standing; a conqueror holding arrows and bow or holding a long royal staff and putting his hand on his sword’s hilt. In the remaining panels, he appears to perform ceremonial rituals. Depending on the type of the scene, royal guards or attendants (with their full weaponry) stand before and behind the king, sometimes waving fly-whisks. Apkallu spirits have to protect the environment; they may immediately flank the king, or flank the group of the king and his royal guards.
Once again, it’s all about the King. I will not post “complete full front” pictures of all slabs; you can find these throughout the internet, quite easily. But rather, I will concentrate, using what you may call a semi-microscope, to highlight small unrecognized details of the King, which make this article unique!
A master sculptor initially made the general sketching or incisions on the slab. Then, a group of different sculptors, working under the supervision of lead artists, worked on the slabs. This was clearly reflected by the different depictions (or iconographies) of the same subject; for example Ashurnasirpal II’s face and head details.
Because many people just watch the slabs rapidly, the King may appear to the audience as a copy-paste figure. No, the King’s attire, royal regalia, headdress, sandals, and so on all appear differently carved, with different shapes, hair style, etc. For instance, the Kings facial expression may look rigid, full of terror, poker-faced, or in one image, as if he is smiling!
The sculptors “took different pictures” of the King, on different days, and on different occasions and put them in an album of stone images. Despite being out of context here in the British Museum, these reliefs undoubtedly make a lasting impression on the visitors today as they did in the past. What a talent!
When seeing the images, please do more than just watch; spend some time, scan the details, compare them with other images of the same subject, and absorb the content! For example, the King’s face and head, look at the general facial expression, the jaw position, eye, scalp hair as well as its style and arrangement, the beard, the mustache, the garment embroidery, etc.
At the end of my visit, I stood aside, as I had gotten exhausted. A young British man (his accent was clearly diagnostic) with a young girl of five or six years in age came in and watched the slabs. His words were carved into my mind; he said to this girl:
“You see these gigantic men and flying creatures? Remember when your daddy, a soldier, told you that he served several months in Iraq… these came from Iraq… many many years ago… a great civilization and a great people”.
Enjoy the images!
“Fashions fade, style is eternal”, Yves Saint Laurent.
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.