I was attending an event at the Royal College of Physicians of London in early March 2016, and I had a plenty of time to spare. One of my targets was, of course, the British Museum. Two years ago, Jan van der Crabben (founder and CEO of the Ancient History Encyclopedia) asked me to draft a blog article about the Black Obelisk of Shalmaneser III, but I lacked detailed and high-quality images of all aspects of the obelisk. Nowadays, I’m equipped with a Nikon D750 full-frame camera and incredible lenses. So let’s spend some time looking at the obelisk and enjoy its wonderful artistic scenes.
The obelisk lies at the heart of Room 6 of the Ground Floor. The overall surrounding lighting is unfortunately scarce, but who cares, my camera can overcome this very easily! Remember, no “flash” photography is allowed.
In December 1846, while working with his excavation team at Nimrud (ancient Kalhu or biblical Calah), located in northern Mesopotamia in present-day Iraq, Sir Austen Henry Layard discovered the obelisk. It was in a perfect state of preservation and is still considered the only complete Assyrian obelisk ever found. It was later on transferred to the British Museum (BM “Big number” 118885; Registration Number 1848,1104.1).
The obelisk is a black limestone stela or a monument. It was erected in the year 825 BCE within the courtyard of the so-called “Central Building” within Kalhu (the Assyrian capital at that time) as a public monument during a civil war and turbulence . The obelisk is 197.48 cm in height, 81.91 cm height (of plinth), and 45.08 cm in width. The top was made in the shape of a ziggurat.
The obelisk commemorates 31 years of military campaigns conducted by the Assyrian king Shalmaneser III (reigned 858-824 BCE). The obelisk has four sides. On each side, we can see five vertically arranged registers (or scenes). Each scene tells a story about a subdued king or ruler, who is paying tribute and prostrating before the victorious Assyrian king Shalmaneser III; however, two out of the five kings were depicted on the registers. Each individual scene narrates horizontally, using Akkadian cuneiform inscriptions and carved reliefs, from one side to another (in an anti-clockwise manner), wrapping around the obelisk. Therefore, there are five stories from top to bottom, in 20 registers.
The obelisk became historically important because it depicts and documents Jehu of the House of Omri (king of Israel), and therefore, a biblical figure.
I will describe each horizontal scene (from top to bottom), not the individual sides separately.
Scene 1: King Shalmaneser III receives tribute from Sua of Gilzanu (of modern day north-west Iran): Shalmaneser says that I received tribute from Sua the Gilzanean, silver, gold, tin, bronze, cauldrons, the staffs of the king’s hand, horses (and) two-humped camels.
Scene 2: King Shalmaneser III receives tribute from Iaua (Jehu) of the House of Omri (ancient Israel): Shalmaneser says that “I received tribute from Iaua, son of Omri. Notice that one can see silver, gold, a golden bowl, a golden tureen, golden pails, tin, the staffs ‘of the king’s hand’ and a spear.”
Scene 3: A parade of exotic animals brought from the land of Musri (probably Egypt); there is no depiction of the subdued king or ruler, whose name was not mentioned). Shalmaneser says that “I received tribute from Muṣri, two-humped camels, a water buffalo, a rhinoceros, an antelope, female elephants, female monkeys and apes.”
Scene 4; Marduk-apla-usur the Suhean (from the mid-Euphrates area of modern-day Syria and Iraq), sends animals and other tribute to the Shalmaneser III (the former was not depicted on the Obelisk). Shalmaneser says that “I received tribute from Marduk-apla-usur, the Suhean, silver, gold, pails, ivory, spears, byssus, garments with multi-coloured trim and linen.”
Scene 5; Qarparunda (modern-day Antakya region of Turkey) the Patinean sends precious metals, ivory and ebony. Shalmaneser says that “I received tribute from Qarparunda the Patinean, silver, gold, tin, bronze compound, bronze cauldrons, ivory and ebony. Note that king himself was not shown in the in the scene.”
The following were used to draft this article:
- Images from a personal visit to the British Museum and the British Museum website description of the Obelisk.
- Jonathan Taylor, ‘The Black Obelisk of Shalmaneser III’, Nimrud: Materialities of Assyrian Knowledge Production, The Nimrud Project at Oracc.org.
- The Bible in the British Museum.
- P. Kyle McCarter’s article on Yaw, Son of Omri, which is accessible through JSTOR.
I hope I have been successful in conveying the images of this obelisk to you! As an Iraqi citizen, I would like to sincerely thank all of those who were involved in the excavation, transportation, preservation, protection, and the display of this Black Obelisk. This history belongs to the whole world and humanity, not only to Iraq. Viva Mesopotamia, the Cradle of Civilization!