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Assyrian Reliefs

September 6, 2018

He will raise a signal for nations far away,and whistle for them from the ends of the earth;and behold, quickly, speedily they come!  None is weary, none stumbles,none slumbers or sleeps,not a waistband is loose,not a sandal strap broken;their arrows are sharp,all their bows bent,their horses’ hoofs seem like flint,and their (chariot)wheels like the whirlwind.Their roaring is like a lion,like young lions they roar;they growl and seize their prey;they carry it off, and none can rescue(Isaiah 5:26-29 ESV)

 

Introduction

 

Two palace wall reliefs depicting Assyrian kings on hunting expeditions, one of Ashurnasirpal II (883-859 BC) drawing his bow from a chariot and another depicting a close up of Ashurbanipal (668-ca. 627 BC) in a similar stance, capture the essence of Imperial Assyria.  Rightly vilified by biblical writers, the Assyrian Empire ruled with an iron fist, using horrific acts of terror, various forms of psychological warfare and mass deportations of entire populations to intimidate their rivals and maintain loyalty among their vassals.  Yet, as these reliefs portray, Assyrian royal art brilliantly captured details of both military campaigns and leisure activities enjoyed by royalty.

The Neo-Assyrian Empire was rapidly rising to prominence during the ninth century BC reign of Ashurnasirpal II.  He expanded its borders, recapturing territory lost two centuries earlier, while consolidating a robust power base in northern Mesopotamia.  Building upon the many successes of both his grandfather Adad-Nirari II and father, Tukulti-Ninurta II, Ashurnasirpal’s reign also provided the strategic and logistical basis for later campaigns conducted by his son and successor Shalmaneser III (Hosea 10:14) to the west, including attacks against Israel (see Black Obelisk).

Assyria reached its height under the later reign of Ashurbanipal.  Imperial hegemony reached as far as Upper Egypt and unrivaled spender adorned the great city of Nineveh, including a truly priceless library of cuneiform texts.  Nevertheless, various fissures began to appear in Assyria’s once unassailable infrastructure and the empire quickly began to collapse after Ashurbanipal’s death, culminating with the sack of Nineveh in 612 BC (Nahum; Zephaniah 2:13), the fall of Harran in 609 BC and the final debacle at Carchemish in 605 BC.

 

Relevance to the Biblical Account

 

The site of Nimrud, identified with biblical Calah (Genesis 10:11-12), served as Assyria’s capital during the reign of Ashurnasirpal II (e.g., Mallowan 1966; Curtis 1997; Oates 2001). The much better-known Assyrian epicenter of Nineveh, the city that Jonah reluctantly evangelized, but with great results during the early eighth century BC and whose utter destruction and ruin the prophet Nahum later described, functioned as Assyria’s seat of power for many of its kings (e.g., Parrot 1955; Russell 1996; Stronach and Codella 1997). These rulers included Sennacherib (2 Kings 19:36; Isaiah 37:37), his son Esarhaddon (2 Kings 17:37; Isaiah 37:38; Ezra 4:2), and grandson Ashurbanipal, the last great Assyrian monarch.  While the Bible does not mention Ashurnasirpal, the royal courts of Israel and Judah were familiar with and respectful of his name and Assyria’s. 

The only biblical reference to Ashurbanipal (Ezra 4:10) recounts the settlement of deportees in Samaria by Osnappar (widely recognized as Ashurbanipal) during his seventh century BC reign.  On the other hand, Assyrian texts attributed to Ashurbanipal repeatedly mention Judah and King Manasseh (697-643 BC) as an Assyrian vassal state.  2 Chronicles 33:11-13 preserves a vassal summons for Manasseh to appear before the Assyrian king at Babylon following Ashurbanipal’s crushing defeat of an empire wide revolt led by his brother in 648 BC.

 

Physical Description

 

A very well preserved wall relief depicts Ashurnasirpal II or crown prince Shalmaneser III in a chariot drawing his bow at an unseen lion while another lies mortally wounded, writhing on the ground beneath the horses’ feet.  Depictions of royal lion hunts were popular motifs in Assyrian palace reliefs, undoubtedly as a vehicle to demonstrate the virility and strength of the king.  The British Museum acquired this relief in 1849 from Layard’s excavations at Nimrud’s Northwest Palace (BM 124579; Layard 1850 2: 66-67 and drawing facing p. 67; Reade 1985: 211, Plate 44b). The relief measures 38 x 56 inches and appears on the British Museum website:

http://www.britishmuseum.org/research/collection_online/collection_object_details.aspx?objectId=369058&partId=1&searchText=ashurnasirpal+lion+hunt&page=1

The relief of Ashurbanipal, galloping on his horse and drawing his bow while hunting onagers (wild asses) is preserved in the British Museum (BM 124875; 124876; Barnett 1959: 83; 1976: 51-52, 153, Plates 51-52).  Obtained by the British Museum in 1856 from Layard’s excavations of the North Palace at Kouyunjik (Nineveh), the superb implementation by an Assyrian artesian in capturing Ashurbanipal and his horse in such a dramatic pose is truly exceptional.  Measuring 24 x 27 inches, the relief also appears in various secondary publications (e.g., Reade 1983: 60; Collins 2008: 132-133) as well as on the British Museum website:

http://www.britishmuseum.org/research/collection_online/collection_object_details.aspx?objectId=366947&partId=1&searchText=ashurbanipal&people=93717&museumno=124876&page=1

The British Museum apparently commissioned or allowed castings made of both reliefs before accessioning them into the museum collection.  Artisans from the Giust Gallery, utilizing molds from these early castings, skillfully replicated both reliefs https://www.giustgallery.com/.  The Horn Museum purchased these recreated pieces of Assyrian monumental art in 2017.  

 

Parallels

 

John Stearns (1961) published a corpus of reliefs from the palace of Ashurnasirpal II at Nimrud, which Austen Henry Layard unearthed in 1848.  Two reliefs from Nimrud’s North-West Palace bear close similarities with the Ashurnasirpal II lion hunting relief.  One shows a prince or high official drawing his bow from a chariot while a wounded lion looks back as the chariot speeds by (apparently preserved only as a drawing; Reade 1985: 210, Plate 42a).  Another scene displayed on an alabaster surface depicts a similar event. However, the king (or the crown prince) faces backwards and draws his bow towards a lion lunging at the rear of the chariot (BM 124534; e.g., Barnett 1959: 26-27; Oates 2001: 51, Fig. 26; Collins 2008: 35).  

 

Bibliography

 

Barnett, Richard D.

1959    Assyrian Palace Reliefs and Their Influence on the Sculptures of Babylonia and                        Persia. London:  Batchworth.

 

1976    Sculptures from the North Palace of Ashurbanipal at Nineveh (668-627                                      B.C.). London:  The British Museum.

 

Collins, Paul

            2008    Assyrian Palace Sculptures.  Austin:  University of Texas.

 

Curtis, John

1997    Nimrud.  Pp. 141-144 in Volume 4 of The Oxford Encyclopedia of Archaeology in the                  Near East,edited by Eric M. Meyers. New York:  Oxford University.

 

Layard, Austen Henry

1850    Nineveh and Its Remains:  With an Account of a Visit to the Chaldean Christians of Kurdistan, and the Yezidis, or Devil-Worshippers; and an Enquiry into the Manners and Arts of the Ancient Assyrians.  2 Volumes. New York:  George P. Putnam. 

 

Mallowan, M.E.L.

            1966    Nimrud and Its Remains.  3 Volumes.  London: Collins.

 

Oates, Joan and David

2001    Nimrud: An Assyrian Imperial City Revealed. London:  British School of Archaeology                in Iraq.

 

Parrot, André

1955    Nineveh and the Old Testament.  Studies in Biblical Archaeology 3.  Translated from                French by B.E. Hooke.  London: SCM.

 

Reade, Julian

            1983    Assyrian Sculpture.  London:  British Museum Publications.

            1985    Texts and Sculptures from the North-West Palace, Nimrud.  Iraq47: 203-214.

 

Russell, John Malcolm

1996    Nineveh—The Great City.  Pp. 150-193 in Royal Cities of the Biblical World,edited by                  Joan Goodnick Westenholz. Jerusalem:  Bible Lands Museum.

 

Saggs, H.W.F.

1984    The Might that was Assyria.  Great Civilizations Series.  London:  Sidgwick & Jackson.

 

Stearns, John B.

1961    Reliefs from the Palace of Ashurnaṣirpal II. Archiv für Orientforschung                                        15.  Graz: Archiv für Orientforschung.

 

Stronach, David, and Codella, Kim

1997    Nineveh.  Pp. 144-148 in Volume 4 of The Oxford Encyclopedia of Archaeology in the                Near East,edited by Eric M. Meyers. New York:  Oxford University.

 

 

 

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