British Museum reveals secrets of ancient Assyrian ruler

1 / 3
Ashurbanipal hunting on horseback, Nineveh, Assyria, 645 – 635 BC. (Courtesy British Museum)
2 / 3
Stone stele depicting Ashurbanipal, right, shown with a ritual basket on his head with cuneiform inscription, South Iraq, Marduk temple (Babylon), 668BC — 665BC. His brother Shamash-shumu-ukin, left, carved with cuneiform inscription, South Iraq, Temple of Nabu (Borsippa), 668BC – 655BC. (Courtesy British Museum)
3 / 3
Granite sphinx of Taharqo, Kawa, Sudan. (Courtesy British Museum)
Updated 20 June 2018

British Museum reveals secrets of ancient Assyrian ruler

  • Exhibition on King Ashurbanipal reveals treasures from the 7th-century kingdom that stretched across northern Iraq and eastern Mediterranean.
  • Director of the British Museum Hartwig Fischer: “This exhibition will bring visitors face to face with a king whose reign shaped the history of the ancient world.”

LONDON: When Daesh ransacked Mosul Museum in February 2015, the world watched in horror as cultural treasures were pushed from plinths and relics from ancient civilizations smashed to the floor. 

Priceless pieces of Iraq’s history were lost, taking thousands of years of heritage with them while the militant group tried to wipe out pre-Islamic past and destroy all memory of the ancient civilizations Iraq is built on.

Rescuing the artefacts that escaped the group’s savagery and restoring Iraq’s archaeological ancestry has become part of the healing process as the country emerges from the trauma of Daesh rule and pieces its identity back together following a decade of turmoil. 

Programs to train Iraq’s archaeologists in emergency heritage management are being supported by overseas institutions, including the British Museum in London, where a new exhibition will delve into an era when Iraq was at the center of a great Assyrian empire. 

Priceless treasures from the archaeological archives of ancient Assyria will go on display at the museum in November for the first major exhibition on the kingdom’s last great ruler, King Ashurbanipal. 

Described as the most powerful person on earth during his reign in the 7th-century BC, Ashurbanipal ruled with an iron fist from his seat in Nineveh, now northern Iraq. 

He presided over a vast territory that stretched from the shores of the eastern Mediterranean to the summits of western Iraq and was known, according to the exhibition, as a “Warrior. Scholar. Empire-builder. King-slayer. Lion-hunter. Librarian.”

A map showing the extent of the Assyrian Empire (in pink). (Courtesy Paul Goodhead)

His feats on the battlefield, which included conquering Egypt and crushing the state of Elam, established his military might but the Assyrian king also cultivated an intellectual prestige, amassing the largest library in existence to showcase his scholarship.

For Ashurbanipal, the ruthless ruler, harnessing the power of learning to build his status as “King of the World, King of Assyria,” was equally important in cowing his enemies.

Among the notable pieces in his extraordinary collection, which predated the famous Library of Alexandria, was the Epic of Gilgamesh, a poem from ancient Mesopotamia considered the earliest surviving work of great literature.

About 30,000 of these texts are in the hands of the British Museum, where they tell the story of life at Ashurbanipal’s famously extravagant court in ancient cuneiform script, hammered out on clay tablets. 

These are among the 200 rarely-seen objects due to be displayed at the museum, which has brought together pieces from across the world, from the History Museum of Armenia, Yerevan to the Musée du Louvre in Paris to supplement its existing collection of artefacts from the glory days of ancient Assyria. 

Huge stone statues, delicately-carved reliefs, rare wall paintings and elaborate armory give a sense of the opulence of Ashurbanipal’s palace, which stood as a symbol of the vast wealth and influence he wielded, flanked by expansive gardens where an elaborate canal network reached 50 kilometers into the mountains.

Recent speculation has suggested that the Hanging Gardens of Babylon — one of the Seven Wonders of the Ancient World — were in fact those at Nineveh.

Some of the the artefacts have been brought up from a decommissioned basement gallery at the British Museum, where few have had the opportunity to lay eyes on them for 20 years. 

Brought together for the first time, they capture the scale and splendor of the era before Ashurbanipal’s empire fell to the Babylonians and recalls an era when the influence of Assyrian monarchs reached across the world. 

Hartwig Fischer, director of the British Museum, said: “This exhibition will bring visitors face to face with a king whose reign shaped the history of the ancient world.” 

Many of the items on display originate from archaeological sites in Iraq, including Nineveh and Nimrud, cities recently ravaged by Daesh when the group stormed the ancient sites armed with sledgehammers and drills. 

Gareth Brereton, exhibition curator, said: “As present-day Iraq looks to recover the history of damaged sites at Nineveh and Nimrud, this exhibition allows us to appreciate and relive the great achievements of an ancient world and celebrate its legacy.” 


Manganiyar musical experience connects Saudi Arabia with ancient India

Ithra takes visitors to the magical world of Manganiyar, an Indian folk music, in Dhahran on Wednesday. (Photo/Supplied)
Updated 17 November 2018

Manganiyar musical experience connects Saudi Arabia with ancient India

  • There were challenges, Abel said. “As an ‘intruder’ going to the Manganiyar not knowing fully what this kind of art is, in the beginning I had to learn so many things and try to understand the musicians and help them to understand me”

DHAHRAN: The King Abdul Aziz Center for World Culture (Ithra) in Dhahran has been transporting its visitors to the magical world of the Manganiyar from Nov. 14-17. The Manganiyar is a timeless Indian orchestra originally born in the region of Rajasthan in north India, which has continued over many generations.
The basic song on which the show is based comes from a poem by the 17th-century Sufi poet, Bulleh Shah. The resulting folk music is an audio-visual feast that mixes light and voice and features more than 40 musicians in one performance.
The first Manganiyar show in Ithra was sold out.
“It was the first time in my life that inspiration dawned on me; it was like a heavenly gift,” Roysten Abel, the director of the musical show, told Arab News when he was asked how the band started their touring and performance journey.
“I was in Spain working as a street performer. One day I was resting and I heard wonderful music, which I thought was a dream. Then I realized that there were two musicians outside my room singing to wake me up. I then proposed the idea of forming this Manganiyar band,” Abel said.
Abel went to the Manganiyar’s hometown to create the band.
“I went to Rajasthan, auditioned almost 200 musicians and finally selected 50 to have our first show in 2006. Since then, if I ever listen to an old Manganiyar musician or a new one, I still weep because they haunt me with their singing.”
There were challenges, Abel said. “As an ‘intruder’ going to the Manganiyar not knowing fully what this kind of art is, in the beginning I had to learn so many things and try to understand the musicians and help them to understand me.”
Creating the performance and the harmony between the band members and the director took time.
“The musicians needed to know what this guy who is coming from outside wants? What is he going to make us do? Building the relationship took around a year and a half, and so it took us year and a half to build up the show.”
“I always say the Manganiyar selection was God’s gift to us because it was actually given to us and it runs on its own.”
Abel said that the Manganiyar show always sells out anywhere it goes due the experience it offers. “There has not been one show where we have not received a standing ovation.”
“We even performed in Hyde Park, Sydney, where nobody knew what to expect,” Abel said. “There were a good 10,000 people in the park, and when the show was over these 10,000 started clapping and even stayed for the second performance!”
Abel shared the band’s insights about their first visit to Saudi Arabia: “We were very curious to see how it was going to be received, but it turned out to be one of the best performances and the audience was thrilled. So, there’s always a lot of surprises and I tend to never expect. I just love to see what happens.”
Abel urged everyone to turn up and have their own experience of the Manganiyar. “People should all come and tell their friends to come, and live the show, because at the end of the day the show is not like any other music concert; it’s an experience of its own.”
Abel said that people’s responses to the show varied; some left in tears while others “jumped with joy.”
What matters to him, he said, is that people get the essence behind the show, which is love.