From the ninth to the seventh centuries BC, the Assyrians were the dominant power in the ancient Near East, controlling all of present-day Iraq, Syria, and Lebanon, as well as large parts of Israel, Egypt, Turkey, and Iran. In their homeland in northern Iraq, at Nimrud and Nineveh, the kings built splendid palaces, their rooms filled with treasure, their walls decorated with stone slabs carved with detailed scenes memorializing the kings' exploits in warfare and hunting.
After the fall of Assyria in 610 BC, the palaces were deserted and covered with earth for a millenium. In the 1840s and 1850s, European explorers dug up the mounds, revealing to an astonished public the relics of ancient cities mentioned in the Bible. British archaeologist Austen Henry Layard excavated literally miles of stone reliefs that lined the palace walls, sending the best preserved examples to the British Museum, where today they form the core of the largest collection of Assyrian art outside of Iraq itself.
"Art and Empire: Treasures from Assyria in the British Museum" includes the most dramatic of these reliefs, as well as sumptuous carved ivories, furniture fittings, and metal vessels. Cuneiform tablets from the royal library, where the king sought to gather together all the world's learning, enshrine the wisdom of ancient Mesopotamia, the cradle of western civilization.
— Lawrence Berman Norma Jean Calderwood Senior Curator of Ancient Egyptian, Nubian, and Near Eastern Art and curator of the exhibition.
Austen Henry Layard (1817-1894) was one of the great pioneers of Assyrian archaeology. Between 1845 and 1847, the Englishman and his team revealed the huge palace of Ashurnasirpal II at Nimrud. At Nineveh he uncovered nearly two miles of carved wall reliefs at the great Mesopotamian palace of King Sennacherib.
Layard completed an astonishing amount of work while excavating the Assyrian palaces, drawing on his extraordinary powers of observation and interpretation to visually document many of the sculptures and copy the cuneiform inscriptions himself. He gave still more context to his discoveries through his clear understanding of stratigraphy--how layers of the past are literally stacked on top of each other.
Layard abandoned archaeology after 1851 for a career in politics. In 1869 he was appointed Minister to Spain, but he remained famous for his rediscovery of Assyria.
"The lofty cone and broad mound of Nimroud broke like a distant mountain on the morning sky... The eye wandered over a parched and barren waste, across which occasionally swept the whirlwind, dragging with it a cloud of sand. About a mile from us was the small village of Nimroud, like Naifa, a heap of ruins.
"Twenty minutes' walk brought us to the principal mound. The absence of all vegetation enabled me to examine the remains with which it was covered. Broken pottery and fragments of bricks, both inscribed with the cuneiform character, were strewed on all sides.
The Arabs watched my motions as I wandered to and fro, and observed with surprise the objects I had collected. They joined, however, in the search, and brought me handfuls of rubbish, amongst which I found with joy the fragment of a bas-relief...
"Convinced from this discovery that sculptured remains must still exist in some part of the mound, I sought for a place where excavations might be commenced with a prospect of success. Awad led me to a piece of alabaster which appeared above the soil. We could not remove it, and on digging downward, it proved to be the upper part of a large slab. I ordered all the men to work around it, and they shortly uncovered a second slab. Continuing in the same line, we came upon a third; and in the course of the morning, discovered ten more, the whole forming a square, with a slab missing at one corner. It was evident that we had entered a chamber, and that the gap was its entrance."
A Popular Account of Discoveries at Nineveh by Austen Henry Layard (John Murray, 1851).
Most of the works in this exhibition were excavated in the middle of the nineteenth century, but Austen Henry Layard was only the first of many archaeologists to dig in Assyria. In the 1950s Max Mallowan (husband of the mystery writer Agatha Christie) led archaeologists from the British School in Iraq on a dig that revisited many of the sites at Nineveh first explored by Layard. The expedition yielded a better understanding of Nineveh's layout and its historical development, but Mallowan found extraordinary objects, too.
Many artifacts were transported to Europe and North America in the first half of the twentieth century, but after the 1950s nearly all newly excavated archaeological material remained in Iraq, primarily at the Iraq Museum in Baghdad. Exploration continued, sometimes with spectacular results, such as the discovery of royal tombs at Nimrud in 1988 through 1990.
Unfortunately the last two decades have been troubled for the preservation of Iraq's past. The Gulf War of 1991 and the subsequent decade and a half of sanctions disrupted archaeological work tremendously. By the 2003 U.S. invasion, the state archaeological service was in disarray and the Iraq Museum mostly closed. The new war brought catastrophe. In the chaos following the overthrow of Saddam Hussein's regime, the Iraq Museum was looted (roughly eight thousand objects are still missing), and sites were ravaged by uncontrolled digging. The extent of looting varies: some sites have barely been touched; others nearly destroyed. The situation may now be stabilizing as the illicit market for artifacts reaches saturation, but the damage has been done and is so extensive that in 2006 the World Monuments Fund placed the entire nation of Iraq on its list of most endangered sites.
In this short video, look behind the scenes at the installation of the exhibition, "Art and Empire: Treasures from Assyria in the British Museum." This traveling show was installed at the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston for its September 2008 opening.
Larry Berman, the senior curator of Ancient Egyptian, Nubian and Near Eastern Art at the Museum of Fine Art in Boston, explains what's happening in a monumental limestone relief of the Battle of Til-Tuba in 635 BC during which King Ashurbanipal lead an army that defeated invading Elamites and beheaded the king. This is part of the MFA exhibit: Art and Empire: Treasures from Assyria in the British Museum.
\ã-'sir-é-ä\ n (1998)
1: an ancient empire of Ashur
2: a democratic state in Bet-Nahren, Assyria (northern
Iraq, northwestern Iran, southeastern Turkey and eastern Syria.)
a democratic state that fosters the social and political rights to all of
its inhabitants irrespective of their religion, race, or gender
4: a democratic state that believes in the freedom of
religion, conscience, language, education and culture in faithfulness to the
principles of the United Nations Charter —
Ethnicity, Religion, Language
Israeli, Jewish, Hebrew
Assyrian, Christian, Aramaic
Saudi Arabian, Muslim, Arabic
\ã-'sir-é-an\ adj or n (1998)
1: descendants of the ancient empire of Ashur
2: the Assyrians, although representing but one single
nation as the direct heirs of the ancient Assyrian Empire, are now
doctrinally divided, inter sese, into five principle
ecclesiastically designated religious sects with their corresponding
hierarchies and distinct church governments, namely, Church of the
East, Chaldean, Maronite, Syriac Orthodox and Syriac Catholic.
These formal divisions had their origin in the 5th century of the
Christian Era. No one can coherently understand the Assyrians
as a whole until he can distinguish that which is religion or church
from that which is nation -- a matter which is particularly
difficult for the people from the western world to understand; for
in the East, by force of circumstances beyond their control,
religion has been made, from time immemorial, virtually into a
criterion of nationality.
the Assyrians have been referred to as Aramaean, Aramaye, Ashuraya,
Ashureen, Ashuri, Ashuroyo, Assyrio-Chaldean, Aturaya, Chaldean,
Chaldo, ChaldoAssyrian, ChaldoAssyrio, Jacobite, Kaldany, Kaldu,
Kasdu, Malabar, Maronite, Maronaya, Nestorian, Nestornaye, Oromoye,
Suraya, Syriac, Syrian, Syriani, Suryoye, Suryoyo and Telkeffee. —
1: a Semitic language which became the lingua franca of
the Middle East during the ancient Assyrian empire.
2: has been referred to as Neo-Aramaic, Neo-Syriac, Classical
Syriac, Syriac, Suryoyo, Swadaya and Turoyo.