Friezes — From Assyria to Athens to the British Museum

All photos in this post are mine.

The delight I recounted for you in my post about the Louvre was continued at the British Museum last Thursday. There I was able to stand eye-to-eye with none other than Ashurnasirpal himself.

And here you were expecting, say, the Goddess Athena or Keats’ ‘heifer lowing at the skies’ on the Parthenon frieze. I can assure you that the Parthenon sculptures — frieze, metopes, pedimental sculptures — engrossed me for the better part of an hour. The vitality of the charioteers!

Me with some charioteers

The grotesquery of the centaurs’ faces, running off with the Lapith women!*

Me and a Centaur

Magnificent, beautiful, the sculptures produced under the eye of Pheidias through the grand scheme of Pericles are not to be missed!

Aphrodite? From the Parthenon’s East Pediment

But back to Ashurnasirpal.

Ashurnasirpal II was King of Assyria 883-859 BC. Like many memorable monarchs,** Ashurnasirpal was a warmonger. He extended the western boundaries of his Tigris-crossing Empire into Syria-Lebanon to the Mediterranean and into the Hittite lands of Asia Minor.

He transferred the Assyrian capital to Nimrud in modern Iraq, and the British Museum has various bits of his palace, such as these fantastic lamassu’s — winged bulls with human heads:

Me and a Lamassu’

Besides these, you can see various friezes from Nimrud in the British Museum, of Ashurnasirpal doing such things as lion-hunting or waging war. You can even see his naked soldiery swimming a river with inflated skins! Except for one guy — he must be on the Assyrian Olympic team.

There they go — note the man without an inflated skin

These sculptures and friezes are very well executed. They lack the sinuous vitality of classical Greek art, but I don’t doubt that the skills of the sculptors were lacking. One of the things about ancient Near Eastern and Egyptian art that I learned in my visit to Cairo back in the day is the essentially traditionalist aspect of style. Assyrians and Egyptians (Akhenaten aside) are not trying to produce portraiture as the Graeco-Roman tradition would understand it. They are not capturing the vital essence of a moment.

I behold a frieze from Nimrud

They are placing Ashurnasirpal II within a long tradition of art, showing him to be a timeless, great king. The message is one of legitimacy and stability: He is like his father, Tukulti-Ninurta; Sargon II, whose lamassu’s are in the Louvre and look identical to Ashurnasirpal’s, is saying the same thing.

Sargon’s Lammasu’s in the Louvre

The other thing to bring to the forefront of your mind when you look at ancient Mesopotamian things is the sheer ancientness of them. The naked-swimmer frieze dates to c. 860 BC — 100 years before the traditional founding of Rome, 400 years before the Parthenon friezes! And if you think that’s old, the Code of Hammurabi in the Louvre dates to the 1700s BC!!

The Code of Hammurabi in the Louvre

The Ashmolean Museum’s fragment of the Babylonian epic poem Gilgamesh dates to 1900-1600 BC — a millennium before Homer!

The Epic of Gilgamesh fragment in the Ashmolean Museum, Oxford

This glazed-brick image of a lion from Babylon dates to 604-562 BC. While not as old as the other stuff mentioned here, I just like it:

Babylonian Lion, Louvre

The cultures of the Near East are truly ancient. They were using clay for a writing material when the Greeks were using it for huts. They have a literary and political culture all their own, a war-machine all their own, art and religion all their own. Yet, even to many students of ancient history such as myself, they stand largely unknown, getting maybe a chapter about Ziggurats in a Grade 11 history textbook.

We can all rectify this. Check out the Mesopotamian collections on your next trip to a major archaeological museum, be it the Ashmolean, the British Museum, the Louvre, the National Museum of Scotland or the Royal Ontario Museum, take in the Mesopotamian artefacts. If you like mythology, read some Mesopotamian mythology. If epic is your thing, check out Gilgamesh. Grab a book on Sumeria or Babylon or Assyria or ancient Persia the next time you’re in the library. Educate yourself — even if it’s just one attentive museum visit or one book; it’s better than nothing.

It may not be safe to visit the Near East itself, but we can still take a healthy interest in its culture. Who knows, maybe a fresh interest in such things will help save those lands from ruin?

*It’s a sin with centaurs do it, but when Romulus does it, it’s prudence … ?

**Remember Alexander the Great, Justinian, Charlemagne, William the Conqueror, Richard the Lionheart, et al? Yep.

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