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Assyrian reliefs, the story of a culture that endures

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Assyrian art at the British Museum

I am very fond of history and although I am fascinated by Egypt, I am more intrigued by the civilizations of the ancient Middle East, including the Assyrians.

The Assyrian civilization was born and developed between the middle of the Bronze Age and the end of the Iron Age., in the Tigris Valley, the famous Fertile Crescent. Little has remained of its architecture, but beautiful reliefs that allow us to know this legendary people.

Assyrians

Assyrian city

Do a historical Bible reading the Assyrians are believed to be descendants of one of Noah’s grandsons, Ashur. Now when we know that Noah’s story is thousands of years older and there is another similar story starring a certain Utnapishtin…things change and those episodes so far back in time are mysteriously obscured.

It is also said that the capital of Assyria for almost the entire existence of this city, the city of Assur, was named in honor of a deity around the third millennium BC. Assur, Assyria, whose biblical version is later and has more to do with the growth of Christianity in the region.

Assyrian ruins

What is certain is that the Assyrians were Semitics who originally spoke Akkadian until the later adoption of the simpler Aramaic language. Historians speak of three great periods of Assyria: the Old Empire, the Empire and the Lower Empire, although there are differences concerning these distinctions.

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What they all agree on is that The Assyrian Empire was one of the largest empires in Mesopotamia. by the degree of development it has shown in terms of state and military expansion. And Assyrian art?

Assyrian art

British Museum

When a city develops, art is one of the expressions of this development. In the case of Assyrian art we know this from what has been unearthed in the ruins of various ancient cities in Mesopotamia.

Archaeologists have found the remains of temples, palaces and cities and therefore it is known that Assyrian art expresses a full development of its ancestor, Sumerian art.. The problem with constructions in this part of the world is that they used a lot of adobe because stone and wood were rare materials, so their survival over time is very low.

Assyrian relief

luck is that some Assyrian reliefs were made in stone so these have found their way into modern hands. For architecture in general, they used adobe and stone foundations, but the interior or exterior walls were once decorated with stone slabs with carvings and designs They were talking about the empire and its victories.

The local stone is good for these slabs but bad for making carvings so there are few examples of this other art, but the Assyrians learned to cut the stone into thin slabs and that is why the bas-reliefs in limestone or alabaster, a white stone abundant in the Tigris), are the ones we see the most.

Assyrian reliefs

Assyrian reliefs in the British Museum

The most abundant are the bas-reliefs and externals have secular themes, that is, they have nothing to do with the Assyrian religion. They represent military victories, wild scenes, animals, military life, etc.

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If you go to London you can see one of the best Assyrian reliefs. The British Museum has a rich collection of Assyrian reliefs and among them stands out that of the couple of lions, male and female, dying. It was found in the ruins of the palace at Nineveh and was part of a larger scene. It is believed to have been made around the year 668 BC during the reign of Ashurbanipal.

protective spirit

In reality, the ruins of Nineveh were a wonderful source of Assyrian art and in the same museum there is another relief called protective spirit which comes from the Palace of Assurbanipal II, of the Lower Empire, and which would have adorned the sovereign’s private apartments: the winged man would be an apkallu, a supernatural creature described in cuneiform texts, with a helmet, a long suit, mustache, beard and long hair.

While the exterior reliefs are of secular art the reliefs that adorn the interior walls of the palaces mostly depicted the life within, more pleasant. In another palace, that of Khorsabad, for example, more than two thousand meters of bas-reliefs were found with men, horses and fish made in a cruder way, without much elegance.

Assyrian lioness relief

I have to say that the the idea of ​​perspective is not yet very developed in Assyrian art and the size of the figures may vary where the artist wishes to emphasize. The British Museum has several of the best Assyrian bas-reliefs, so the Siege and capture of Lachish is another you should see.

The panel was found in the palace of Sennacherib, in Nineveh, in the north of present-day Iraq, and belongs to the period of the Lower Empire. It is an exquisite piece of alabaster 182,880 x 193,040 cm.

Palace of Nineveh

It is part of the interior decoration of the palace of King Sennacherib who reigned between 704 and 681 BC. and depicts how Assyrian soldiers attack Lachish, carrying a throne, chariots and other king’s items into the city.

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This period of Assyrian history is very eventful since it was in the 7th and 8th centuries, the Assyrian kings conquered the Persian Gulf and the borders of Egypt. At that time, they built the most ambitious buildings, such as the palace of this king, at Nineveh, and it is from the ruins of this city that most of the English treasure comes.

Reconstruction of the Palace of Nineveh

It should be kept in mind that these Assyrian reliefs were originally painted with colorsvery few have survived and allow us to guess others, but also the layout looked like modern comic books: start, middle and end anywhere on the wall.

They were carved by craftsmen with iron and copper tools. Archaeologists assume that the exterior reliefs have been protected with paint or varnish because the stone is easily eroded by rain and wind. Moreover, they were not alone and as a decoration were completed with murals and glazed brickwork.

City of Nineveh

It is believed that the Assyrian reliefs reached its peak during the reign of Ashurbanipal II, 8th century BCbut the tradition was maintained in all the royal buildings of the cities born later.

Today we can appreciate his legacy in museums around the world, the British Museum in particular, but I hope that one day we can travel calmly to the Middle East to even walk on the same land as the Assyrians, the Sumerians and other important ancient peoples. That would be wonderful.

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