Assyria: Palace Art of Ancient Iraq

The British Museum is home to the largest collection of ancient Assyrian reliefs in the world, 13 of which are on loan to the Getty Museum through 2022. Together they illuminate the richly decorative art found in Assyria’s palaces from the ninth through seventh centuries BC.

By The J. Paul Getty Museum

During this time, the kings of Assyria forged the greatest empire the region had known. Its armies conquered lands from Egypt, the eastern Mediterranean coast, and parts of Anatolia (Turkey) in the west to the mountains of Iran in the east.

The Assyrian heartland itself lay astride the Tigris River in Mesopotamia, in what is today northern Iraq. Its original capital was the city of Ashur, but during the empire’s reign, the capital moved successively to Kalhu (Nimrud), Dur-Sharrukin (Khorsabad), and finally—the grandest city of all—Nineveh. At each of these sites the kings built palaces to glorify their empire.

The reliefs in this exhibition come from the palaces of Ashurnasirpal II (883–859 BC) and Tiglath-pileser III (745–727 BC) at Kalhu; Sargon II (722–705 BC) at Dur-Sharrukin; and the last great Assyrian king, Ashurbanipal (668–627 BC) at Nineveh.

Assyrian Palaces

Assyrian palaces were imposing complexes that served both as residences for kings and their families and as the venues for official diplomatic and ceremonial functions. The palace of Ashurnasirpal II at Kalhu (Nimrud) was the first to be decorated with stone reliefs, setting a precedent that was followed in later Assyrian palaces.

The most important rooms within the palaces were decorated with reliefs carved from gypsum or limestone, which were originally painted in vivid colors. Scenes in the throne room and reception halls emphasized the king’s military prowess and his status as the all-powerful ruler and builder. The subjects of the reliefs in the king’s private quarters included beneficent mythological creatures, rituals, and other themes, such as ritualized celebrations held after a successful hunt as depicted in this panel.    

Gypsum wall panel depicting the celebration after a bull hunt in reliefBritish Museum

Power and the Hunt

The lion hunt was a pursuit reserved for Assyrian royalty, symbolizing the king’s supreme power over the most fearsome enemies. The king often rode a horse-drawn chariot, which in this reliefs bears two quivers loaded with additional arrows and axes. The man drawing his bow to shoot at a lion (to the right, now lost) is either Ashurnasirpal or his son Shalmaneser. His tasseled diadem indicates royal status. An attendant controls the horses as they leap over a lion that has been shot with three arrows. 

Gypsum wall panel depicting a lion hunt in reliefBritish Museum

Assyria at War

The Assyrians were always shown victorious in the battle scenes displayed throughout their palaces. In this relief from the palace of Tiglath-pileser III at Kalhu (Nimrud), two Assyrian cavalrymen on horseback pursue a bearded man on a camel, likely an Arab, who raises an arm as he appears to slip from the animal’s back.     

The horses wear tasseled decorations on their heads that are typical of the reign of Tiglath-pileser III, one of Assyria’s greatest conquerors.   

As the Assyrians drive their spears into the camel’s hindquarters, one of the camel rider’s companions lies dying beneath the Assyrians’ horses while two more fall to the ground. 

Battle with a Camel Rider by UnknownBritish Museum

Attack on an Enemy Town

In this remarkably detailed and gruesome depiction of warfare, the Assyrian army attacks a fortified enemy town.     

At left, men with spears and shields cross a ditch and scale the city walls on a ladder.

Below, an Assyrian with a pointed helmet beheads one of many men who have fallen from the walls. 

Archers approach from the right, following a wheeled siege engine. On the battlements above, another enemy is beheaded by an Assyrian, and three others have been impaled on stakes. 

The cuneiform writing at the bottom, which originally stretched around an entire room, celebrates the military and other achievements of Tiglath-pileser III’s reign. 

Stone panel from the Central Palace of King Tiglath-pileser IIIBritish Museum

Gypsum wall-panel depicting a eunuch in reliefBritish Museum

Head of a Eunuch

This man’s fleshy, beardless face and hooked nose are consistent with images of eunuchs (ritually castrated men who served various functions at court) in Sargon II’s palace at Dur-Sharrukin (Khorsabad). He wears an Assyrian earring, and his long, curled hairstyle was fashionable in the late eighth century BC. The panel originally showed him as a full-length figure.

Gypsum wall-panel depicting a bearded man in reliefBritish Museum

Head of a Bearded Man

This head from a larger-than-life-size standing figure formed part of a procession of tribute bearers that decorated the main court of the palace of Sargon II. 

His helmet-like cap, distinctively curled hair, and pointed beard identify him as an inhabitant of the western regions of the Assyrian Empire, perhaps Syria or eastern Anatolia (Turkey).

Gypsum wall-panel depicting a bearded man in relief, From the collection of: British Museum
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Ashurbanipal’s Lion Hunt

In the tradition of Assyrian kings before him, Ashurbanipal hunted lions, which were either bred in captivity or captured in the wild and released in enclosed hunting grounds. The lion hunt was one of the most frequently depicted royal activities, reflecting the king’s ability to subdue the powers of nature and maintain order throughout the empire. 

The lion hunt narrative told on this relief from Ashurbanipal’s palace at Nineveh is divided into three horizontal registers, which read from top to bottom, right to left.

In the first two registers of this panel, a single lion is shown at different moments in the hunt. At top, a lion is freed from its cage and then charges the king, who shoots arrows as the animal leaps toward him.   

Below, a horseman distracts another lion so that the king can seize its tail. The king would have raised a mace in his other hand (now lost) to dispatch the lion.

Finally, in the bottom register, Ashurbanipal celebrates his successful hunt by pouring a libation over the bodies of the slain beasts. 

Stone panels from the North Palace of AshurbanipalBritish Museum

Lions in a Garden

The Assyrians did not view nature only as a force to be conquered—they also admired its beauty and nobility. Here a lion and lioness relax in a tranquil garden amid trees, blooming lilies, and grapes on the vine.

This is likely the royal garden of Ashurbanipal, where lions were kept in captivity either as pets or to produce offspring for the hunt. The peacefulness of this scene contrasts starkly with the violence depicted in other panels.   

Stone panel from the North Palace of AshurbanipalBritish Museum

These three panels—described from left to right below—once belonged to a larger composition arranged in three horizontal registers, most of which has not survived. They decorated Ashurbanipal’s palace.

Alabaster wall panel relief fragment, From the collection of: British Museum
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The 'Garden Party' relief from the North Palace of Ashurbanipal (Room S), -645/-635, From the collection of: British Museum
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The Garden of Ashurbanipal, Unknown, -0645/-0635, From the collection of: British Museum
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The Humiliation of the Elamite Kings

Ashurbanipal waged a number of wars against his eastern neighbor, the kingdom of Elam (in southwestern Iran). This relief shows two captured Elamite kings being forced to act as servants. 

Assyrian courtiers jeer at the captives, who are distinguished by their fringed robes and bulbous hats. One Elamite king carries a wine jar, while the other holds a fly whisk.

The cuneiform inscription above states that Ashurbanipal seized the Elamites with the help of the gods and compelled them to prepare and serve him a meal.   

Alabaster wall panel relief fragmentBritish Museum

The Banquet of Ashurbanipal

Having forced the captive Elamite kings to serve him food and wine in the previous scene, Ashurbanipal here reclines on a banqueting couch beneath an arbor of vines while his queen joins him, seated on a throne.

The king’s sword, quiver, and bow lie on a table at right, signaling his military prowess. Attendants fan the royal couple, while musicians play in the background. 

In a gruesome detail, the severed head of the Elamite king Teumman, killed in battle against Ashurbanipal’s army, hangs from a tree branch at left—another reminder of the Assyrian king’s ruthless pursuit of power and empire. 

The 'Garden Party' relief from the North Palace of Ashurbanipal (Room S)British Museum

The Garden of Ashurbanipal

Lush gardens stocked with wildlife were a regular feature of Assyrian palaces. Images of gardens in palace reliefs show an idyllic world with the king at its center. This relief fragment preserves parts of the three registers to which the previous two panels also belonged. 

At the top, a procession of musicians approaches two courtiers holding staffs. They stand in front of an enclosure wall that likely protected the royal party within.   

In the middle scene, two additional courtiers guard the wall amid trees and flying birds.

In the lowest register, a boar stalks through the reeds.     

The Garden of Ashurbanipal by UnknownBritish Museum

Protective Spirits

Images of protective deities such as these were often affixed to doorways to prevent malevolent forces and disease from entering the palace halls. The House God at left wears a horned crown of divinity. 

The ugallu (Great Lion) at center—with the head of a lion, the body of a man, and the talons of an eagle—brandishes a dagger and mace while growling defensively.   

The lahmu (meaning “hairy”) at right holds a spear and has an elaborately curled hairstyle. 

Alabaster wall-panel reliefBritish Museum

As on the previous panel, the top register in this scene depicts lion-headed ugallus

The lower register shows an urmahlullu (Lion Man), with the body of a lion and the torso and head of a man. He wears a large crown decorated with horns, denoting divinity, and raises his hands in a gesture of protection.     

Gypsum wall relief panelBritish Museum

Above all, Assyrian palace decoration glorified the king and presented an idealized, ordered world centered around him. The basic ideals of Assyrian kingship—strength, bravery, military might, piety, and support from the gods—endured throughout the empire’s history. In these 13 reliefs, one can appreciate the change and continuity in how kings expressed these concepts through palace sculpture over more than two centuries.

Stone panels from the North Palace of AshurbanipalBritish Museum

Credits: Story

© 2020 The J. Paul Getty Trust, Los Angeles

All objects in this exhibition are part of the British Museum's Collection and have been included here with permission. 

A version of this material was published in 2019 as the in-gallery text for the exhibition Assyria: Palace Art of Ancient Iraq, on view from October 2, 2019 to September 5, 2022 at the Getty Villa, and is part of Getty's Ancient Worlds Now initiative.  

Learn more about the history of these wall panels in the exhibition catalogue Assyrian Palace Sculptures.

To cite these texts, please use: "Assyria: Palace Art of Ancient Iraq" published online in 2020 via Google Arts & Culture, the J. Paul Getty Museum, Los Angeles.

Credits: All media
The story featured may in some cases have been created by an independent third party and may not always represent the views of the institutions, listed below, who have supplied the content.
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