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  • Writer's pictureFrancesca Mazzola


Darts and arcs, lions and men: the Assyrian collection at the British Museum is an extravagant tour back in time where it’s possible to admire the origins of knowledge.

This is not primordial art but true magnificence that fills room number ten as if the last great Assyrian king is walking next to you. The section represents the walls and the stunning sculpted reliefs of what once was king Ashurbanipal’s palace in Nineveh (northern Iraq).

The scenes can be spot at every angle of this corridor that is a timeline of a lion hunt. Lions are beautifully engraved; every tendon, muscle and dynamic movement is impressed on the Iraqi stones.

These evocative figures date back to 645-635 B.C. when the Assyrian Empire was forging the finest memory of ancient art.

While lions are represented in an active and progressive sequence – like a magic lantern - the king and other human subjects are only seen in profile or while attacking the animals.

Lion hunts were a royal activity in Mesopotamia but also one of the reasons why the Mesopotamian lions are extinct. More than 300 lions were killed by king Ashurnasirpal II and from this detail is possible to imagine why lions are so precisely outlined.

People gather observing a perfection reached 1000 years before the realization of Botticelli’s Venus, Da Vinci’s Salvator Mundi or even Giotto’s paintings.

Visitors seem to prefer the more publicised and mainstream section about Ancient Egypt forgetting that history of humanity started long before: Between Euphrates and Tigris rivers.

This section though is not only about kings murdering lions to be immortalised in their fancy and once coloured Nineveh’s walls – or probably yes-, but also about one of the first findings of graphic marks of a specific language: the cuneiform script (3200 B.C.).

This collection of cuneiform tablets is – probably- the largest collection of this kind outside Iraq. More than 130,000 texts are preserved.

The lines are a more complex shorthand with an enigmatic design fortunately translated by Austin Henry Layard (library’s excavator).

Thanks to the translation agriculture techniques and other daily activities could be written on children’s schoolbooks.

It’s hard to be so amazed in a world where art is so accessible but where the real experience can be only relived in person, walking from side to side between walls touched by kings and blood.

The actual Assyrian Empire (Iraq) was destroyed as the Neo Assyrian Empire: by the same wars and the same oligarchs.

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