Standing more than 7 ft tall, this proud image was once covered the walls of the Northwest Palace at Nimrud in modern-day Iraq. The palace, at 120m by 200m is one of the largest known in antiquity. It belonged to the Assyrian king, Ashurnasirpal II, who reigned from 883-859 BC .
Ashurnasirpal was a tyrant who ruthlessly expanded his kingdom, conquering much of the ancient Near East, including modern-day Syria and the land between the Tigris and Euphrates rivers — an area referred to as ‘the cradle of civilisation’. The magnificent palace at Nimrud reflected Ashurnasirpal’s newfound status as the most powerful ruler of the largest empire ever seen.
Both the palace walls and the interior were decorated with elaborately carved panels, all designed to overwhelm and impress. Especially impressive were the colossal winged human-headed lions that stood at the entrance to Ashurnasirpal’s palace (Figure 2).
The wall relief in Figure 1 was acquired in Mosul in 1859 by an American missionary and housed at the Virgina Theological Seminary until it was put on auction at Christies, New York in October 2018. It depicts a winged figure which is called apkallu or “genius”. Such figures have a portrait-like quality of the king, but here he is a god, anointing a sacred tree with a pine cone-shaped object, symbols of fertility and protection for the king. A number of surviving reliefs from the palace show traces of original paint on the surface which has been recreated with digital technology to spectacular effect, allowing us to see how the relief would have appeared during the reign of Ashurnasirpal (pictured below).
1. The Assyrian empire came after the fall of Babylon. Preceding the Babylonian empire were the Sumerians (ca 3500 – 2330 BC) and the Akkadians (2330 – 2200 BC). Babylon, a city-state in Akkad, emerged as the imperial power in 1800 BC. The Assyrians became the dominant force in Mesopotamia and the surrounding regions around 900 BC. Assyrian rule lasted until 612 BC when they were defeated by the Babylonians who ruled until 539 BC before ceding power to the Persians. Below is a summary timeline of these events.