Learning about Ashurbanipal

Written by Claire Messenger, International Training Programme Manager

This week’s Staff Talk at the British Museum will be an opportunity for colleagues around the Museum to learn more about King Ashurbanipal of Assyria (669–c. 631 BC) the focus of the new Sainsbury Exhibition Gallery (SEG) exhibition I am Ashurbanipal: king of the world, king of Assyria from exhibition curator Gareth Brereton, who many ITP fellows will know.


Ashurbanipal was once the most powerful man on earth. He described himself in inscriptions as ‘king of the world’, and his Assyrian empire, ruled from the city of Nineveh (now in northern Iraq) stretched from the shores of the eastern Mediterranean to the mountains of western Iran. At one point the empire even included Egypt.

This major exhibition – which has received some very good reviews in the national press – tells the story of Ashurbanipal through the Museum’s collection of Assyrian treasures and rare loans and looks at his role as a warrior, scholar, empire builder, king slayer, lion hunter and librarian (quite a professional profile!!).


The show takes you into the world of Ashurbanipal and shares with the audience the splendour of his palace, created ‘to be an object of wonder for all the people’ and details of his life and his empire through some 200 objects including painted glazed bricks, large stone sculptures, rare wall paintings, gold and ivory furniture fittings and decorative metalwork.

The Museum’s collection allows the exhibition to show Ashurbanipal’s great library which was the first in the world to be created with the ambition of housing all knowledge under one roof.


He developed the first systematically collected and catalogued library in the world and wanted a copy of every book mostly written on clay tablets in cuneiform script.  In total he gathered hundreds of thousands of these tablets but sadly his library was buried when the city of Ninevah was destroyed in 612 BC and was lost for over 2,000 years. The first remains of the library were discovered in 1849 and now around 30,000 tablets are housed in the British Museum.

But while Ashurbanipal was popular among his subjects the exhibition shows how cruel and ruthless – even by ancient world standards – he could be in dealing with enemies.  When the state of Elam tried to rise up against Assyria, Ashurbanipal crushed them. The Elamite king’s head was brought back to the palace in Nineveh where it was hung from a tree in the garden as a decoration.

“With the help of Ashur [the patron god of Assyria] and Ishtar, I killed them. Their heads I cut off in front of each other.”

He was even responsible for the death of his own brother.

Congratulations to Gareth and the BM team for a wonderful show and through the links below you can find out more about the show, the Assyrian empire and the man himself. The exhibition is open until 24 February 2019.