The fascinating new book Assyrian Reliefs from the Palace of Ashunasirpal: A Cultural Biography re-evaluates Assyrian art and describes its reception in the Middle East and abroad over three millennia. A well-illustrated set of symposium proceedings edited by Ada Cohen and Steven E. Kangas, it pays less attention to the best known images, of warring and hunting, than to domestic reliefs “depicting the ruler, his genies, and the ‘sacred tree.’ “ As Allison Karmel Thomason notes in her essay, “Banquets, Baubles and Bronzes: Material Comforts in the Neo-Assyrian Palaces,” Assyrian elites weren’t just warmongers, but also “connoisseurs of fine sensory experiences and collectors of well-crafted luxury goods”:
I would like to bring alive the glint of a gold arm-cuff, the flow of a woven red robe splaying across a mudbrick floor, the clang of bronze cups as they are set down on an ebony table decorated with ivory carvings … [Such details] are obsessed over in ancient administrative documents … [One stele] lists scores of rare and exotic foods that Ashunasirpal II served at the opening of his palace, including turtledoves, spring lambs, salted oxen, various shelled nuts, onions, cumin, grapes, and olives … Tiglath-pileser III claims that he installed in his Central Palace at Nimrud “double doors of cedar and pine, which bestow great pleasure on those who enter them and whose fragrance wafts into the heart” … It is important to remember, however, that … every whiff of cedar [also] evokes victory over land to the west.
In one of two historical surveys of the art’s reception, Julian Reade describes “The Early Exploration of Assyria,” the nineteenth-century years when Western excavators exported antiquities en masse out from under the feckless Ottoman Empire for the collections of museums and educational institutions all over. James F. Goode fills in the twentieth-century in “Archaeology and Politics in Iraq: From the British Mandate to Saddam Hussein.” Iraqi leaders have run hot and cold toward the ancient inhabitants of their lands. When Saddam Hussein sought to justify his invasion of Kuwait, he cast his nation as “a civilization which is 6000 years old.”
Westerners have also oscillated in the respect they’ve paid to Assyria. Vigorous collecting and appreciation have alternated with neglect and disdain. Assyrian art and the rulers that commissioned it have often been portrayed as grandiose and vulgar. As Thomason illustrates, the “trope of the decadent Oriental despot” can be found in everything from the Old Testament and Delacroix’s The Death of Sardanapalus to modern journalistic descriptions of Saddam’s former palaces as “tasteless and tacky.” Goode describes the parlous fate of Iraq’s antiquities during the American invasion and occupation of the last several years:
In addition to the sacking of the Iraq Museum, the adjoining offices of the State Board were also looted, leading to the loss of countless expedition records and photographs. Many more depredations took place and continue to take place at site around the country. Some of this illicit digging, it has been charged, has been abetted by foreign experts and institutions, which, although they will not purchase looted items, will show them on loan or “authenticate, read, analyze and write catalogue entries for stolen items.”
In the book’s concluding chapter, Samuel Paley and Donald Sanders describe present-day attempts to piece back together and bring to life dispersed monuments such as the Ashurnasirpal palace, using virtual reality software that supplements existing reliefs with now-lost polychromy, hypothetical lighting conditions, and the people and objects that would have likely inhabited these spaces:
The use of digital reconstructions has certainly been subject to controversy … [Can it] “represent simultaneity, multidimensionality, pattern and nonlinearity with … speed and efficiency” to do what “prose cannot capture”? … The ability to visit the site with chariots and … human figures moving with the king, the brazier [which wafts smoke around the virtual room], and the throne gives life to an archaeological environment. Even though this effort has been pushed almost to theater, the model gives us an impression of used space.
One day perhaps a computer will even be able to waft the fragrance of ancient cedar right into your heart.