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I am Ashurbanipal, king of the world, king of Assyria
Photograph: British Museum

Meet the forgotten king behind the British Museum’s new exhibition

He may have ruled the ancient world, but there’s a good chance you’ve never heard of Ashurbanipal


Barack Obama, Napoleon Bonaparte, Ashurbanipal. All three were at one point the most powerful men in the world, but the last one might leave you scratching your head. So who on earth is he? And why has the British Museum devoted a major exhibition to him? We’ve taken a look at the self-described ‘king of the world’, lifting the lid on Ashurbanipal ahead of the BP exhibition ‘I am Ashurbanipal, king of the world, king of Assyria’ which opens on November 8.

1. So who was this guy?

Ashurbanipal ruled over the ancient empire of Assyria during the seventh century BC. The kingdom was the largest in the world at the time – stretching from Cyprus in the west to Iran in the east, and it even included Egypt. Ashurbanipal was Assyria’s last great king, and his death in 631BC brought an end to more than 300 years of dominance. Basically, he was quite a big deal.

2. Okay, but what makes him so special?

Ashurbanipal was a real bookworm, which was unusual for a king at that time. He ordered his minions to collect a copy of every text worth having from across the empire and developed the first catalogued library in the process, predating the days of one-click purchases on Amazon by a couple of millennia. In fact, the British Museum holds more than 30,000 pieces from his library.

3. So he was big on books. Anything else?

It wasn’t just books – he liked collecting plants, too. His extravagant home in the city of Nineveh (in present-day Iraq) was known as the ‘Palace Without Rival’, and its garden’s assembly of rare and exotic flora from across the empire would give Kew Gardens a run for its money and leave your withering succulent collection firmly in the shade.

4. Books and plants, eh? Doesn’t seem like your typical bloodthirsty leader.

It may seem like Ashurbanipal had a gentle character, but that’s not the case. He learned how to hunt lions as part of his military training, and carried this ruthlessness through to dealing with his enemies once he became king. He crushed anyone who disobeyed his rule, and is even said to have made a defeated rival live in a literal dog house.

5. Sounds a bit harsh. How did it all go so wrong for him?

His death is the stuff of true crime gold. Initial accounts suggest that he burnt himself in his palace alongside his mistresses and riches while Nineveh fell to his enemies, but archaeological evidence has since proven he wasn’t the last king of Assyria and didn’t die during the city’s fall. Although more than 2,500 years have passed since the case closed, we’re sure the guys at Serial could have a good go at getting to the bottom of it.

The BP exhibition ‘I am Ashurbanipal, king of the world, king of Assyria’ is at the British Museum from Nov 8 2018-Feb 24 2019. £17, Concs £14. Get tickets here.

Supported by BP.
Logistics partner IAG Cargo.


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