The hills resound with the roaring [of lions], the wild animals tremble. They pull down the cattle, spill human blood. ... Corpses of men, cattle and sheep lie in heaps as if the plague has killed them.
From the records of Ashurbanipal, British Museum translation
By the time king Ashurbanipal began his rule in 645 BCE, the neo-Assyrian Empire was on its last legs. Originally a tiny landlocked kingdom in northern Mesopotamia (now Iraq), Assyria expanded to become the greatest empire up to that time. In the space of 300 years starting in 934 BCE, its boundaries grew to encompass modern-day Iraq, Syria, Lebanon and much of Egypt, Turkey and Iran. Apart from the odd reference in the Bible (Calhu, for instance, is Assyrian Nimrud), nothing much was known about neo-Assyria until British archeologist Austen Henry Layard began digging near the Iraqi city of Mosul in 1845, leading to the discovery of the great cities of Nimrud and Nineveh.
Ashurbanipal's North Palace in Nineveh was found and excavated in 1852-54 by Layard's assistant, Hormuzd Rassam, who followed Layard's example by having his best discoveries shipped to the British Museum. That's where you can see what are generally considered to be the finest reliefs, not just of their time, but perhaps of all time: the series comprising the Royal Lion Hunt of Ashurbanipal.
The now-extinct Mesopotamian lion -- considerably smaller than its African cousin -- was once a plague on the human and domestic animal population of Assyria, and a monument from 3000 BCE shows a ruler dutifully protecting his people by killing lions. By the time of Ashurbanipal (685-627 BCE), however, it seems only royalty were allowed to slay them. Perhaps by then lions were rare, although, as indicated by the quote above, a series of good years with ample rain may have boosted their numbers. The king dispatched them ritually and publicly, similar, I suppose, to today's stylized bullfights. In one scene, we see lions being released, one by one, from their cage into an arena, so the word "hunt" is somewhat of a misnomer. Many reliefs from that time show the king either shooting arrows at the doomed animals from his chariot or impaling them on his spear.
One entire corridor in Ashurbanipal's Northern Palace, built around 645-635 BCE, was given over to large-scale lion-hunt scenes carved in alabaster bas-relief. Unlike many formalized depictions of animal hunting and sacrifice of that time, what gives these representations their vividness is their realism. I can't imagine any viewer looking at these animals in their agonized death-throes and not being moved to pity.
Within 20 years of the death of Ashurbanipal, the Assyrian empire had virtually disappeared, victim of an internal power struggle between at least three contenders. The final blow came at the battle of Carcamesh, when the king Nebuchadnezzar of Babylon defeated the remnants of the Assyrian army and their Egyptian allies.
If you're in London, don't miss the Royal Lion Hunt reliefs. You'll re-experience the naturalistic compassion depicted 2,600 years ago by Ashurbanipal's sensitive sculptor.
Barry Evans (firstname.lastname@example.org) heads straight to Room 10 on his annual pilgrimage to the British Museum.