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“The reliefs show people being impaled on spikes and the enemy being decapitated and sometimes flayed alive. I mean it’s absolutely brutal, and it was intended to intimidate.”

With a powerful empire centered on the Tigris River—today in northern Iraq—the Assyrians were one of the great and formative cultures of the ancient world. They used their military might to conquer and control an extensive territory, which at its peak in the seventh century BCE reached from Syria in the West into Turkey and Iran in the North. Today, much is known about Assyrian culture because of the sheer number of texts and narrative artworks they left behind. In particular, their shallow relief sculptures depict nuanced portrayals of battles, mythology, and court life. These stone reliefs decorated both public and private spaces in Assyrian palaces. Their detail and expressiveness make them among the most beautiful and important works of ancient art that exist today.

In this episode, Getty Museum director Timothy Potts discusses Assyrian culture and its masterful relief sculptures. A selection of these sculptures is on loan from the British Museum to the Getty Villa through September 2022 and will be on view when the Museum reopens to the public in 2021.

More to explore:

Assyria: Palace Art of Ancient Iraq exhibition

Assyria: Palace Art of Ancient Iraq online exhibition

Assyrian Palace Sculptures publication


JAMES CUNO: Hello, I’m Jim Cuno, President of the J. Paul Getty Trust. Welcome to Art and Ideas, a podcast in which I speak to artists, conservators, authors, and scholars about their work.
TIMOTHY POTTS: The reliefs show people being impaled on spikes and the enemy being decapitated and sometimes flayed alive. I mean it’s absolutely brutal, and it was intended to intimidate.
CUNO: In this episode, I speak with Tim Potts, Director of the Getty Museum, about the Getty exhibition Assyria: Palace Art of Ancient Iraq.
Between the ninth and the seventh centuries BCE, when the small kingdom of Assyria in northern Iraq expanded to dominate the area from Egypt to Iran, exquisite and extraordinary relief sculptures were commissioned to decorate the walls of palaces. These reliefs told stories of the power of kings, from Ashurnasirpal II to Ashurbanipal, the last and most powerful Assyrian king, who ruled when the reach and power of Assyria was at its height.
The Getty Villa has devoted a gallery to these sculptures, a selection of which are on loan from the British Museum. They have been conserved and presented to the public at the British Museum since their excavation in the middle of the 19th century.
I recently spoke with Tim Potts, director of the Getty Museum and a specialist in the art of the ancient Near East, to discuss these sculptures.
The Getty Villa has been closed due to the COVID-19 pandemic, so we discussed them remotely, relying on the beautiful reproductions from the book Assyrian Palace Sculptures, published by Getty Publications in association with the British Museum. The exhibition will be on view through August 2022. I look forward to the time when the gallery will be reopened and the public can view these sculptures in person once again.
CUNO: Well, thanks for joining me on this podcast, Tim. Situate the Assyrian Empire for us, chronologically, geographically, and historically.
POTTS: Well, the Assyrians were one of the great cultures and great empires of the ancient world. The culture we’re going to be talking about, the Neo-Assyrian period, as it’s called, runs from about 900 BC to 600 BC. So around three centuries. But there had been, in previous periods, other Assyrian rulers and periods when Assyria was quite a major power, before the first millennium BC. Their heartland is in— on the Tigris River, in northern Iraq. And so the northern part of the twin cultures of Assyria and Babylonia. Babylon is more or less in the middle of modern Iraq, where the Tigris and the Euphrates come closest together. Babylon is on the Euphrates, though, and the Assyrian capitals, the oldest of them was Ashur itself. Then Nineveh, and then Khorsabad and Nimrud. These are all on the Tigris, and they’re some hundreds of kilometers to the north, into the foothills of the mountains, which then reach up into Turkey and to Armenia. So it borders on parts of Iran and Turkey to its north, and Syria to its west.
So it’s in the part of Iraq which is— does receive rainfall, and therefore, they can have rain-fed agriculture. So it is relatively fertile and they were able to grow crops, have animals, sheep and so on, in pastures. But really, it was the economy, driven by the empire, that sustained it. The army, based on the conquests they could make and the tribute they would draw then from the areas that they had conquered.
And they were, of course, feared and renowned throughout the ancient world, because their army was this extraordinarily effective military machine, which allowed them to conquer in pretty well all directions. Their neighbors to the south, the Babylonians; the Elamites, and others in Iran; north into the territories of the Urartians and others in Turkey; and westwards right through Syria and down the Levant, through Lebanon, Palestine, Israel and so on, right down, at times, even to Egypt.
So it became the greatest empire that had been known, by the seventh century BC, and was, because of this, known vaguely to the Greek historians writing some centuries later. It’s referenced occasionally also in the Old Testament, in the Bible. So there were glimmers of knowledge about it through the Classical and Biblical texts; but it was only with the excavation that started in the middle of the nineteenth century by Layard and others that brought to light the actual physical remains of the great palaces of the Assyrian kings, in the late 1840s and fifties. That’s what really brought this culture alive and made it real to us in the modern period.
CUNO: Now, we talked about the agricultural wealth of the region. It’s also known and famous for being a city-state culture. Much is written about the development of cities in ancient Mesopotamia. Some of which, I gather, like Uruk, may have been populated by as many as 40- to 50,000 people, some 5,000 years ago. How do we know so much about these cities, and how did they grow to be so magnificent in scale or size?
POTTS: Basically, through archeology. Starting with the excavations in the middle of the nineteenth century, and they’ve continued ever since. And they have allowed us to trace, really, the origins of civilization as we know it. The very earliest cities that have been discovered anywhere in the world, with major architecture, with temples and other major public buildings, and forms of early writing and other bureaucratic controls and structured societies with administrations and so on. These things appear first in Mesopotamia, in the parts of Babylonia that were known as ancient Sumer. The peoples living there were these Sumerians. The most famous of these cities, and in some ways the earliest, was Uruk, which is even referred to in the Bible as Erech, as one of the great cities of antiquity, long before Biblical times.
But these have been excavated since the late nineteenth century, and many of the buildings exposed, and the early clay tablets on which the first writings were made. So we do know that this was, as far as we know, the earliest of these great early civilizations, followed soon after by the Egyptians. But it’s what gives the region of Mesopotamia and the Fertile Crescent around it the sort of accolade of being the cradle of civilization.
CUNO: What was the basis of their economies and the character of their culture?
POTTS: Well, they were different geographically and economically. One of the key differences, is those regions which relied on rain-fed agriculture, like the Fertile Crescent itself which includes Assyria in the north. But further south, when you get to Babylonia, where it’s totally flat floodplain of the Tigris and Euphrates rivers, all of the ability to live there depends crucially on irrigation agriculture. And indeed, that connects with the whole phenomenon of early urbanism and large settlements taking place, because the theory is that it’s only through having sophisticated enough administrative and organizational capabilities that canals that could bring the irrigation, the water to the fields through irrigation, was possible.
That in both cases, it was the developed economies and, if you like, political and military capabilities of these societies which allowed them to draw exports from beyond Mesopotamia—where most of the metals, stones, woods, and other raw materials that they needed were. So either they would, through their military capabilities, conquer these regions or, through negotiations, they would be able to trade with regions beyond Mesopotamia. That was how they supported the lavish artistic production, the architectural constructions they created, and so on.
CUNO: You mentioned earlier about the language that we have access to now that can tell us much about the history, and the characters of the cities of the ancient Mesopotamian area. Tell us about that language and how it was that it was discovered and how it was that we come to know so much from it.
POTTS: Sure. The earliest language we know of in Mesopotamia are written in what we know as Sumerian. It’s a language which seems not to be related to any other known language, in terms of its grammar and structure. But, of course, the Mesopotamians themselves often would do bilingual inscriptions, where they give the Sumerian version and then also the Akkadian version. We can now read Sumerian fairly well. That is the predominant language from about 3500, when we have the very earliest texts that we know of, down to about 2500 BC.
But thereafter, the predominant language is what’s known as Akkadian, meaning the language of the people of Akkad. And this is a Semitic language, and there were two major dialects of Akkadian. The northern dialect, which is known as Assyrian—so that’s the language that our Assyrians are taught, speaking—and the southern dialect is Babylonian. And it’s somewhat debated whether we should consider these separate languages or just different dialects of the same language. But certainly, if you knew Assyrian, you could make yourself understood in Babylonian and vice versa.
So these are the languages which predominated in Mesopotamia and much of the Near East for diplomatic purposes right from 3000 BC or so right up till the first century AD. So a period of over 3,000 years when the last cuneiform inscription in a Mesopotamian language was written. And the language is tied very much to the script of cuneiform. The two seem to go together. But during the Assyrian period, Aramaic comes on the scene as the major everyday competitor to Assyrian and Babylonian.
The cuneiform script developed in Mesopotamia by the Babylonians and Assyrians is not alphabetic. Because the cuneiform form script involves signs that are partly syllabic, partly alphabetic, for vowels, but many of the signs represent whole words, it’s quite a complicated system of writing, unlike the Aramaic script, which being alphabetic, could be learned by anyone. It was only around twenty or so signs altogether, whereas cuneiform involves over 600 different signs.
And from the eighth century BC, we know that scribes in Assyria were writing not only Assyrian inscriptions in the cuneiform script on clay tablets, but they were also, on parchment, writing in Aramaic, in the alphabetic script. And Aramaic by then, from the eighth century on, increasingly becomes the everyday language, not only in Mesopotamia, but right through Syria and down the Levant, down to Lebanon and Israel, Judah, and so on.
CUNO: How did modern people crack the code to come to understand the language?
POTTS: Ah. Very interesting story. The first breakthrough, and the key one really, was an inscription by the Persian King Darius, at the site of Bisitun, in western Persia. He’s recording, basically, how he became king. And he has the story inscribed in three different languages: in Elamite, which was the native language of the peoples living in southwestern Iran, and the one culture of the region which was literate. And that uses a version of the cuneiform script. Then he has it also written in Babylonian, and then thirdly, in Old Persian, the language of the Akkemid Persian kings themselves.
And through some very clever assumptions about what are the likely names to appear in these inscriptions by the early scholars, they were able to decipher first the Old Persian cuneiform script; and then having that in hand, could then address the Akkadian script, figure out what the phonetic values of the signs in the Akkadian script were; and from that, eventually they figured out that it was a Semitic language. This was all done within a couple of decades. And in the early 1850s, it was declared that the language of the Assyrian inscriptions had indeed been deciphered.
CUNO: And not only did we learn the language itself, but we learned about great figures who were documented in the language and texts that were left behind. And one of them is Hammurabi. Tell us about him.
POTTS: Yes. Hammurabi is one of the great figures in Mesopotamian history. He was King of Babylon in the eighteenth century BC. And he’s most famous today for the law code that he had issued, which is preserved in the Louvre Museum in Paris. It’s a dark stone obelisk with an image of a god and the king receiving the audience of the god at the top. But on the obelisk is inscribed this long law code. And it describes what are the regulations and what are the punishments for various misdemeanors and other punishable events. From his point of view, the promulgation of the law code probably was a relatively minor event. He was also, though, a great conqueror. It was during his reign and that of his successors for about 200 years that the southern kingdom of Babylonia really had one of its most prosperous and most important periods of influence over Mesopotamia as a whole.
CUNO: Tell us about the rise of Assyria as a political force, out of all this rich context of structure and literature and history.
POTTS: The Assyrians first become [a] major political military force around the same time as Hammurabi, in the twentieth and nineteenth and down to the eighteenth century BC. In the centuries following then, both north and south of Mesopotamia somewhat go into decline. There may have been some climatic changes and perhaps a drought in the latter years of the second millennium BC. And it’s only around 900 BC that Assyria rises and becomes again a very major power.
In the meantime, there’d been a very dramatic dislocation culturally and historically throughout much of the Near East. Around 1200 BC, what we call the end of the Bronze Age, a series of important, powerful empires had been destroyed or very severely weakened. And there had been battles right through from the Aegean Sea, with the Greeks and the Philistines being pushed westwards, and migrants then flooding into other regions, causing the collapses of the kingdoms in Turkey, in Syria, in Lebanon, and right down to the borders of Egypt, where these Peoples of the Sea, as they were called, were eventually repulsed.
So there’d been a lot of disruption throughout the Near East, and in that vacuum, the Assyrians emerge, as I say, shortly after 900. The principle founding figure of the revival is King Ashurnasirpal II. And it’s him and his successors down to about 600 BC who are able to, through a combination of shrewd leadership and, basically, it’s all dependent on the strength and effectiveness of the Assyrian war machine, which is built up. And of course, once you’ve conquered a few territories, it’s the horses, it’s the manpower, the prisoners, slaves, if you like, but also the goods that they have—the metals, the stones, and the other commodities that they depend on for arms and armor and so on. And of course, once they’ve conquered them, they conscript all of their soldiers and war machinery and so on, into the Assyrian Army, and it became this extraordinary fighting machine, which was absolutely brutal and ruthless in its effectiveness.
CUNO: So it was an incredibly martial culture, and it’s said that every spring, the Assyrian king would go out and muster his troops and go out onto a military campaign, from which he would return with, in one case: forty chariots equipped with the trappings of men and horses; 460 horses, broken to the yoke; two talents of silver; two talents of gold; 100 talents of lead; 100 talents of copper; 300 talents of iron; 1,000 vessels of copper; 2,000 pans of copper; bowls and cauldrons of copper; 1,000 brightly colored garments of wool and linen; tables of shahwood; and couches made of ivory and overlaid with gold, from the ruler’s palace; 2,000 heads of cattle; 5,000 sheep; and on and on and on.
So let’s turn attention to the great palace relief sculptures, the subject of the exhibition. Get that sense of this military might that’s documented in the reliefs, sculpture reliefs, that we’re going to talk about.
POTTS: And they’re unique, in a way, in the extent to which they visually recreate, through the reliefs in their own palaces, their conquests. And they show people being impaled on spikes and the enemy being decapitated and sometimes flayed alive. I mean, it’s absolutely brutal. And it was intended to intimidate and cause, you know, people to be— shake and quiver at the thought that this could be what happens to them, if they don’t toe the line. So it was this extremely, as it were, brutal society.
Among the Assyrians, particularly at the level of the court and some of the kings themselves—like Ashurbanipal, who we’ll talk about later—were extremely educated, multilingual, highly literate individuals, who had vast libraries of literature and scientific, mathematical, medical, and other texts as part of their private libraries. So we do have to qualify our image of the Assyrians with the knowledge that the court life was a very culturally rich and sophisticated experience.
CUNO: In the catalogue for the exhibition there are great images of the battles being waged. In one case, of course, there’s a campaign or a battle being waged between men with weapons of arrows, and they’re shooting back and forth from a set of towers around a fortress-like structure; and then another one from a siege tower, which is a great big wheeled vehicle with a big iron, I suppose, device in front that would knock down buildings. So they were quite sophisticated in their military equipment.
POTTS: Yes. They had siege machines that they’d ram. Basically, rams to— They would run up to the walls, trying to dislodge stones, so that the walls would begin to collapse, or on the wooden gates that the cities had. So they had sophisticated military equipment, that’s for sure. And it was very effective.
And the consequences of rebelling were very drastic. This is when, if you were conquered you would pay tribute, but the people would not be punished. But if you rebelled from Assyrian control once you’d become a province or once you’d become a subject of a king who had been, as it were, authorized by the Assyrians as a client kingdom, if you rebelled at that point, you know, it was the wrath of, if not God, the Assyrians that came down on you. And it was brutal.
CUNO: Now, these images that we have of the battles being waged all decorated these great big palaces on the inside and on the outside? And if on both the inside and the outside, were they meant to be seen by different kinds of people? That one was meant to be seen inside, by the court, that would sort of pay tribute to the value of the court; and the outside by those who were meant to be sort of disciplined by the images to behave in certain kinds of ways?
POTTS: The stone reliefs are essentially on the insides of rooms and galleries, both public spaces, sort of court audience halls, and also the private quarters of the king and his family. There were, however, on the outside of the walls of the palaces and of the interior courtyards, there were sometimes painted decorations on plaster. Of course, they don’t survive as well as the stone reliefs. And also, higher up, there were decorated glazed tile decorations in the walls, which again, don’t survive nearly as well and are rather fragmentary.
So most of what we know about Assyrian art, and certainly the most dramatic and impressive and sophisticated, are the stone reliefs which were on the interiors of the spaces. We see them today, of course, as stone reliefs. And they’re made out of gypsum and, less often, limestone. For sure, they were partly painted. The beards are usually painted black, for instance. The hair is black. Sometimes areas of the garments and even the flesh is red. And there’s evidence of blue and yellow and green on the trees and things. It rarely survives.
But the few panels on which we do get clear evidence of the painting have allowed us to reconstruct what these reliefs would’ve looked like when they were freshly painted. It is odd because to our eyes, the painting of them, as it were, detracts from, in a sense, the antique quality of them as ancient objects. They look too fresh and too colorful. But that was the way they were seen in ancient times.
CUNO: So we mentioned Ashurnasirpal already. And he was, I gather, the first Assyrian king to use this great relief decoration so extensively in his architecture. It’s said he probably resided in Nineveh, an ancient city on the outskirts of Mosul, but that he then took up residence in the site of Kalhu, in modern Nimrud?
POTTS: Well, yes. Nineveh was an ancient Assyrian city. And it goes right back to the third millennium BC, and there were Assyrian kings who had used it. It was one of the major Assyrian cities, and so there’d been temples and palaces and so on in Nineveh. So when he came to the throne, that was— together with Ashur, Nineveh was the other major Assyrian center.
But quickly, once he’d become king, he decided to build a major new city a bit to the south, at Nimrud. It’s about thirty kilometers, 30, 35 kilometers south, so not that far away. And also on the Tigris River, near the— where it joins the Zab.
It’s not entirely clear why he moved his capital there. Probably largely because he wanted, as the great new king who had been hugely successful, had begun to build this very powerful empire, I think probably that he wanted, as it were, his own city, which he could take full credit for and build on a scale that he thought was befitting his magnificence.
He tells us how he celebrated its opening with a guest list of nearly 70,000 people, over a number of days. And lined the walls with literally many, many hundreds of meters of these stone reliefs, which en masse, would have, of course, been this hugely impressive, not to say intimidating and horrifying, experience. But the intimidation was a large part of their purpose. As well as keeping evil forces at bay, because a lot of the scenes are also magical figures, hybrids of human and animal forces, which were manifestations of demons and spirits that, as I said, would guard the king and keep evil forces and malign, you know, diseases and so on at bay.
CUNO: Well, the sculptures are exquisitely carved in this shallow relief in which figures are distinguished one from another within just about an inch or so of depth. It’s extraordinary that they were able to document, as it were, the kind of life of the court or the ambitions of the court so exquisitely. What do we know about the culture of the court of Ashurnasirpal, and about the importance, for example, of the lion hunt that features so prominently in the sculptures?
POTTS: Yes, the lion hunt recurs throughout Assyria, and, indeed, in many other cultures of the period. The lion was seen as the, as it were, the equivalent of the king in the animal kingdom. And so, in a way, a symbol of kingship. But the actual king, by hunting the lion, is showing his superior kingly power and prowess.
So from Ashurnasirpal on, you find, in Assyrian art, these images of the king doing battle with the lion. Either more safely, if you could say so, from the platform of a chariot, where he has someone driving the chariot, and there’s the king with his bow and arrow, shooting arrows into the lion. At other times, he’s actually just standing, grasping the lion by one of its front paws, as he stabs him with the dagger, into the body of the lion.
But the hunting of the lions, both in a natural setting, in the real landscape, and also in parks that were created as, as it were, hunting grounds within the city—and we know that there was one of these in Nineveh—this was also something that the Assyrians did. They would perhaps even breed the lions, if not capturing them from the wild, and then release them in these parks, where the king would then be able to dispatch them.
CUNO: We see these soldiers and fighters crossing great rolling rivers. And I suppose the Tigris and Euphrates Rivers are quite like that, because they’re quite substantial in size and in force or power. They’ve got animal skins that are inflated with air to help keep them buoyant as they swim through the water. We’ve got fish going through the water, we’ve got boats in the water, we have horses running through the water.
POTTS: I think this is actually more likely to be part of a description of a stage in the battle. You do get these figures, as you say. They need to get across the river. And it is interesting. What I think you’re also alluding to is how the Assyrians are so observant, in terms of these details of behavior—what people are doing, the dress they have, their hairdos, their facial characteristics. Even though they don’t rise to the level of what we would think of as portraits, they’re very alert to the differences which distinguish peoples of, you know, different backgrounds, cultures, or regions. And we see equally with the animals—and this goes back to the lion hunts—the extraordinary, it does seem like sympathy they have for these poor lions. You know, in the representations, they have five or six arrows sticking into them. So they’re collapsing on the ground or on their backs, and some of them sort of roaring in pain. The attention to, or the sense of pathos in their representations of the animals that the king and his entourage are killing is extraordinary. I think it’s the aspect of Assyrian art that does, in a way, balance the rather brutal battle scenes.
CUNO: So in subsequent rulers like Sargon II and his son Sennacherib, we see depictions of hunting on a kind of domestic scale. Not just kind of a kind of royal or dramatic scale, but hunting animals for food to eat, but we also see them building structures. We see them mounting walls and great fortresses and things. This sense of being able to both document the ambitious activities of a ruler and the daily activities of just hunting and eating and building the walls that everyone’s going to have to use for protection, there’s a kind of documentary approach to it, I guess I’m trying to say. Is that common throughout the relief sculptures, or this unique to Sargon II?
POTTS: You’re absolutely right, it’s a part of the representation of the king’s great works: conquering foreign nations, bringing the tribute that comes and flows back to Assyria from there, then creating these great palaces and aqueducts and gardens and so on. But I think the other part of it that is so extraordinary is the attention to these details of the daily life of not just what the king’s doing or, you know, his generals and the army, but what the people normally behind the scenes are doing. Someone’s, you know, captured a rabbit and is carrying it back to cook for dinner.
There are these everyday details that you, in a way, wouldn’t expect. They don’t have, as it were, an ideological reason to be including them. But they do very much add to the sense of reality of what these images are depicting. So who knows if it was the king instructed that he wanted these things to be in the images or whether that was something that the vizier or someone else might’ve decided would have a certain effect. We don’t really know, of course. We’re guessing. But it is remarkable that as well as these hugely ideologically-driven representations of conquests and victory and superiority over the animal kingdom, there are these vignettes of everyday life that absolutely bring it to life for us, in ways that very few ancient cultures have ever done.
CUNO: So now we get to Ashurbanipal, who’s the last great king of Assyria. There’s an extraordinary scene in one of the great palace reliefs, which show these figures who’ve been killed, mutilated, their bodies floating in the water accompanied by the fish that are swimming through their legs and arms and so forth; accompanied onshore by a group of musicians, who are playing harps as they’re walking along. You get the sense that there’s kind of an accompaniment of this kind of military loss of life in the water, with this performance of music on land. Tell us about Ashurbanipal and the greatness of his reign.
POTTS: Yeah. Ashurbanipal’s the last of the great kings of Assyria, in the seventh century BC. He rules till about 630, and then it’s only another twenty years before the empire comes crashing down. And the reliefs you’re referring to are from the representation of his conquest of Elam.
The Elamites are the nation to the southeast of Assyria, in what is now southwestern Iran. And they had been adversaries of the Mesopotamians right throughout history. Sometimes the Babylonians would ally with them against the Assyrians, or the Assyrians would ally with the Babylonians against the Medes or whatever. So there’s this triangle of shifting alliances. But at this point, Ashurbanipal is ruling an empire which is all the way from Egypt and up through the Levant and Lebanon, Syria, and then through Assyria and down into Babylon.
They have had a number of recent encounters with the Elamites and, at this point, Ashurbanipal decides, this is enough. And he invades Elam, with the intention of destroying the capital city of Susa, which he does, effectively. And this is the great Battle of Til-Tuba, a site on the Ulai River just on the border between modern Iran and Iraq. And it’s absolutely graphic detail.
These reliefs are large. There are no, as it were, ground lines in them, the way some of the earlier reliefs are split into two, or even three, registers on a more or less horizontal ground line. These images are all over with figures. The chaos of battle is represented in a very vivid way, with people stumbling, being beheaded or being helped along or whatever.
And it is an extraordinary achievement in conceiving how you represent in, you know, essentially linear visual terms, the chaos of battle and the progression of events from moment to moment. You actually can follow the narrative of the Elamite kings being pursued by the Assyrians. They try to escape on a chariot. They then get thrown out of the chariot. The Assyrians run after them and are able to decapitate both the king and his son. And then the heads get carried back to the King Ashurbanipal and so on. There are cuneiform inscriptions which actually tell us, in captions, what’s happening at the various points in it. So they’re fascinatingly complex, but wonderfully rich descriptions of these battles, which normally we only ever have in written annals in other cultures.
CUNO: The reliefs create a sense of movement across the surface, almost as if they’re a kind of filmstrip, in a way, the sense of dynamics, of structures you described so well. But there also was a library Ashurbanipal had. And the contents of the library are known, I think. Tell us about that library and its— what role it played, what role literature played in the culture.
POTTS: Yeah. The library of Ashurbanipal is one of the marvels of the ancient world. The British Museum has some 30,000 tablets and fragments of tablets that were recovered by Layard in the 1840s and fifties, and a few after then. So it’s the great repository of the library of Ashurbanipal, which he assembled in the period of his reign, in the middle of the seventh century BC. It was a massive undertaking.
And he tells us himself, in his inscriptions, how he was trained in the scribal arts, how he could read the most obscure Sumerian and other inscriptions. And he’s being taught the wisdom of Adapa—one of the great wise people of the Mesopotamian past. And that he can decipher these very obscure omens and mathematical texts, and none of this is beyond him, and he knows all of these languages. His father and perhaps his grandfather, Sennacherib, also, had had a certain number of texts. And so he didn’t start from scratch.
But he made an effort and sent his scholars to Babylonia, and basically pillaged all of the libraries of Babylonia for all of their literary texts, their omen texts, their wisdom literature, their medical texts, their mathematical and astronomical—basically all of the learning. All of the university research centers of Babylonia were pillaged by Ashurbanipal. And after he’d conquered Babylonia, rather than just requesting copies of these inscriptions, which he’d previously done, he’d just sent the troops in and they took a lot of these documents and brought them back to Nineveh.
So like the library of Alexandria in Egypt, this was, you know, 600 years earlier, the great library of the cuneiform world. So it’s been a huge insight into one of the great cultures of antiquity.
CUNO: Well, this exhibition of the great palace reliefs from Assyria that you’ve put together for us here at the Getty is quite extraordinary. It makes you wonder what brought down the empire so dramatically. It was at the height of its power and then it just collapsed, it seems.
POTTS: Yeah. That is, of course, as usual, it’s a little bit of a conundrum, and the various theories have been proposed. I think there are a number of factors.
One is that the traditional sort of elders and, if you like, noble families that had been the basis of the Assyrian administration— There’d been a series of purges in the time of Ashurbanipal’s father and grandfather, which was Esarhaddon and Sennacherib. And the eunuchs, you know, the castrated males who are, you know, safe. They couldn’t have children, so they couldn’t want to usurp the king and put their child on the throne and so on. The administration at the highest levels around the court was increasingly managed by these eunuchs. So the administration and the bureaucracy of the court was certainly different than it had been in previous regimes. And in some ways, perhaps less stable and less able. Some of the most able people had been marginalized, and others that— who they thought they could rely on their loyalty, had been brought in. So that may be one factor.
The other was this problem that empires often have of overreach. This was the time when Ashurbanipal was controlling all the way from Egypt, right up the Levant, Syria, through Mesopotamia. And now he’s just conquered and destroyed Elam. And there were the other peoples in the mountains north of Elam, including the Medes. So to defend his empire, he would’ve had to defend a really huge amount of territory. So that was already going to be, obviously, a stretch.
There seems also to be some evidence that there might’ve been a drought in the latter seventh century BC. And since so much of the imperial control depended on forcibly relocating peoples to different regions of the empire, including to Assyria, it seems that there might have been a large increase in the population of Assyria, which of course, required feeding and infrastructure and so on. So that was putting a strain on the system.
But the final straw, and the one that really broke the camel’s back, was that, as usual, Ashurbanipal was in conflict with the kings in Babylonia to the south. But then a new king comes along, Nebabulassa, who is very dynamic and very successful militarily. So Babylon is resurgent. And they start flexing their muscle against the Assyrians, and importantly, enter an alliance with the Medes. And the Medes are the first great power of ancient Iran, other than the Elamites, to have appeared. And they’re an Iranian people, as were the Persians. They seem to be close cousins of the Persians, who come later, a few centuries later, into prominence, of course.
So the Babylonians, they see an opportunity to ally with the Medes. And the Medes had been conquered, also, by the Assyrians, so they had every reason not to want the Assyrians to survive. So the Babylonians and the Medes get together. They invade in concert in 614 BC. They’re able to conquer the original capital of Ashur. And then in 612, they besiege Nineveh itself, where the king reigning at that point is the son of Ashurbanipal. And after a few months, they’re able to take Nineveh, the greatest and grandest of the Assyrian capitals that’s left standing. And they do take it.
The king of Assyria is killed. Many of the reliefs are mutilated. They loot the place, loot and pillage. This is their moment to get back for all that they have suffered under Assyrian control over many centuries now. And so the Assyrian Empire basically dies. A princeling does maintain an outpost in a site called Haram, in the border with Turkey. But that, too, is the Medes and the Babylonians together defeat him in 609 BC. So the kingdom is gone and basically Assyria as a living culture disappears. The Babylonians continue the tradition in the south; but Assyria essentially comes to an end at the end of the seventh century BC.
CUNO: Well, Tim, it’s a powerful and beautiful exhibition. It’s closed now because of COVID-19, but it was open before the pandemic hit. And it will be with us for another two years, at least, so we know we’ll see it again when the pandemic passes. What is the commitment from the British Museum?
POTTS: Well, the material will, of course, go back. We’ll have it for what will be three years. It may be possible to extend it a little bit. But these are some of the most important reliefs of any that the British Museum has, and it is the great collection of this material anywhere in the world. They are, you know, amongst the greatest masterpieces of ancient art that have survived. So they will go back to the British Museum, but we are incredibly privileged to have them for these few years at the Getty Villa. And I hope many more of our visitors, as you say, will be able to come and enjoy them, once we’re through the COVID period.
CUNO: Well, we thank you for bringing them to Los Angeles and to the Getty, and we look forward to seeing them again, as you say, once the pandemic allows us to gain access to the galleries. So thank you again, very much.
This episode was produced by Zoe Goldman, with audio production by Gideon Brower and mixing by Mike Dodge Weiskopf. Our theme music comes from the “The Dharma at Big Sur” composed by John Adams, for the opening of the Walt Disney Concert Hall in Los Angeles in 2003, and is licensed with permission from Hendon Music. Look for new episodes of Art and Ideas every other Wednesday, subscribe on Apple Podcasts, Spotify, and other podcast platforms. For photos, transcripts, and more resources, visit or if you have a question, or an idea for an upcoming episode, write to us at Thanks for listening.

JAMES CUNO: Hello, I’m Jim Cuno, President of the J. Paul Getty Trust. Welcome to Art and Ideas, a podcast in which I speak to artists, conservators, authors, and scholars about their work.
TIMOTHY POTTS: The reliefs show people being impaled on spikes and the enemy being decapitated and ...

Music Credits
“The Dharma at Big Sur – Sri Moonshine and A New Day.” Music written by John Adams and licensed with permission from Hendon Music. (P) 2006 Nonesuch Records, Inc., Produced Under License From Nonesuch Records, Inc. ISRC: USNO10600825 & USNO10600824

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This post is part of Art + Ideas, a podcast in which Getty president Jim Cuno talks with artists, writers, curators, and scholars about their work.
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