The Scholar

Assurbanipal was the last powerful king of the Neo-Assyrian Empire. After his death, the empire collapsed and ‘Assyria’ as a distinct cultural entity disappeared. He was the only Assyrian king to claim to read and write cuneiform.

Equal to sage Adapa, I learned the secret law, all aspects of scribal art (kullat tupsharruti) understand celestial and terrestial portents… converse about them among collegium of scholars…  discusssed omen series if liver is a map of divine heavens… trying to understanding the future by oil, put a drop of water in a glass of oil and watch shape and color…  (class notes with Elnatan Weissert)

Assurbanipal assembled a huge library at Nineveh.  Most of the tablets found in his library were divination texts.

Model of a Liver - Assyria
Model of a liver in which each box tells what will happen if that part of the liver appears blemished.

The Mighty Hunter

In addition to his scholarly ambitions, Assurbanipal wished to be thought of as a mighty hunter.  The king often boasts in his inscriptions of embarking on hunting expeditions to remote regions of his empire in order to slay ‘huge lions… a fierce mountain breed’  that threaten the flocks of the local shepherds.  A superbly executed relief from Assurbanipal’s North palace at Nineveh shows the king slaying 18 lions in an arena formed by a ring of Assyrian soldiers holding shields and spears.  The number 18 was symbolic of the 18 gates in the city walls of Nineveh that led to every part of the Assyrian empire.  Thus the slaying of lions in the arena was symbolic of the kings ability to maintain peace and quiet in his empire.   Elnathan Weissert notes that the lion hunt shares many similarities to the Mesopotamian akitu festival, and are sometimes mentioned together in Assyrian texts.    (Weissert, 1995)  

A stelae was erected on a hill near the stadium to commemorate the kings hunting prowess (shown on the far left of the relief).   Such displays of hunting and military prowess  reached their climax in the Roman Coliseum when the wealthy patrons of Rome vied with each other (and purchased their offices) by bringing all manner of exotic animals and humans into the stadium to be slaughtered.  In Rome, this slaughter had its roots in funerary rituals, but there is no evidence that this was the case in Assyria. (Although it is noteworthy that the Assyrians kept their captives alive for the akitu festival and then slaughtered them)

Assyrian Procession

Another relief from Assurbanipal’s palace at Nineveh depicts a religious procession. The relief may have been located on the wall of a processional way that led to Ishtar’s temple. Leading the procession are soldiers followed by musicians. Three men carry kettle-drum’s and one carries a cymbal. The kettledrum was made of bronze and covered with the skin of a bull. It was used by temple exorcists in religious ceremonies as a means of averting divine anger. An important cuneiform text found at Uruk describes an elaborate ritual that was used to cover the kettle-drum with a new skin. The tablets make it clear that these were secret ‘mystery’ rites that could not be spoken of to the uninitiated. Their magical power is evident in the words the priest recited upon completion of the ritual: ” these ritual acts the totality-of-the-gods has performed, I did not perform (them).” The kettle-drum received the status of a god and was ‘taken by the hand’ and led into the temple to take its place alongside other images of the gods. Click here for a more complete description of the kettle-drum ritual.

The Siege of Hanunu

Siege of Hanunu
This relief depicts the Elamite city of Hananu. It decorated the walls of the North Palace built by Ashurbanipal (668-627 BC). In the background, one can see the walls of besieged Elamite city. In the foreground are domestic scenes from the Assyrian military camp. Inside of a tent, an officer returning receives a drink from a servant. (Pergamon Museum, Berlin)

Assur Riding Winged Creature

Assur riding mythological creature
The deity Assur stands on a winged mythological creature. On either side of the king are religions symbols: a winged disc, crescent, Pleiades and a star. (Pergamon Museum, Berlin)


Weissert, E., Ed. (1995). Royal Hunt and Royal Triumph in a Prism Fragment of Ashurbanipal (82-5-22,2). Assyria – Proceedings of the 10th Anniversary symposium of the Neo-Assyrian Text Corpus Project, Helsinki

Linssen, M. J. H. (2004). The cults of Uruk and Babylon : the temple ritual texts as evidence for Hellenistic cult practices. Leiden ; Boston, Brill, Styx.