An interesting article about the Assyrians appeared in last week’s Guardian, On Art blog. The piece by Jonathan Jones, describes a piece of ancient Assyrian art on auction that the British Museum is not interested in buying. Having toured the Assyrian galleries a time or two, more’s the pity, but Jones puckishly suggests that the museum may be afraid of the curse inscribed on the piece. We all know of the story of ancient artifacts that come with value-added supernatural attributes—it’s a standard staple of Hollywood horror. Jones knows, however, that the museum isn’t really afraid of a curse, but he does display an interesting attitude toward the Assyrians. You see, the Assyrians were conquerors. They knew how to intimidate potential enemies long before their armies ever set out on the move. The imagery displays powerful men, ripped and ready, killing lions in hand-to-claw combat. Jones rightly points out that some of this is disturbing. What strikes me as interesting is a probably unintended subtext.
“Assyrian art is certainly awe-inspiring – but perhaps not civilised,” Jones writes. As if civilization necessitates politeness. Perhaps it should, but civilization began in the very region south of ancient Assyria, among the Sumerians who were a culture emulated by later Mesopotamians. There is no doubt that the Mesopotamians gave us many of our beloved Bible stories, in their original, unedited form. They gave us organized religion, writing, and the wheel. Comparing the Assyrians to the Egyptians and Greeks, Jones suggests they were uncivilized. I would beg to differ. The Egyptians and Greeks could also be quite violent. The Assyrian aesthetic was a bit different, to be sure, but there is a raw beauty to it. And I have to wonder why, from our western perspective, what comes out of Iraq seems to hint at something insidious or sinister.
I’ve always been a fan of the Mesopotamians. Since a Ph.D. program only lasts so long (for those of us perpetually struggling to make ends meet), I did not have time to indulge my Assyriological fantasies once I learned of them. I was deep into Ugarit, and although I loved the tales of Asherah and Baal, there was something more ancient, more powerful, lying to the east. I often thought that if I could’ve had more time, my interests would’ve definitely drifted toward the progenitors of civilization. Yes, some of the art-work is deeply troubling, but the Assyrians, indeed, the Babylonians and Sumerians, looked at the world from the viewpoint of cultural creators. Civilization involves violence, no matter how we try to hide it. When I stand in London, taking in those Assyrian reliefs I see an honesty that is carefully hidden by the Egyptians and Greeks. And I think I prefer to know the truth of the situation, curse or not.