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Work A prism of the Assyrian king Ashurbanipal recounting his campaigns against Elam and the sacking of Susa

Department of Near Eastern Antiquities: Mesopotamia

A prism of the Assyrian king Ashurbanipal recounting his campaigns against Elam and the sacking of Susa

© 2005 RMN / Franck Raux

Near Eastern Antiquities
Mesopotamia

Author(s):
Herbin Nancie

This terra-cotta prism is made of a coarse earth core covered with a fine layer of clay allowing for more precise incisions. The object has been hollowed out so that the scribe could rotate it around an axis as he worked and thus make writing easier. The text is written in a literary style.

A prism to recount the deeds of the king

This prism covered with cuneiform writing on all sides was made for King Ashurbanipal (668-627 BC). The text includes several accounts of military campaigns. The first introduces the king and summarizes his last campaign in Egypt. The following texts describe several expeditions in Elam and against the Manneans; the damage inflicted on the enemy and the heaps of corpses are described in great detail. The most important subject is the sacking of Susa: the king boasts of destroying the ziggurat of Susa, all the temples in the city, and the tombs of the Susian kings. He describes the deportation of the Elamites to Assyria and the rich spoils taken. The end of the text narrates the restoration of the palace in Nineveh, the Assyrian capital. To finish, the scribe wrote a series of blessings on those who would continue the construction work and curses on whomsoever might try to destroy it.

Historic foundation deposits

Other prisms telling the story of other royal campaigns have also been found. Each year, on the orders of the dynastic god Ashur, the Assyrian king went to war and conquered new territories. These terra-cotta objects not only served to narrate recent historical events, they were also often used as foundation deposits and buried in the walls of official buildings. They were therefore intended to be read by the gods, not by men. The texts had to present the king as a hero and a faithful servant of the gods and to legitimize his being on the throne.
The royal scribes wrote several versions of the same story, some longer than others. The content varied with the date of writing and the destination of the text.

The Assyrian campaigns

Initially, the Assyrians waged war on their neighbors to defend their own territory. Little by little they managed to gain access to the Mediterranean and extend their territory until it became a real empire. This warrior tradition endured and gradually turned into annual raids, permitting the Assyrians to quell rebellions and bring back prisoners - skilled craftsmen or ordinary laborers - and precious objects. The determination to promote the dynastic god Ashur to the rank of a universal deity justified all military expeditions.

Bibliography

Lackenbacher Sylvie, L'écriture de l'Histoire : les annales assyriennes et la Bible, in Le Monde de la Bible, n 84, septembre-octobre 1993, Bayard Presse, 1993, p. 11.
André Béatrice, Naissance de l'écriture : cunéiformes et hiéroglyphes, Galeries nationales du Grand Palais, 7 mai - 9 août 1982, Éditions de la Réunion des musées nationaux, 1982, pp. 91-92, fig. 54.
André-Salvini Béatrice, La cité royale de Suse : trésors du Proche-Orient ancien au Louvre, New York, Metropolitan Museum of Art, 17 novembre 1992 - 7 mars 1993, Éditions de la Réunion des musées nationaux, 1992, pp. 270-271, fig. 189.

Technical description

  • A prism of the Assyrian king Ashurbanipal recounting his campaigns against Elam and the sacking of Susa

    Assyrian Empire, reign of Ashurbanipal (668-627 BC)

    Nineveh, Assyria (Iraq)

  • Baked clay

    H. 33 cm; Th. 17 cm

  • Purchased 1948

    AO 19939

  • Near Eastern Antiquities

    Richelieu wing
    Ground floor
    Mesopotamia and northern Syria. Assyria: Til Barsip, Arslan Tash, Nimrud, Nineveh
    Room 6

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