The Babylonian Visual Image

Authored by: Zainab Bahrani

The Babylonian World

Print publication date:  August  2007
Online publication date:  June  2009

Print ISBN: 9780415353465
eBook ISBN: 9780203946237
Adobe ISBN: 9781134261284


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When Ashurbanipal had a stele made for the sacred precinct of Esagila in Babylon he chose an archaising formula, derived from what was by then, already, antiquity. On the obverse of the flat slab of sandstone the king stands, centrally and frontally positioned. His wrapped and fringed garments and his polos shaped headdress are clearly those of an Assyrian king, as is his hairstyle and his rectangular blunt-cut beard composed of neatly arranged rows of curls. The king stands with his arms upraised, his large hands keep a reed basket in place, balanced on his head. The depicted act is an ancient one; it is the act of the king as builder. The king carries on his head the basket of earth for the ritual moulding of the first brick, an act that he performs himself as a central part of the building ritual. The first brick initiates a series of bricks for the sacred construction, each of which are moulded in a matrix of ivory, or of special wood, such as maple, boxwood or mulberry, which had writing fixed against the sides. Oil, honey and wine were poured upon the foundations, under the first course of brickwork. Similar images of rulers had existed since the relief of the Sumerian ruler Urnanshe of the mid-third millennium BC, approximately two thousand years before the reign of Ashurbanipal. Ashurbanipal’s stele, however, is deliberately archaising, and perhaps also deliberately Babylonianising. It is an image of kingship that is both local and ancient.

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