Monday, 28 January 2019


Try it. In conversation, when people  are bemoaning the uncertain world we live in, try the “not more uncertain than the Industrial Revolution” or “Ruskin would have had something about Brexit”. They’re conversation stoppers but go back nearly 2700 years and even my conversational capability grinds to a halt.

I went to the British Museum recently to see the exhibition “I am Ashurbanipal, King of the world, King of Assyria”. He ruled from 669 – 632 BC from his capital Nineveh. Nineveh was the largest city in Assyria and the world for 50 years and its location would have been where Mosul is now in Iraq on the Eastern Bank of the River Tigris.

It was apparently magnificent with 15 great gates and fascinating frescoes and sculptures. This is where the Hanging Gardens of Babylon were allegedly located. Ashurbanipal himself was not first in line as successor to the throne but was picked out as “the talent” and was trained as warrior, scholar and diplomat, shadowing his father and being made Assyrian spymaster which helped him develop an intimate knowledge of the vast Empire incorporating Cyprus, Judah, Egypt, Iraq, Syria.

He  was clearly unusually gifted and popular. Assyria became everything he boasted it was and he made Nineveh awe inspiring . What’s more he knew how to party.

“When I inaugurated the palace at Calah, I hosted for 10 days with food and drink….  altogether 69,574 invited guests…”

So what went wrong? We really don’t know. Records of him disappear… did he die of natural causes, was he assassinated? Whatever happened Assyria weakened, imploded and Nineveh by 612 BC was sacked and destroyed. (Imagine Paris being wiped off the map.) The exhibition showed work of heart-stopping  beauty and skill. It all seemed incomprehensible that this happened when Rome was still a muddy bunch of huts and London was over 600 years from being even started.

And then sometime around 610 BC with a huge plume of smoke, some screams and horrors it was gone. It was a memento mori moment. From King of the world to barely remembered.
Such exhibitions are like a rather strong medicine, purging us of our certainties and our  overweening attitude to our history.  We underestimate our perpetual conflicts with the Danes, the French, the Spanish, the Dutch, the Germans and ourselves in the English Civil War in 1642 not to mention our repression of the Scots, Irish and Welsh.  Our history makes that of Ashurbanipal look almost sophisticated and civilised.

The Queen has asked us to pull our socks up and “come together”. Matthew Parris wishes she wouldn’t interfere in politics, my own problem is her plea is like asking Arsenal supporters to applaud a Tottenham goal. In the argot of today “that just aint going to  happen.” Just look at history.

The Assyrian adventure I had last week confirmed my view that Brexit will play out messily. But the historians will have such fun with it.

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