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12 / Conflict and Resistance

Battle of Til-Tuba (Battle of the River Ulai) (detail)
Battle of Til-Tuba (Battle of the River Ulai) (detail)
Artist / Origin Unknown artist(s), Nineveh, Iraq
Region: West Asia
Date Neo-Assyrian, ca. 660–650 BCE
Material Limestone relief
Medium: Sculpture
Dimensions H: approx. 6 ft. (1.82 m.)
Location The British Museum, London, UK
Credit Courtesy of Werner Forman/Art Resource, NY

expert perspective

Zainab BahraniProfessor of Ancient Near Eastern Art History and Archaeology, Columbia University

Additional Resources

Bahrani, Zainab. Rituals of War: The Body and Violence in Mesopotamia. New York: Zone Books; Cambridge: Distributed by The MIT Press, 2008.

Bahrani, Zainab. The Graven Image: Representations in Babylonia and Assyria. Philadelphia: University of Philadelphia Press, 2003.

The British Museum Web site. http://www.britishmuseum.org.

Kuhrt, Amelie. The Ancient Near East, c. 3000–330 BC. Vol II. London: Routledge, 1997.

Battle of Til-Tuba (Battle of the River Ulai) (detail)

» Unknown artist(s), Nineveh, Iraq

This is one of several huge panels from the Nineveh palace of Ashurbanipal (668–631 BCE), king of Assyria, a political state in Mesopotamia (now present-day Iraq).

The shallow stone relief depicts the Battle of Til-Tuba (ca. 653 BCE) between the Assyrians and the Elamites at the River Ulai. It is a gruesome scene of torture, which includes densely layered images of the trampled, impaled, and beheaded Elamites. The larger multi-paneled narrative of which this scene is a part commemorates not only the Assyrian victory at Til-Tuba, but also the subsequent celebrations of Ashurbanipal and his court.

The Battle of Til-Tuba imagery across the panels in the Nineveh cycle depicts war as a chaotic, almost random assortment of violent acts. Key scenes of the battle appear in neither linear nor chronological progression. It has been argued that the historical narrative is, in fact, subsidiary to the propagandistic function and symbolic meaning of the relief series. According to this view, the significance of the images lies in the repetition of certain visual motifs, most notably the severed head of Teumann, which appears in each scene, including that depicting the Assyrian king’s victory banquet. The king’s decapitated head, which urges viewers to be both fearful and in awe of Assyrian might, is a potent symbol of Ashurbanipal’s triumph as well.

The ancient Near East provides a prime example of what has been called “performative imagery.” The Til-Tuba relief panels were created in a context in which art was understood to embody actual power and presence. Images of victory were much more than simple propaganda; they participated in reality. To harm an image of a king would be a way to harm the king himself; to remove a portrait statue from its original location was a means of destroying the power of the individual represented; and to create an image of triumph was, in some senses, to perpetuate the actual victory into eternity.


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