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Art Through Time: A Global View

Conflict and Resistance Art: Battle of Til-Tuba (Battle of the River Ulai) (detail)

» Unknown artist(s), Nineveh, Iraq

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
Period: 3000 BCE – 500 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

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.

Expert Perspective:
Zainab Bahrani, Professor of Ancient Near Eastern Art History and Archaeology, Columbia University

“There is one remarkable relief from the Neo-Assyrian period, so from the middle of the seventh century B.C. It is called the Battle of Til-Tuba relief and it depicts a chaotic and tumultuous scene of war, a battle between the Assyrians and the Elamites that takes place near a river called the river Ulai. And the main subject of that battle seems to be the defeat of the Elamite king, Teuman, and his son Tamaritu. And in one small area of this very chaotic scene of battle, you can see the king being beheaded, and the body of his son already killed and already beheaded, lying on top him. You see an Assyrian soldier severing the head of the Elamite king. The head is then taken and in another part of the scene you see the head being carried by an Assyrian soldier. And as you follow the relief from right to left you can follow along the scenes, and you see several Assyrian soldiers crossing across the relief, across the sculpture, carrying the severed head of the Assyrian king. Ashurbanipal is enthroned lying on his couch made of ivory and wood, and his queen, Ashur-sharrat is sitting in front of him and they are celebrating the victory by holding up their cups to have a drink. They are surrounded by musicians, and attendants of all kinds. Around them are trees, a grape arbor, and trees, birds, crickets surrounding this wonderful garden scene. But if you look to the left there is this gruesome display because off in the distance in front of the throne, the couch of the king, the head of the defeated enemy, the severed head of Teuman, is now hanging in the tree before the king and his queen as they celebrate the victory.

As far as I can determine, the head, which is repeated across this chaotic scene of battle and emerges again and again across the relief, becomes a sign of victory itself. So that the severed head, the brutal act of the severing of the head, becomes the focal point on which the victory is pinned. And then it is hung up into the tree in front of the king in order to celebrate the victory. And we wonder why such a representation, such as sculpture, would have been put into the palace. You can say, perhaps, that this is for propagandistic reasons—that the king and his courtiers want to impress and frighten the viewers of the relief. But very few people would have actually had access to the courts, the interior courts of the palace. So it perhaps makes more sense to think of such an image, such a sign of victory represented in this celebration of war, as for the viewing pleasure of the king himself—that he could look at this victory and perhaps gloat over the tortured bodies of the defeated enemies, gloat over the severed head of the enemy king, and perpetuate in some sense this victory into eternity because of the representation. And this we can conclude, based on everything that we know about how imagery worked in ancient Near Eastern tradition.”

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.

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