13 December 2022

Why every Biblical scholar should
visit the British Museum in London

A roaring lion from the Throne Room of Nebuchadnezzar II in Babylon … on loan from the Pergamon Museum to the British Museum (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2022)

Patrick Comerford

When Charlotte and I were visiting the British Museum in London earlier this month, I was interested to see some items I had already seen in the Pergamon Museum in Berlin four years ago (September 2018).

They include a glazed brick panel showing a roaring lion from the Throne Room of Nebuchadnezzar II in Babylon, in what is now southern Iraq. This panel is on loan from Vorderasiatisches Museum or Near East Museum in Berlin. This museum is part of the Pergamon Museum and has one of the world's largest collections of Southwest Asian art.

King Nebuchadnezzar II, who reigned in Babylon in 605-562 BCE, commissioned major building projects in Babylon to glorify the capital of his empire. Glazed bricks in bright shades of blue, yellow and white were favoured for public monuments in order to emphasise both divine and royal power.

The Processional Way and the Ishtar Gate linked the city’s outer fortifications to Nebuchadnezzar’s Southern Palace. Beyond them stood the main temples and the great ziggurat tower that stretched seven storeys high. The roaring lions on the walls of the Processional Way and Palace Throne Room represent Nebuchadnezzar himself.

Museum exhibits like this are of interest to every Biblical scholar and student, for the great seven-storey ziggurat tower in Babylon was none other than the tower of Babel.

Nebuchadnezzar the Great is regarded as the empire's greatest king in the Babylonian Empire, and is known for his military campaigns in what we now know as the Middle East, his building projects in Babylon, and his important role in Jewish history.

Nebuchadnezzar destroyed the Kingdom of Judah and its capita, Jerusalem in 587 BCE. The destruction of Jerusalem led to the Babylonian captivity as the city’s population and people from the surrounding lands were deported to Babylonia. For ever after, Jews thereafter referred to him as a ‘destroyer of nations’. The Book of Jeremiah paints Nebuchadnezzar as a cruel enemy, but also as God’s appointed ruler of the world and a divine instrument to punish disobedience.

Biblical scholars are also interested in display items from other empires in the region, including the Persian and Sumerian kingdoms.

A plaster cast from the palace in Persepolis (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2022)

On the same floor, a plaster cast from Persepolis is made from part of one side of a huge doorway to a palace built in 470-450 BCE. The scene shows the king sitting on a throne and holding a sceptre and lotus flower. An attendant stands behind, and above is a richly decorated canopy. The throne is supported by a huge platform with lion’s paws and three figures. The people wear different costumes from across the Persian Empire, which stretched from Libya to India.

The king is seated under a canopy with an attendant behind. The top row of supporting figures are an Elamite, Armenian, Lydian and Assyrian. The middle row of figures represent an Egyptian, possibly an lonian, a Gandharan, possibly a Sagartian and a Sogdian. The bottom row represents a Skudrian, Scythian, Arab, and Libyan and Scythian.

Lorenzo Giuntini travelled with Herbert Weld to Persepolis in 1892, when he created the moulds, and he made this plaster cast on his return to London.

The Standard of Ur, dating from ca 2500 BCE, was found by Leonard Woolley (Photographa: Patrick Comerford, 2022)

On the same floor too is the Standard of Ur, dating from ca 2500 BCE. It was so named at the time of excavation by the archaeologist Sir Leonard Woolley (1880-1960) because it was found near the shoulder of a man, as if it were being carried on a pole like a battle standard. It is a hollow box and its original function is not yet known. It was found in a large royal grave with several tomb chambers, which had been thoroughly robbed in antiquity.

The standard is decorated on all four sides with mosaic scenes made with incised shell, red limestone and lapis lazuli inlay, which were originally set in bitumen on a wooden frame. It was found crushed by the weight of soil and stones and the wooden structure had completely decayed. The arrangements of the inlay pieces were ingeniously preserved by Woolley by applying wax.

Each side is divided into three registers. The end panels show fanciful scenes, they were the most damaged and their restoration is uncertain. The two long sides show a scene of war and a scene of peace and prosperity. These two scenes also address two aspects of Sumerian kingship – the ruler as a warrior and as a mediator between his people and the gods.

This side of the standard presents a completely different theme from the scene of battle on the other side. In the top register a banquet with religious overtones is shown. Banquet scenes, often shown on cylinder seals of this period, were associated with religious rituals. The king is distinguished by being the largest figure in the scene and by his fleece skirt.

Sitting with the king are six men who all hold cups in their right hands. On the left, three standing attendants administer to the banquet participants, while on the right a lyre is played by a musician. The person with long hair and clasped hands next to the musician may be singing or reciting words in accompaniment.

The middle register shows the abundance of the land. Bald Sumerians wearing fringed skirts lead bulls and goats and carry fish. On the left, a man standing behind a bull has hair, a beard and a different belt and skirt. It seems he is leading the people from the bottom register, who carry produce and backpacks supported by headbands. Their different appearance indicates that they may come from northern regions.

There are other objects from the Royal Cemetery in this gallery that are illustrated on the side of the standard, including lyres with bull’s heads and silver cups held by the banqueters.

There was personal pleasure in seeing a photograph by Charlotte’s grandfather among the exhibits. John Hunter’s photograph from the Middle East Archive is a view of the remains of the Kassite ziggurat at Dur-Kurigalzu, photographed in the 1930s.

Dur-Kurigalzu (modern `Aqar-Qūf) was a city in southern Mesopotamia, near the confluence of the Tigris and Diyala rivers, about 30 km west of the center of Baghdad. It was founded by a Kassite king of Babylon, Kurigalzu I, who died ca 1375 BCE and was abandoned after the fall of the Kassite dynasty ca 1155 BCE.

The city was of such importance that it appeared on toponym lists in the funerary temple of the Egyptian pharaoh, Amenophis III (ca 1351 BC) at Kom el-Hettan. The city included a ziggurat and temples dedicated to Mesopotamian gods, as well as a royal palace extending to 420,000 square meters.

The ziggurat at Aqar Quf, standing 52 metres high, has been a very visible monument for centuries, signalling the near approach to Baghdad. Because of its proximity to Baghdad, it has been one of Iraq’s most visited and best-known sites. The ziggurat was often confused with the Tower of Babel by Western visitors to the area from the 17th century onwards.

John Hunter’s 1930s photograph of the Kassite ziggurat at Dur-Kurigalzu, near Baghdad (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

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