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Assyrian Protective Spirit, Nimrud

Assyrian Protective Spirit, Nimrud


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Assyrian protective spirit 865-860 B.C.

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Eagle-headed protective spirit. Assyrian, about 865-860 BC From Nimrud, Temple of Ninurta

Your Easy-access (EZA) account allows those in your organization to download content for the following uses:

  • Tests
  • Samples
  • Composites
  • Layouts
  • Rough cuts
  • Preliminary edits

It overrides the standard online composite license for still images and video on the Getty Images website. The EZA account is not a license. In order to finalize your project with the material you downloaded from your EZA account, you need to secure a license. Without a license, no further use can be made, such as:

  • focus group presentations
  • external presentations
  • final materials distributed inside your organization
  • any materials distributed outside your organization
  • any materials distributed to the public (such as advertising, marketing)

Because collections are continually updated, Getty Images cannot guarantee that any particular item will be available until time of licensing. Please carefully review any restrictions accompanying the Licensed Material on the Getty Images website, and contact your Getty Images representative if you have a question about them. Your EZA account will remain in place for a year. Your Getty Images representative will discuss a renewal with you.

By clicking the Download button, you accept the responsibility for using unreleased content (including obtaining any clearances required for your use) and agree to abide by any restrictions.


Assyrian Protective Spirit, Nimrud - History

(BBC) -- Three thousand years ago, a genie graced the walls of an Assyrian palace. Then, probably about 20 years ago, it disappeared, only to re-emerge in London. Since 2002 it's been languishing in police vaults at Scotland Yard, because of difficulties determining the legal owner.

The genie is a powerfully built man, with wings sprouting from his back. About 2m high, it is carved in relief on a stone panel, holding a pine cone, and facing a pattern that represents the tree of life. The genie symbolised both protection and fertility - its role was to safeguard and replenish the ancient kingdom of Assyria.

It was a design particularly popular with the Assyrian king, Ashurnasirpal II, who came to the throne in 883 BC, and made Nimrud his new capital.

"Ashurnasirpal and his artists were really the first to decorate many of the rooms in the public spaces within the palace," says archaeologist Augusta McMahon, lecturer at the University of Cambridge.

"One of the key symbols that appeared over and over was this genie or protective spirit. Because in the minds of the ancient Assyrians it's an enormously powerful motif, it can't hurt to have a further fertility symbol somewhere in the room."

Protective genies came in all sorts of shapes and sizes. The photograph above is very similar but not identical to the one now in the hands of British police. Others had the bodies of men but the heads of ferocious-looking birds and a feathered hairstyle, still others were a combination of man and fish.

( Brooklyn Museum)

Our particular genie had copious amounts of curly hair and a long beard. "The really big crazy-looking hair and the massive beard were part of making him really stand out," says McMahon, who also draws attention to the "little fringed outfit that shows off these incredibly muscular legs".

The impact of all the genies side by side in the palace would have been to convey the strength and virility of the Assyrian empire.

Across the belly of the genie was a smattering of cuneiform in the now extinct language, Akkadian. The text is what's known as Ashurnasirpal's "standard inscription". It lays out in minute detail his many kingly accomplishments - from treading on the necks of foes to being "king of the universe" - and was carved on many of the reliefs and sculptures that filled the halls of his palace at Nimrud.

"It's my favourite ancient archaeological site," says Mark Altaweel, an Iraqi-American archaeologist whose ancestors come from Mosul - not far from Nimrud.

( NYPL)

"You did see the reliefs in place, you can see the rooms. Even the ancient floors were sort of wobbly, and in some ways that gave it the ancient feel. You got a sense of what a palace was like when you walked in there."

Sometimes, however, even protective spirits need protecting. At some point since Nimrud's excavation, this genie relief was moved into a storage room from where it disappeared. It's believed to have been taken in the 1990s during the chaos of the first Gulf war, but no-one knows for sure.

The genie's whereabouts were completely unknown for about 10 years. Eventually in 2002, just before the second Gulf war, it turned up in London - one of the world's largest antiquities markets.

( NYPL)

Scotland Yard's Art and Antiques Unit went to collect the genie, but it's unclear who legally owns it, so for the last 14 years it has been locked up in a secure storage unit belonging to London's Metropolitan Police.

"The problem is that the burden of proof on objects, when they are looted, is on the authorities to show that it really was removed illegally," says Altaweel.

Looters sometimes lie about an object's country of origin, and move it through a variety of transit points. It may change hands many times and some of the sellers may insist on remaining anonymous.

"So the genie is basically in a kind of limbo state," says Altaweel.

Even though it appears to be part of a documented collection that was in Nimrud for 3,000 years, at present it seems unlikely to ever return to Iraq.

( Brooklyn Museum)

At some point in its journey, the genie was badly damaged. His head, wings, and upper body are still visible, but gone are his legs and much of Ashurnasirpal's cuneiform inscription. These may have been hacked away when the genie was first taken, or disposed of en route to London - it's not clear. But it is still highly valuable.

"We hear that just the head was going for £3.5m (almost $5m) in 2003 prices," says Altaweel.

"So imagine the value it would get today, and there are people who are willing to pay those prices. There has always been an interest in Nimrud."

Altaweel was in Nimrud just weeks after the US invasion of Iraq in 2003 and saw for himself fresh signs of looting.

"The site guard told me there was a gunfight that happened, with some bullets hitting the reliefs," he says. Some of the panels depicting genies and other figures had been cut out - the head would be missing, with the body and legs still in place.

The awful irony is that the looting of the genie now at Scotland Yard may have saved it from complete destruction. After seizing Mosul in 2014, the so-called Islamic State group began destroying sites in and around the city - including, the following year, Nimrud.

( Mark Altaweel)

This has prompted debates about the thorny issue of repatriation. Some have argued that it might have been better if more of the Middle East's archaeological riches had been taken from the region during the era of European imperialism. To them, the iconoclasm of the would-be caliphate seemed to justify, in retrospect, the cavalier way in which Western archaeologists and collectors relieved the Middle East of its cultural heritage in the 19th and early 20th Centuries.

And yet for many people outside the West, it remains a source of grievance that so much of their past sits in the halls and basements of museums in Paris and Berlin, London and New York. Westerners can more easily enjoy the cultural history of Iraq than Iraqis themselves.

But while looters have plundered Iraqi museums and still threaten historical sites, the looted objects do not always end up being smuggled abroad.

( Mark Altaweel)

Mark Altaweel was at the museum in Sulaymaniyah in Iraqi Kurdistan five years ago, when he got chatting to an American Kurdish man. Only after the man had left did Altaweel realise that a transaction had just taken place.

The visitor had offered to sell a series of cuneiform tablets and other objects and the museum at the time had a no-questions-asked policy, so it bought them.

"At first glance you think that's a horrible policy," says Altaweel. "But it did actually prevent them from leaving Iraq proper."

Some treasures from Nimrud now held in the British Museum. ( Getty Images)

The visitor's haul included something amazing - a chapter of the Gilgamesh epic, the original blockbuster adventure, with monster battles, the search for immortality, divine kings, and even a whole section on how the wrathful gods flooded the Earth (a scenario that would appear again in the later biblical tale of Noah). Gilgamesh is humanity's earliest story. It marks that moment when gods and humans stepped out of the murky unknown and into the sharp relief of narrative.

"As soon as they saw that there's a text that talks about the Gilgamesh story, their immediate reaction was to buy this thing," says Altaweel. "They understood that this was extremely rare."

( Farouk al Rawi)

One of the key scenes in the Gilgamesh epic is the momentous encounter between the hero Gilgamesh and the monster Humbaba, described as a hideous ogre - his "roar is a flood, his mouth is death and his breath is fire!"

This beast of the wild can generally be found roaming the beautiful Cedar Forest. His primary aim is to terrify men and it's up to the brave, demi-god Gilgamesh and his sidekick Enkidu to vanquish Humbaba and rid the forest of his ugly tyranny. But what's remarkable about the Gilgamesh tablet recovered at the Sulaymaniyah museum is that it shows Humbaba in a different light.

"Where ?umbaba came and went there was a track, the paths were in good order and the way was well trodden," the tablet reads.

"Through all the forest a bird began to sing: A wood pigeon was moaning, a turtle dove calling in answer. Monkey mothers sing aloud, a youngster monkey shrieks: like a band of musicians and drummers daily they bash out a rhythm in the presence of ?umbaba."

In this version of the story, Humbaba is beloved of the gods and a kind of king in the palace of the forest. Monkeys are his heralds, birds his courtiers, and his entire throne room breathes with the heady aroma of cedar resin.

Gilgamesh and Enkidu, meanwhile, are aggressors, ecological thieves. They come to Humbaba's forest to take its timber back to their treeless homeland in Mesopotamia. In this newly discovered tablet of the epic, we find - remarkably - a sense that the heroes of the tale were in the wrong.

"Enkidu opened his mouth to speak, saying to Gilgamesh: 'My friend, we have reduced the forest to a wasteland. In your might you slew the guardian, what was this wrath of yours that you went trampling the forest?'"

This sense of remorse is particularly strong in the Sulaymaniyah tablet, but traces of it also exist in other versions of the Gilgamesh epic. In so many other ancient tales, the Anglo-Saxon Beowulf for example, we find a black-and-white world, a clear binary of good and evil. In Gilgamesh there is plenty of grey. The hero is faced with the moral consequences of his actions. There is so much destruction in the achievement of his greatness.

Intentionally and unintentionally, modern-day combatants in Iraq and Syria are destroying precious records of antiquity, and more objects like the genie and cuneiform tablets will inevitably slip on to the black market. So, it's worth celebrating the rare recoveries of these artefacts.

"It's a good and bad thing. It's bad that it was looted, it's bad that it had to be purchased. But it's good because at least it stays in the country of Iraq," says Altaweel.

"It's one of these things where Western scholars actually have to come to Iraq to see this and study this tablet. So it's good that at least something of significance stays in the country. Iraqis need to see these things too, ultimately these countries need stability, and stability equals economy, equals tourism, equals the objects being back there."

War makes exiles out of people and cultural artefacts alike. It is a small victory, but a victory nonetheless, when an antiquity like the tablet of Gilgamesh can endure and remain in Iraq.

Ashurnasirpal's genie, however, seems destined to stay far from its old home. Once it guarded the palace of its king. Now it is guarded by British police, in an obscure basement in a foreign country.


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Assyrian Protective Spirit, Nimrud - History

I took these photographs in 2000 at the British Museum. Unfortunately, the photo quality isn’t too good, because I was using a disposable camera without a flash. I’ve tried to enhance then a bit in an image editor. Luckily I took some notes, so I can tell you a bit about them.

This is a panel depicting King Ashurnasirpal, flanked by eagle-headed protective spirits. It comes (as do the rest of these exhibits) from the North-West palace of Nimrud in Assyria, and dates somewhere between 865-860 B.C.

This panel, along with another, stood at the head of a room. The surviving walls of which were otherwize panelled entirely with eagle-headed spirits and sacred trees.

Eagle-headed protective spirit between saced trees. The sacred trees were completed on adjoining panels.

Four-winged protective spirit, holding a mace, guarding one of the doors to the royal throne room.

In this panel, king Ashurnasirpal appears twice, dressed in ritual robes and holding the mace symbolising authority. In front of him there is a sacred tree possibly symbolising life, and he makes a gesture of worship to a god in a winged mask. The god, who may be the sun god Shamash, has a ring in one hand an ancient Mesopotamian symbol of god-given kingship. Protective spirits are on either side, placed behind the royal throne.

Protective spirit with branch and carrying a deer. Guarded one of the doors to the royal thone room.


Hunting lions

The Palace of Ashurnasirpal, also known as the North-West Palace, was first excavated by the British explorer Austen Henry Layard in the 1840s. His excavations are the source of the winged bull gatekeeper statues currently displayed in the British Museum.

Layard also recovered large numbers of stone panels that lined the walls of rooms and courtyards within the palace. These panels are of a local limestone, carved in low relief with beautifully detailed scenes of the king seated at state banquets, hunting lions, or engaged in warfare and religious ritual.

Extended excavations at Nimrud were next carried out in the 1950s-60s by Max Mallowan, the husband of crime writer Agatha Christie.

Mallowan and his team reconstructed the complex plans of the palace, temples and citadel, and his excavations recovered rich finds of carved ivory furniture, stone jars and metalwork, as well as hundreds of additional wall reliefs and wall paintings.

Near the entrance to the palace's throne room, Mallowan also discovered a free-standing stone slab, which depicted the king in a pose of worship and included a long text in Assyrian cuneiform that described the construction of the palace and its surrounding gardens.


Glazed terracotta tile. Nimrud. 875-850 BCE

Protective spirit. Northwest Palace at Nimrud. 865 BCE

Human headed winged lion, formerly flanking a doorway in the Northwest Palace at Nimrud. Time of Ashurnasirpal I, 865 BCE

The Black Obelisk of Shalmaneser III, showing scenes of tribute bearers from many lands. 858-824 BCE

Gates from Shalmaneser III’s palace at Balawat. Embossed bronze strips over wood (reconstructed). 858-824 BCE.

Winged human headed spirits. Northwest Palace at Nimrud. These may have guarded the entrance to the King’s private apartments. 865 BCE.

Horses & grooms leaving Sennacherib’s palace at Nineveh, 700 BCE

Protective spirits, Nineveh, 645-635 BCE. These figures are not fighting but are protecting against any evil that might approach from two directions.


Explore Ancient Assyrian Reliefs

Once these panels were among two hundred that decorated the palace walls of King Ashurnasirpal II. When the king chose Kalhu as the royal and military capital of Assyria, it catapulted to fame and power.

Understanding the History

The great stone figures that today grace the Assyrian Gallery of the Bowdoin College Museum of Art were carved more than 2500 years ago for the palaces and temples of Ashurnasirpal II (883-859 B.C.), ruler of the empire of Assyria, centered in what is now northern Iraq. Move through the timeline below to get a better sense of of the reliefs’ deep history and how they came to be housed in the Bowdoin College Museum of Art.

A Deeper Look

Close examination of the reliefs provide details about Assyrian history and culture. Use the viewing screen below to see if you can find the items mentioned in each description.

Two Winged, Eagle-Headed Spirits

Winged Spirit

Apkallu Anointing Ashurnasirpal II

Apkallu and Sacred Tree

Two Winged, Eagle-Headed Spirits

These eagle-headed, winged figures are important protective spirits for the Assyrians and are dressed from the neck down as the human-headed Apkallu. Equipped with daggers and whetstones, both figures hold buckets in their lowered hands with cone-shaped “purifiers” held aloft.  The ‘Standard Inscription’ of Ashurnasirpal, common to many of his reliefs, runs across the upper half of the sculpture. It records the King’s titles, ancestry, and achievements.

Winged Spirit of Apkallu

This winged figure is often connected to the Apkallu spirit mentioned in Assyrian texts as imbued with magical and protective powers.  The Apkallu’s horned crown announces his divinity, though his portrait bears an uncanny resemblance to Ashurnasirpal. Tucked into the folds of his tasseled kilt and embroidered robe are two daggers and a whetstone for sharpening the blades. Armlets and rosette-bracelets wrap around the figure’s arms and wrists. Remnants of color, red-brown, black and white, that once adorned the sculpture is visible on the Apkallu’s eye and the soles of his sandals

Winged Spirit or Apkallu Anointing Ashurnasirpal II

This relief shows the king Ashurnasirpal with an Apkallu, a protective spirit, behind. The king wears the fez-and-tiara crown signaling his regal status. His long robe is tasseled with daggers tucked into the folds. The protective spirit wears a horned crown, short kilt, and sports wings that mark his divine status. He anoints the king with a “purifier,” which extends a fertile gift to the Assyrian king. The relief’s condition is significant: the bow, a symbol of Ashurnasirpal’s martial prowess, has been broken in the middle. The king’s right hand has been severed, with his eyes, nose, and ears removed.  On this defaced relief, a ghostly silhouette appears opposite the king. Crudely rendered and executed with obvious haste, the new figure approaches the king as conqueror. This disfigurement coincided with the sack of Kalhu (modern Nimrud) by the Medes and Babylonians at the end of the seventh century BCE. 

Winged Spirit or Apkallu and Sacred Tree

The winged figure, Apkallu, is often mentioned in Assyrian texts. With magical and protective powers, he serves to guard the king and his realm. The horned crown announces his divinity, though his portrait bears an uncanny resemblance to Ashurnasirpal himself. He holds a bucket in his left hand, while in his right, he sprinkles a sacred tree using a “purifier,” resembling the spathes, or flower sheaths, from the date palm. The spirit wears a tasseled kilt and richly embroidered robe, and projects a powerful pose. Tucked into the folds of his robe are two daggers and a whetstone for sharpening the blades. Armlets and rosette-bracelets wrap around the figure’s arms and wrists.

Paint a Relief

People today can appreciate the carved form and detail of Bowdoin’s Assyrian reliefs, but the ancient viewer was treated to a much more colorful display. Although little color remains , it seems likely that many of the reliefs were painted.  White paint remains around the pupil of the Apkallu figure and a reddish-brown pigment highlights the sole of his sandal. Can you imagine what the painted figures might have looked like?


A photograph of colored light projected on the Apkallu
figure to create the illusion of a painted surface.


Watch the video: Kings private suite, Northwest Palace, Nimrud (June 2022).


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