Drawing Distinctions: Assyrians and Others in the Art of the Neo-Assyrian Empire
Keywords:Neo-Assyrian Empire, Imperialism, Neo-Assyrian art, Ashurbanipal
Between the ninth and seventh centuries BCE, the Neo-Assyrian Empire became the largest the world had yet seen. In the process of imperial conquest, the Assyrian state incorporated previously foreign territories and people into their world. Landscapes, materials, and the labor of conquered bodies became a part of the Assyrian royal palaces of northern Iraq, both as elements of their construction and as themes emphasized within the extensive visual programs of the palace reliefs. Within and through visual depiction of enemy bodies and foreign landscapes, in the process of being (often violently) reshaped by Assyrian hands, Neo-Assyrian kings brought the farthest reaches of their world into the center of imperial power. This article considers how specific strategies of representation in palace art allowed the Assyrian palace to serve as a microcosm of the empire and a map of its borders. Palace art emphasized the remade, reworked, or recreated, defining “Assyrianness” as that which remakes and has been remade. As a central act of remaking, I examine representations of captive or submissive foreigners, whose presence in the reliefs commemorates their humiliation while compounding and enhancing it in the very ways that these figures are depicted: cringing, deficient, and physiologically incorrect. I pay particular attention to examples from the late King Ashurbanipal’s reign, in which foreign leaders are singled out through representation with distinctive facial features. I argue that this act of (literally) drawing distinctions was an inherently imperial process, one that both expressed and enabled an ideology of expansion and control.
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