Thursday, September 28, 2017


"Ashurbanipal", by Saadya

in the “Paper Heroes” exhibition
Jaffa Museum, Israel
October 5 – December 30, 2017

Curator:  Ilan Garibi

Strap your sword upon a hero's thigh...” (Psalms 45: 3)

This king is not my hero. He is, however, the hero of my hero.

My hero is a Jewish poet who lived in the 7th century BCE in exile in Babylon, then moved to Jerusalem: one of the early Zionists. The poetry he wrote in both locations was to shape Jewish religious experience down through the ages, and many of his verses, whole and in fragments, have made their way into central portions of the Hebrew prayerbook. In their own day too they influenced contemporary Hebrew literary productions such as the Book of Jonah. Yes: a hero of mine, all around.

His hero — so he describes him in a poem written for him in 663 BCE, in Nineveh — was King Ashurbanipal: the last great ruler of the Assyrian Empire, and by his own account the first truly literate one, who
could read scripts in Sumerian and the older forms of Akkadian.  Ashurbanipal's military conquests created an empire of greater geographical extent than any that had existed to date, and he also assembled what was perhaps the world's first great royal library. To that end he employed an army of scribes to collect and copy out ancient texts from temples of all the peoples that fell to his rule (the Epic of Gilgamesh, for instance, was a favorite). One of those scribes, it now seems, was a young Jewish poet — my hero.

Ashurbanipal's prowess and virility and might are beyond doubt and he was more than a capable scholar-soldier. Yet this man, like other great emperors before and since, like Cyrus and Alexander and Caesar and Napoleon, leaves me entirely cold.

I've depicted him in as stiff and as stylized a way as I could, in high relief, blending an origami aesthetic with a Mesopotamian one so as to echo in paper some of what was done in stone. And stylized those representations certainly were. Just as from the epithets and self-descriptions alone it can be hard to tell one Assyrian king from another who might have lived centuries before, so with some of the sculpted reliefs, it's as if all these rulers were born with the same rounded eyes & brows, sported the same hairdos and had the same blocky beards: every one of them patterned, evidently, to a template they thought divine.

S. Sternberg
August 2017

postscript (September)

I had the museum to myself for a few minutes during the day for delivering the artworks, and slipped into the Antiquities section to see how my “Ashby” stacked up against some of the old things there. The objects in the cabinets are from an earlier period (13th century BCE) when the empire ruling here was Egypt rather than Assyria, and “Israel” was the name of just one people among several then flourishing in Canaan. Still I could not resist the juxtaposition.