Domination, Alterity, and Appropriation in the Ancient World: A Comparison of Two Relief Sculptures

From the 800s BCE through the 600s BCE, the ancient world experienced the rise of the Neo-Assyrian empire, which expanded from its centers at Nimrud and Nineveh (Iraq) along the Tigris and Euphrates west to the Syro-Phoenician coastline (modern day Lebanon and Syria) and east to modern-day Iran. As a military power house, the Assyrians quelled their external insecurities by conquering their neighbors, relocating their populations, and transporting many to the capitals to become their main source of labor. While the Assyrians heralded nationalism and strived to distinguish themselves from those they conquered, over time, the internationalism of the empire led to the blending of cultures and values, undermining a strong sense of Assyrian-ness. The Neo-Assyrians were conflicted, caught between asserting their identity and fostering relations and collaborations with the conquered cultures. To cope, the Assyrians developed a visual vocabulary of alterity in their palatial stone reliefs. The art depicts the cause and effect of empire; the violence enacted toward other cultures, their imprisonment, and their eventual integration into the Neo-Assyrian way of life as well as the Neo-Assyrian fascination with the “other.”

While today race and ethnicity are understood biologically in terms of genetics, and in terms of the influence of geography on the development of culture, in Mesopotamian Antiquity, societies were cognizant of “other-ness,” but the words “race” and “ethnicity” did not exist. Societies in antiquity defined alterity as a product of spatial origin (barbaric/nomadic vs. civilized/sedentary societies) and in terms of behavior dictated by social class, gender, and religious allegiance. This conceptualization of alterity helps make sense of the Neo-Assyrian artistic representations. For the most part, Assyrian reliefs portray the “other” with an Assyrian likeness and conformity. Only gesture, posture, both considered cultural products, and costuming distinguish them from the Assyrians. Despite their similar body types and facial features as Assyrians, slouch-backed figures suggest disorder and inferiority. This visual use of body language to distinguish alterity juxtaposes the generally straight backs and strong physiques of the portrayals of the orderly, strict, disciplined Assyrians. Through depicting the “other” as Assyrians in type, distinguished primarily by gesture and costuming, the Assyrian artists walk the fine line between representing alterity and exoticizing it by creating a generalizing iconography for certain conquered peoples based on their characteristics.

The micro-narrative of the Elamite King Teumman in the reliefs of the “Battle at Til Tuba” in Ashurbanipal’s Palace acts as a work of alterity. Quite possibly one of the most chaotic and complex compositions in the history of art, the work depicts the battle between the Assyrians and the Elamites, and shows the carnage and destruction of war. One definition of alterity in the context of the ancient Mesopotamian world dealt with the notion of civilization and the civilized. The Elamites were nomadic people who believed in a different pantheon of gods than the Neo-Assyrians. This made them an enemy of the Assyrian way-of-life. Since the lifestyles of the Assyrians and the Elamites differed drastically, the Neo-Assyrians did not view the Elamites as easily subdued or controlled. As a result, the Assyrians declared war, represented in the chaotic visual program of the Til Tuba reliefs.

Scene from The Battle of Til Tuba
Scene from The Battle of Til Tuba

In these reliefs, Teumman, the Elamite king, becomes the target of the Assyrian soldiers. He is shown retreating from battle with arrows in his back, a gesture and posture signaling cowardice on the battlefield. The Assyrians then capture Teumman and his son and behead the pair. The two figures fall victim to the vocabulary of gestures of alterity, but instead of being exoticized, they act as a foil to the other images of alterity, suggesting that their culture was an affront to Assyrian order that could not be curbed and had to be eliminated. The work serves as an example of the violence of alterity which is hinted at in the subordination of the surviving Elamites in the composition.

In visual dialogue with the battle scene at Til Tuba, the Garden Party relief from the Palace of Ashurbanipal acts as the culminating work that ties together the concepts and threads of alterity and exoticization in Neo-Assyrian palatial arts. The scene depicts Ashurbanipal in audience with his Queen, Lillabi-Sherrat, and their attendants. The Queen comes from Syria, so she herself is a foreign and exotic element. The figures sit among a garden composed of palms from Babylon and grape vines from Syria. In this way the panel shows the horticultural collection and striking gardens cultivated at the Neo-Assyrian palatial sites. Phoenicians and Syro-Phoenician ivory inlays make appearances in the furniture and an Egyptian necklace rests on Ashurbanipal’s couch as an emblem of his new conquests in Egypt, another addition to his cultural collection.

Carved with straight backs and patterned beards, the seven attendants appear Assyrian, but their status as attendants suggests they have been assimilated into the

Garden Party Relief
Garden Party Relief

center of the empire from another province. Dangling in the left hand corner of this peaceful scene, the head of Teumman reminds the viewer of the violence necessary to form such an expansive empire. As the conquerors and shepherds of their constructed empire, the Assyrian kings were responsible for the integration of the many cultures into the empire and for a mutual peace. However this Pax Assyriaca came out of centuries of war justified by the ancient definitions of alterity which led the Assyrians to conquer the lands in the first place.


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