Assyria vs Elam: The battle of Til Tuba

published on July 3, 2020

Hello I'm exhibition curator Gareth
Brereton

and this week we'll be discussing this masterpiece of Assyrian art

This is a curved wall panel carved from limestone

and this once decorated a room in the southwest palace at Niniveh

Ashurbanipal's first residence

And it is an important document of a war

between the Assyrian army and the Elamites of Southwest Iran

So first I'm going to give you a little bit of a backstory about how this battle happened

why war broke out between the two kingdoms

So the Kingdom of Elam was located in southwest Iran

and that was at Assyria's southern border

When the king of Elam died, his anti-Assyrian brother took the throne by force

The true heir to the throne fled to Assyria to get Ashurbanipal's protection

he was a political refugee at Ashurbanipal's court in Nineveh

The anti-Assyrian king

the usurper called Teumman

wanted his return

but Ashurbanipal denied him

It was obviously useful for Ashurbanipal to have a pro-Assyrian royal family in his care in Nineveh

So Ashurbanipal sent his army to meet the Elamites on the bank of the river Ulai

and this is the depiction of the battle taking place

So on the left-hand side the Assyrian army has broken through the Elamite battle lines

The Elamites are in panic

they're fleeing down a hill

they're tugging at their beards

they're throwing their weapons in the air

it's a real chaotic scene

and the Assyrians who wear better armour; have better weapons

are pushing the Elamites towards the river

And the river Ulai cuts across the scene

and the Elamites gradually get pushed and pushed and pushed

and they fall into the river and drown with their horses

and their carts

and their weapons

So this is a real chaotic depiction of a pitched battle

between two armies at the time

But there's also a really interesting subplot

a story within the chaos that we can pick out

about the capture and execution of the Elamite king

It starts here the Elamite king and his son

Teumman and Tammaritu

fall from their chariot – which has collapsed

Teumman loses his royal hat

It cuts to the next scene:

they both get up, Teumman's got his hat back

but he's been wounded by an arrow
which has hit him in the back

and so they try and flee toward a forest

but to no avail

they're soon surrounded by Assyrian soldiers

So the wounded Teumman is kneeling down and he's telling his son to pick up the bow and resist

The son gets hit over the head with a mace

an Assyrian soldier cuts Teumman's head off

The heads are carried back

– so that's King Teumman's head being carried back by an Assyrian soldier –

and they bring their heads back up to the Assyrian camp

where they're doing a headcount

and there's some pro-Assyrian Elamites in the tent inspecting the heads to identify the king and his son

and they're whisked off back to Assyria in
a cart to Ashurbanipal

As you may have noticed the scenes jump around and the figures are repeated in time and space

So how can we tell what's going on?

Well the Assyrians luckily for us left these sort of captions

inscriptions – much like a cartoon strip

explaining the story as it unfolds

So here we have an Elamite noble on the floor

wounded with arrows

An Assyrian soldier stands over him

and there's an accompanying caption and he's basically saying:

"Come and make a good name for yourself

Cut off my head and bring it to your lord"

The battle scene is very much a propaganda statement as well

We don't see any Assyrian soldiers wounded or dying

They are the victors

The Elamites on the other hand are wounded

they're sprawled across the battlefield

some are beheaded

vultures and carrion birds pick at their remains

Okay so what happened next?

Luckily, we have these reliefs that tell us
the aftermath of the battle

Here we have a scene that takes place
in Elam

and then a separate scene at the top takes place back in Assyria

So in the bottom scene victorious Assyrians lead the puppet ruler

that sought sanctuary in Assyria to the Elamites

to install him as king

An Assyrian eunuch, who's shown without a beard

holds the puppet king by the wrists and
leads him towards the Elamites

who come out of the city and bow down before him

And if he notice the face the image of the puppet ruler has been hacked away

and when Nineveh finally fell and was sacked

the invading armies sought out images such as these

and defaced them to remove their power

At the bottom of the scene we have the river Ulai

which continues from the earlier relief

with the dead Elamites soldiers floating downstream

Back in Assyria a triumph takes place

Ashurbanipal is shown in his chariot

Again his image has been chipped away when the city was sacked

and he's got two visiting ambassadors from the nearby kingdom of Urartu

who come to greet him

Ashurbanipal parades two Elamites holding writing tablets

and these contain rude messages from king Tuemman the Elamite usurper king to Ashurbanipal

So he's showing them off to the Urartians as justification to why he attacked Elam

Here again we see the same two ambassadors

and this time they're witnessing the humiliation of two captives

These two figures supported the Elamite king

And Ashurbanipal's army went and captured the ruler and his family

and brought them back to Assyria in
chains

Here we see the Assyrians placing the heads of Tuemman and another
nobleman over their necks

and they're made to walk around the city

where they're humiliated slapped and spat upon

The Ambassadors from Urartu appear a
third time and this occasion

they're witnessing a grisly spectacle

where two more captives are having their tongues removed

before being staked to the floor and flayed alive

And that was the punishment for treason

for opposing Ashurbanipal

and the ambassadors would have witnessed this spectacle as a statement of power from Ashurbanipal to say

"Look! This is what happens when you
mess with me"

If you want to find out more about Ashurbanipal do come along to the exhibition

and if you click on the links you can find some more information all about Ashurbanipal

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