I’m drooling, but not for barbecue or even Thanksgiving dinner. A feast for the eyes has arrived in Boston, and my own eyes are itching for the view when I visit that fair city in a couple of weeks. I’m posting this notice in hopes that other travelers won’t make the mistake of visiting Boston without including the Museum of Fine Arts on their itinerary.

Statue of the king — Assyrian, 875-860 BC The Trustees of the British Museum ME 118871 (c) The Trustees of the British Museum 2008. All rights reserved. Courtesy, Museum of Fine Arts, Boston

My official Boston business will be to attend the Society of Biblical Literature‘s annual meeting, where scores of resume-building presentations designed to be impressively impenetrable will be the order of the day. I don’t want to discount the prospect of choosing from a cornucopia of arcane topics from the academic side of biblical studies — but I confess to being more juiced by the anticipation of laying eyes on a a six foot magnesite statue of the Assurnasirpal II (above), an ambitious leader who transformed the small country of Assyria (in the neighborhood of present-day Mosul, in northern Iraq) into a world power during his reign (883-859 BC).

Assurnasirpal II, a contemporary of the Israelite kings Omri and Ahab and of Judah’s king Jehoshaphat, is not mentioned in the Bible, but his military expeditions took him as far as the Mediterranean Sea, where he claims to have cleansed his weapons. He demanded tribute from Tyre and Sidon, Israel’s northern neighbors, setting the stage for later kings like Tiglath-Pileser III, Shalmaneser V, and Sargon II to dominate the Levant, enter the biblical picture at many points, and ultimately lay waste the kingdom of Israel.

Contemplating actual artifacts and artwork from the impressive palaces built by these ancient kings is more than an artistic exercise: it brings history home. A wall panel called “Attack on an Enemy Town” commemorates a victory by Tiglath-Pileser III and details the same sort of military strategies that his successors Shalmaneser V and Sargon II used to overthrow Samaria, the capital of Israel, in 722 BC.

Assyrian, reign of Tiglath-pileser III, 730-727 BC, Gypsum
The Trustees of the British Museum ME 118918
(c) The trustees of the British Museum 2008. All rights reserved.
courtesy, Museum of Fine Arts, Boston.

Thousands of laborers were employed in constructing massive new cities and palaces such as Ashurbanipal’s royal residence in Khorsabad. Were former Hebrews among those who carried the mud bricks and cut the stone and carved the massive wall panels like “Lions in a Garden” (below) to decorate Ashurbanipal’s palace? I’ve seen images of these and many more artifacts in textbooks and archaeology magazines, but the thought of standing beside the real deal sets my heart as well as my mind to racing.

Most Assyrian artifacts outside of Iraq are in the possession of the British Museum, which is making available 250 incredible objects from its collection for the special exhibit.

If you plan to attend the SBL meeting, have other business in Boston, or are looking for a worthy weekend destination, don’t miss “Art and Empire: Treasures from Assyria in the British Museum.” It’s on display through Jan. 4, 2009. For more information, check out the museum’s impressive exhibit website, where you can see video of the exhibit’s installation and hear audio excerpts from the Epic of Gilgamesh (a clay tablet from the Gilgamesh epic from Ashurbanipal’s library is part of the exhibit). Advance tickets, available here, are recommended.

Sargon, here I come!

Assyrian, reign of Ashurbanipal, 645-640 BC, Gypsum
The Trustees of the British Museum ME 118914
(c) The Trustees of the British Museum 2008. All rights reserved.
Courtesy, Museum of Fine Arts, Boston

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