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Assyrian Apkallus from Nimrud holding a Deer

When you enter Room 7 of the British Museum, after passing through two colossal lamassus, you are taken through time to the North-West Palace of the Assyrian King Ashurnasirpal II (883-859 BCE). This is the imperial palace of the King in Nimrud (ancient Kalhu or Biblical Calah; Mesopotamia, modern-day Iraq), the capital city at the heart of the Assyrian Empire. Room 7 is a long hall “decorated” with alabaster-bas wall reliefs from that palace. After being neglected for more than 2500 years, British archaeologist Sir Henry Layard and his workmen unearthed the remains of the North-West Palace in 1845. Layard shipped many reliefs on the Apprenticeand these large and heavy slabs reached the British Museum in January 1849. I will publish a series of articles about these reliefs, addressing their finer details, which are not easily recognised.

During the Neo-Assyrian period (911-612 BCE) Apkallus were supernatural creatures (or demigods) who were richly depicted in palace reliefs. Apkallu, sage, or genie are interchangeable terms used by Assyriologists to describe human-headed (male or female) or eagle-headed and winged (with 1 or 2 pairs of wings) figures. Sometimes they wore a fish-skin cloak. The figures are actually protective spirits or guardians (just like angels), who protect the king (as well as the palace and its inhabitants and contents) against evil spirits. The majority were placed flanking room entrances or corners (this is where the evil spirits were thought to reside).

Near the entrance to Room 7,  there are two large 2-meter high alabaster bas-reliefs of standing male creatures, each one holding an animal. But, what is unique about these reliefs?They came from two different rooms within the North-West Palace though they share many similarities they are unique from each other and the other Apkallus in the same palace. Although wall reliefs and panels from the North-West Palace can be found in many museums around the World, only the British Museum houses such a unique theme of  “phenotypically” different Apkallu holding a goat or deer.

The large rectangular bas-relief, on the left, is 224 cm in height and 127 cm wide. In the British Museum, it is in Room T, as panel 1. This relief was probably, one of a pair, which guarded an entrance into the private quarters of the king. As we can see, it depicts a standing human-headed and winged male figure, looking to the left. His right arm holds a large ear of corn (may represent fertility) while his left arm holds a goat. He does not wear a horned helmet, instead, his head is encircled by a diadem with a rosette on the front. He does not hold a bucket, either. His scalp hair is long at the back reaches his shoulders. He has a prominently carved curly (upward) moustache and a magnificent long and curly beard (typical of a carved Assyrian figure at that time).

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