Of Biblical Proportion: Legendary Rulers of Mesopotamia

Of Biblical Proportion: Legendary Rulers of Mesopotamia

August 24, 2021 – February 13, 2022

A Spotlight Exhibit of Historical Figures by George Stuart

In 2017, through a generous donation by Eunice and E.G. Hernandez and Family, the museum acquired a collection of 32 one-quarter-life-size Historical Figures made by artist George Stuart. Created between 1957 and 1958, these early works by Mr. Stuart include individuals who were the driving force that shaped human history, featuring the famous and infamous from ancient civilizations, European nobility, and political crusades. Spotlight exhibits through the year feature different selections from the collection through a variety of themes.

Mesopotamia, the region commonly known as the fertile crescent, was the ancient homeland of many warring kingdoms from around 4000 BCE until 500 BCE, when it became part of the Persian Empire. For thousands of years, this expansive region now known as the Middle East was controlled by powerful leaders whose cunning, ruthlessness, and wealth was documented by ancient scholars and has survived several millennia through biblical accounts and innumerable myths and legends. George Stuart has masterfully captured these famous and infamous rulers, whose stories reach out to us from beyond the sands of time.

The Historical Figures on display in this exhibit are; Queen of Sheba, Assurbanipal, and Nebuchadrezzar II. Photos by Peter D'Aprix.

The Queen of Sheba

Who Does She Think She Is: The Immortalized Queen of the Ancient World

In Arabic her name is Bilqīs. In Ethiopia she is known as Makeda. In the Hebrew Bible, she is given no name at all. In Kabbalah, she is a Queen of Demons; Christian Mystics believed she was an embodiment of Divine Wisdom; and Arabic myths describe her as a half-human jinn with a cloven hoof. Religious scholars still debate where the kingdom of Sheba was actually located, and archeologists doubt she existed at all. First mentioned only briefly in the Hebrew Bible, the mysterious and complex Queen of Sheba is cloaked in centuries of legends, with religious significance in Christian, Jewish, and Islamic traditions. In common vernacular, this enigmatic queen is now synonymous with extravagant wealth, commonly equated with pride and vanity. Just who does she think she is – and what is it about this powerful queen that has kept such a formidable hold on us for nearly 3,000 years?

In the Bible, the Queen of Sheba comes to Jerusalem to meet with King Solomon (c. 965-931 BCE), the King of Israel, in order to test his renowned wisdom by asking him riddles. She comes bearing lavish gifts for the King, including large quantities of frankincense, myrrh, gold, and precious jewels. In the biblical version, King Solomon answers her questions well and she is impressed by him – then, she returns home. Legends surrounding this brief encounter go into much more detail, and exactly who the Queen of Sheba was depends greatly on where you believe the kingdom of Sheba was located. In the Bible, she is described as a queen who comes from the East; depending on who you ask, this could be the Kingdom of Aksum in Ethiopia, or the Kingdom of Saba, located in the Arabian Peninsula in what is now Yemen. Both regions claim her as their own, but the majority of biblical scholars believe Sheba refers to the great Sabaean kingdom, in what is today Yemen. However, in Ethiopia’s legends, the Queen Makeda became pregnant by King Solomon and bore a son, a Prince named Menilek (meaning 'Son of the Wise'). Menelik is the founder of the Solomonic dynasty of Ethiopia, making the Queen of Sheba an integral figure within their faith.

George Stuart chose to depict his Queen of Sheba hiding her cloven hoof – an eyebrow-raising feature which stems from various legends surrounding the Queen. In one version of the tale, before the Queen arrives to his court, King Solomon is told that Bilquis has a hairy leg and cloven hoof, which makes him curious. He builds a floor of clear glass in his palace, and when Bilquis arrives she mistakes the floor for water – lifting her skirt and revealing her hoof as she crosses. Another legend explains that the queen was born with this cloven hoof simply because her mother craved so much goat meat while pregnant. In some versions, the queen has the ability to make her foot appear normal with the use of her sorcery.

Assurbanipal

The Pen is Mightier than the Sword: The Librarian King of Assyria

Assurbanipal is considered the last great Assyrian king, ruling from 668 BCE until his death in 631 BCE. In the Old Testament he is called Asenappar, and the ancient Greeks knew him as Sardanapolos. He referred to himself as King of the World, and his empire stretched as far west as modern-day Cyprus and as far east as Iran and included Babylon, Persia, Syria, and Egypt. His capital city of Nineveh, located in modern-day Iraq, was the world’s largest city at a time when the Greek city-states of Athens and Sparta were in their infancy, and Rome was little more than a settlement. His palace was a marvel of the ancient world, known as the ‘Palace Without Rival’ – all who entered walked through massive gateways flanked by colossal lamassu: protective deities with the body of a bull, eagle wings, and a human head. His expansive garden oasis flourished year-round due to extensive irrigation canals and featured exotic plants from all over the known world. He was revered by his people but his merciless cruelty to his enemies is well-documented: there are accounts of him hanging his victims from trees in his gardens, massacring entire city populations, and he infamously broke open the royal tombs of defeated kingdoms, scattering their bones so their souls could not rest.

In spite of his wealth, power, and ruthlessness, Assurbanipal is best known today for his creation of the world’s first known library. His royal predecessors were mostly illiterate, but Assurbanipal could not only read and write in his native Akkadian language, he could also translate ancient Sumerian cuneiform – already a dead language in his own time. Assurbanipal was immensely proud of his scholarly skills, and in many palace reliefs he is shown with a stylus in his belt, along with his sword. His royal library contained hundreds of thousands of clay tablets, ranging from religious and political documents to scientific handbooks, and included vast numbers of traditional Mesopotamian tales. Most remarkable of these tales is the Epic of Gilgamesh, a 5,000-year-old flood myth which has numerous similarities to the biblical story of Noah – yet predates the Bible by over 1,000 years. Assurbanipal considered his library his greatest achievement, and he was correct: his unprecedented library is the sole reason we are able to know so much about ancient Assyrian culture and Mesopotamian history, and the knowledge that humanity has been creating great literary works for far longer than ever imagined.

Though his empire reached its peak of power under his rule, it collapsed less than two decades after his death. Nineveh was destroyed in 612 BCE and his library was buried under the ruins of his palace for over 2,000 years, rediscovered in the 1850’s by British archaeologists. The British Museum in London has 30,000 of Assurbanipal’s clay tablets in their collection, where they have been restored, translated, and studied by historians from all over the world.

Nebuchadrezzar II

The Great Builder and The Great Destroyer

Born over 2,600 years ago in 630 BCE, Nebuchadrezzar II, also known as Nebuchadrezzar the Great, is recognized as the most influential and longest-reigning ruler of the Babylonian Empire, reigning from 605 – 562 BCE. He figures prominently in the Hebrew Bible, in the books of Jeremiah, Ezekiel, and Daniel. Historically, he was the first Babylonian king to rule Egypt, and controlled an empire that extended across large swaths of Mesopotamia, making him the most powerful King of the known world.

In 586 BCE, Nebuchadrezzar’s Babylonian army destroyed Jerusalem. Referred to as a ‘Destroyer of Nations,’ the Old Testament describes in detail how Nebuchadrezzar laid waste to the Kingdom of Judah, plundering sacred relics and taking the Jewish people into cruel captivity. The Jewish people were held captive for five decades, liberated and returned to Palestine only after the great fall of Babylon – more than 20 years after Nebuchadrezzar’s death.

In addition to his well-documented military success and immense wealth, Nebuchadrezzar’s ultimate accomplishment was his palace – which is said to have contained the legendary Hanging Gardens of Babylon, one of the seven wonders of the ancient world. During his long reign, he conducted numerous building projects in Mesopotamia to honor the many gods worshipped by his people. One of the most famous of these projects is the Ishtar Gate of Babylon, which has been partially restored and reconstructed to its former glory as Nebuchadrezzar himself would have seen it: decorated with blue and yellow glazed bricks featuring depictions of bulls (symbols of the god Adad) and dragons (symbols of the god Marduk). This partially reconstructed gate is currently on display at the Pergamon Museum in Berlin, Germany. Prior to the outbreak of WWI, German archeologists took countless magnificent treasures from Nebuchadrezzar’s palatial ruins, which are located in modern day Iraq, including the Ishtar Gate. Officials from the Antiquities and Heritage department of Iraq's Ministry of Culture have been seeking repatriation of Babylon’s lost antiquities for decades, from Germany as well as France, England, and other countries which have stolen Iraqi artifacts in their museum collections.