Has archaeology provided us with a visual portrait of an Israelite king? Well, yes and no. Or rather, no and yes.
The “yes” is on the famous Black Obelisk in the British Museum, often thought to include a portrait of the Israelite King Jehu bowing before the Assyrian monarch. Alas, it is really a “no.”
The “yes” comes from Kuntillet ‘Ajrud, a barren site just over the southern border of Judah in the Sinai. But don’t expect to find any distinct features of a Hebrew king in this portrait.
The 6.5-foot-high Black Obelisk was excavated in 1846 by the great British archaeologist Henry Layard at Calah, the ancient Assyrian capital. Each of the four sides of the rectangular black 042 limestone monolith is 1.5 feet wide and is elaborately sculpted with reliefs and cuneiform inscriptions. The theme of it all is to glorify the conquests of the Assyrian monarch Shalmaneser III, who ruled Assyria from 858 to 824 B.C.E.
Running around the monument from top to bottom are five scenes of reliefs, accompanied by inscriptions, attesting to the nations Shalmaneser has defeated and who now came to pay him tribute. The second panel from the top pictures a man kneeling before the king and his royal attendants, hands touching the ground near the king’s feet. The cuneiform inscription identifies this figure as “Jehu of the House of Omri,” hence the figure has often been described as a portrait of Jehu or his tribute bearer (2 Kings 9–10).
But there are severe problems with the suggestion that we have here a portrait of Jehu. As noted, Jehu’s tribute is described in the second panel from the top. The top panel relates to the “tribute of Sua of Gilzanu.” Gilzanu is in the vicinity of Lake Urmia in the far eastern part of the Assyrian empire. Israel is in the far west, on the Mediterranean Sea.
Jehu and Sua/Asu are from lands far from the Assyrian center. They are dressed identically, in a short-sleeved, fringed garment fastened at the waist by a belt. Even their headgear is identical. They lack any specific features to distinguish them from one another. Sua kneels with his hands and beard touching the ground near the king’s feet in great humility. Hovering above the kneeling figure in both scenes, a winged disc and star are juxtaposed.
Surely this cannot be an individual portrait of Jehu nor even an Israelite.
The great scholar of Mesopotamian art Edith Porada has suggested that the artistic arrangement of the registers of the Black Obelisk refers to the territorial expansion of the Assyrian Empire from east to west.1 Michelle Marcus notes that the lands on the registers were consciously selected because they were the farthest east and west Shalmaneser had reached. These lands functioned as a geographical resumé of the king’s accomplishments.2
Carrying the image further, Swiss scholars Othmar Keel and Christoph Uehlinger have observed that east and west have been defined visually by the placement of the winged disc in the reliefs: to 043 the right of the star, interpreted as the morning star in the case of Gilzanu, representing east, where the sun rises and, in the case of Israel, representing west, where the sun sets, to the left of the star, interpreted as the evening star.3
Israeli scholar Nadav Na’aman has pointed out that of the two kings of Gilzanu who paid tribute to Shalmaneser during his reign, Upû and Sua, the latter was selected because his name was homophonic (similarly pronounced) with Iaua, the Assyrian rendering of Jehu.4 Hence, not only did geography play a role in the selection of the vassal kings, but also their names were deliberately selected as a literary device in this masterfully propagandistic work of art. Had it not been for the labels, the tribute-bearers of the submissive kings, of identical appearance, would have remained anonymous.
The tribute-bearers in the Black Obelisk are simply generic tribute-bearers.
The second portrait we will examine couldn’t be more different from the high art of Mesopotamia. Kuntillet ‘Ajrud, where this portrait was found, is in the middle of nowhere, near the junction of two ancient roads crossing the Sinai desert, one from the Mediterranean Sea to Eilat, the other across the Sinai from east to west. The site and its rich finds 044 have recently been described in BAR in considerable detail.a
Built on a solitary hill, the site includes two buildings: the fort-like Building A with a single entrance on the east, where dedications to Yahweh and the goddess Ashera (Asherata according to Na’aman) were deposited, and an almost completely eroded Building B to the east of Building A, originally white plastered and decorated with murals, where most of the wall paintings were found. Some fragments of murals were also found in Building A.
These paintings—and equally important paintings on pithoi (storage vessels)—were the subject of a ground-breaking study by my teacher, the late Pirhiya Beck of Tel Aviv University.5
The remains of the painting we will examine here are shown below. The fragments were found at the entrance to the fort-like Building A. This is what Beck originally had to work with. Actually, this is already at an advanced stage: The pieces are arranged as they should be. In this way, Beck was able to re-create the painting on the pieces in their original bright colors—red, yellow and black. To this she added her own thin black lines to show how most of the pieces connected with one another, partially filling in the image.
The result is a portrait of a man seated in a chair. The man’s face and legs (in front of the chair) are drawn in profile. The torso, shown en-face, reveals a decorative collar. Behind the chair another figure raises his arm toward the man in the chair.
Outlines are in red, and the clothes are yellow, except for the figure’s hair and the decorative dots, which are in black. Black dots also embellish the chair. The chair itself reflects the elevated status of the figure—a noble or a ruler. He holds a lotus blossom in his hand, identifiable although only one petal of the blossom survives.
In a posthumously published article,6 Beck suggested that the figure in the chair is the king of Judah or Israel. The excavator suggests that Joash’s 045 046 reign most closely corresponds to the date of the site.7
Beck demonstrated that the mural belonged to a Late Bronze Age Levantine tradition of seated figures holding a lotus blossom. There are many examples, but we will examine only a few. For instance, from Tell el-Farah (South), on the Gaza wadi between the Negev and Egypt, archaeologist Flinders Petrie long ago recovered some ivory panels that once decorated a piece of furniture, perhaps a bed. They date to the Late Bronze Age (14th or 12th century B.C.E.). The ruler is seated on an Egyptian-style chair and holds a lotus blossom and cup, into which a princess, also holding a lotus flower, pours a drink from a situla (a small vessel). A figure stands behind the chair on which he sits. Compositionally the panel is a miniature rendition of an Egyptian New Kingdom scene of fowling and fishing in the papyrus marsh, the place of re-birth. The iconography is Egyptianizing—in dress, furniture and movement of the figures.
Ivory strips from Megiddo, dating to the 13th–12th centuries B.C.E. depict a furious battle and its aftermath. The victorious ruler sits on a chair, raising a cup and holding a lotus. Egyptianizing elements, such as the speeding horses, are evident.
However, the theme—the ruler’s victory banquet—is Near Eastern, its origins dating back to Mesopotamia in the middle of the third millennium B.C.E. The best-known illustration of this is the famous Standard of Ur, the sound box of a lyre decorated with panels of mosaic inlays of lapis lazuli and shell. One side depicts combat, culminating in the presentation of captives before the victorious ruler. The other side depicts the ruler’s victory banquet accompanied by music, provided with the produce of the land. Each side is conceived as a single unit showing war and peace. Together the panels hail the ruler’s role as upholding life on earth.
Thirteen centuries later the complex story of the return from battle and the triumphal banquet are compressed to two episodes, separated by a line of papyrus plants on the incised ivory plaque from Megiddo. On the right, the prince returning from battle in his chariot drives two war captives. On the left, the prince, a mirror image of the warrior prince, is seated on a sphinx throne, raising a cup and holding a lotus blossom. 047 A princess touches the stem of the lotus blossom and offers the prince a towel which she wears on her shoulder. Behind her, a female musician plucks the strings of a lyre.
To the casual observer, this plaque may look Egyptian in style, recalling the art of the New Kingdom. But behind the Egyptianizing façade lies a typical Near Eastern topos: the return from battle and the victory banquet.
The lotus was an indispensable part of Egyptian banquets. Men and women bury their noses in the fragrant flower, which was imbued with recreational symbolism. In Canaan the lotus took on a life of its own and functioned as the attribute of kingship. The lotus blossom became the attribute par excellence of Canaanite kingship.
In the ancient Near East, cup and flower (or branch) in the hands of a seated figure represented the king, the maintainer of order. The Canaanite elite in the Late Bronze Age simply borrowed iconographic elements of powerful and centralized Egyptian kingship. Thus the branch, the original form of the Mesopotamian scepter, was exchanged for the Egyptian lotus, which became the attribute of Canaanite kingship.8 The cup and flower in the hands of a seated figure represented the king, the maintainer of order.
On the famous Ahiram sarcophagus (1200–1000 B.C.E.) from Byblos, the enthroned Ahiram is shown raising a cup and holding a lotus flower, but the lotus blossom is drooping, hence signifying not the life-giving lotus but withering and demise, emblematic of the dead king. Holding a drooping flower the king is depicted on the sarcophagus lid, facing his son, the heir to the throne, who holds the living flower. Here the lotus signifies the continuity of the dynasty from father to son.
The lotus replacing the Mesopotamian floral scepter marks Canaan’s contribution to the formulation of the Assyrian royal imagery. Through Syrian mediation, the lotus flower, a Canaanite royal symbol of kingship, arrived in Assyria and was adopted as a symbol of Assyrian kingship.9
Closer in time to the mural from Kuntillet ‘Ajrud is the eighth-century B.C.E. portrait of the Assyrian king Tiglath-pileser III in his palace at Calah. Enthroned on his high-backed chair, he holds a lotus blossom as he does when riding his chariot. In the reliefs of the Central Palace at Calah 048 and in the mural paintings at Til Barsip in Syria, the enthroned king points his staff and the lotus blossom at a prostrate man in what seems a gesture of protection. Another mural from Til Barsip shows the king enthroned, pointing a staff and a lotus blossom toward the crown prince who stands before him, indicating, I believe, the continuity of the line. Til Barsip was an Assyrian base in eighth century B.C.E. Syria. The wall paintings 049 are provincial—founded on an Assyrian canon and executed by local artists.
Similarly, a provincial style typifies the paintings of Kuntillet ‘Ajrud, a solitary outpost remote from the Israelite center.
Significantly, this tradition of a seated ruler holding a lotus blossom continued into the Persian period (fifth century B.C.E.), as illustrated in the Apadana at Persepolis. The king sits on a high-backed throne holding a lotus blossom and staff. Behind him stands the crown prince also holding a lotus blossom. With his other hand he gestures toward the throne.10
Returning to the wall paintings from Kuntillet ‘Ajrud, the enthroned king was no doubt the focal image in the artistic program of the wall paintings. The question to be asked is whether the paintings in both buildings at the site belonged to one and the same program, meaning that artistically they functioned as one unit, or whether an independent scheme was employed in each of the buildings, adapted to the function of each edifice. As mentioned, the fragments of the enthroned ruler were found at the entrance to Building A, white plastered and partly painted. The badly eroded Building B was also white plastered. Fragments of paintings were found there in the debris, mostly in the entrance area. In terms of chromatic design, the enthroned figure from Building A and the bud and lotus garland from Building B are the only images painted in tri-color: yellow, red and black; therefore one may suggest that they were somehow associated.11 The motif of men on the city wall from Building B also corresponds to the enthroned figure in Building A. Suffice it to compare the architectural reliefs of Tiglath-pileser III (744–727 B.C.E.), where the enthroned king holding staff and lotus blossom sits amidst representations of his military achievements surpassing those of any other Assyrian king, representing the vast empire. These reliefs depict the real person of the king when he sat in audience in his throne room. As in the throne room of Assurnasirpal 150 years earlier, the reliefs would function as a visual statement of the king’s conquests and the territories that came under Assyrian sway.12
The program was based on canonical forms that were understood by their viewers. The Kuntillet ‘Ajrud king was executed according to an artistic convention with an Egyptianizing aura. But his image is not a real portrait in the photographic sense of the word, a reproduction of a king’s physiognomy.
The Assyrian kings had a term for it. They dubbed their royal image as ṣalam šarrūtīya, an “image of my (office of) kingship.” It was their official image, not a physiognomic reproduction of their person, but a portrait of the ideal and able king, in royal garment and with royal insignia, fashioned by the gods and in the likeness of the gods.13
Likewise, the king at Kuntillet ‘Ajrud. Here, too, we have an official image of the king.
Inasmuch as the finds at Kuntillet ‘Ajrud point to an Israelite cultural sphere, the royal image is that of a king of Israel who ordered and oversaw the construction of the site from his seat in Samaria and commissioned the paintings from itinerant artists working according to a standard pattern book. The significance of the images was clear to their beholders.14
The wall paintings from Kuntillet ‘Ajrud, of which these fragments are a part, are perhaps the only extant evidence of royal Israelite monumental art in the period of the First Temple.15
Has archaeology provided us with a visual portrait of an Israelite king? Well, yes and no. Or rather, no and yes. The “yes” is on the famous Black Obelisk in the British Museum, often thought to include a portrait of the Israelite King Jehu bowing before the Assyrian monarch. Alas, it is really a “no.” The “yes” comes from Kuntillet ‘Ajrud, a barren site just over the southern border of Judah in the Sinai. But don’t expect to find any distinct features of a Hebrew king in this portrait. The 6.5-foot-high Black Obelisk was excavated in 1846 by the […]