Photo courtesy of the British Museum

A sacred tree dominates this 6-foot-wide relief from Ashurnasirpal II’s throne room in the palace at Kalhu. Flanking the tree are images of Ashurnasirpal, represented as the ideal king. The winged outer figures (often interpreted as guardians of the king) carry buckets of holy water and cones of purification—suggesting the solemn, religious tone of the relief. Above the tree hovers the winged sun disk of Ashur, the supreme God of the Assyrian Empire. According to author Simo Parpola,this scene is centered on a cosmic tree with its roots planted in the earth and its branches reaching to the heavens. Standing at the center of the world (from the Assyrian point of view), the tree, with its symmetrical filigree of branches, suggests the order of the universe and the devine nature of the king.