In 2015, Islamic State posted a video showing its militants taking an electric drill to Assyrian sculpture on the site of ancient Nineveh in northern Iraq. As well as prompting outrage in foreign media, this and other acts of cultural vandalism by Islamic State reminded the world of a Mesopotamian empire now largely forgotten but once well known thanks to the predominance of Christian culture and stories about Assyria preserved in the Old Testament.
These traditions gave rise to a rich mythology about the decadence of the Assyrians. In a raft of Baroque operas, the historian Eckart Frahm says in this enjoyable book, the Assyrian queen Semiramis was conjured up as ‘the oriental femme fatale par excellence’. In 1827, Eugène Delacroix depicted the Assyrian king Sardanapallus, to whom the French revolutionaries had compared the sexually incontinent Louis XV, as a showcase voluptuary.
Shortly after the completion of that painting, the first European excavations in what were then Ottoman lands inaugurated the gradual transformation of knowledge about the Assyrians. ‘Semiramis’ turns out to be a Graeco-Roman corruption of the historical Sammu-ramat, the powerful ‘palace woman’ (the nearest that Assyrian titulature got to