Prisoners Playing Lyres

Prisoners playing lyres, (detail), southwest palace of Sennacherib, Nineveh, circa 704–681 B.C.E. Stone relief, The British Museum, London.

The Assyrians ruled much of the Middle East from their capital, Nineveh, located on the east bank of the Tigris River near Mosul in northern Iraq. This image depicts what are thought to be Phoenician or Palestinian prisoners playing lyres. It is from the southwest palace of the Assyrian king Sennacherib, who made Nineveh his magnificent capital city in 705 B.C.E. Nineveh was a walled city with 15 gates and an elaborate canal system that provided fresh water from the nearby hills.

The palace, excavated by British archaeologist A. H. Layard in the mid-1800s, had about 80 rooms filled with sculpture and stone reliefs in this distinctive style. Although it was typical for reliefs to include cuneiform writing, providing a written record of the conquests and accomplishments of the king’s armies and preserving history for later generations, there is no cuneiform in this relief, a fragment of a larger piece. The scoring in the background denotes rough ground, but definitive context for this piece cannot be determined. It is, however, one of the few reliefs that show the use of musical instruments in a nonreligious context.

Prisoners, probably from Phoenicia or Palestine, playing lyres. Detail of a stone relief from Sennacherib’s South-West palace at Nineveh, circa 704–681 B.C.E. The British Museum, London.

People from the region of northern Mesopotamia that includes modern-day Iraq, Syria, Jordan and Lebanon.

The writing system of ancient Mesopotamia, consisting of wedges pressed into clay.

Dug up, often from an archaeological site.

Belonging to the ancient region of Israel and Judah, derived from the Latin name for the Roman province of Palaestina.

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