Black Obelisk

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The "Black Obelisk" of Shalmaneser III is a black limestone Neo-Assyrian bas-relief sculpture from Nimrud (ancient Kalhu), in northern Iraq. Height: 197.85 cm. Width: 45.08 cm. Currently displayed in the British Museum.

It is historically significant because it displays the earliest ancient depiction of an Israelite, and it is the most complete Assyrian obelisk yet discovered.

The obelisk describes military victories of King Shalmaneser III (reigned 858-824 BC) and his chief minister. It was erected as a public monument in 825 BCE at a time of civil war. It was discovered by archaeologist Sir Henry Layard in 1846.

The second register from the top includes the earliest surviving picture of an Israelite: the Biblical Jehu, king of Israel. It describes how Jehu brought or sent his tribute in or around 841 BCE.

Jehu severed Israel’s alliances with Phoenicia and Judah, and became subject to Assyria. The caption above the scene, written in Assyrian cuneiform, can be translated:

“The tribute of Jehu, son of Omri: I received from him silver, gold, a golden bowl, a golden vase with pointed bottom, golden tumblers, golden buckets, tin, a staff for a king [and] spears."

It lists their military campaigns and the tribute they received from their new subjects including camels, monkeys, an elephant and a rhinoceros. There are five scenes, each of which occupies four sides around the obelisk. Each panel is described in cuneiform script above it. From top to bottom they are: (1) Sua of Gilzanu (in north-west Iran), (2) Jehu of Bit Omri (ancient northern Israel), (3) an unnamed ruler of Musri (probably Egypt), (4) Marduk-apil-usur of Suhi (middle Euphrates, Syria and Iraq, and (5) Qalparunda of Patin (Antakya region of Turkey).

The historical accuracy of the depiction remains uncertain because there have been instances of other ancient sculpture where victories of previous rulers are attributed to the current ruler who commissioned the work.

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