Detailed image of the fan-shaped top of a rod in raised relief (stone)

Detail from the large relief on the left side in the Khinis gorge; courtesy of The University of Udine, “Land of Nineveh Archaeological Project” (photograph: Alberto Savioli)

Myth in the Urban Landscape and the Epiphany of the Assyrian King

Beate Pongratz-Leisten


In stratified and hierarchical societies, ancient and modern, accessibility to those in power – divine and human – was always a topic of explicit articulation, regulation, negotiation, and performance. The interaction with the human ruler in the palace, was each highly regulated:  it was bound to a particular space and time, and it was an exclusive privilege to attend it. The right to access, as well as the possibility for personal interaction that issues forth from it, constitute an essential component in the visual and cultural representation of sacred and political power. Rather than focusing on the audience and accessibility either to the palace or to the temple, this talk examines the appearance—i.e. the “epiphany”—of the king to a larger public.

This exclusivity with regard to “hidden power” behind the walls is to be seen in tandem with the ancient worldview of potential danger looming outside the protective space of temple and palace. The visualization of the invisible, i.e. the epiphany of king in public, consequently, were theatrically staged events, in which particular dress, etiquette, and the precise spatial and temporal disposition of the royal body were all deployed to enunciate  royal power. Royal appearance was carefully orchestrated and ritualized, with the utmost attention to its timing and location, so as to maximize its effect. Its performance was staged along a spectrum of framing including the aesthetics as well as the occasion. Architecture played an important role in such orchestration of divine and royal appearance, as a conduit for controlled, choreographed movement and as a framing device. Space, here conceived as performative space, was not only a fixed material feature but also constructed by how it was used for appearance, and aestheticized by interlocking with other media including regicide literature and myth. It is this dialogue with other representations of the king’s image and the sensory affect that transformed the physical space into a perceived socio-cultural reference structure.

Beate Pongratz-Leisten is Professor of Ancient Near Eastern Studies at ISAW. She was trained as a translator and interpreter of French and Spanish at the École Supérieure d'Interprètes et de Traducteurs, Paris, and the University of Mainz. In 1983 she embarked on a second career in ancient Near Eastern Studies, Egyptology, and Religious Studies at Tübingen University and Harvard University. She received her doctorate and habilitation from Tübingen University. Before joining the faculty of ISAW she taught at Tübingen University and Freiburg University in Germany, as well as at PrincetonYale, the University of Pennsylvania, and Princeton Theological Seminary.

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