Assyrian Stele - Ancient Curse

Assyrian stele containing ancient curse will not be reunited with its other half

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Whoever discards this image from the presence of Salmanu puts it into another place, whether he throws it into water or covers it with earth or brings and places it into a taboo house where it is inaccessible, may the god Salmanu, the great lord, overthrow his sovereignty; may his name and his seed disappear in the land; may he live in a contingent together with the slave women of his land

These are the translated words of the curse etched onto an ancient Assyrian artefact dating back to 800 BC, which will go up for auction with Bonhams on 3 rd April. The British Museum, keeper of the other half of this ‘cursed’ relic have confirmed that they will not be purchasing the stele to reunite it with the remaining fragment in their possession.

The basalt stele dedicated to King Adad-Nirari III comes from the ancient city of Dur-Katlimmu, now the modern town of Sheikh Hamad in Syria, where it was installed at a shrine commemorating a military victory. The British Museum's fragment, depicting the head of the king, was discovered in 1879 and acquired by the museum two years later from private collector Joseph M Shemtob. The lower part of the royal stele is being sold by a private collector in Geneva at Bonhams in London on 3rd April, with an estimate of £600,000 to £800,000.  The stele was "given as a gift from father to son in the 1960s", according to the auction house, but no details about when it left Syria are available. Bonhams is confident about the provenance, although some experts are concerned that the antiquity could have been illicitly excavated or exported.

The complete stele would have measured 2.1 metres tall, and depicts king Adad-Nirari III, ruler of Mesopotamia between 810 BC and 783 BC, in a position of worship in front of divine symbols – the winged sun disc of Shamash; the star of Ishtar/Venus, goddess of human passions in love and war; and the thunderbolt of the weather god Adad. His right hand is raised in a gesture of worship and his left hand holds a mace. Cuneiform script is inscribed on the sides of the stele, and on the front across the body of the king, which reads:

“…Negal-eres, governor of the country of Rasappa… presented an image of Adad-nerari III, king of Assyria, his lord, to the god Salmanu, his lord, who protects the throne of his priesthood, to give into his hands the sceptre that shepherds the people, for the well-being of his seed, the well-being of the people of Assyria and the well-being of Assyria, to scatter his adversaries, to destroy his fierce foes, to subdue his enemy princes.”

Stele depictin king Adad-Nirari III

Another stele, this one complete, depicting king Adad-Nirari III. Photo source: Wikipedia

Both of the inscriptions identify Dur-Katlimmu as the seat of the god Salmanu, confirming what has already been discovered in archival texts found at Tell Sheikh Hamad. The inscriptions describe the reconstruction and renovation of his temple at Dur-Katlimmu.  The inscription on the front exhorts future rulers to care for the temple, while the text on the side explicitly curses anyone who should dare to remove the stele from the temple. Nergal-eres, governor of the region, presented this specific stele to the temple along with a namsaru sword, which is no ordinary sword but a weapon fit for a god. He wished to bring Salmanu's blessings on his king and his realm, showing Nergal-eres as a loyal supporter of his ruler.

Monuments of this kind were erected inside and outside temples. Their presence was an assertion of Assyrian power and were designed to intimidate foreign delegates, with many containing images depicting the relentless progress of the mighty Assyrian army.  Statues and steles represented royal authority, and so oaths would have been sworn in the symbolic presence of the king. Their inscriptions are often addressed to future rulers who, when coming across them in the course of the renovation of a temple for instance, are admonished to treat them with care and respect. Not surprisingly, these statues were highly-prized trophies for rival kings who could carry them off and have their own name inscribed on them. To prevent this, these objects were secured with curses.

During the 9th century BC, the all-conquering Assyrian Empire extended its territories from what is now northern Iraq to the banks of the Nile. The empire collapsed in 612 BC with the fall of the capital at Nineveh to the armies of the Babylonians and the Medes.


It's a shame the British Museum wouldn't purcase the other half. Then again, I live in England and the moment and it doesn't seem to me as if the museum could easily afford something that might fetch nearly a £million. Other reasons are that there might be superstitions but that seems unlikely. Don't you think it's almost cruel that they choose not to re-unite the two pieces? It seems to go against a museum's desire for history and education that they would spurn the opportunity to show a full piece of ancient history where many displays are unfortunately incomplete or broken. Great article as always but I'm disappointed the stele won't be put together. Besides, Londoners know how to curse daily so it's not like they couldn't handle one more.

'king Adad-Nirari III, ruler of Mesopotamia between 810 BC and 983 BC'
Did he live backwards?

aprilholloway's picture

Oops, typo! It should say 783. 

All fixed now, thanks.

Are you serious?!?! ONE CAN SIMPLY NOT JUST AUCTION A 2200 YEAR OLD SCULPTURE!!!!!! Especially since it is from the world's first civilization! This is unbelieveable. It could have been used for research in Assyriology. Seriously?! And British Museum wouldn't buy it? I wonder what motives they must have had...At least the money from the auction (which I really hope were alot...) should go to an Assyrian organization that donates the money to the nowaday Assyrians that are opressed in their homelands...after all it actually belongs to them!

I agree that they should not auction it off, but the museum might not have enough money to purchase this item and I am pretty sure there is no such thing as" Assyriology". But they should not auction it off, but possibly donate it.


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