The Genie of Nimrud

Three thousand years ago, a genie graced the walls of an Assyrian palace. Then, probably about 20 years ago, it disappeared, only to re-emerge in London. Since 2002 it’s been languishing in police vaults at Scotland Yard, because of difficulties determining the legal owner.

The genie is a powerfully built man, with wings sprouting from his back. About 2m high, it is carved in relief on a stone panel, holding a pine cone, and facing a pattern that represents the tree of life. The genie symbolised both protection and fertility – its role was to safeguard and replenish the ancient kingdom of Assyria. 

It was a design particularly popular with the Assyrian king, Ashurnasirpal II, who came to the throne in 883 BC, and made Nimrud his new capital.

“Ashurnasirpal and his artists were really the first to decorate many of the rooms in the public spaces within the palace,” says archaeologist Augusta McMahon, lecturer at the University of Cambridge.

“One of the key symbols that appeared over and over was this genie or protective spirit. Because in the minds of the ancient Assyrians it’s an enormously powerful motif, it can’t hurt to have a further fertility symbol somewhere in the room.”

Protective genies came in all sorts of shapes and sizes. The genie in the photograph above is very similar but not identical to the one now in the hands of British police. Others had the bodies of men but the heads of ferocious-looking birds and a feathered hairstyle, still others were a combination of man and fish.

Our particular genie had copious amounts of curly hair and a long beard. “The really big crazy-looking hair and the massive beard were part of making him really stand out,” says McMahon, who also draws attention to the “little fringed outfit that shows off these incredibly muscular legs”.

The impact of all the genies side by side in the palace would have been to convey the strength and virility of the Assyrian empire.

Across the belly of the genie was a smattering of cuneiform in the now extinct language, Akkadian. The text is what’s known as Ashurnasirpal’s “standard inscription”. It lays out in minute detail his many kingly accomplishments – from treading on the necks of foes to being “king of the universe” – and was carved on many of the reliefs and sculptures that filled the halls of his palace at Nimrud.