In today’s post Luke takes inspiration from the Assyrian objects on display in our Ancient Worlds gallery to take a look at the rise and fall of the Assyrian Empire, and the subsequent fate of it’s people.
From Arcs To Embers: King of the Universe
The first of April this year wasn’t just April Fool’s Day, if you are Assyrian it was anything but, as it marked the dawning of the year 6766. Now that’s a large number, especially when you consider that the conventional Christian and Islamic Calendars are only on the years 2016 and 1437 respectively. This is because the Assyrian calendar begins in the year 4750 BCE when according to legend the region of the city of Ashur was first settled. It says something about the tenacious sense of identity possessed by today’s Assyrians that they still count their years from the founding of their first city all those centuries ago – although current archaeology only dates the oldest ruins at Ashur to approximately 2600 BCE, that’s still a very long time ago.
For many people the Assyrians are perhaps more synonymous with ancient grandeur and powerful kings than with a modern minority in a very dangerous part of the world, and yet today the latter remains every bit as true as the former.
Representing the ancient past of Assyria here at the Manchester Museum in our Ancient Worlds gallery we have a monumental carved stone relief taken from the ruined walls of the palace of King Ashurnasirpal II. This palace was situated in the city of Kalhu, called Nimrud in the Bible, a capital of the once great Assyrian Empire.
Kalhu may not have remained the capital for long as successive Assyrian Kings seemed to have a penchant for moving the seat of their empire around, but this carved stone snapshot, erected in 879 BCE, does represent a spectacular high-point for the Assyrian people, with Kalhu having become a large and carefully planned city of some 100,000 inhabitants, containing extensive palaces and temples as well as botanical gardens and even a zoo.
Even at the time of Ashurnasirpal the Assyrians already saw themselves as a nation with ancient roots. Descendants of and successors to the even more ancient Akkadians who built the world’s first empire under Sargon the Great, and who’s language and cuneiform script they still used. But the Assyrian Empire became greater still, a vast multi-ethnic domain that was by all accounts the most powerful state in the world at the time of its greatest extent, stretching from Iran to Egypt and from Anatolia to Arabia, almost encompassing the entirety of what we would today think of as the Middle-East.
In terms of its organisation, professional standing army, and expansionist attitude Assyria was not only a forerunner of the Persian Empire but also of the Roman Empire. Manchester’s monumental slab, inscribed in cuneiform, lists the genealogy and military conquests of King Ashurnasirpal II into Babylonia, Persia, and Armenia, while titling him ‘Great King, King of The Universe, King of Assyria’. [For the complete translation, have a look at this post on Ancient Worlds Manchester, where Curator of Archaeology Bryan Sitch takes another look at this fascinating object]
The beautifully carved reliefs accompanying the text are known for their particular focus on anatomy to convey strength, and often depict what are known as ‘Winged Genii’. These figures were benevolent spirits and had a protective role in averting evil forces, wearing a horned headdress symbolising divinity and using the pine cone (known as a mullilu or ‘purifying device’) carried in one hand to offering blessings of sacred water from the pail carried in the other.
The Assyrian Empire was known to be fair to its loyal subjects but it was also famous for its harsh and unyielding treatment of enemies or rebels as another tablet in the name of the same king records;
‘their men young and old I took prisoners. Of some I cut off their feet and hands; of others I cut off the ears noses and lips; of the young men’s ears I made a heap; of the old men’s heads I made a minaret. I exposed their heads as a trophy in front of their city. The male children and the female children I burned in flames; the city I destroyed, and consumed with fire’.
Rebellion in the Assyrian Empire was not a thing lightly considered, not if you valued your feet, hands, ears, nose, lips or head at any rate.
These things may seem like atrocities when viewed through a contemporary lens – yet this was the way the ancient world worked, and the Assyrians didn’t hide from it. Indeed, they wanted people to know what they had done, inscriptions making such fearsome proclamations literally lined the walls of the royal palace in Kalhu, to be seen by foreign visitors and domestic guests alike. These tablets are now dispersed into 22 collections worldwide though many, until recently, were also said to still remain in situ among the ruins and beneath the desert sands.
Their nation lasted through more than two thousand year of turbulent history before rebellious vassals and hungry surrounding nations took advantage of Assyrian weakness after a civil war and united against it. Only Egypt under Necho II came to their aid as the last Assyrian king met his end in street to street fighting while their last city was overrun.
And that’s where the story of the Assyrians ends, or does it? When a kingdom falls do its people simply disappear?
Luke A. Williamson
For the rest of the story please see From Arcs To Embers: (Part II) The Children of Ashur
Read more archaeology stories from the Visitor Team:
Ancient Egypt Glossary #1 – Coffins etc.
Being Human # 2: Reconstructing identity – a new look at the ancient dead
The Gods and Their Makers
Murder in Mesopotamia?
Roman Tours and Object Handling