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2023-03-27 10:49:57 Views : 482 |

‘Assyria’ Review A Mesopotamian Empire’s Might

Detail of an Assyrian relief sculpture depicting a lion hunt, ca. 645 B.C. PHOTO: ALAMY


By Kyle Harper, March 24, 2023


Assyrians served as villains in the Bible and heroes to modern Romantics like Byron. Their true history was lengthy and complex.


In Lord Byron’s 1821 play “Sardanapalus,” the king of the title laments that the glory of his empire will someday fade into oblivion. “Time shall quench full many a people’s records, and a hero’s acts; sweep empire after empire, like this first of empires, into nothing.” The character of Sardanapalus is a distorted reflection of Ashurbanipal, one of the last rulers of ancient Assyria. Thankfully, the character’s prediction has never quite come true. Though the imposing civilization of ancient Assyria has receded from the foreground of collective memory, it has never completely succumbed to time. Eckart Frahm’s “Assyria: The Rise and Fall of the World’s First Empire” is a sweeping, delightfully readable effort to remind us of Assyria’s place in history.

The story of ancient Assyria is one of extraordinary longevity and startling evanescence. Assyrian history sprawls out over millennia. As early as the third millennium B.C., a coherent identity emerged in Ashur, a town on the banks of the Tigris River in what is now northern Iraq. This identity remained intact through the Old (ca. 2000 B.C.-1360 B.C.), Middle (ca. 1360-912 B.C.) and Neo-Assyrian (911-609 B.C.) periods. Such labels are purely modern fabrications: The ancient Assyrians—whose king lists presented only unbroken links in a continuous chain stretching back to the mists of time—would have found such divisions baffling. Despite this cultural durability, the significance of ancient Assyria lies in the spectacular rise and fall of the Neo-Assyrian empire, whose deep influence contrasts with its relatively brief life.

Initially, Assyria was not a military power. Ashur had risen to prominence as a city of traders. It was, the author claims, “a kind of Singapore of the ancient Near East.” Only in the Middle Assyrian period, after ambitious kings had seized power from the ruling mercantile oligarchy, did Assyria elbow its way in for a seat at the imperialist table beside great powers such as Babylonia, the Hittite state and the New Kingdom of Egypt.

But like so many late Bronze Age experiments, the Assyrian one faltered—destabilized by the collapse of the civilizations surrounding it and preyed upon by tribal raiders. “As time went by,” Mr. Frahm recounts, “the tribes began, slowly but steadily, to infiltrate areas closer and closer to the Assyrian heartland, wreaking havoc wherever they appeared.” Had the story ended there, the Assyrians might be a footnote to history, much like the Hittites. Instead, the Assyrian empire was reborn, more victorious than ever.

The Assyrians were always upstarts in the cradle of civilization. What the Greeks would be to the Romans, the Babylonians were to the Assyrians: vastly more experienced in the game of civilization. Assyria’s inferiority complex vis-à-vis Babylon had various consequences, but it encouraged constant if rarely decisive warfare—until, in 729 B.C., Tiglath-Pileser III scored a monumental victory and became king of both Assyria and Babylon.

The conquests of Tiglath-Pileser III (who reigned from 745-727 B.C.) inaugurated a golden century of Assyrian dominance. Mr. Frahm, a professor at Yale, agrees with Byron’s Sardanapalus that Assyria deserves to be considered the world’s first empire—a “war-prone, multiethnic conqueror-state, organized into numerous provinces and geared toward moving resources on a massive scale from the periphery to the political center.” Assyria’s empire stretched from modern Iran to Egypt, setting a new standard for what an empire could be.

The golden century of Assyrian power that ensued was hardly glorious for those who felt the brunt of Assyria’s rise. We happen to know this thanks to the Hebrew Bible. The rise of the Neo-Assyrian empire upended the politics of Israel, and this coincided with a moment when the historical writing in the Hebrew Bible becomes more concrete. In the Bible, Ashur is mentioned some 150 times, according to Mr. Frahm, while Nineveh, the last capital of the Neo-Assyrian empire, is named no fewer than 17 times.

Consequently, we can follow Assyrian history through the eyes of its victims. The prophet Nahum, for instance, was no admirer of Assyria’s merchants—“more numerous than the stars in the sky, but like locusts they strip the land and then fly away.” The capital of Assyria was the “city of bloodshed.” Still, Assyrian influence spread far. Mr. Frahm makes a strained case that Assyrian royal ideology even came to influence Hebrew notions of God.

The author is on firmer ground when it comes to Satan. The prophet Isaiah was a contemporary of Sargon II (reigned 722-705 B.C.) and Sennacherib (reigned 705-681 B.C.). Isaiah scoffs at the former’s untimely death, “How you are fallen from heaven, O Day Star, son of Dawn! (Isaiah 14:12)” In other words, an Assyrian king was the distant inspiration for what Christians came to view as a rogue angel—Lucifer, in St. Jerome’s translation of the passage.

Hebrew writers present a one-sided view, and, for a long time, theirs was the dominant perspective. The recovery over the last two centuries of hundreds of thousands of Assyrian texts—written in the cuneiform script on clay tablets—is a sensational story that allows us to see the Assyrians on their own terms. These texts have done nothing to dispel the rumors of Assyrian bloodlust. The king Ashurnasirpal II boasted that, in one victory, he captured “many troops alive. From some I cut off their arms and hands; from others I cut off their noses, ears, and extremities. I gouged out the eyes of many troops. I hung their heads on trees around the city. I burned many of their adolescent boys and girls.” The same machismo is evident in the famous lion-hunt reliefs that portray a succession of bearded Assyrian kings, with impressive calm, spearing their toothy prey. It is little wonder that the prophet Jonah, commanded by God to go to Nineveh to condemn the Assyrians for their sins, tried to escape to the other end of the world.

Mr. Frahm balances a clear-eyed account of Assyria’s gruesome politics with empathetic portraits of everyday life. Ashurbanipal was a sadist, but he also established what was the most magnificent library in the world up to that time. The cuneiform sources allow vivid insights into the experience of ordinary men and women, whose fears about their children’s health or partners’ faithfulness humanize this distant civilization. We know that, at one point, the chief scribe in Nineveh, a pre-eminent but underpaid intellectual, complained of his “tiny” house, so squalid that “even a donkey would not want to enter it.” Plus ça change.

In just two decades following the reign of Ashurbanipal, the Assyrian imperial experiment came suddenly, completely and permanently to an end. Mr. Frahm is a judicious guide to the various explanations, including the possibility of climate change as a contributing factor. But, not surprisingly, a mystery remains.

Byron’s fictionalized Ashurbanipal has a serene detachment about the fact that Assyria’s achievements would be forgotten. But the memory of the ancient Assyrians has endured. The Assyrians have been villains to biblical authors, oriental “others” to classical Greek and Roman writers, and unexpected heroes to louche romantics like Byron. The revolutionary finds of the archaeologist trigger jolts of interest from time to time. And the Assyrian past has been a source of pride for Iraqi nationalism (the protagonists of Saddam Hussein’s romance novel, “Zabibah and the King,” are indebted to the Assyrian royal model). It is a final, tragic testament to the resilience of the Assyrian ideal that Islamic State fighters tried systematically to annihilate whatever traces they could find of this irrepressible ancient civilization—luckily, with imperfect success.


Mr. Harper, a professor at the University of Oklahoma, is the author of “Plagues Upon the Earth: Disease and the Course of Human History.”

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