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Assyria in the Face of History
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Assyria in the Face of History

Ninos Isaac
California

No one felt sorry for the Assyrians. They were a violent people, and other nations despised them ... Their last king, Ashurbanipal liked to hunt. Earlier kings had hunted for food, but Ashurbanipal hunted for fun ... [The Assyrians] taxed the people they conquered. However, sometimes the Assyrians were so destructive there wasn't anyone left to tax ... If a city was captured its people were treated mercilessly. Sometimes they were forced to become slaves. Other times they were murdered. The Assyrians also prided themselves on destroying the temples, tombs and holy places of their enemies. (The Ancient World, Chief Historical Advisor: Alvin Bernstein).

This passage is taken from a history textbook approved for use in the Turlock School District, although the book is used statewide. Clearly, it is biased. The author frequently utilizes value-laden statements which cannot be proven. He substitutes his own subjective viewpoint for that of a neutral description of historical events. This is apparent when he insists that the Assyrians were "despised," "violent," "so destructive," "merciless," murderous, and that they "prided themselves on destroying." Equally offensive is the historical inaccuracy. For example, the author believes that Ashurbanipal was our last king! He is wrong. The kings Ashuretililani and Sinsharishkin consecutively ruled Assyria from 630 BC to 612 BC ... after Ashurbanipal! After the fall of Nineveh to the Babylonians and Medes, there was also another Assyrian king, Ashuruballit II. He ruled from Harran, which was west of Assyria, until 609 BC. Allied with the Egyptians, he made a last stand against the Medes and Babylonians at Carchemish. There were actually later Assyrian kings too. However, Ashuruballit II was the last king of the ancient Assyrian empire, not Ashurbanipal (which is the author's ignorant implication here)!

The remark about excessive taxation by the Assyrians is quite misleading. It is evident from the reports of later Assyrian kings that when the Assyrians conquered a particular peoples, they levied a tax on those inhabitants. Interestingly, the tax levied on those people was most often the same amount as was levied on natives of Assyria. Tiglath-Pileser III, for example, declares that "a tribute like that of the Assyrians I laid upon them [the Judeans]." An exception to this was when a serious revolt had taken place and the King wished to make an example of the rebel city or state by imposing a particularly burdensome level of tribute. Examples of both of these occurrences are witnessed throughout Assyrian royal inscriptions. Very rarely did Assyrians destroy entire populations, as is implied here. They most often pardoned rebellious people, sometimes deported them, but almost always cared for them.

Prejudiced and unscholarly textbooks such as the one above serve to undermine our children's sense of cultural identity. Our national identity is preserved through our language and history. We need to have a strong appreciation (and sense of pride) for both. When blatant mistruths are woven into the malleable minds of our youth, our cultural identity is being destroyed at the very root. This absurd propaganda must therefore stop, and it is we who must stop it. As an Assyrian scholar, I want to play a small part in the defense of my history by investigating our ancient history and demonstrating that a close reading of the scholarly evidence clearly indicates that ancient Assyria was indeed a great civilization, and perhaps one that has yet to be equaled. The imperial policy of the Assyrians was not barbaric, but visionary. Although the Assyrians were a militaristic nation who at certain times resorted to tough measures, they were defenders, not destroyers, of civilization and culture. There were many facets of their political society which demonstrated this.

Assyrians were the Earliest Advocates of Free Trade

Trade is a key attribute of any civilized society, and the Assyrians (more than any other nation of the region) had a distinct history of promoting free trade throughout the ancient Near East stretching as far back as 2000 BC. First, Assyrian merchant colonies were at the forefront of international trading activity in ancient Mesopotamia. At least 14,000 cuneiform tablets indicate that businesses in Ashur retained commercial representatives in far-away places such as Turkey. Second, the earliest kings of Ashur, such as Illushuma and Erishum I, declared that one of their primary accomplishments had been the abolishment of inter-state taxation. Assyrian kings valued free trade, and were reluctant to intervene in the domestic economy as well. There is no record that any king ever instituted price controls. Rather, they sought to maintain a pure market economy. Accordingly, Assyrian business contracts frequently make reference to the amount repayable to the creditor to be set at whatever happens to be "the current price in Nineveh."

Assyrians were neither isolationist nor primitive in their understanding of economics. Inasmuch as we in the West today accept international trade as an essential element of life, so did they. The Assyrians were the first known proponents of an international, free market system. Their heavy emphasis on trading never stopped, and it comes as no surprise when a prophet of the Bible (in Nahum 3: 16) declares (as a reason for the ultimate fall of Assyria) that "you increased your merchants more than the stars of the heavens."

Cultural Diversity: An Assyrian Invention

The Assyrian mindset, which sought to apply the principle of multiculturalism in ancient times, was visionary. Whereas the God of Israel had insisted that his people not mix with other peoples, Assur (Chief of the Assyrian pantheon) wanted all to share together in the richness of the empire, irrespective of the individual's color, creed or national origin. Racial purity was a conception which was immaterial, even hostile, to the Assyrians. This is demonstrated quite lucidly in the commentaries of the Assyrian kings. For example, when Ashurnasirpal II built a new capital city at Nimrud he decided to populate that key city not with native Assyrians, but rather with "people which I had conquered from the lands over which I had gained dominion." Likewise, when Sargon II sought to populate his new city at Dur Sharrukin, he tells us that he spent many long hours contemplating whom he should settle there. "To settle that city ... day and night I planned," says Sargon. Finally, he decided that this, his most prized Assyrian city, would be made home to a host of different nationalities:

Peoples of the four regions (of the world), of foreign tongue and divergent speech, dwellers of mountain and lowland ... I unified them and settled them therein. Assyrians, fully competent to teach them how to fear god and the king, I dispatched to them.

There are few passages in the royal annals which illustrate (what one might call) the global consciousness of the Assyrians as succinctly as Sargon's testimony here. The Assyrians took great pride in the fact that they were a nation not a race. One could actually become an Assyrian. All one had to do was respect god and king.

The Assyrian deportation of the northern kingdom of Israel occurred between the reigns of Shalmaneser V and Sargon II (at around 720 BC). The Israelites were settled in north-western Mesopotamia. As the Bible intimates (and as history confirms), they were completely assimilated into Assyrian culture, effectively vanishing from history as a particularized ethnicity. Their successful absorption was partly a consequence of the fact that the Assyrians attempted to relocate the whole community to an environment which was similar to their original homeland. Their integration was made less difficult because the Assyrians themselves were free of an ethnocentrism that typified other countries of the era. It is worthwhile to briefly contrast the deportation policy of the Assyrian Empire with that of the later Babylonian Empire. The Babylonians, under Nebuchadrezzar were responsible for the exile of the Jews from Judah. It is interesting to note the failure of the Judeans (unlike the Israelites) to assimilate fully within the local community. Many eventually returned to Jerusalem. This comparison reflects kindly on the Assyrians, for it demonstrates that they were much more readily accepting of different cultures.

The Assyrians: A Religious People

Not only were the Assyrians and their kings sensitive to ethnic diversity but they were also a pious people, who manifested a surprisingly unflappable belief in the importance of a freedom of religion. Although Assyrian religion was both monotheistic and polytheistic, one should not therefore conclude that Assyrians worshipped graven images. The Assyrian gods were rarely portrayed in physical form, and those who believed in one god, called Him Assur. The Assyrian religious sculptures which we are most familiar with (such as winged bulls and eagle-headed men) were not gods, but protective genies. Assyrians understood their gods to exist in the spiritual realm.

Unlike most kings of ancient civilizations, the Assyrian sovereign did not claim to be divine. Rather, he viewed himself as the gods' official representative on earth. This meant that Assur was actually the true regent while his steward, the secular ruler, was "vice-regent." The ruler exercised religious authority over Assyria, on behalf of the deity. Kings of Assyria, therefore, gave themselves such titles as "prefect," "shepherd," and "high priest" of Assur. In fact, it was not until the reign of Ashur-Uballit I that Assyrian kings actually began to refer to themselves as 'kings' in royal inscriptions! Prior to that date, each sovereign had held piously to the tradition of referring to himself only as a servant of the true king, Assur. The oldest records that we possess indicate that a great proportion of those kings' energies were spent renovating the temples of Assur, Ishtar and other deities. The Assyrian rulers were both mindful and respectful of the will of the gods.

Kings not only paid homage to their supernatural leaders, but actively sought guidance from them. There are references by almost all kings for whom we have records that the gods were consulted on all important issues. For example, a king would typically request that the oracle gods indicate a favorable day for the deployment of the army. A weightier question was laid before the gods when a king sought to determine his successor. The heir was always a son of the king, although it was not necessarily the eldest. The wisdom of the gods was solicited. Which of the royal princes did the gods favor? The reply of the gods led to a decision that was binding. Esarhaddon (680-669), for example, was selected as heir to Sennacherib, in spite of the fact that he had two older brothers. He discusses his accession to the throne saying,

I was still a youth, when at the command of Assur, Shamash, Bl and Nab, Ishtar of Nineveh and Ishtar of Arbela, the father who begot me [Sennacherib] ... solemnly lifted up my head and concerning my right to succession to rulership, he inquired of Shamash and Adad [the Oracle gods]. A positive answer they gave him, saying : "He is your successor." He honored their weighty word and gathered together the people of Assyria ... my brothers ... before ... the gods of Assyria ... [and] he made them take solemn oath, in their name, to guard my accession to power.

The Religious Tolerance of Assyria

In spite of the fact that the Assyrian state itself espoused a certain set of polytheistic beliefs, it was completely willing to accommodate the religious predilections of others (which might include monotheists, polytheists who believed in a different pantheon). A good illustration of the respect afforded by the Assyrians for gods of other nations can be found in the Bible. Subsequent to the Israeli Deportation, the Samaritans (the mix of races now dwelling in the various cities of Samaria) had complained to the Assyrian King that: "The nations which thou hast removed and placed in the cities of Samaria, know not the manner of the God of the land; [and] therefore he hath sent lions among them." Lions were a serious threat to people throughout the ancient Near East, so the king of Assyria reacted to the concern of the Samaritans by commanding his official to "carry thither one of the [Jewish] priests whom ye brought from thence; and let them go and dwell there, and let him teach them the manner of the God of the land. Then one of the priests whom they had carried away from Samaria came and dwelt in Bethel, and taught them how they should fear the LORD." (2 Kings 17: 26-28).

The Assyrian king here had not only exercised deference and respect for the will of the new inhabitants of Samaria, but he had demonstrated a pious regard for a God that was not even his own. This account indicates the incomparable civility of the Assyrians. Would any other contemporary religious culture have accorded a foreign country such high consideration for the religious tradition of their land?

Conclusion

The Assyrians then were neither barbarians nor barbaric; first, the true barbarians of the age were the wandering nomads of the mountains and deserts, who plundered the lands of Mesopotamian states. Second, the so-called atrocities of the Assyrians should not be viewed through the lenses of modern society. War and the vices of war permeated the ancient world. Therefore, what we would now consider to be ruthless cruelty, such as the dismemberment of bodily parts, was common practice in ancient times. In reality, the old world was a cruel world. All nations, including the two kingdoms of Israel committed such acts. For example, the Bible informs us that Joshua and the Israelites hung the King of Ai from a tree until sundown, after which the carcass was taken down and cast at the gate of the city, prior to a heap of stones being raised on the rotting body. In fact, Joshua utterly destroyed all of the inhabitants of such cities as Jericho, Ai, Makkedah, Libnah, Lachish, Hebron and Debir. Even women and children were not spared.

Nicholas Postgate, Director of the British Archaeological Expedition to Iraq, maintains that there is no evidence to indicate that the Assyrians were any more cruel than their contemporaries; the only difference, he insists, is that the Assyrians thought fit to record their acts of cruelty. Even Postgate misses the point that our bas-reliefs have delivered a distorted view of our culture. This is the point which The Chariot will continue to drive home.

At this juncture, it becomes worthwhile to note some specific contributions of Assyrian kings to civilized society. When Ashurbanipal decided to gather together over 20,000 Mesopotamian tablets and fragments he established the first ever-recorded library. This systematically-organized library at Nineveh has become our chief source of knowledge for Mesopotamian art, literature, religion, history and culture. Assyrian monarchs also undertook major building projects. Ashurnasirpal II and Sargon II built entirely new cities at Nimrud and Dr-Sharrukin respectively. Full accounts of each construction project are given by the kings in their inscriptions, including how they engineered canals to water the land around each of these cities. Sennacherib's extensive construction of canals and aqueducts around Nineveh is a marvel of civil engineering. Part of it is depicted on a bas-relief, and may be viewed today at the British Museum. At Nineveh, Sennacherib used some of the available irrigation water for his botanical gardens, where he grew exotic trees and plants. Nature preserves and safari parks, in which rare species of animals were introduced, were not atypical creations. The Assyrians, having conducted extensive developments of their natural resources, became masters of their environment.

To determine the character of an entire empire then, without a thorough consideration for the policies of individual rulers is to make presumptuous claims to knowledge. Some monarchs could be quite rough, whereas others were comparatively merciful. This is nowhere more evident than in Assyro-Babylonian relations. Sennacherib devastated Babylon as revenge for the ransoming of his son to the Elamites. In turn, Esarhaddon rebuilt all of the Babylonian temples and cities that had been leveled by his father. While many other kings relied heavily on their own abilities and intuitions, Esarhaddon and Ashurbanipal were both highly religious kings, who constantly sought the will of the gods. They kept the diviners and priests very busy.

Given what has been said here about the advanced state of affairs with respect to international trade, ethnic diversity and religious tolerance, why have the Assyrians received such negative reviews from the Judeo-Christian culture of the West? There is no definitive answer without extensive methodological research. Here we may only speculate as to the cause. Perhaps it is a consequence of our predisposition to the biblical tradition that has sensitized us to the plight of 'God's chosen people,' the Jews. Consequently, it is the Assyrians (who as conquerors of the biblical lands) assume the role of villain. Add to this the depiction of war on the bas-reliefs, and we have the recipe for unfounded prejudice. One should also bear in mind that the kings of the Neo-Assyrian empire documented their exploits in great detail, whereas relatively speaking, their contemporaries recorded very little. In so doing, the Assyrians are the ones who allowed themselves to become vulnerable to criticism.

I have nowhere denied that the Assyrians were imperialistic. Neither have I denied that conquered peoples were abridged their freedom by being forced to relocate, nor do I refute the harsh treatment of enemy ringleaders. What I have explicitly rejected is the belief that the Assyrians were barbarians. The Assyrians were in fact the standard-bearers for civilization and culture in ancient times. They administered vassal states with justice, fairness and firmness. They were remarkably tolerant of diverse nationalities and religions. Their use of direct military force was always circumspect, rather than impetuous, always calculated, rather than mindless. And most of all, they tried to act not in their own interest but according to the will of the gods. In summary, the Assyrian empire was a new world order, and a new model army guarded it.



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