Ancient History & Civilisation

CHAPTER 21

THE GLORY OF ASSYRIA

The reign of Ashurbanipal, like the reign of Hammurabi, is a momentous period in the history of ancient Iraq and calls for a pause. Having described at length how the Assyrian empire was formed, to be logical we should now examine what went on behind the façade of wars and diplomatic moves. What was, for instance, the social and economic structure of this vast political unit embracing the entire Fertile Crescent and stretching – at least for a while – from the Caspian Sea to the Nile valley? What were the materials, the routes and the volume of its internal and external trades? What ties linked in time of peace Nineveh with the vassal-states? What influence did the Assyrian domination have on the material and spiritual life of the Babylonians, Syrians, Iranians and other subject peoples and on the life of the Assyrians themselves? In short, what was the Assyrian empire?

This extremely difficult question could only be answered if the Assyrian empire were apprehended in its entirety and in great detail, but this would require much more material than is at present available. The peripheral areas, in particular, are poorly documented, since very few Assyrian administrative centres in Syria, Phoenicia, Anatolia, Armenia and Iran have been excavated, or even located on the map. For the moment, the bulk of our information comes from the state archives of Assur, Nineveh and Kalhu and from various official or private documents found in a few other cities of Assyria proper and Babylonia. Numerous and interesting as these texts are, they only provide occasional glimpses at the distant provinces, and, even with regard to the heart of the empire, the knowledge that can be derived from them on such topics as social and economic conditions, land tenure and internal trade, for example, remains very limited and full of gaps or uncertainties.1 All things considered, the subjects on which we are best informed are the king and his court, the central and regional administration, the army and, of course, the arts, and as these subjects constitute, after all, the main components of Assyria's vanished might and everlasting glory, it is on them that we shall concentrate. In a second chapter we shall take advantage of Ashurbanipal's famous library to describe the stage reached by the various Mesopotamian sciences in the seventh century B.C. By so doing we hope to dispel an impression which is all too readily gained from the reading of endless war-records: it would be utterly wrong to regard as a pack of wolves2 an intelligent and often highly civilized people less thirsty of blood than of knowledge and culture.

The Assyrian State

‘Great king, mighty king, king of the Universe, king of the country of Assur’, the man who sat on the throne in Nineveh embodied all the overwhelming power of a preying nation and assumed the highest religious and governmental responsibilities. The officials who assisted him, the provincial governors who obeyed his orders, the ambassadors who conveyed his messages were not his ministers but merely his ‘servants’. In many ways the king was the state. Yet the difference between an Ashurbanipal, absolute master of millions of people, and the ensi of an early Sumerian city-state, who ruled over a few acres of land, lay in the extent of their authority, not in its nature, and ideally the King of Assyria was only a human being selected among others to act on behalf of the gods for the benefit of the community.3 He was the earthly representative and instrument of Ashur, just as Gudea of Lagash was the representative and instrument of Ningirsu. Indeed, before Shamshi-Adad I in the eighteenth century B.C. took the title of ‘king’ (sharrum) all the early rulers of Assyria called themselves ishakkum (= ensi) of the god Ashur, and this appellation remained for a long time in the long list of Assyrian royal titles.

The principle of divine election was much too old and theoretical ever to be questioned, but a principle of co-optation, which probably went back to the times when the Assyrian king ‘lived in a tent’ and was just a sheikh among others, explains both thelimmusystem – whereby high officials gave their name to reignal years – and the relative instability of the monarchy. The sovereign chose his successor from among his sons, yet his choice – although allegedly inspired by Ashur and confirmed by Sin and Shamash through oracles – had to be endorsed by other members of the royal family and by the nobility of the empire, and the domestic peace of the kingdom depended on whether they accepted it or not. The palace revolutions which, as we have seen, followed upon the reigns of Ashur-nirâri V and Sennacherib were essentially due to jealousy between brothers and to some high officials supporting other princes than the king designate. On the whole, however, the hereditary system was respected, and in their inscriptions several Assyrian monarchs take great pride in their long line of royal ancestors going back, in some cases, to the mythical hero Adapa.

Once chosen, the crown prince left his father's palace and entered the bît redûti, or ‘House of Succession’, situated in Tarbisu (modern Sherif Khan) on the Tigris, a few miles upstream of Nineveh.4 There he was prepared for his royal functions and gradually entrusted with important military and administrative duties, which included replacing the king as head of the state in time of war. Some princes received a very thorough education. Ashurbanipal, for instance, describes his scholarly and military training as follows:

‘The art of the Master Adapa I acquired: the hidden treasure of all scribal knowledge, the signs of heaven and earth… and I have studied the heavens with the learned masters of oil divination; I have solved the laborious problems of division and multiplication, which were not clear; I have read the artistic script of Sumer and the obscure Akkadian, which is hard to master, taking pleasure in the reading of the stones from before the flood… This is what was done of all my days: I mounted my steed, I rode joyfully, I went up to the hunting lodge (?). I held the bow, I let fly the arrow, the sign of my valour. I hurled heavy lances like a javelin. Holding the reins like a driver, I made the wheels go round. I learned to handle the aritu and the kababu shields like a heavy-armed bowman… At the same time I was learning royal decorum, walking in the kingly ways. I stood before the king, my begetter, giving commands to the nobles. Without my consent, no governor was appointed; no prefect was installed in my absence.’5

When the king died, mourned by all Assyrians, he was buried not in Nineveh or Kalhu, but in the oldest capital-city of the kingdom, Assur, where five heavy sarcophagi of stone, which once contained the bodies of Ashur-bêl-kala, Ashurnasirpal, Shamshi-Adad V, and perhaps of Sennacherib and Esarhaddon's wife, Esharhamat, but which had been plundered in antiquity, were found in vaulted chambers underneath the Old Palace. A recently published tablet indicates that the bodies of deceased kings most probably floated in oil in their sarcophagus.6 An idea of the treasures contained in Assyrian royal tombs is provided by the startling discovery made at Nimrud in 1989 by a team of Iraqi archaeologists. There, under the floor of the domestic wing of Ashurnasirpal's palace were three tombs which had not been plundered. One of them yielded the skeleton of a man accompanied by no less than 200 pieces of gold jewellery. In another tomb were two female bodies, tentatively identified as those of Taliya, the wife of Sargon II, and Yaba, probably the spouse of Shalmaneser V. According to one of the most reliable reports,7 this tomb contained some 200 gold jewels, such as necklaces, earrings, rings, bracelets, anklets and garment fasteners, as well as hundreds of small gold dress decorations and three solid gold bowls. To this must be added an ivory box, a bronze and ivory mirror and two alabaster jars with remnants of food for the after-life. The third tomb was that of Ashurnasirpal's wife Mulisu, but the great stone sarcophagus in the middle was empty, suggesting that the queen's body had been transferred elsewhere. Yet, 440 items of gold jewellery, including a royal crown, were found in three bronze coffins surrounded by remains of several skeletons. The total weight of gold found in these three tombs has been estimated at fifty-seven kilos, but the real value of these objects lies in their beauty, the attractive marriage of gold with ivory, alabaster, glass and semi-precious coloured stones and the skill with which they were fashioned: in some pieces of filigree work some threads were so thin that they could be seen only with a magnifying lens. Further excavations in search of other tombs were being planned when the Gulf War broke out.

The coronation followed the royal funeral after a short interval and took place in Assur. It was a simple ceremony. Carried on a portable throne and preceded by a priest who called out ‘Ashur is king! Ashur is king!’, the crown prince went to Ekur, the temple of the national god. He entered the sanctuary, offered a golden bowl full of oil, a mana of silver and a richly embroidered garment. Prostrate before the deity, he was anointed by the high-priest and given the insignia of kingship: ‘the crown of Ashur and the sceptre of Ninlil’,* while these words were prononounced:

‘The diadem on thy head – may Ashur and Ninlil, the lords of the diadem, put it upon thee for a hundred years.

Thy foot in Ekur and thy hands stretched towards Ashur, thy god – may they be favoured.

Before Ashur, thy god, may thy priesthood and the priesthood of thy sons find favour.

With thy straight sceptre make thy land wide.

May Ashur grant thee quick satisfaction, justice and peace.’8

The new king then proceeded to the palace, where the nobles and officials did homage to him and relinquished their badges of office. In most cases this gesture was purely symbolic, but it was meant to remind all those present that they were the king's servants and could be dismissed at any time. We may safely assume that the ceremony was followed by public rejoicing.

The King of Assyria governed in much the same way as all Mesopotamian monarchs, although the state letters suggest that more initiative was left to local authorities than, for instance, in the days of Hammurabi. Day by day he was kept informed of all matters of importance arising within the empire and in foreign countries; he gave orders and advice, appointed administrators, dealt with complaints, received and entertained high officials and foreign ambassadors, and carried on a voluminous correspondence with the aid of an army of scribes. As the supreme chief of the army, he drew up plans for military campaigns, inspected the troops and often personally conducted the operations. Off the battlefield he displayed his courage and skill by shooting wild game with the bow from his chariot, or by fighting lions with the spear in the palace grounds. Office work, receptions, hunting, these activities would be comparable to those of a modern head of state but for the fact that the King of Assyria was also a priest and as such was the slave of a complicated system of magico-religious practices which took much of his time and added to the heavy burden of his daily tasks. As the first servant of the gods and head of the clergy, he saw that temples were built or maintained, appointed some of the priests and took an active part in the main religious ceremonies of Assyria and Babylonia, such as the feast of the New Moon or the New Year Festival, as well as in certain rituals which seem to have been designed especially for him, in particular the tâkultu(‘eating’) ritual – a banquet offered to all the gods in exchange for their protection – and the bit rimki (‘bathhouse’) ritual – a royal bath during which prayers were addressed to various deities.9 As the representative of his people, the king was ‘manipulated like a talisman – or he became the scapegoat charged before the gods with all the sins of the community’.10 He had to submit to occasional fasting, ritual shaving and other humiliations, and when the omens were desperately bad for Assyria he escaped death only through the subterfuge of a ‘substitute king’. We have already seen (p. 183) an example of this strange Mesopotamian institution in the Isin-Larsa period. A letter written during the reign of Ashurbani-pal alludes to a similar situation:11 it appears that to save the life of Shamash-shum-ukin a certain Damqi, the son of the superintendent of Akkad, had been chosen by a prophetess in a trance, given a lady of the court in marriage and put to death with his wife after a short ‘reign’. This was but an extreme and exceedingly rare application of a widespread belief. The Mesopotamians believed that the gods expressed their will in many ways and were constantly on the watch for signs and portents. Whether it was based on the movements of stars and planets, the interpretation of dreams and of natural phenomena, the configuration of the liver of sacrificed sheep, the flight of birds, the birth of monsters, the behaviour of drops of oil thrown on water, or the aspect of flames, divination was in Assyria a highly developed and offical ‘science’.12 The king was duly warned, verbally or by letter, of favourable and unfavourable omens, and no decision of importance was taken without first consulting the barû-priests (or diviners) or the royal astrologers. Here are two examples taken from the royal correspondence. Bêl-ushezib writes to Esarhaddon:

When a star shines forth like a torch from the sunrise and in the sunset fades away, the army of the enemy will attack in force.

When the south wind rises suddenly and having risen continues, and as it continues becomes a gale, and from a gale increases to a tempest – a day of destruction – the prince, on whatever expedition he goes, will obtain wealth.13

From Zakir to Ashurbanipal:

On the 15th day of the month of Tebet, in the middle watch, there was an eclipse of the moon. It began on the east (side) and turned to the west. The evil disturbance which is in the land of Amurru and its territory is its own harm. The disturbance is the fault of the King of Amurru and his land for allowing the enemy of the king, my lord, to be in the land of Amurru. Let the king, my lord, do as he wishes. The hand of the king, my lord, shall capture him. The king shall accomplish his defeat…14

It would be a mistake, however, to think that the home and foreign policy of Assyria was ruled by superstition, when all we know of her history bears the print of realism. Astrologers and diviners gave the king a general set of circumstances within which he felt free to ‘do as he wished’, and there were even cases when he asked for several omens in succession until he obtained one that fitted his plans.

To run his vast empire the King of Assyria relied upon an administration which has been compared with that of the Ottoman empire (eunuchs included),15 but was probably much more efficient. Around him were high dignitaries, such as the turtânu(commander-in-chief), the rab shaqê (chief cup-bearer), the nâgir ekalli (palace herald), the abarakku (superintendent) and the sukallu dannu (great chancellor), not to mention lesser officials who looked after the palace, its stables and its stores. Those who bore these time-honoured titles were not ministers in the modern sense of the term. With the exception of the turtânu, they seem to have acted mainly as advisers and to have performed various duties as the occasion arose, including provincial government. The latter, however, was generally entrusted to other high officials whom we have already met under Tiglath-pileser III, and we find here well-defined functions (see above, page 306) and a more firmly structured organization, for under the province governors (bêl pihâti orshaknu) came the district chiefs (rab alâni, literally ‘chief of towns’) and under these the ‘mayors’ (hazannu) and the Councils of Elders of small towns and villages. The higher officials resided in comfortable houses in capital cities16 or in provincial palaces. They had their own courts and their own lands, employed hundreds of workers and slaves and could raise substantial armies if they so wished. Powerful and rich, they might have threatened the throne – as indeed they had done in the past – if the king had not kept them under control by a mixture of fear and rewards: fear of breaking the oath of obedience (adû) they had sworn and of being dismissed or even put to death (though there is no evidence that capital punishment was ever applied to them), and rewards in the form of grants of royal estates,17 carefully spread over several provinces, distributions of war booty and shares in the multiple taxes exacted in Assyria and vassal countries. For greater safety some posts were divided and there was, for instance, under Sennacherib a turtânu ‘of the right’ and a turtânu ‘of the left’.

A similar control was exerted by the king over the great cities of the empire and their population of priests, diviners, scribes, physicians, artisans and artists which, like all intelligentsia, occasionally tended to be troublesome. They too had sworn the adû and could be severely punished if they revolted, but they were the object of royal attention and favours. It is to this urban ‘bourgeoisie’ that Sargon addressed his account of the great campaign in Kurdistan, and some cities, like Assur, enjoyed almost complete freedom whilst others, even in Babylonia, were exempted from taxes, tolls and corvées.

Owing to the imprecision of terms and relative scarcity of documents, the economic conditions in the Assyrian empire remain imperfectly understood. The basis of the economy was, as always, agriculture, industry being reduced to artisan workshops around the cities. In theory, all the land belonged to the king, and indeed much of it did and was worked by peasants at his service or by people performing their ilku, but we learn from a census discovered at Harran and from land sale contracts18 that there were small private landowners and fairly large estates belonging to the royal family or the temples, or purchased by high officials. Of internal trade we know almost nothing, probably because from the eighth century onwards most business transactions were couched in Aramaic on parchment or papyrus and have therefore perished.

Encouraged by the kings,19 foreign trade was flourishing, involving Egypt, the Gulf countries via Dilmun and the Aegean region visited by Phoenician ships. The goods most frequently exchanged were metals and rare items such as cotton, lint, dyes, precious stones and ivory.20 It must be noted that their territorial conquests had given the Assyrians free access to the iron mines of Lebanon and the silver mines of Anatolia. Silver was used for payment in all transactions. Taxes were levied on merchandise that transited through the empire.

The population of Assyria was divided into three categories: free men (whatever their social status and including nomads), people who depended on the State or on rich landowners (the word mushkênu is used in some texts) and ‘slaves’ recruited among endebted families and prisoners of war; but slaves benefited from legal rights and could rise to important posts in the administration. To designate the inhabitants of their country the Assyrian officials only used vague terms such as nishê (‘the people’), napshâti(‘human beings’) and ardâni (‘servants’) without distinction of rank, function or profession.21 This suggests that in the eyes of bureaucrats the whole population of the empire was regarded as a human mass entirely at the king's service (dullu sharri), a service which included not only corvées for public works but also participation in what has been called ‘the national industry of Assyria’: war.

The Assyrian Army

Called up almost every year during three centuries, driven from the snow-capped mountains of Armenia and Iran to the swamps of the Sea-Land and the burning sands of Egypt, indefatigable and nearly always victorious, the army was the unrivalled instrument of Assyrian might.22 Like the Macedonian phalanx and the Roman legion, the secret of its success lay in the quality of its troops, the superiority of its weapons and, as we may well imagine, the rigidity of its discipline.

Originally, the Assyrian Army was recruited among the peasants of northern Iraq, a mixed race of born warriors who combined the boldness of the bedouin with the tenacity of the farmer and the toughness of the highlander.

Since the reign of Tiglathpileser III, however, there were three categories of soldiers who may be called professional soldiers, conscripts and reserves.23 Professional soldiers, selected, recruited and stationed in the main cities of Assyria and in all provinces of the empire, formed the bulk of the standing army (kisir sharruti). Some of them were Assyrian by birth but the majority came from formerly independent countries such as Babylonia or the Syrian kingdoms. Aramaeans were predominant, and among them the Itusi' and Guraya tribes provided numerous and much appreciated shock-troops. There were also auxiliary troops from among the Medes, Cimmerians, Arabs and even Elamites. Some units of the standing army formed the royal guard. The conscripts in turn may be divided into two groups: the king's soldiers and the reserves. The king's soldiers (sabê sharri) were generally young men who were temporarily mobilized in fulfilment of their ilku duty. They too were recruited throughout the empire and from all classes of society; they received a daily ration and waited, at home or in camps, to be called up, if needed, for the duration of a campaign. The reserves (sha kutalli, literally ‘those behind’) were men destined to be mobilized whenever necessary, to replace losses, for instance. Finally, all males of a population could be levied, together with the above listed categories of troops, in case of exceptionally long or dangerous conflict. In some wars, as in the Egyptian expedition, the King of Assyria asked his vassals to put their armed forces at his disposal.

This complex recruitment system had enormous advantages. For one thing, there were troops in every part of the empire, ready to quell a local rebellion or to repel a sudden attack on the Assyrian border. Secondly, the existence of a standing army made it possible to rapidly organize the forces that were required for a major military operation and to fight prolonged wars, whereas with the old system some campaigns had to be cut short so that the men could resume their agricultural activities.24 We must add that the Assyrian army had other major assets, notably a well-organized system of communications by fast couriers or sometimes fire signals, and a state security and espionage system that would compare favourably with that of modern nations.25

Despite the wealth of war-records that have survived, we know surprisingly little about the size, organization and tactical methods of the Army. The number of soldiers engaged in action is very rarely given – Ashurnasirpal once speaks of 50,000 men; at the battle of Qarqar, Shalmaneser III fielded 120,000 men to the enemy's 70,000 troops – and if the enemy losses are grossly inflated, the casualties suffered by the Assyrians are practically never mentioned. If an overall figure were requested, we would venture to guess that in the seventh century B.C. the King of Assyria was in a position to mobilize an army of 400,000 to 500,000 men, reserves excluded. There are several gaps in our knowledge of the military hierarchy: from the turtânu and the rab shaqê (who often acted as his lieutenant) we pass almost immediately to the ‘captains of seventy’ and the ‘captains of fifty’. We learn, however, that there were various grades among the cavalry officers, for instance, and that the king's bodyguard, the ‘dagger-men’, and other units had their own ‘colonels’. The battles are invariably described in vague, though colourful terms, so that we are left in the dark as to the tactics applied, and only on rare occasions do we find references to ambushes and surprise attacks. All considered, our main source of information remains the innumerable scenes of war sculptured on slabs in the palaces of Nimrud, Khorsabad and Nineveh or carved in ‘repoussé’ on the bronze gates of Balawat.26 The infantrymen depicted fall into two categories: light infantry (bowmen and slingers) and heavy infantry (lancers). The light infantrymen were clad in a short tunic and had no defensive weapon, whereas the lancers were protected by a coat-of-mail and by a round or oblong shield, sometimes taller than themselves. Slingers were, as a rule, bare-headed, but archers and lancers wore a tall conical helmet or, more rarely, a crested helmet resembling the Greek one. Besides their distinctive weapons,27 most infantrymen carried a short sword, a dagger or a mace. All of them, at least since Tiglathpileser III, had half-boots laced in front. Cavalrymen wore a similar ‘uniform’ and were armed with a small bow or a long spear. They rode without a saddle or stirrups, but in late Sargonid times horses were protected by armour, so that both riders and mounts strangely resemble our medieval knights. A third category of soldiers fought on light, two-wheeled chariots drawn by two or three horses, each chariot carrying three to four men: a driver, one or two bowmen and two shield-bearers. Male and female servants, as well as wagons loaded with supplies and baggage followed the Army in campaign. Rivers were crossed either in ordinary boats or in reed-boats sealed with bitumen (the qûfa of the Arabs, still in use on the Upper Tigris), or on inflated goatskins.

One of the major assets of the Assyrian Army was its equipment in efficient siege-weapons. Many towns, particularly in Armenia and Syria, were strongly fortified, and to capture them was no mean task. But the Army included an important corps of engineers who filled in the moats, threw earthworks against the ramparts and dug tunnels, while the assailants shot arrows from fixed or mobile towers, battered weak points, doors or walls with enormous rams and progressed under cover of large shields. The besieged enemy tried to resist by hurling oil fire and torches on the war engines or by entwining the rams with chains. The final assault was made through breaches or from ladders. Once the town had been taken and looted and its inhabitants massacred or captured, it was either set on fire, dismantled and razed, or fortified anew, depending on its strategic interest.

War being an object of immense pride to the Assyrian monarchs, the official sculptors have depicted it in all its multiple aspects and with a profusion of detail. Scores of reliefs, obviously intended to illustrate the written descriptions that ran endlessly on orthostats, on steles, on monoliths, on mountain rocks and around statues, represent soldiers parading, fighting, killing, plundering, pulling down city-walls and escorting prisoners. In this series of pictorial war-records without equivalent in any country, among this almost monotonous display of horrors must be set apart some reliefs which have no parallel in the inscriptions and show soldiers at rest in their camps and under their tents, grooming horses, slaughtering cattle, cooking food, eating, drinking, playing games and dancing. These little scenes teeming with life give the tragedy of war a refreshing human touch. Through the ruthless killer of yore emerges a familiar and congenial figure: the humble, simple, light-hearted, ‘rank-and-file’ of all armies, past, present and future.

Assyrian Arts

The Assyrian Army has vanished long ago, routed and destroyed in the great disaster of the years 614 – 609 B.C., but the monuments of Assyrian art have mercifully survived, no less impressive by their quality than by their number.

Ever since the colossi of stone ‘whose icy eyes had contemplated Nineveh’ reached Europe for the first time, over a hundred years ago, the words ‘Assyrian arts’ have been suggestive of sculpture and particularly of reliefs. Sculpture in the round is poorly represented on the banks of the Tigris during the first millennium B.C. For some unknown reason, the capital cities of Assyria have yielded very few statues, and the best ones – such as the statue of Ashurnasirpal in the British Museum – are conventional, lifeless and inferior in many respects to the works of the great Neo-Sumerian masters. Reliefs, on the contrary, are always interesting, often attain to real beauty and undoubtedly represent ‘the greatest and most original achievement of the Assyrians’.28

The technique of relief is almost as old as Mesopotamia itself, but it was for a long time confined to steles set up in temples. It found its first expression in the ‘hunting stele’ of Warka (Uruk or Jemdat Nasr period) and was carried on through such masterpieces as the ‘Stele of the Vultures’ of Eannatum and the ‘Stele of Victory’ of Narâm-Sin down to the Kassite and Middle Babylonian kudurrus. The Assyrians followed the tradition with a few religious subjects (e.g., the god Ashur as vegetation-god in the Berlin Museum),29 but soon broke away from it to concentrate on representations of the king. The imperial steles, usually erected in conquered countries to commemorate Assyrian victories, are at best honest works of art, more remarkable perhaps for their historical value than for the quality of their execution. Reliefs carved on slabs, on the other hand, are probably of foreign origin. The idea of applying sculpture to the decoration of architectural elements seems to have originated in Anatolia among the Hittites, who, as early as the second millennium B.C., adorned the walls of their palaces with ‘orthostats’. In the hills of their own country the Assyrians found in abundance a calcareous rock, rather porous and brittle but sufficient for most purposes, or they imported better materials from abroad. They had unlimited labour to quarry and transport the blocks, excellent artists to draw the subjects, skilful artisans to handle the chisel. They adopted the Hittite invention and raised it to an extraordinary degree of perfection. The colossal, yet lively winged bull-men and lion-men who guarded the gates of their palaces and seemed to emerge from them are treated with a harmonious sobriety in their masses and a wealth of precision in their detail which are probably unique. The slabs carved in low relief, which lined rooms and corridors and were made to be looked at more closely, are striking for the perfect balance of their composition, the sharpness of observation they reveal – especially where animals are concerned – and the sense of movement which pervades them. This is really ‘grand art’, superior to all that the world had already produced in this domain and second only to the sculpture of classical Greece.

While it is impossible for us to give here even a brief analysis of Assyrian reliefs, we would like to underline a peculiarity of this form of art which sets it apart from similar productions of the ancient Near East. All the monuments of Mesopotamia had hitherto possessed a religious significance and revolved, in one way or other, around the gods. In Assyrian sculpture, however, the central subject is usually the king – not a king supernatural in heroism and in size as the god-king of Egyptian reliefs, but a human, albeit dominating and exceedingly valorous, monarch. Moreover, while the king is portrayed parading, hunting, resting, receiving homage or tribute, or leading his armies in war, he is practically never shown performing his priestly functions. Genii, demi-gods, heroes are also represented, but the gods are conspicuously absent – except on rock sculptures – or reduced to their symbols: a spear stuck in an altar or a winged disc in the sky. Since kingship in Assyria was just as immersed in religion as in Sumer and Babylonia, there is only one possible explanation: the sculptured slabs which adorned the royal palaces were a form of political propaganda; narrative as much as decorative, they were intended not to please or placate the gods, but to inspire respect, admiration and fear in the human race. From a general point of view, the work of the Assyrian sculptors appears as one of the first attempts ever made to ‘humanize’ the arts and to deprive them of magical or religious meaning inherited from prehistoric ages.

It had been known for a long time that some statues and reliefs were painted. On the other hand, brightly coloured glazed bricks bearing ornamental or pictorial motifs were used in temples and palaces forming, as it were, a transition between reliefs and frescoes.30 On the basis of recent excavations we may now assume that mural paintings adorned the walls of most, if not all, official buildings and of many private residences. Because the paint was laid on fragile plaster, it has generally disappeared, but at Khorsabad, Nimrud and Tell Ahmar (Til-Barsip) large fragments have been copied in situ or removed to museums. Mural paintings, like reliefs, had deep roots in the country and, at least in Assyria, favoured profane subjects. These varied according to the size and function of the room. They ranged from simple friezes of geometrical designs to elaborate panels covering the greater part of the walls and combining floral motifs, animals, scenes of war and hunting scenes and royal effigies, arranged in horizontal bands. From the examples recovered Assyrian painting appears as being by no means inferior to Assyrian sculpture, and the frescoes of Tell Ahmar,31 display a great freedom of expression as well as high qualities of craftsmanship.

The Assyrians were expert – or perhaps we should say employed experts – in metal work, and they have left us some very fine pieces of bronze, gold and silver plates, vessels and ornaments of various kinds. Their female slaves, working in royal factories, wove carpets of elaborate design and embroidered with fairy hands, as can be seen from the robes worn by the kings and their courtiers and reproduced in stone in the most minute detail.32 Their stone-cutters, contrary to their sculptors, preferred the traditional religious and mythological motifs to profane subjects, and the Neo-Assyrian cylinder-seals, engraved with extreme skill and care, exhibit a cold though often fascinating beauty. But among the so-called ‘minor arts’, a place of honour must be given to the ivories found in Assyria.

Known in Mesopotamia in Early Dynastic times, ivory-work fell into disuse, to reappear in the middle of the second millennium in countries under Egyptian influence: Palestine (Lachish, Megiddo) and the Mediterranean coast (Ugarit). The prosperity of the Phoenician cities, of the Israelite kingdom and of the Aramaean states of Syria, and their intensive commercial relations with Egypt (which supplied the raw material) account for the extraordinary development of this form of art not only in Syria-Palestine (Samaria, Hama) but also in Assyria, Iran (Ziwiyeh) and Armenia (Toprak Kale) at the beginning of the first millennium B.C. There is no doubt that the majority of the ivories discovered at Assur, Khorsabad, Arslan Tash (Hadâtu) and particularly at Nimrud – the richest site of all33 – had been received as tribute or taken as booty from the western districts of the empire. But a number of pieces, which are purely Assyrian in style and inspiration, must have been made in Assyrian workshops, though it is difficult to decide whether they were executed by foreign Syro-Phoenician artists or by the Mesopotamians themselves. Applied to the decoration of chairs, thrones, beds, screens and doors, or shaped into boxes, bowls, vases, spoons, pins, combs and handles, ivory was worked in many different ways: engraved, sculptured in relief, in the round or in open-work, inlaid with semi-precious stones, plain, painted or gold-plated. Not less remarkable was the variety of the subjects treated. Beside the purely Egyptian motifs, such as the birth of Horus or the goddess Hathor, there are ‘women at the window’, cows, deer and griffins which are more specifically Phoenician in style, and animals fighting together, heroes struggling with wild beasts, nude women or goddesses, hunting scenes and processions which are regarded by the experts as partly Syrian and partly Mesopotamian. These subjects, it is worth noticing, are emphatically peaceful. A few pieces portray the stiff figure of ‘the mighty King of Assur’ alone or accompanied by his soldiers, but those smiling women – the admirable ‘Mona Lisa’ from Nimrud, for instance – those gay musicians and dancers, those calm, enigmatic sphinxes, those cows suckling their calves, and in a graceful, loving movement turning their heads to lick them, are pleasantly relaxing. Whether they were made in Assyria or not, the ivories throw a new light on the mentality of their owners. They bear witness that the Assyrians were sensitive to charm and delicacy, just as their libraries testify to their taste for erudition.

If you find an error please notify us in the comments. Thank you!