Vignettes from history: The Assyrian Empire

I do not know when I picked up the title of the “Obscure Reference Man” or whether it is justified or not. It is not my fault that I have a very catholic (the word used here as an adjective, not a noun) taste in reading, allied to a memory which refuses to give up almost anything it acquires and then I have a slight tendency to tell people at large about some things they should know…. even when most of the time – as they say – they couldn’t care less. This is a most cavalier approach and I fail to understand it.

Take the example of the Assyrians. I remember that my first acquaintance with them was through two books – Weapons and Warfare and Ancient Civilisations – I read in 1980 or so. Both were introductory books for the youth that used to flourish around that time but now have more or less disappeared, given the modern generation’s disinclination to know about things beyond a narrow range of subjects. However, that is their lookout.

The next encounter with them was in James Michener’s The Source – a most admirable book. (This reminds me I have to retrive it from whomever I gave it too). They just do not figure much and are actually mentioned just in passing in the introduction to one of the various epochs that constitute the book. But the splendid names of their kings piqued my interest.

However, it was the recent reading of a most oustanding travel book, Robert D Kaplan’s Eastwards to Tartary, where the authors mulls on them while visiting the site of what was once their empire and how they utterly disappeared from history that caught my interest again. It was the latter part that I found of the main interest but let me come to it in order.

Let me acquaint you with the Assyrians first…….

Assyria was a kingdom centered on the Upper Tigris river, in Mesopotamia (Iraq), that came to rule regional empires a number of times through history. It was named for its original capital, the ancient city of Assur  ( Aššūrāyu in its own language Akkadian…. and in others,   أشور Aššûr (Arabic), אַשּׁוּר Aššûr (Hebrew),ܐܫܘܪ Ašur (Aramaic…. which replaced Akkadian afterwards) 

The empire passed through three phases…. During the Old Assyrian period (20th to 15th centuries BCE), Assur controlled much of Upper Mesopotamia and parts of Asia Minor. In the Middle Assyrian period (15th to 10th centuries BCE), its influence waned and was subsequently regained in a series of conquests. The Neo-Assyrian Empire of the Early Iron Age (911 – 612 BCE) expanded further, and under Ashurbanipal  (r. 668 – 627 BCE… note this name well for we shall return to it) for a few decades controlled all of the Fertile Crescent, as well as Egypt, before succumbing to Neo-Babylonian and Medians. (Both these were in turn conquered by the Persian Empire….but lets not get ahead of the narrative).

Little is positively known of the early history of the kingdom. According to some traditions, the city of Ashur (also spelled Assur or Aššur) was founded by Ashur the son of Shem, deified by later generations as the city’s patron god. Shem (Hebrew: שם or Shem,  Greek: Σημ or Sēm; Arabic: سام Sām) was one of the sons of the patriarch/prophet Noah – the one who built the ark. He is most popularly regarded as the eldest son, though some traditions regard him as the second son.

 The first inscriptions of Assyrian rulers appear after 2000 BC. The foundation of the Assyrian monarchy was traditionally ascribed to Zulilu, who is said to have lived after Bel-kap-kapu (Bel-kapkapi or Belkabi, ca. 1900 BC), the ancestor of Shalmaneser I.

I’ll stop it here for today…. But I assure you it is going to get more interesting from now on.

To be continued…..


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