They Call it Civilization

An interesting article about the Assyrians appeared in last week’s Guardian, On Art blog. The piece by Jonathan Jones, describes a piece of ancient Assyrian art on auction that the British Museum is not interested in buying. Having toured the Assyrian galleries a time or two, more’s the pity, but Jones puckishly suggests that the museum may be afraid of the curse inscribed on the piece. We all know of the story of ancient artifacts that come with value-added supernatural attributes—it’s a standard staple of Hollywood horror. Jones knows, however, that the museum isn’t really afraid of a curse, but he does display an interesting attitude toward the Assyrians. You see, the Assyrians were conquerors. They knew how to intimidate potential enemies long before their armies ever set out on the move. The imagery displays powerful men, ripped and ready, killing lions in hand-to-claw combat. Jones rightly points out that some of this is disturbing. What strikes me as interesting is a probably unintended subtext.


“Assyrian art is certainly awe-inspiring – but perhaps not civilised,” Jones writes. As if civilization necessitates politeness. Perhaps it should, but civilization began in the very region south of ancient Assyria, among the Sumerians who were a culture emulated by later Mesopotamians. There is no doubt that the Mesopotamians gave us many of our beloved Bible stories, in their original, unedited form. They gave us organized religion, writing, and the wheel. Comparing the Assyrians to the Egyptians and Greeks, Jones suggests they were uncivilized. I would beg to differ. The Egyptians and Greeks could also be quite violent. The Assyrian aesthetic was a bit different, to be sure, but there is a raw beauty to it. And I have to wonder why, from our western perspective, what comes out of Iraq seems to hint at something insidious or sinister.

I’ve always been a fan of the Mesopotamians. Since a Ph.D. program only lasts so long (for those of us perpetually struggling to make ends meet), I did not have time to indulge my Assyriological fantasies once I learned of them. I was deep into Ugarit, and although I loved the tales of Asherah and Baal, there was something more ancient, more powerful, lying to the east. I often thought that if I could’ve had more time, my interests would’ve definitely drifted toward the progenitors of civilization. Yes, some of the art-work is deeply troubling, but the Assyrians, indeed, the Babylonians and Sumerians, looked at the world from the viewpoint of cultural creators. Civilization involves violence, no matter how we try to hide it. When I stand in London, taking in those Assyrian reliefs I see an honesty that is carefully hidden by the Egyptians and Greeks. And I think I prefer to know the truth of the situation, curse or not.

Divine Checkmate

The first time I met Jehu I did not recognize him. When I first visited the British Museum a couple of decades ago I hadn’t had the benefit of teaching students long enough to realize the importance of the Black Obelisk of Shalmaneser III. But then, who really does? The obelisk, one of many artifacts essential to understanding the Bible in its context, contains the only known image of an Israelite king from a contemporaneous period. Jehu is here mistakenly considered the “son of Omri,” but is correctly identified as the king of Israel. He is bowing in tribute to a foreign king, a position in which no monarch likes to find himself. Before leaving the British Museum this time around I made sure to include him on my list of ancient people to meet.

The Bible contains far less history than we are accustomed to think, so when we find a case of convergence where Assyrian and Israelite agree, mostly, it is worth pausing to consider. Assyrian interests can only in the most abstruse way be considered religious; ancient peoples lived in a world where gods were both ubiquitous and largely irrelevant to daily life. Irrelevant in the sense that probably most people only tried to access a god’s pity when a time of trouble arose—priests existed to keep the deities happy on a daily basis. Citizens supported this system with taxes. How reluctantly we can only guess.

We have no reason to suppose that Israelites were more religious than the rest. Eventually, after the Assyrian and Babylonian conquests, they came to see their religion in terms of monotheism. Still, the work of keeping Yahweh happy devolved on the priests, with the backing of the king. The king was God’s representative on earth. In this sense the only surviving image of a king of Israel, showing him bowed before the unflinching might of the Assyrians, becomes an unexpected paradigm. Both kings were pawns of the gods, and at the end of the day one stands regally and the other bows in utter submission.

Assyrian Dreamers

And the widows of Ashur are loud in their wail,
And the idols are broke in the temple of Baal;
And the might of the Gentile, unsmote by the sword,
Hath melted like snow in the glance of the Lord!

These lines from Lord Byron’s “The Destruction of Sennacherib” were recently quoted to me by one of my relatives who houses a tremendous store of memorized poetry. The poem is Byron’s vision of the siege of Jerusalem, a historical event that is now well understood because the actual annals of Sennacherib were discovered in 1830. The Akkadian version of Hezekiah’s revolt and the subsequent siege of Jerusalem in 701 BCE match the statement in 2 Kings 18 that declares Hezekiah bought off Sennacherib, thus sparing his kingdom. The biblical version then goes on to add the event eulogized by Lord Byron that an angel was sent after a prophecy of Isaiah and the Assyrian army fell decimated outside Jerusalem. The latter event is not historically accurate, but it is much more poetic. Who would write a poem about a king paying off his enemies?

Annals of Sennacherib

The Bible is comfortable with conflicting accounts of events, sometimes laying them side-by-side without comment, supposing that the reader is bright enough to see the obvious contradictions and draw the relevant conclusions. With the birth of Christian Fundamentalism in the 1920s, however, the myth of biblical inerrancy was born. In a world rendered in shades of gray, a distinct comfort lies in having answers in black and white. The Bible, considered the exact (if sometimes dodgy) words of God himself, could not be other than one hundred percent historically accurate. This version of history distorts what actually happened to what must have happened.

Lord Byron, notorious sinner that he was, seems to have been closer to the biblical spirit when he penned his famous poem. Glorying in the bravado of a warrior God who lays waste an entire army without lifting a sword or spear is fanciful, if breath-taking, poetic license.

For the Angel of Death spread his wings on the blast,
And breathed in the face of the foe as he pass’d,
And the eyes of the sleepers wax’d deadly and chill,
And their hearts but once heaved, and for ever grew still!

bears a grandeur lacking in “Hezekiah gave him all the silver which was found in the house of the LORD, and in the treasuries of the king’s house. At that time Hezekiah cut off the gold from the doors of the temple of the LORD, and from the doorposts which Hezekiah king of Judah had overlaid, and gave it to the king of Assyria.”

Assyrian Dreams

All through my formal education I had learned about the Assyrians. My first introduction to them was as the evil empire that destroyed the chosen nation of Israel, inspiring countless myths of the ten lost tribes. Upon further study they appeared in a more positive light — they were one of the great, formative Mesopotamian peoples who had gone through considerable trouble inventing much of our culture for us. They also had a penchant for over-running smaller and weaker nations, but then, everyone has their foibles. When I saw their striking bas-reliefs in the Boston Museum of Fine Arts, and later in the British Museum, I was deeply impressed by their ability to project hostility. Bulging biceps, braided beards, dreadlocks and attitude enough to be the envy of any gangsta, these guys could subdue you with just a solemn nod in your direction.

A good day for Assurbanipal, not so good for the lion.

A good day for Assurbanipal, not so good for the lion.

But the Assyrians over-extended themselves. Conquering further and further from the homeland, they couldn’t keep a stony eye from Egypt and Anatolia all the way to Persia. Media (not the paparazzi) eventually tumbled Nineveh and Babylonia stepped in to take on the burden of predominant empire. The United States hadn’t been invented yet, so somebody else had to dominate the Middle East. With the influx of Arameans and the machinations of the Persians, Mesopotamian culture became a cherubic mix of peoples. Assyria ceased to exist as a separate nation, and once the Arabian tribes launched into the region, all genetic bets were off. Racial purity was a dream of the past. So the Assyrians dissipated, joining their neighbors in a happy, amorphous Mesopotamian culture.

In Shamash we trust.

In Shamash we trust.

Then, after procuring a doctorate in Ancient Near Eastern studies, I took a job at Gorgias Press. Suddenly the Assyrians were back! That was one on the other end of the telephone! Visions of dreadlocks and skewered lions came to mind, and in my confusion I asked my colleagues if I’d slept through that lecture. No, it turns out, the Chaldo-Assyrians are a relatively new incarnation. Named Assyrians by nineteenth-century European missionaries, this predominantly Christian people has adopted and tried to assimilate the heritage of the ancient Assyrians. They still exist today, I’m told. Instead of swords and lion hunts, they wear camouflage and hunt with automatic rifles. But their flag hearkens back to their ancient, pre-Christian religion. That flag, their rallying point with high antiquity, bears the emblem of the eight-rayed Assyrian sun. Jesus, meet Shamash. Son versus sun. I guess it is time for me to go back to school again and see if I can get it straight this time.