The politically correct today will be intolerable tomorrow—at its core, progress demands it.
Eckart Frahm joins host Rebecca Burgess to discuss the ancient Middle East and his recent book, Assyria: The Rise and Fall of the World’s First Empire.
Welcome to Liberty Law Talk. This podcast is a production of the online journal, Law & Liberty, and hosted by our staff. Please visit us at lawliberty.org, and thank you for listening.
“When time was young and world in infancy, man did not strive proudly for sovereignty. But each one thought his petty rule was high if of his house he held the monarchy. This was the golden age. But after came the boisterous son of Chus, grandchild to Ham, that mighty hunter, who in his strong toils, both beasts and men, subjected to his spoils. The strong foundation of proud Babel laid Erech, Accad, and Culneh also made. These were his first, all stood in Shinar land. From thence, he went Assyria to command. And mighty Nineveh, he there begun, not finished till he his race had run.”
Those are the opening lines from Anne Bradstreet’s lengthy first of four poems on the earliest great empires called The Four Monarchies. She was no respecter for word economy. Her title runs The Assyrian being the first beginning under Nimrod, 131 years after the flood. A mouthful.
Bradstreet was the first woman to be recognized as an accomplished New World poet. She emigrated to Salem from England in 1630, one of a group of Puritan pilgrims, just as she arguably introduced Assyria to the New World. So today, we’ll be steeped both in novelties and in the ancientness of things, also via Assyria, the world’s first empire, being our main topic of conversation.
And with that, welcome to a new episode of Liberty Law Talk. My name is Rebecca Burgess. I’m a contributing editor for Law & Liberty, a senior fellow at the Yorktown Institute, and a visiting fellow at the Independent Women’s Forum.
Joining me today is Eckart Frahm, a professor of Ancient Near Eastern Languages and Civilizations at Yale University. Previously, Frahm was a research assistant and assistant professor of Assyriology at Heidelberg. He has also worked on cuneiform tablets in the British Museum in London and in the Iraq Museum of Baghdad, among many other museums and other collections. Professor Frahm, so many welcomes. It’s truly splendid to have you join us today.
Yeah, thank you very much for having me. It’s a pleasure and an honor.
This spring you released a new book, Assyria: The Rise and Fall of the World’s First Empire published by Basic Books. In an instance, I think of the Amazon algorithms getting things right. I chanced upon your book because, for my own research on empire, I’d been ordering probably a library’s worth of books on Persia, Greece, and Rome. Also on Egypt by German Egyptologist, Jan Assmann. And thankfully or coincidentally, you begin your account of the rise and fall of Assyria with a very dramatic story of a bloody encounter between Assyria and Egypt during the reign of Esarhaddon that results in the capture of the Egyptian crown prince, much of the royal harem, and with enormous amounts of booty being taken back to Nineveh, then Assyria’s capital on the Tigris River in Northeastern Iraq.
Before me, cities, behind me, ruins is the inscription that encapsulates this classic imperialist behavior, rather reminds me of the Front Toward the Enemy warning on Claymore mines. But from that story, you weave a very richly textured account of Assyria as the world’s first empire whose legacy in fact is the idea and form of empire, however protean you reveal that form historically to be. And it seems to me that in putting archeological artifacts, cuneiform text, and historical scholarship in conversation with Persian, Greek, Roman, and importantly biblical texts and attitudes, you set out to do at least three things with your book. Feel free to tell me where I’m wrong later.
The first is to brush away the cobwebs of history from the picture of who and what Assyria was. The second to create an audience for the centuries-long silent voices of Assyrians themselves, who we can now hear in their own words. I thought that was a very lovely image that you opened with of these long silent voices suddenly being able to speak again. And third, to reveal precisely that Assyrian legacy to the world of empire and the surprising modernity, if you will, of what’s been called the first half test of the history and the relevance of that age to our own pandemic, great power competition age.
As you weave in so much of this cultural history, I hope our conversation can touch on, not just the politics, but the deep cultural echoes that have concealed as much as revealed Assyria throughout history, from Herodotus to Shakespeare, Rossini, and Lord Byron, to perhaps the particular staging of Adolf Hitler’s suicide with his wife and dog. And to Saddam’s very kitschy, anonymously published 2000 romance novels inspired by Assyrian warriors and queens. And with that, the almost beginning. What is the surprising anti-imperial origin story of Assyria as you put it?
Yeah. When you hear of Assyria and you know a little bit about it, then you usually think of Assyria as this great imperial power, this militaristic, geopolitical entity, and that is what it will eventually become. But it is indeed quite remarkable that initially, Assyria is almost the opposite of an imperial state. In fact, there is no Assyria at the very beginning. Assyrian identity starts off at the little sort of town on the Tigris, some 60 miles or so south of the modern city of Mosul, the city of Ashur from which Assyria of course eventually gets its name. This is also the name of the Assyrian state god worshiped there. And it really is just a small place initially in the third millennium, largely dominated by southern powers. Remember we are here in Ancient Mesopotamia where writing, and cities, and all these things were for the first time invented in a way.
But this happened primarily in the south, in Southern Iraq, in places such as Uruk, or Ur, and so on. And during much of the third millennium, the city of Ashur was probably largely dominated by those southern powers. Actually, we don’t have particularly good evidence for this time. But when for the first time sources allow us to reconstruct life at Ashur, and Ashur, so to speak, really enters the stage of history. It is a small city that doesn’t receive its wealth from war, but instead from trade, from long-distance trade. So this is something quite striking. While in the south, a number of city-states and territorial states seem to be engaged in almost perpetual warfare with each other, Ashur stays away from the fray. And instead, merchants from the city of Ashur engaged in long-distance trade, mostly trading tin from the East, and textiles from the South, and also made in Ashur itself by women from the city trading this for silver in Anatolia.
We have a lot of evidence for that from a place named Kanesh in Central Anatolia, some 24,000 clay tablets. This is the type of document on which much of the reconstruction of Assyrian history actually rests. They are almost indestructible. Fortunately, these people didn’t write on paper, papyrus, or parchment, which wouldn’t have been preserved, but on clay. So we have these texts on there. And what these texts reveal about the city of Ashur is interesting that at this time, this is a city not ruled by powerful kings, but rather one which has something kind of akin to a mixed constitution in the way Polybius has described it for Ancient Rome that is, you do have a kind of dynasty of hereditary rulers. But rulers isn’t even the right word. And these people weren’t allowed to be called kings, and their power was very much restricted.
So they were allowed to put their names on texts, temples, and things like that. But there wasn’t even a palace. They didn’t even live in a palace. There wasn’t a royal court or anything. And they shared the little power they had with two additional institutions. One was the city assembly, kind of a popular assembly of free male citizens. So of course, Ashur too included women and slaves. Probably not that many slaves, but still there were slaves, who were not part of this. But nonetheless, I mean, an almost democratic institution that would, for instance, deal with legal matters. And there was also the institution of the so-called Limmu, as it is called in Assyria and it’s often translated as Eponym. On one hand, this was the individual after whom individual years were named.
And that indicates that this Limmu was in office only for one single year. He was selected by lot, probably from the leading families of Ashur, certain aristocratic dimension to it. This idea of choosing politicians througha lot has actually just saying that in the sidelines received some interest by modern political scientists who are not particularly enchanted with the quality of the political class these days, and believe that we too might profit from such a process. Anyway, they do this. So they have these eponyms in place who are in charge of the city hall, where taxes are determined, rates and measures, and things like that. So these two institutions compete with the institution of the ruler, was not called a king. So it’s actually altogether a political situation that seems really remarkably modern in many regards.
It seems more accurate then to say that Ashur was a city-state, and one that predated Greece. So perhaps Herodotus is not quite correct or needs a correction, an outside correction when he, in his account, rather binary account of Greece where everything is liberal, and free, and the barbarian other, which is very intriguing. But also on that note, I was struck by your invocation or your quote of an inscription from a stela that was erected near the Step Gate, a structure in Ashur where justice was administered, precisely about this question of justice and royal rule.
So the quote is, “May justice prevail in my city. Ashur is king. Erishum is Ashur’s steward. Ashur is a swamp that cannot be traversed, ground that cannot be trodden upon, canals that cannot be crossed. He who tells a lie on the Step Gate, the demon of the ruins will smash his head like a pot that breaks.” It’s very direct and very dramatic. But there seems to be a direct linkage of the divine royal power and justice and even nature, the physical world of nature. So you touched on this a little bit. What can be pieced together of the dominant understanding of justice in relation to the ordering of society at Ashur, and everything from the religious cult of Ashur to the lack of palaces that you mentioned?
Yeah. I mean, this being a Law & Liberty podcast, it’s of course absolutely right for you to ask the question about law and legal practices. And yes, you’re right. There’s this text that talks about law being administered at the so-called Step Gate, which is near a place where later the ziggurat, the temple tower would be located. At this time, probably it wasn’t yet there, and where this popular assembly would actually come together and deal with these matters. It was not something that was solely handled by a very small group of elite members, but it was really all these free individuals, apparently. They were in charge of administering law. And it seems, based again on documents from Kanesh, as though in this location near the Step Gate, there were a number of stelæ inscribed with actual law.
We haven’t found those. So altogether because all these early, well, layers are very deep down. The site of Ashur haven’t really been reached by archeologists. Most of this is known from this other place on Kanesh. But what we learned there is that those stelæ included laws such as, for instance, that no one, no merchant in Ashur was supposed, on punishment of death actually, to sell gold to anyone from Babylonia or from the Hurrians, who lived around the city of Ashur. So this sort of economic protectionism in place, and gold was apparently considered primarily a medium for storing wealth rather than for exchange. Exchange was actually handled through silver. So silver was the money of the ancient that he is including. The money in this earlier Assyrian history. So this is just one example of those laws inscribed on those stelæ.
Now, the people of Ashur were not the first to have the written law. Written law is actually an invention from Ancient Mesopotamia, and it started not that much earlier. So these laws would be from the 13th century, perhaps BCE. The earliest written law that we actually have documented is from Southern Mesopotamia, from the reign of a king by the name of Ur-Nammu, whose law code, the Ur-Nammu Law Code is from roughly 2090 or so. And we see already with that law code, and then later with famous law codes, such as the Laws of Hammurabi, which are the most well-known laws from Ancient Mesopotamia, that these laws often have some monumental dimension. So the Hammurabi Laws, some of your listeners may know that they are primarily known from a large stele with an image of Hammurabi receiving insignias of power from the Sun God, a stele that is now in the Louvre in Paris. And there are some 300 laws inscribed on it.
So what the people of Ashur have in place with this law is nothing that they invented where they came up from it first, but they too participate in this legal discourse. And this law is guaranteed in a way. This is what this inscription that you mentioned shows. It’s guaranteed and execution is supervised, well, by the God Ashur. And this inscription says something else, namely that Ashur is the actual king. I mentioned that the hereditary rulers of Ashur were not allowed to use the title king. That title of king is reserved for the God Ashur. So with that, in addition to these earthly dimensions of governance in Ashur, you also have a divine dimension. There’s an almost theocratic element to it. And to a certain extent, we might be able to talk about it a little later. This conception of Ashur being the actual king of Assyria remains in place.
You also quoted these strange statements about him being a swamp that cannot be traversed. So in very nature, that’s very unusual for Mesopotamia. In Mesopotamia, otherwise, the gods have anthropomorphic dimensions. They behave and look like human beings. They participate in all sorts of events, and wars, and have families. Ashur does not really. Eventually, he gets these things from other gods, but he’s very malleable. He’s in a way a god without qualities almost. I mean, that’s actually quite convenient as Ashur undergoes some major transformations over time. The god too undergoes these transformations and becomes a more warrior-like deity. Initially, it isn’t that at all. But when Ashur becomes a more belligerent state, then the God Ashur too assumes the qualities of a warrior god, and so on.
Well, speaking of those transformations and that gravitation towards more belligerence. So there’s around the 14th century BCE, which you identify as the proper birth of Assyria. You note how Assyria kind of abandons its more peaceful mercantile ways and embraces policy of military expansion. What transformations are occurring internally in Assyrian political and social institutions that are prompting this? And who are those peoples and kingdoms that Assyria is now seeking to dominate?
Yeah, the big difference really is that now in the 14th century, you suddenly actually do have a king, and I would say, of Assyria, because this is now actually becoming a territorial state. But first and foremost, there is now a king. There’s an individual who bears that title, which in Assyrian, Babylonian as well is Shahu. And the first for whom this title is attested is a king by the name of Ashur-uballit, who was probably instrumental in the transformation Assyria undergoes during this time. Unfortunately, this happens in the wake of, well, a kind of dark age. Dark, primarily because we do not have too many sources. And so, it’s actually somewhat difficult to establish exactly what prompts this very significant change that takes place. But we do see the outcome. And the outcome is that there is now this king. We actually have fragments of a coronation ritual from a little later, but probably already in place, at least in similar form in the 14th century.
And in this coronation ritual, you still have this notion of theocracy. There still is the priest shouting to everyone during the coronation of the king, “Ashur is king. Ashur is king.” Twice, actually. So there’s this notion that Ashur remains king. But then, there is also now a kind of earthly counterpart. And that is, well, the king of Ashur at this point. I mean, this Ashur is king is reminiscent of medieval coronation chants such as, “Christus vincit! Christus regnat! Christus imperat!” Christ is victorious, he rules, he governs. But there too, of course, it’s in the context of a king being put into office. And that’s the case here as well. And the god through the priest then asks the king of Assyria to expand his land. So Rapesh Matka is the Assyrian. So there is a divine command to the Assyrian king in this coronation ritual to expand the territory of Assyria.
So a kind of proto-imperial mission is expressed here for the first time. And that is what these kings from this period onwards actually do. Very much in contrast to the so-called Old Assyrian period about which I’ve talked before. They now go on campaign almost on an annual basis. And the King, sort of starting in the 14th century, expanded primarily first into the North and the East, so that cities, such as Nineveh and Arbela, which later on would become emblematic urban centers of Assyria, were included in this territory state. This is kind of the core area of Assyria. It’s marked by this triangle of cities with Ashur in the south. Nineveh, opposite of the modern city of Mosul in the north. And in the east, the city of Arbela, which is modern Erbil in Eastern Iraq. But then, they also expanded to the West. So towards the Levant, especially towards a region known as the Khabur Triangle, a very fertile area and a tributary of the Euphrates River, where they sort of create a second center of power, thereby really becoming, I mean, one of the major players, political players of this time.
And they also became interested in the South. They engaged in numerous wars with the Babylonians. This is another sort of light motif of Assyrian history, this preoccupation with Southern Babylonia. The Assyrians acknowledged they received a lot of their culture and their religion from there. The relationships are very much like that between Rome and Greece in this, and also in other ways. But they also want to kind of politically dominate Babylonians. The Babylonians are not too keen on that. So there’s the beginning during this period of a constant set of conflicts that are very charged because of the emotional nature of the relationship between these two places. So all these things essentially happen now and remain major features of Assyrian foreign politics for centuries to come.
And it seems like as Assyria is barreling towards empire, one of these classic problems shows up, which is suddenly you have military leaders and heroes who can take away from the authority and rule of the king. So how does Assyria, one, how do they keep their military commanders and heroes in check? And how do they keep informed about the security threats on their perimeter? What kind of storylines should we be having in mind as we’re seeing the king seemingly lose some power in regards to some powerful court officials as they’re on the brink of empire?
Yeah. We see that, for the first time, this conflict between the king as the absolute ruler and someone competing with him for power. Well, you see it for the first time essentially sort of in the 13th century and the 12th centuries BCE. When a viceroy, that’s his official title, was implemented as the Assyrian representative of Assyrian power in this Khabur area, began to try to gain his independence.
So this western part of the kingdom, I wouldn’t call it an empire yet, and the eastern one. The eastern one is the core one. That’s where the actual King has his residence still in the city of Ashur at this time. But during this time for the first time, you actually see how in the West, this viceroy is trying to gain more power. There are conflicts. So rush through the history now, because it’s impossible to really talk about all the details here.
What happened around 1100 or so is, and especially around 1000, is that Assyria underwent a major crisis like all the states in the Levant and in the Middle East at that time. It’s often linked to the famous Sea Peoples who, well, invaded Egypt around 1177 BCE. Their arrival was probably prompted by factors such as climate change that led to further migrations. At any rate, Egypt is under pressure. Large states such as the Hittite Kingdom disappear entirely, being destroyed in the wake of attacks by marauding migrants it seems, and the details aren’t entirely clear. And it takes a little while until this chaos reaches Mesopotamia, which is located further east, including Assyria, but it does reach Assyria. And so, around 1000, Assyria is really limited to its core areas.
But unlike most other politics in the area, the Assyrian dynasty, most importantly so, stayed on. So there’s never an interruption in the dynastic line. Actually, the dynastic line remained in place uninterrupted under the late 7th century. So for about 1000 years, which is really quite remarkable. And that means that when the dust settles… In Assyria, especially the Arameans who attacked, well, the various Assyrian cities and so on. When those Arameans begin to settle and when it seems precipitation increases again, and therefore, the agrarian output becomes again more abundant, the Assyrians are the first to profit. And it is then in the 9th century BCE under kings such as Ashurnasirpal II who moved the political capital to a new place, the city of Kalhu, its central Assyria, and his son, Shalmanesar III, that the Assyrians first regained their former territories.
And then, under Shalmanesar even moved beyond. So for the first time now they really also campaigned on the Eastern Mediterranean coast. They go find Anatolia and so on. But they do not yet annex any of these places. And what happens in the wake of Shalmanesar’s reign is that a number of nobles, so-called magnates, the great ones in Assyrian provincial governors, and especially military officers who have control over armies in border areas again begin to seize power at the expense of the crown. Now, many of these people at this point seem to have been eunuchs. And that, of course, is for a reason because the kings want to avoid exactly a scenario where those guys start to create dynasties of their own. And that has essentially been successful it seems. So we have not really any evidence for any of these people really sort of forming family dynasties.
But we do see that for much of the first half of the 8th century, they call the shots. So there are now people, especially this general by the name of Shamshi-ilu, who is all over the place and who has inscriptions written in his own name rather than that of the king, who usually before had a kind of monopoly on this kind of memorialization. And so, we see these people really gain a lot of power. This discussion within the scholarly community and whether this really should be considered, well, a crisis or whether the agency that these people had might not also actually have contributed to Assyria in the long run actually profiting becoming, especially in economic terms, more powerful. And I think that latter point of view certainly has a certain legitimacy. But there will be a crisis eventually in the mid-8th century.
So that crisis you note, it’s curious what happens instead of Assyria collapsing in on itself. In fact, it embarks on a hundred-plus years of imperial dominance. So Assyria is now an empire. How does it remain so successful?
Yeah. If I may perhaps just say a few words on this crisis, because it is indeed very surprising that after the crisis, Assyria suddenly gained this enormous power. And because this is actually one of the new points in my book, and also perhaps resonates with our own time. I would like to just say this, between 765 and 745, Assyria undergoes a really difficult time. And I believe one reason for that is a plague. So what we see is that hardly any campaigns are undertaking anymore. The army stays at home. We have a number of sources that tell us that. And there are actually rebellions against the king. That’s two mentioned in the Assyrian sources. And I believe that a major cause of all this was actually epidemics.
Because important chronological texts on Assyria tell us that there were at least two bouts of, well, plague, epidemics ravaging Assyria at this time, so during this period, things really didn’t look very good. And then, suddenly with the year 745 and the rise of a new king by the name of Tiglath-Pileser III, Assyria suddenly expanded massively. By the end of the reign of this King, it ruled over all of the Levant almost, has conquered significant parts of Israel, for example. It has expanded to the East. It rules over Babylonia twice as large as it was before. Tiglath-Pileser also annexed many of these places, that is, he turned them into Assyrian territory, taxed them rather than just extracting tribute.
So this is, in my view, when Assyria becomes an empire. And then, of course, the question is, well, how is that possible considering that before there was this really pretty disastrous crisis? And I would say, well, what we see here is that… I mean, history is not determined by laws. I mean, you can adapt if the challenge is not too big, at least. And here I would say what Tiglath-Pileser does is he adapts, he compensates for the loss in wealth and also in labor. Lots of people probably died. By conquering new places, extracting their wealth, and then also deporting literally hundreds of thousands of people. So the Assyrians are always deporting people from other places, bringing them to new ones where they would serve as a labor force.
But under Tiglath-Pileser, the numbers increased dramatically. And I think he does it in order to make up for the losses that Assyria had suffered before. I also think that probably this epidemic had also affected other places in the area which would have made it easier for Tiglath-Pileser to conquer these places. Also, it’s clear that, of course, the disaster cannot have been that bad, that no troops were there at all anymore. But I think there was a real crisis, and what Tiglath-Pileser does when he kind of invents the idea of empire, creates the first empire, in my view at least. The world’s first empire is that he reacts to the crisis.
So empires are synonymous often with conquests, militaries, and armies. So I’m wondering if we can spend a little time talking about the military. Here, the Assyrian military, how they organized it, and how violent it was, or any Assyrian tactics, or behaviors actually were in their relation to their enemies on the battlefield. We have, of course, through history. And as you point out, it might be a little bit of a blackballing of Assyria in this regard. Maybe they weren’t as violent as they are portrayed.
At the same time though, there are some indications that they could be pretty violent. If I remember right, there may have been some indications of cannibalism, also frequent skinning of enemies, and public display of the flayed flesh. And then, of course, the boast of Sennacherib. And I know I just said that wrong about Babylon, that he had dissolved it in water and annihilated it, just reminds me of course of Rome and the sowing of salt in the fields. Yes, if you could just explain maybe a little bit about the military in this area.
Yeah. I mean, this is a question I think is important and it needs to be addressed when you talk about Assyria. So just a few words about the army. Of course, the army was an extremely important institution in Assyria in the first millennium. Without the army, it wouldn’t have been possible to conquer all these different areas. Well, it included a standing army stationed in the capital under the control of the King. But of course, it would have been impossible to just go out, and with this fairly small army to do what the Assyrians eventually managed to achieve. So there were also army contingents, army units elsewhere, in the provincial capitals. Assyria at this time was organized into provinces. In the end in the 7th century, I think roughly 70 provinces or so. Each of them had a capital with the provincial governor and all those governors also had to entertain army units.
So when a king would go on a campaign, he would gather up those army units as he went along. And the Assyrian vassals, that is kings or formerly independent kings, who were clients of the Assyrian kings, too, had to provide army units. The Assyrians were very open to, including in their troops, specialists from other places. For instance, the Assyrian chariotry was made up, to a significant extent after the conquest of Israel in the late 8th century, by contingents of chariots from Samaria in Israel, so the capital of Israel at that time. And there were other such foreign components of the Assyrian army. Of course, the Assyrian army went on campaign, would often act in violent ways. And the Assyrian kings described this violence with a great deal of detail. What I would say here is though that, first of course, the Assyrian kings are not the only ones.
Somehow though there’s a lot of focus on those Assyrian inscriptions when it comes to descriptions of islands. But for instance, when you look at inscriptions and images from Ancient Egypt from the New Kingdom, you see too how soldiers heap up large amounts of hands and penises of slaughtered enemies before Pharaoh. So Egypt is not just of nice dancing girls depicted on the walls of some tomb. You have violence being very aggressively marketed in a way in Ancient Egypt as well. And of course, violence was also simply used by everyone in the ancient world. I mean, up to today, of course, violence is something that is being implemented by most states at some point. When you compare, let’s say, the behavior of the Assyrians with that of, let’s say, the Romans. My feeling is that the Romans probably were actually more violent. So what’s also important I think is that we might be a little bit misled by those royal inscriptions.
The royal inscriptions focus very much on violence. And it is the question of why they do that. I mean, some have argued, well, deterrence. However, many of these inscriptions were not really accessible to enemies. So my feeling is more like they were set up often. I mean, in Assyrian cities, of course, they were consumed by the Assyrian elites. So one of their main purposes may have been sort of to immunize those who were expected to go to war with respect to using violence so that they wouldn’t be afraid of doing so because this is of course one of the big problems. When you have an army, you must make sure that the army is somewhat willing to engage in killing. We also know, of course, that the Assyrians often preferred diplomatic solutions over violent ones. So if there was a chance to talk an enemy or a rival into submission, they would certainly go for it.
When you look at the situation in Jerusalem, as it is described in the Bible, the attack by Sennacherib, whom you mentioned. Sennacherib is his name. You mentioned in 701 he attacked Jerusalem. And in the Bible, you have a story of how the chief general talks to people there, and says, “Okay, just give up. And okay, we will deport you. But we will do so peacefully and we’ll settle you in some nice place where you have your own fields, and gardens, and everything will be great.” And of course, this is propaganda, but that’s also important to keep in mind. I mentioned the deportations. Of course, deportations are acts of violence. No one wanted to be deported. These were acts of body snatching, but these were not genocidal acts. So what is important, and this is really a big difference, let’s say, from modern states such as Nazi Germany or so. Sometimes the Assyrians are compared to those, and I think that’s problematic.
The Assyrians had no interest in mass killing. The Assyrians wanted a labor force. They wanted people to be able to pay taxes. They also needed anyone, I mean, to be of a certain religion, or ethnicity. So they had no prejudices at all in this regard. They wanted a well-run efficient state. And for that, they needed people, on one hand of course, to be obedient. And so, deportations would make sure that, well, local loyalties would be dissolved. And they wanted these people to be able to do work, mostly in agricultural work, but also construction work, wherever they were needed most. And so, they sent them to these places. So many of the Israelites were deported after 720, the famous biblical story of the 10 lost tribes. I mean, these tribes are not lost.
They actually were settled in different places inside and on the margin of the Assyrian empire, including in Media, and also in construction sites. For instance, in Khorsabad, where Dur-Sharrukin, where this king Sargon build a new capital. And that’s where we find them mentioned. And occasionally we have texts, for instance, about these people from Israel on the Khabur River and Gozana, where they are part of the local community and seem to live quite nicely. So again, I want to idealize it. This is not, I mean, how things should be obviously. But I think it’s important to, not to exaggerate the degree of killing and make clear that, again, it was important for the Assyrians to have actually a large population for the Assyrian kings.
Right. That question of the propaganda of violence or of strength and the relation to the directness of publicizing a violence that they may not have actually done, at least to that extent, in practice. It made me wonder about that because, of course, as you note, you don’t find any of these royal inscriptions where they admit their weaknesses. No king wants to admit their weaknesses. But then, that was an excellent point you made. And I do a lot of work around veterans and militaries in society. Well, that’s one of the questions that always is, how do you enable your soldiers to be able to be effective on the field?
But then, how also can you enable them to come back within society? This question of the social sanctioning of violence in particular areas. And that’s a very interesting point of this also being in play there. So thank you for mentioning that. But another kind of aspect of this question of violence I wanted to ask you about. It seemed as though it was tied maybe to some of the specific Assyrian beliefs about the dead, and some of the practices in relation to the burial of the dead, and their treatment of ancestors. And I was wondering if you could tell us a little bit about that.
Yeah. I don’t know if violence in particular would be linked to it, but I’m very happy to talk briefly about Assyrian beliefs about the netherworld, and perhaps about one particularly exciting case of where the burial did not occur and the consequences for Assyria, but also beyond. So in Assyria, just like in Babylonia and Mesopotamia in general, I would say, beliefs about the netherworld were quite similar to those of the Greeks and the Romans. So unlike in Egypt, the netherworld was considered a place that wasn’t super attractive, where you would drink water rather than wine, and eat bread rather than cake. Of course, there was a very strong belief you needed to be there. What was very, very problematic was if you were not properly buried, and your ghost roamed around anywhere, that would be a threat to anyone left behind living.
And of course, it would also be a very unhappy fate for the dead. So what the Assyrians usually did, was they buried their dead in subterranean vaults. If they had enough money to have a decent house, under their houses. So in places like the city of Ashur, many houses were found with these vaults, basements were essentially skeletons in their closets, where once a month at least the children would go down and make a small sacrifice to their parents or grandparents and ancestors. So this is how this worked. And for Assyrian kings, it worked actually quite similarly. Only that their tombs were apparently much more lavish. None were found undisturbed, but we know where those tombs were located. They were the royal tombs. I mean, were located in Ashur in the so-called Old Palace, where the Assyrian kings continued to have a kind of temporary residence even after the capital, the court had moved to other places. First at Kalhu, and later on actually Dur-Sharrukin and Nineveh.
So the idea was to bury your king there once he dies. But on one occasion, in the year 705, King Sargon II – the one who actually deported those Israelites along with Tiglath-Pileser – Sargon went on a campaign to Anatolia to a land named Tabal from which he would not return because the army was defeated, the king was killed. And what’s worse, the body of the king could not be retrieved. So it disappeared. Somehow it was taken away by the enemy. And that was clearly considered a really problematic issue. And you can sort of see that a whole discourse unfolds among the Assyrian elite about what this all means. If something like that happens, the idea is here then the gods must be displeased. And there’s actually a text from later times in which Sennacherib seeks to establish the nature of the sin that Sargon must have committed, and so that he was killed in this rather terrifying way.
It’s also interesting that Sennacherib then moves away from the newly built capital that Sargon had just created in Dur-Sharrukin, and creates a new capital at Nineveh and great expense of course. So clearly, he doesn’t want to be in the shadow of this king who died under these very problematic circumstances. And we see, for instance, an Assyrian scholar. We have a lot of information on these scholars, intellectuals, and so on, copy the 12th tablet of the famous Gilgamesh Epic on this occasion. And in this 12th tablet, Gilgamesh and Enkidu talk about the fate of those who die. And the text ends with people who die on the battlefield and cannot be buried. So clearly, this is in reaction to all this unhappiness about the death of Sargon. At the same time, you can see in Israel that, of course, where Sargon is remembered, I mean, he has just conquered Israel and he has been aggressively trying to bring Judah, the Southern Kingdom, under certain control as well.
He is not very much beloved. And there in Isaiah, Isaiah 14, we find a kind of mocking that’s related to his king. So their fun is poked at this king who was so haughty, and who climbed up the highest mountains, and was this great man, and was then though brought down, and not even buried. Buried away from his tomb as the text says. And here, I mean, what one can then sort of see is the strange ways, well, sometimes religious ideas develop. There is one line in this text, in this Isaiah text which reads something like, “How have you fallen from heaven? Oh, Day Star, son of the dawn.” I mean, this statement is of course meant here as a metaphor, but later on was taken literally.
Jesus says somewhere in Luke, I think Luke 10 or so that he saw Satan fall from heaven. And the fathers of the church took this up, combined this New Testament passage with the passage in Isaiah 14, and said, “Okay. In Isaiah 14, this is actually a reference, well, to Satan, to the devil.” And this Day Star, son of dawn, was translated into Greek in the Septuagint, the Greek translation of the Hebrew Bible, as he has fallen as light-bringer, and in the Latin version of the Bible as Lucifer. So quite literally, I mean, at least one name of the devil. So here you see how some poor certain king who happens to fall in enemy country, and his body cannot be retrieved, becomes an archetypal model for the devil in the later history of the evolution of this theological idea of absolute evil.
The etymological transliterations, if you will, are absolutely fascinating. And there’s so much. We could do a whole podcast just on the Bible, the Torah, and Assyrian history. You’ve mentioned a little bit of the interactions between the Assyrians, Sennacherib and his father, and both kingdoms of Israel and Judah. And I know we need to kind of move forward because there’s so much to talk about with Sennacherib. I want to talk about his wife and the role of women. But just have to note that how could we not talk about this and mention that famous episode that Lord Byron later dramatized with his spectacular poem with its opening line of, “The Assyrian came down like the wolf on the fold. And his cohorts were gleaming in purple and gold.” It was just so memorable with the destruction of Sennacherib.
And it’s an episode that Herodotus seems to mention in book two where he describes the defeat more in terms of field mice and once again pandemic. So it’s kind of again two things that you have mentioned about these competing narratives of things that are happening. But I’m wondering if we can move towards this question of women and some of these powerful queens. Sennacherib’s wife, Naqia, seems to have been extraordinarily powerful in her day. And she seems to have enjoyed ginormous influence over her husband and actually to have exerted power. And she’s the only one to have left a building inscription in royal style, for instance. What does her story reveal about the role of women in the Assyrian Empire and her possible connections to the unraveling of that empire?
Yeah. So Assyria from the beginning is fundamentally a patriarchal society. So men are the ones who call the shots to a significant extent, but women have a lot of agency as well. And that was already the case in the Old Assyrian period when the city-state of Ashur engaged in this long-distance trade. All these husbands were away, of course, trading on Anatolia, and their wives were sitting at home in Ashur and were managing the household, and were managing the production of the textiles to be sold, dealing with the children, and essentially dealing with everything. So we have lots of letters written by those women, who were quite clearly literate, an important thing to keep in mind. They complain with their husbands about things not being quite right and the way they should be, and make very good suggestions of what should happen. So often enough, we were actually the ones who played an instrumental role in making all these things work.
But you asked about politics. And yes, even though the Assyrian King List is an important document about this Assyrian dynasty that was in office for such a long time, it’s called the King List for a reason because it only includes the names of male rulers. It is very clear that women in various periods played very significant roles. One very famous is a queen named Shammuramat, an Assyrian who was sort of active around 800. She was the mother of King Adad-nirari III, who was probably minor when he became king and went on campaign with or for his son. This is mentioned in the inscription. And later becomes the model for the famous Greek femme fatale, Semiramis, who is a sort of archetypal, oriental female despot, fascinating. I mean, licentious, all of sorts of things. In many regards, a Greek projection of course.
So everything the Greeks thought was wrong in these, but also fascinating because it, of course, put into question weak narratives about male superiority. But the best evidence for this power of women actually does come, as you mentioned, from later times from the reign of Sennacherib and his son, Esarhaddon. Esarhaddon who ruled from 680 to 669 BCE. This is the time when Naqia, his mother, really seems to be an extremely important figure in many, many instances, really making the important decisions. So, she probably is instrumental in Esarhaddon actually becoming king. He is actually a younger son of Sennacherib. Naqia somehow manages to make sure that he succeeds Sennacherib. Naqia has actually received certain prophecies along with her son about Esarhaddon becoming king. And then once he is king, as you mentioned, she writes about herself building a palace for her son.
We also have a number of letters written to her by members of the Assyrian elite. Some are about sort of traditional female activities such as sacrificing to gods and being engaged in the cult. But there is also a very interesting letter by a general from Babylonia—at that time, Assyria ruled over Babylonia, talking about the need to repel the Elamites, so about to take a bridge. And that letter is addressed to Naqia. It is not addressed to Esarhaddon. Why is that? Probably because Esarhaddon seems to have been in very bad health for much of his reign, and he seems also to have been depressed. So he spent days and days in the dark. And his scholars would write him and say, “This is not how well you as a king should act. After all, you are an image of the Sun God. And the Sun God comes out every morning, and you need to do this as well.”
But he doesn’t, and he doesn’t eat, he doesn’t drink. So, this may be one of the reasons why Naqia is so powerful. I personally wonder, and I can’t prove that, whether there might be something else. This is the time when the Assyrians have just, for the first time, really encountered, well, in somewhat major ways, the Arabs. So they have been engaged and traded with the Arabs, but also in battles against Arab tribes. And the Arabs are, well, a problem for Assyria because they are extremely flexible. Of course, they move from one place to another. Their cities, they have a number of cities, are protected by hundreds and hundreds of miles of desert. So it’s very hard to get there.
What is particularly striking is that, during this time, we learned this all from the Assyrian inscriptions and not from any other sources. We learned it from the Assyrian inscriptions. They are ruled by women. So, those Arabs actually have queens rather than kings. They had a few kings, but most of these rulers were actually women. And they are not just playing cultic roles. They are really there when campaigns take place. They’re the ones who call the shots politically. And I can’t prove it, but sometimes, well, an empire doesn’t only sort of influence its periphery—it can also be the other way around. So the periphery influences things in the center. And I wonder whether these encounters with this Arab gynecocracy, this rule of women, may not have encouraged at least attempts by women in Assyria to do this as well.
And Naqia is not the only one. Later on, we have others. Naqia, by the way, then imposes loyalty oaths on all the people in Assyria when she fears after Esarhaddon’s death. She must make sure that Esarhaddon’s own success, Ashurbanipal, is really accepted as the new king. And so, it is Naqia in whose name these oaths of loyalty are to be sworn. So there’s another example of really having a lot of power. Later on, during the reign of Ashurbanipal, a sister of the king is negotiating between Ashurbanipal and the then king of Babylon, a brother of Ashurbanipal who has defected. So she’s sent there to negotiate. There are literary texts about this, which are quite interesting I found in Egypt. So again, a woman charged with a very important diplomatic mission. So clearly, women, especially in the 7th century BCE, did play a big role in Assyrian politics.
That is very fascinating. I’m very glad that you brought up Ashurbanipal. For anyone paying attention living in San Francisco, his statue is in fact right in front of what was the former Main Library in San Francisco. And this brings up a really fraught but interesting and fruitful conversation. And you do spend some time with this, is shows how, in this figure, we see the combination of how beauty and learning can coexist with cruelty and sadism. And how, from our perspective today, we can look at this figure and think, “Oh, look at this wonderful Renaissance man. This king who loved learning and wanted to gather all this knowledge, he’s just like us.” But at the same time, he was a very cruel man. Probably would not want to be our friends. So what is the lesson, if you will, from the figure of Ashurbanipal?
I mean, I would answer with the German philosopher Waler Benjamin having famously quipped, “There’s no document of civilization that is not at the same time a document of barbarism.” There’s some truth to that, I think. This is what you can really observe when you look at Ashurbanipal. Ashurbanipal reached the age of the height of Assyrian art. When you look at reliefs from Ashurbanipal’s palaces in many way, this is remarkably beautiful. Especially these reliefs where the king hunts lions. The depiction of these lions and other animals is very naturalistic. This is extremely artful. And, of course, you mentioned it—for us, the modern sort of Assyriologist is particularly important. But in general, of great significance is the fact that he created the first universal library. So he created a library at Nineveh—some 30,000 tablets and fragments were found there in the mid-19th century, still providing kind of the basic stock of what we know about Babylonian in literature because he collected everything, not just from Assyria, but also in particular from Babylonia.
So he does all these things. And yet, at the same time, when you read his inscriptions, you encounter a man who is spiteful, who is really brutal. And yes, they were all kind of brutal, of course. But you have the feeling, whereas other kings just did deserve, as a matter of course, that they occasionally would inflict violence. Ashurbanipal is an almost sadist pleasure in describing this violence in great detail. So enemies are forced to grind the bones of their fathers, and then harness to chariots. They have to draw, and things like that, so they’re bound together with beards, and dogs in the city gate. You see Ashurbanipal banqueting with his queen and what seems like a very idyllic scene at first glance, drinking wine sort of in a little vineyard at Nineveh.
But when you look closely, you see that the head of one of his greatest enemies, the Elamite king, probably Teumman, hanging down from a tree. So it’s this ambivalence. I mean, I think Ashurbanipal is, of course, usually really presented, well, in the counts of the Assyrian history as the apogee of Assyrian power. And in some regards, that’s correct. But it also is a turning point, I think, because towards the end of his reign, with his reign, Assyria was now in charge of Egypt, in charge of Babylonia, and Elam in the East was conquered. At no other time was the Assyria as extensive as it is under Ashurbanipal. But towards the end of his reign, he lost a lot of territory. And it’s, again, very hard to determine the causes. I mean, the question of what brings about the fall of the Assyrian empire is one of these big questions, of course, that will never be answered in such a way that everyone will agree, I think.
But I do believe that Ashurbanipal’s failure of leadership on some level played a role. Ashurbanipal sort of, I think, made the mistake that he put these professions of greatness that all Assyrian kings were usually providing. So they were the greatest scholars, and warriors, et cetera. But Ashurbanipal, unlike the other kings, he put these professions to a series of public tests. So he really sort of had an arena built, and then slaughtered lions before an audience at Nineveh. And I can’t imagine that this was not somewhat ridiculous. I mean, the lions were probably sedated or something. And then, he was well protected. He claimed he was this great warrior, but he also, it’s clear from a number of inscriptions, that he actually did not go to war at all. He hated it. He stayed at home. There was a very convenient prophecy in which someone had seen the goddess Ishtar telling the king, “No, just stay home, eat, drink, and make merry, and the rest I will do for you.”
This is a tradition that’s later associated with the figure of the Greek Sardanapalus kind of caricature of Ashurbanipal as an oriental despot. And in many ways it is again a caricature, but there’s also some truth to it. He claims to be this great scholar, but when you look at what he actually wrote, the letters that he exchanged with some of the scholars, they explained the most basic things. And people may have noticed. They may realize, well, this guy is actually claiming all these great things, but he doesn’t really do anything. And it may have led slowly but steadily to a loss of grip on the part of this king. And well, as time went by with very weak kings following him, eunuchs taking over. This was then probably one of several reasons, of course, leading to the fall of Assyria around 612 by the hands of the Babylonians and the Medes.
That self-inflation of his own scholarship reminds me just a little bit, and it’s, of course, not to the same degree at all as these accounts of Napoleon writing to Josephine and telling her all about music and schooling her in music, and his own opinions are just quite terrible. It’s kind of amusing. Of course, Napoleon was a military genius and all these other things, so he did have some things to brag about, I guess you could say. So now, we’re at this moment of collapse. And you mentioned that there is this big historical mystery that Assyria falls, and it’s an event rather than Rome, a protracted process of decline, sudden, abrupt, and brutal.
And of course, there are these notes throughout of a rhyme between Rome and Assyria. And what I thought was interesting or noticed was that Assyria kind of stood, if I’m getting it right, to Rome as, say, Rome stands to America often for us today, or even for the British Empire, is this kind of cautionary tale or morality tale of, look what happened here. Let’s not do that kind of thing against the wall that we look at. But Assyria, in a sense, has a different cultural legacy. There is that legacy, but it has much more of a legacy.
And I wonder if we could turn to some of those questions of the legacy. And we have Xenophon’s account. He’s marching through where Assyria was, and maybe not noticing some of that. And then, there are other instances throughout the culture. And I mentioned Shakespeare and Rossini at the beginning. There’s the opera. In Shakespeare, it’s the very hilarious little scene between the weavers, the weavers play, where King Ninny’s tomb shows up in A Midsummer’s Night Dream. But coming up to today, you end with a discussion about the cultural legacy of Assyria and something that happened with the war in Iraq and ISIS in 2015. And I wonder if we could talk about that a little bit.
Yeah. I would say there are probably three legacies left by Assyria. So one is the idea of empire. The Assyrian Empire came to an end between 612 and 609, but the idea of empire lives on. And there was a successor empire right away, the Babylonian Empire. And the kings of that Babylonian Empire, most famously Nebuchadnezzar II, who brought the Jews to exile. They used the imperial toolkit the Assyrians had created. So provincial organization, specific types of bureaucracy, taxation, and a mixture of direct indirect rule, the mixture of diversity in ethnic, linguistic, and religious terms, et cetera. All this is characteristic of Assyria. The way they manage the empire is not completely taken over by the Babylonians. A few things they do differently, but they take many of these things over.
And when the Babylonian Empire came to an end in 539 BCE, after some 70 years or so, a larger new empire, the Persian Empire, took over. The Assyrian legacies may be even more pronounced, because what we can see when we look at the Persian or the Achaemenid Empire is that, for instance, when it comes to art, the Persians follow much more the Assyrian model than the Babylonian model. And there’s an entry from Cyrus in a cylinder inscription from Babylon, the first inscription and the most important inscription he left altogether after the conquest of Babylon in 539. He singles out the Assyrian king Ashurbanipal. So, Assyria really is very much of the model empire for the Persians. And then, the idea of empire, that’s the medieval idea of the translatio imperii sort of an empire moving on from one iteration to the next.
Of course, as this happens and as time goes by, the image of Assyria fades away a little bit but it is the very first element in this long chain, I think, and that is important. So this is one important aspect. Another one is the stories told about Assyria. I mean, particularly the stories told in the Bible. We briefly talked and we didn’t really talk at length about Sennacherib at Jerusalem, which is absolutely fine. But this is a very long story told there in great detail. And for the biblical authors, Assyria really clearly also is the first empire. And it is a great problem, and they talk a great deal about it. They provide us with the names of many of the kings, and they’re quite accurate in some cases—even princes and so on are mentioned. Assyria for the Bible also is, I think, important in that the idea of autocracy that empire represents is adopted and used to create a new revolutionary image of God.
So rather than the king who is in charge of everything, it’s suddenly God. This is a complex process of this evolution of monotheism and is not just something that comes out of the encounter of the Israelites with the Assyrians. That would be too simplistic. But I do think one important element in that story is actually this transformation of the Assyrian royal ideology into a religious idea of divine omnipotence. So this is the second important legacy. And the third is what? And that brings me perhaps to the end of your question. I mean, what you find on the ground. I mean, you rightly said that the fall of Assyria was more an event rather than a process if you compare it to Rome or so. And indeed, it was a dramatic moment. I’ve called it the First World War. These many wars wage between 616 and 609.
It involved the Babylonians, the Medes, the Egyptians, the Chaldeans at some point, the Urartians, many others. That was really, really drastic. And it ended with the great Assyrian cities all massively destroyed, so Nineveh was gone and Ashur was. But then of course, it’s also important to keep in mind that not everything was entirely gone. I mean, there were lots of shards, but they were still there. And for instance, in Ashur, where everything had started, Assyrians also continued at least for quite a long while. So for instance, we have Aramaic inscriptions from Ashur from the 2nd century AD, so some 800 years after the fall of the city, where people still talk about worshiping the god Ashur and his wife, Serua, just like these 800 years earlier. So somehow the temple of Ashur survived, the worship of Ashur continued in Ashur, and not everything was entirely gone.
And we also see how as eventually Christianity takes over Northern Iraq, how Christians in this area begin to identify with the Assyrians. So there are stories, for instance, about the Assyrian king, Sennacherib, converting to Christianity from a chronological point of view or rather sort of strange assumption considering that you would from 705 to 681 BCE, but there you have it. And you have other stories about some Assyrians being involved in Christian ideas. And you have, I mean, especially then since the 19th century, a very strong sort of Neo-Assyrian identity. Assyrian Christians in that area consider themselves the descendants of the Assyrians. And you mentioned the statue of Ashurbanipal in San Francisco. This was something that was created by a member of the Assyrian community, of course. So there is some continuity in fact in place.
And it is, therefore, all the more regrettable that in recent years, I mean, essentially since the 19th century, these Christian communities have really suffered a great deal from persecution and attacks by a variety of different people and are now dispersed all over the globe, essentially. There are still some people in this place near Mosul, or in the [inaudible 01:03:43], or in other areas originally part of the Assyrian kingdom. But most of these Assyrian Christians now actually live in Europe, and in the United States, or some centers like Chicago or so. And it is, of course, also extremely regrettable that, as you mentioned, ISIS, many of these Assyrian sites, such as Nineveh or the Palace of Ashurbanipal II in the city of Kalhu, were assaulted by ISIS and dynamited or destroyed in some other ways in the past year. So this, of course, was all extremely pressing to observe. Yeah, in this regard, things have not gone well certainly over the past years.
But as you note there, in no way am I condoning such destruction, of course. But you also note that in fact it has revealed some new things. As you mentioned, there are all these layers and they go down so far. And in not wanting to disturb some, of course, with respect, you don’t touch it. But by some of this destruction, there have been some new discoveries made. And I think throughout, your book is actually quite hopeful, which stands a little in contrast to many of these types of books about empire, which often are these languorous cautionary tales.
But before I get to the final, final question about the hopefulness that you have found, both perhaps for Iraq today, and for perhaps Israel and Arabs. I had this one more complicated question. One of the other stories that is in the background of your book is how other empires, later empires, the French-British Empire, in fact, we owe to their imperialism much of the uncovering of the Assyrian Empire and this archeological excavation and learning, which it’s a difficult question, right? How should we feel about that? Is it not a question of feeling? What is the kind of intellectual stance to think about how we rely on other expressions of power and imperialism to uncover these legacies of knowledge?
Yeah. This is a difficult question. You’re right. You’re absolutely right.
You can give a short answer, and we can-
The rediscovery of those sites. I mean, rediscovery should be in quotation marks because sites like Nineveh were never entirely sort of lost. People there knew this was the Ancient City of Nineveh. It was a place where the tomb of Jonah was, for instance, located and things like that. But the rediscovery, let’s say, of traces of the actual Assyrians of the cuneiform tradition, the decipherment, this was very much largely a Western project in the 19th century. And it just so happened that this was the time when Western Imperialism was at its height. It is important I think also to remember, of course, that at the time, these sites were part of the Ottoman Empire, and neither the British nor the French nor anyone else was a colonial power there. So, the British and French individuals were usually actually quite small numbers of people who did those excavations and had to negotiate with the local pastures. It was very complicated.
And okay, they may have cheated them occasionally, but they were also of course on the part of the Ottoman authorities permissions given to them to excavate things. So this is the reason why so much of this stuff is now in the British Museum or in the Louvre when we talk about Assyria in particular. It is of course, however, in the long run, a problem that in many places in the Middle East, sort of thinking about Ancient Eastern history has been perceived as a Western preoccupation, and it shouldn’t be. And it is, therefore, of course, extremely important that in places like Iraq or Syria, where local identities are also grounded in the ancient past. And that is, of course, in fact what some of the dictators of recent decades have started to do. I mean, Saddam in particular has done this identifying, to some extent, especially with Babylonian kings like Hammurabi and Nebuchadnezzar II, but also sort of playing with the Assyrian legacy.
And here, again, the problem was of course considering Saddam’s extremely problematic legacy in terms of human rights, and so on, that others might have then taken that as a reason, in fact, just not to endorse any of this. And for ISIS, of course, it was… I mean, there were all sorts of reasons to destroy these sites. I mean, they wanted to, of course, annoy Westerners. And they knew that if they killed any local people, this would not actually get them the same types of headlines as when they actually started to blow up some Assyrian bull colossi or reliefs. And they were right. Unfortunately, this is how it went. It got a lot of traction when this all happened. So yes, you’re also right, though, of course, that maybe, I mean, six years ago or so, I would have been much more pessimistic. I would’ve thought, okay, this is the end essentially of everything there.
But it’s actually quite striking in what shorter period of time, for instance, in Mosul, which was completely destroyed. Things actually have been turned around, at least to a certain extent. The city is now in a better shape, much better shape again than it was after this complete destruction after liberation in 2017. And in fact, new excavations have taken place. ISIS itself, I mean, while claiming that it would destroy all this stuff because it was idolatrous, et cetera, of course, also sold things from those sites excavated and sold it on the antiquities market. But for that, they created tunnels underneath one of the mounds in Nineveh. And those tunnels have now been explored by archeologists from the University of Heidelberg. And they have uncovered, for instance, a new throne room with two thrones. One is probably that of Esarhaddon, and the other one, we don’t know. Either it was that of Naqia, his mother, or it was of his successor, Ashurbanipal.
Very interesting question. So exciting new stuff is indeed coming out. And that’s the thing. I mean, you think things are, it’s all over, and then it goes on. So another colleague of mine, Karen Radner from the University of Munich, has now started excavations at Ashur, which is under threat from a dam that’s being built of inundation with all sorts of problems, of course. I mean, she has been able to pull it off along with Iraqi colleagues and so on. I, myself, have been in Baghdad last year. I mean, it hasn’t been super easy, but I was able to go to the museum, work in the museum, and look at texts from Ashur that were excavated there when I was the epigrapher on this occasion in 2001 and disappeared during the chaos of the post-invasion period, 2003, et cetera.
But they were retraced, and so I was able to study them again, where I tried to sort of work on those. Now, it’s what I have to do the next month and get them out next year. So yes, things go on. And it could be that it goes the other way around, that there’s another massive crisis. I think everything is unstable, of course, not just in Iraq, but all over the place. But there are also opportunities. And I think all of one can do, especially when you’re a scholar, is use those opportunities out there. And I think what is really important is that, first, we need to make sure that local stakeholders are being involved in all these endeavors. So Iraqis themselves, of course, are extremely important, and they need to be in charge of these places and need to endorse them.
And it is interesting that the destruction at Nineveh, these attacks on these bulls when you listen to the audios, the people speaking in Arabic and saying why they are doing it. These were not people from the region. These were the people somewhere from the Gulf. And I’ve heard from colleagues and friends from Mosul that they’re very much opposed. And many people in Mosul were not happy about what was going on. So people on the ground often actually do feel like this is their stuff and they want to preserve it. And so, again, there are, I think, opportunities to enhance collaboration, to explore this world even more. I mean, there are lots of very interesting questions that remain unsolved, and I would be very curious to know more about them.
We touched on only a tiny portion of even what you cover in your book. I mean, you have given us a legacy to think about just as Assyria gave the legacy of empire to the world to think about and explore further. Final, final question. What is the most hopeful thing or one note of hope that you uncovered in writing this book?
I don’t know if hope is the right word, but I would say-
If you want to take something away from it. I would say one thing that I have tried to highlight is that, it’s not a good idea to essentialize culture. I mean, it’s a bit an unusual book for me to write. I had to also leave my comfort zone, and think about early history of Assyria. And by my primary interest is actually sort of more in the first millennium. But what I discovered of course was then how much it changes. I mean, we talked about it a great deal. And I think it was a good idea that it is, initially, Ashur has this mixed constitutions, these democratic elements, and eventually it becomes this autocratic state. So things can change. And there’s this idea Hegel and particular pointing this out that the world’s spirit in order to come into itself had to leave the East where everything was autocratic, and monolithic, and flow to the happy world of the Greeks where everything was free and great.
I mean, I don’t want to downplay any of the despotism and so on that you can, of course, find in those regions over extended periods of time, but it doesn’t have to be like that. So you can find historical precedence for very different types of societies. I mean, this is something that I think is important to keep in mind. Don’t essentialize people. And then also, again, what I said when I gave you my previous answer. It looked some six years ago as though we would never be able to go back to Iraq. And now, there are quite a few very ambitious projects collaborating with Iraqi colleagues, who are actually quite open-minded about this and trying to uncover the ancient history of this place. It’s always good I think if identities are not based on only one thing.
So if it is Islam, that’s fine. But if it’s something else too, I think that’s great and that’s important. And so, that’s what I would hope for, that multiple identities can thrive, whether in the East, in the Middle East, or elsewhere in the world. And I would also say, I mean, the Assyrian Empire of course is perhaps interesting compare also to… I mean, today you mentioned it, empire has a bad name for good reasons, I would say. And most sort of “empires” wouldn’t define themselves as empires, but you still have imperial structures in place in various ways. I mean, what I would say is when America, United States… I mean, some 10, 20 years ago, my book would have received greater attention because empire was the big thing. I mean, it was endorsed for many years.
This has, of course, changed enormously. But the United States is still, I would say, in terms of communication, internet, et cetera, it’s the number one sort of empire, so to speak. Everything works through the United States. And this is something the Assyrians were very good at. Royal roads, communication networks, et cetera. You have the aggressive nature of the Assyrian Empire as you see it play out right now. For instance, with Russia’s attack on Ukraine, clearly also an imperial war. And you have a certain commercial aspect. The Assyrians always, even during imperial times, encouraged trade that you find perhaps in China, which has its own sort of specific imperial tradition. So all of these different aspects of imperial power. I mean, neither of them draws on the Assyrian model. But the Assyrian model, the first empire gives us all of these already gives us sort of stuff to think about when we think about our own world.
Right. The rhymes of history.
If you will. Since you mentioned Hegel, of course, I have to make this analogy at the end. You have been an owl of Minerva for us, giving us so much to think about and great insight and wisdom. And thank you so much for joining us today, Professor Frahm.
Thank you very much. I really enjoyed it, and I really enjoyed your last comparison.
Well, good. Well, good. Once again, that was Professor Eckart Frahm from Yale University discussing his book, Assyria: The Rise and Fall of the World’s First Empire. And this is Liberty Law Talk. And I’m Rebecca Burgess. Thank you for joining us.
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