The ancient Assyrians deserve to be remembered for being pioneering builders and engineers
Ashurbanipal hunting on horseback, Nineveh, Assyria, 645–635 BC ©TRUSTEES OF THE BRITISH MUSEUM
The great world power during the seventh century BC was Assyria, as can be seen at the current British Museum exhibition celebrating the grandeur of its last major king Ashurbanipal (reigned 669-631 BC). He founded one of Mesopotamia’s great libraries, not superseded until more than 300 years later by the famous library of Alexandria in Egypt. From its buried remains came wonderful literary texts such as the Epic of Gilgamesh, which caused huge excitement in 1872 when George Smith at the British Museum read cuneiform tablets giving an account of the Great Flood. This appears towards the end of the epic, and his subsequent public lecture on the subject attracted luminaries from the world of Biblical and Classical scholarship, including Gladstone, who used to read Homer for fun.
Greek and Latin were part of a serious education in mid-19th-century Europe, but the Classical authors did a disservice to the land of Assyria and Babylonia. Wild tales were told of a king Ninos, eponymous founder of Nineveh, the lustful queen Semiramis, and a weak and sybaritic king called Sardanapalus. These were mostly hokum and as the script on buried monuments and tablets were deciphered, the world of ancient Mesopotamia became real, rather than a figment of the Greek imagination.
Assyria itself was named after the city of Ashur, a trading entrepot on the Tigris River in north-east Iraq during the early second millennium BC. Texts from the Old Assyrian period have been excavated in Anatolia where trading colonies operated, but they fade from the record as the Hittites took over the area. Ashur survived and under a strong king in the 14th century BC, expanded its control to command an empire competing with Babylonia, the Hittites and New Kingdom Egypt — the Middle Assyrian period. The Bronze Age collapse that took place around the Mediterranean in 1200 BC weakened Assyria and it only began to recover its former power in the late 10th century BC, when the Neo-Assyrian empire took root. In the mid-ninth century, King Ashurnasirpal moved the capital upstream from Ashur to Kalhu (Nimrud), creating a magnificent palace whose monumental architecture and bas-reliefs were excavated by British and French archaeologists in the 19th century. They remained visible until destroyed in an orgy of hammer blows and explosions by IS in 2015. Yet this was nothing compared to the devastation the Assyrian armies (largely non-Assyrian in origin) could wreak on their enemies. As Ashurnasirpal wrote:
I captured their men alive. From some I cut off arms and hands, from others noses, ears and extremities. I put out the eyes of many . . . I hung their heads on trees around the town. I delivered their children to the flames, destroyed and devastated their city, burned and eradicated them.
Thus the Assyrians became the most feared of all conquerors in the Ancient Near East. But all was not plunder and destruction. They built on a magnificent scale, and the final phase of Assyrian brilliance and domination began when Sargon II came to the throne in 722 BC. He created a new capital Dur Sharrukin (literally Fort Sargon) upstream from Nimrud at a virgin site northeast of the ancient city of Nineveh, located within modern Mosul. Its seven gates pierced walls 24 metres thick.
Yet no sooner was this completed than Sargon was killed in a great battle in Anatolia in 705 BC. The Assyrians were unable to recover his corpse from the field. So, believing his ghost would surely seek refuge in the new city, his favoured son and successor Sennacherib made Nineveh the official capital.
Sennacherib has had a bad press because of his conquests in the Levant and Israel and a symbolic destruction of Babylon after uprisings that stretched the king’s patience to breaking point. But he was a genius at promoting new technology at home. Along with his great interest in a new method of bronze casting and the building of aqueducts, there is written evidence during his reign that the irrigation screw was invented. Though now commonly known as the Archimedes Screw, Greeks such as the engineer Vitruvius and geographer Strabo mentioned the device in the first century BC without associating it with the name of Archimedes.
Though a brilliant scholar and mathematician, Archimedes was not the inventor of the irrigation screw, indeed Posidonius in the first century BC referred to them as Egyptian screws because they had previously been used in Egypt.
In the early days of Greek civilisation, the intelligentsia were well aware of their debt to the discoveries and inventions of the past. However, later commentators exhibited a desire to create Greek cultural heroes. Perhaps that’s why a similar mis-accreditation occurred with Pythagoras, whose name was appended to a theorem about right-angled triangles known in Mesopotamia well over a thousand years previously. Yet later European historians gladly honoured the Greeks and Romans as progenitors of civilisation. A recent book still credits the Romans with inventing concrete but the Assyrians used it in 700 BC for aqueducts. Water engineering had been a feature of Mesopotamia for centuries; in her fascinating book The Mystery of the Hanging Garden of Babylon (OUP), Stephanie Dalley shows how irrigation screws for the famous garden were one of the great achievements of Sennacherib’s reign. The fact that no such garden was ever discovered in Babylon is unsurprising. As Dr Dalley explains, it was not built in Babylon on the Euphrates by Nebuchadnezzar but in Nineveh on the Tigris by Sennacherib.
Like other Assyrian kings, Sennacherib chose his successor carefully, and when he replaced one crown prince by another, the former killed his father. The king’s new choice, Esarhaddon, swiftly returned to Nineveh to claim the throne, and was eventually succeeded by Assurbanipal, under whom Assyria reached its greatest extent. Unfortunately, the new king took little interest in warfare, though he managed to be present when prisoners were brought home and subjected to carefully choreographed brutality. His passion was the world of learning — hence the great library — partly contributing to the Grreek tales of a weak and pleasure-loving king Sardanapalus, a muddied concatenation of the names of Sennacherib’s successors Esarhaddon and Assurbanipal.
Within 20 years Assyria was finished, its engineering prowess lost among negative stereotypes of brutality promoted by the classical world and the Bible.
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