Saturday, 7 September 2013

'The Assyrian came down like the wolf on the fold . . . .'

I've always remembered this line from Byron's poem 'The Destruction of Sennacherib' - it's the description of a siege and a miraculous deliverance. Assyrian history claims that they won without significant losses; the Bible claims that 18,000 Assyrians were wiped out by the Angel of Death. No one knows which account is true, all we know is that there was a battle.  The Middle East has been an arena of conflict for thousands of years.

Italy is a relatively peaceful place, but every time I look out over the Mediterranean from our terrace I'm reminded that just across the water, things are very different.  The tragedy that Syria has become, is constantly on my mind, and almost every news item reports another bomb in Iraq.  Syria, Iraq and Iran hold some of the most ancient and significant archaeological sites in the 'modern' world. These early civilisations are thought to be where our ancestors learned how to live together in cities and move from a nurturing, land-based culture to an urban, more stratified society.  This society was not peaceful. The Assyrians in particular were ferocious conquerors.  Their kings had the ambition to rule a great empire stretching across the middle-east.

Whenever I go to London I try to get into the British Museum, and one of the sections I head for is the one containing the Assyrian rooms.  Here, the palaces and temples of Nimrud (roughly situated in what is now Iraq) have been reconstructed so that you can walk through.  Nimrud, which dates from roughly 800-860 BC) was plundered by archaeologists - a theft I feel rather bad about - but that has to be balanced by the knowledge that if the artefacts were still in Iraq I wouldn't be seeing them. They also record violent events and a bloodthirsty code of honour and that knowledge is always in conflict with my appreciation of Assyrian art.  These reliefs and sculptures are some of the most beautiful works of art I've ever seen.



These are the Winged Sphinxes guarding the gates of Nimrud.  The original bronze hinges and decorations are on display beside the re-construction.

One of the Winged Sphinxes


The Lion was a potent symbol of Assyria.

The Assyrian King Ashurnasirpal  -  he is pointing up to the symbols of the Assyrian gods - Assur, Shamash, Sin, Adad and Ishtar.  Ishtar was not a peaceful, nurturing female goddess, but one of war.

This is King Ashurnasirpal with the Assyrian god of agriculture, Nisroch.  (Apparently King Sennacherib was assassinated by his sons in the temple of Nisroch.)

Around Ashurnasirpal's palace, on every wall, runs the inscription:  'I am important, I am magnificent . . .the great king, the mighty king, king of the world, king of Assyria . . . I am the king who has brought into submission at his feet the lands from beyond the Tigris to Mount Lebanon and the Great Sea . . . who by his lordly attack has forced fierce and merciless kings  . . . with their blood I dyed the mountains red as red wool, while the ravines and torrents of the mountain swallowed the rest of them'.  Hundreds of thousands were slaughtered in Ashurnasirpal's quest for absolute domination.  The numbers mentioned refer only to the menfolk - who knows how many women and children were obliterated as villages and towns were razed to the ground.

When they weren't hunting down people, they were killing animals for fun.  This is a lion hunt.

Normal life had to go on somehow - the Nimrud reliefs also celebrate ordinary people's lives.  This is a camel herd.


And domestic animals.

This case always fascinates me - it contains the tablets buried in the floor of the temple of Manu, God of Dreams.



So, nothing has changed in the Middle East in 3,000 years.  Tragic.










2 comments:

  1. Nothing ever changes.
    At least that also means the parts of our nature that produce poetry and art continue.
    I have to hold to the fact that humanity has a wonderful capacity for being loving and generous as well.

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    1. Thanks for reminding me Al - I was feeling a bit depressed about our capacity for destruction!

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