Desire, that lithe prelate of our affections,
Has called me here, to the open plain
Of that fiction which is our history.
She is always Babylon, that weighted wash of time,
That hangs upon her shoulders as a cloak translucent
Which denies detail and yet accents the curves
That draw the eye ever onward.
She was here when brick gave way to stone,
When memory's fragile ex-stasis was first confirmed in cuniform,
So that scribes might spend their dreary days dreaming
Of the warm of hidden flesh.
Four great kings of Assyrian rose up.
The first built empire, and drew all to his command.
The second made war for trade, and scattered power to the corners of the realm.
It was the third who slaughtered and gave new meaning
To words which did not yet exist when he enacted them.
And then came the last, the fourth.
And fourth he went, the bearer of his sun God's name,
To encompass all the world that was, from the Nile to the Indus.
But first to rule and reign in Babylon, and draw his shaft
The armies of this Assyrian king, meant for Egypt,
But destined to bleed upon this, the more ancient river,
Assaulted the walls three times. Each time to take her,
The history that she was, and was as living.
So he did strut before the walls, and claimed to encompass
The living city of eternity
As he claimed in broken syllables to have mastered the ancient tongue of Sumer.
But the wave that was his passion, though it washed aside that Babylon
Was in turn dashed in other lands, as repeated victories and defeats
Had dulled the lord of Nineveh to the realities of his realm.
And still, after, yet and so.
She remained, and remained Babylon.
Even as Ashur wept his golden sun god tears for his lost sons.
So am I standing before these, the opened gates
That both lead down into the distant revenants of our half forgiven past,
And upwards towards our unforgiven future.
Each stepped embossed with half-remembered names,
Of undead kings.
And in the echos that feint and faintly dwell in the shadows of my steps,
I know that as once the chariots of Assyria did turn and turn,
Never to find rest as they reached for control of this fertile crescent –
So too have we come to grief, striving to command
That black river upon which our history depends,
And which our future denies.
The weight of water, sand and time hunt us down,
and ancient errors wait, waiting to be reborn
from out of crypts laid down by washing waves
of people, power, place, wind and will.
The area between the two rivers in what is now Iraq was an ancient land even by the time the Greeks gave it the name "mesopotamia" – meso, for middle or between, potamia, for rivers, as we call the river that Washington sits on "Potomac". There were a series of cities, empires and cultures which rose and fell over the course of thousands of years, inventing, reinventing or coöpting many of the basic developments of civilization – writing, accounting, trigonometry, currency, administration and architecture.
This history, of Iraq in our time, is a reflection of the importance of the region which is now partially covered by Iraq. In our age it is oil, in another, water and arable land. The history of the region goes back to the dawn of written records, and its prehistory is spreads roots back to the dawn of human inhabitation. The lands and rivers were not what we think of as farms, but, instead, were, as with many early farming societies, a flood plain that had to be carefully managed. Waters brought in fresh soil, which allowed agricultural systems which could not afford to let land lie fallow, nor had the ability to engage in massive fertilization projects, nor break heavy soils with later metal plows to function over long periods of time. This was different from earlier agricultural systems which burned through land in an area and then moved on.
The complexity of managing the irrigation system and the need for a trading system to supply metals and woods used in the growing civilization would lead to trade, trade to symbolic representation, and this to that great dividing line: writing.
Around this cultural center grew up a series of religious festivals and ceremonies designed to track time, and to allow the assimilation of progressive waves of invaders and traders into the basic cultural matrix. At the center of this religious complex came to be the city of Babylon, and at the pinnacle of this, the festivals of new year and selection of kings that confered legitimacy.
This combination - control of the basic material substance of prosperity, a fragile matrix of production which could be destroyed and rebuilt, but which had to be managed - and a system of legitimacy which allowed the production and management of resources - made Babylon sit at the crucial point of the fertile crescent for an almost unimaginable period of time. One could drop all of modern history into the era of Babylon's centrality, and still have more than a millenium to either side. The intersection of writing, religion, mathematics and production is attested to in early texts.
It is far too complex to analogize the present conflict between the United States and various power factions in Iraq to any specific conflict, at the same time, it is almost impossible not to notice the parallels to many of the conflict periods in the past. One leaps out as being of particular interest to me, partially because it is of interest to people in the present: what we now call the "Neo-Assyrian" empire.
The empire is traditionally divided into a pre-imperial period, where Assyria began organizing into a single state, roughly in line with Kurdistan today. It is a natural state area, bounded by mountains, with a single agricultural system which is effective. Assyria's major cities were along the upper end of the Tigris river, including the city whose name will be forever associated with violent empire: Ninuwa, or Nineveh.
The simple list of kings and their dates is important for clarity, so often obscured:
Shulmanu-asharid 727-722 (Son of Tukulti)
Sharru-kinu 722-705 probably took the throne.
Sîn-ahhe-eriba 705-681 son of Sharru-kinu
Assur-aha-iddina 681-669 son of Sîn-ahhe-eriba
Ashurbanipal 669-627 Son of Assur aha iddina
Rivals in civil war:
Ashur-etil-ilani 627 623 Probably son of Ashurbanipal
Sinsharishkun 672-612 Proably son of Ashurbanipal
Ashur-uballit 612-609 Last king of Assyria
Many of these kings are known by other names to us, from biblical and other sources. They also had Sumerian names, but I have chosen, in general, to refer to them by their Akkadian names, since it is as Akkadians that they faced the need to reach outward and place their stamp on the world. By giving them old names, I hope we will see them in a new light. There are accents and diacriticals that do not reproduce well, for which, to pedants everywhere, I apologize.
Thus from foundation to collapse of this order, dominated by one short dynasty and one long dynasty, was 136 years, and the pinnacle under Ashurbanipal was very quickly followed by an implosion. If one is looking for a story of imperial collapse from cultural failure, Assyria has provided the model of millennia to do it. For myself I have thought of them as the second and third Neo-Assyrian dynasties, even though scholarship has avoided the use of clear systematic terms.
The empire breaks into three phases, the foundational phase of the first dynasty through Sharru-jinu's reign, the conquest phase which peaks under Ashurbanipal, and the civil war phase which begins even as conquest is occurring and then consumes the empire.
The first phase begins from a monarch known to us as Tiglath-Pileser, in 1115 BC, called the Second Assyrian Empire, it runs until Ashur-dan II establishes a new order which some scholarship calls the beginning of "Neo-Assyria" in 934 BC. Neo-Assyria can be divided into a first dynastic period, often called the second Assyrian empire, though this is not the conventional usage, and runs until it is overthrown by a general who styles himself Tiglath-Pileser III. As a someone who overthrew a long running dynasty, even one in its death throes, he was extremely concerned with unification of power, and legitimacy. By taking the name of the founder of the state, he was declaring, in effect, a reactionary revolution in internal affairs. He changed the taxation system and system of military levies. His name in Akkadian, the official language of his state was Tukulti-Apil-Esarra, and his reign begins in 745 BC. His refoundation is also often called the beginning of Neo-Assyria, so I will leave the argument of demarcation to those more ensconced in the texts and who have real expertise, as opposed to my own mere lay learning.
However for the purposes of the analogy, the story begins with an old weak dynasty overthrown by a new active king.
This period is of interest to the present, and as such much of the material present in the present is corrupted by present groups seeking legitimacy in themselves. You see, the Neo-Assyrian conquests of Judah are important in what Christians call "the old testament", and in the founding religious texts of Judaism. Hence, the conquests of Neo-Assyrian are taken as proof of various claims of legitimacy of many present stories of how the world is. Sources such as wikipedia are corrupted with various literalist narratives, and many of the free sites are explicitly fundamentalist Christianist in their orientation. This is interesting, and I will return to the point, but it clouds the narrative that Assyria itself was locked within.
The Neo-Assyrians had their own legitimacy problems, and constructed their own stories around dealing with those problems. Tukulti had three basic legitimacy problems. The first was internal – he had to level the power of various independent power centers, religious, economic and political – in order to keep power and organize armies for the conquest of the regions around Assyria proper – that is the area in the northern part of what is now Iraq. The dynasty he replaced was spectacular at hurling armies outwards, but not very good at holding areas they attacked. A map of the areas where campaigns took place, matched with the area of actual control tells a stark story of a people who were very good at invading and not very good at occupying or incorporating.
Tukulti's first problem is seen in taking an old regnal name, and in his actions to simultaneously centralize administration. This allowed him to come to power, but not retain it, he was, in turn, overthrown by the individual who would found the major dynasty that would rule over the brief, bright, brilliant and brutal tear through history that is Assyria in the modern mind.
It is important to realize that Assyria was one of many white hot imperial runs, that their brutality, while worse than many others, was not absurdly worse. They spent a great deal of time being the target of other military powers, including various waxing Hittite kingdoms and subordinate to southern kingdoms. Assyria, before it was an empire, was treated as a road by powers attempting to reach north from Babylon and the south, from what is now Iran, from the West, and from the North. The militarization of Assyrian culture is a response to this reality.
The dynastic legitimacy problem was not trivial – the Neo-Assyrian empire would be wracked by civil war, intra-dynasty conflict, assassination and rebellion – their strategies for dealing with this were successful enough to keep the core of the empire together, but only at the cost of being on the perpetual verge of collapse. In the end it would, probably, be civil war which imploded the military apparatus and allowed conquest by their former subject peoples and the Medes.
The second legitimacy problem is related to the first, it was the problem of Sumerian. In that time and place, Sumerian was the great ancient language, and much as waves of European states have looked to Rome as the legitimizer of their system – including the United States, but also including Germany, Russia, The Holy Roman Empire, France, Britian in its imperial mode, the Catholic Church, various Italian based states including Fascist Italy and so on – states of that time looked to Babylon and Sumerian the language as the sources of legitimacy for a cultural complex rooted in the southern region..
The south itself was not the original continuous religion, but, instead, a reconstruction of it, termed "Neo-Babylonian". This is important, because the Assyrians worshiped a single monotheistic sun god, Ashur, a god who influenced the Greek construction of Apollo. Neo-Babylonian mythology had reconstructed Marduk to be a pinnacle pantheon leader, in a mold which is far more hierarchical than the original mythology was in most of its incarnations. Thus Assyria wanted legitimacy from a southern cultural sphere which was, itself, in a legitimacy crisis mode, and which had come to its own way of dealing with the great breaks in continuity that it had suffered.
The third great legitimacy problem is a combination of these two: in order to run their military trading system, the Assyrians needed to have military influence and control to their east – over the Medes, and to their North and West, outward to Hittite, Phoenecian and Egyptian spheres – even though their cultural focus looked south. We have great volumes of the conflict between the religious adherents of northern Ashur type worship and various Babylonian factions, but little worry about the conflict between Ashur worship and northern and western peoples. When the Assyrians went to conquer and colonize these areas, they built cities named after Babylonian gods, populated with Assyrian nationals, and attempted to eradicate the local populations. There are bluntly depictive reliefs of mass impalements from the period.
Part of the reason that it is easy to write about the Assyrians as an example is the deep cultural resonance – both the Hellenes and the Hebrews took this empire as an example of vast over reach. The image of evil in our own culture has, as one of its roots, the stories from Assyria which early second literate age Hellenes wrote down, and which the Hebrews recorded. We know their names in other forms, because those names have become attached to stories in biblical and ancient Ionian and Doric stories.
And it is also true that the Neo-Assyrian empire offers one of the fastest cleanest cycles of foundation, growth and destruction in history. If one is telling a story of imperial over reach, the Assyrians, along with Modern Imperial Japan and a few other states, offer one of the clearest schematics of organized brutality and belief taking control over a large fraction of their world, and then falling, without being so clearly tied to the rise and fall of a man – the way Alexander, Hitler and Napoleon are imperialists of a man, and not a system.
The second part of this post will delve into the basic subject of how a cultural complex centered in Assyria – dominant over organization, military, monotheistic solar conquest and imperial trade systems – repeatedly failed to deal with both its own internal problems of legitimacy, and with their relationship with the ancient source of legitimacy, and a fundamentally different, polytheistic/henotheistic literate assimilationist complex that was the neo-Babylonian south-east. Assyrian geo-politics is complex because it is three dimensional – one axis along the river North-West to South-East, another along the trade engine of East-West from Medean regions to the Mediterranean, and a North-South axis from Anatolia, through Assyria and the Levant down to Egypt. Each axis made competing demands on the empire, and it was the failure to find a center which could manage this three dimensional geo-politics.
The heart of the story is a series of outward conquests on the East-West and North-South axises, against internal struggles which played out as North-West/South-East. So important is this last axis, that it is known to scholars in the field as "north/south" because of their focus on it for the development of text and language structures as well as the focus of cultural conflict. The Egypt-Levant/Assyria-Hittite axis is almost invisible, because the Assyrians wasted little time in attempting to coöpt it, instead, their purpose was to overwhelm and subjugate into their own system.
In the case of the Levant, they had greater success, but failed because history encountered them in the form of the Ionic and Doric peoples, who were far greater masters at absorbing cultural and religious matrixes. The Zeus cult - the Indo-European sky god, was able to envelope older sects of the fertility religions. That we often say this in the reverse, calling them fertility cults, when in fact they were branches of a single idea, while it was Zeus that represted the break with previous practice that defines a cult. The Greeks absorbed Ashur as Apollo, Marduk as Xronos, and other features of the neo-Babylonian and neo-Assyrian world so thoroughly, that even 50 years ago it was not an embarassment for one scholar to declare that Apollo was "the most Greek of Gods" even though he represented an amalgamation of Egyptian, neo-Assyrian, neo-Babylonian and Phoenecian metropolitian influences.
The story turns however, not on this fact, but on the Akkadian/Sumerian conflict, the Ashur/neo-Babylonian conflict, and the Assyrian/Babylonian conflicts, and how the Assyrians internalized and then were destroyed by, these conflicts between their cultural model, and the cultural model that they wanted to absorb, but could not find a means to do so.