Chapter 10 - Babylonia and Assyria (Part II)

The "Footsteps" of Seven Great Kings of Assyria

During the three hundred years when Assyria was at the height of its greatness about fifteen kings ruled one after the other at Nineveh. Of these there are seven well represented in the Museum, and most of the seven appear in the Bible story of the Jewish Monarchy.

The previous chapter ended with the sketch of the Babylonian king worshipping in the shrine of the Sun god in the city of Sippar. This was near the beginning of the ninth century B.C. Ashur-nazir-pal II. was king of Assyria about this time.

His son and successor was Shalmaneser III., about the middle of the ninth century.

A hundred years later arose the powerful king, Tiglath Pileser III., while in the last quarter of the eighth century, Sargon II., "the son of no one," usurped the throne.

His son, Sennacherib, followed at the end of the eighth century, and his reign, and that of his son, [pg 159] Esar-haddon, and of his grandson, Ashur-bani-pal, covered the seventh century.

Just inside the Nimrud Gallery is a relief showing a religious ceremony which was performed each year by the king in person, connected with the fertilizing of the date palm. Above the king, presenting a sort of cone, is a small figure in a winged circle; the small figure is that of a man finished off with feather from the waist. This is the emblem of the god Ashur, after whom the country was named, as well as so many of its kings.



Ashur-nazir-pal means "Ashur is the protector of the heir"; Esar-haddon means "Ashur has given a brother," implying that he was not the eldest son; Ashur-bani-pal means "Ashur creates a son." This god Ashur was looked upon as the father and chief of the gods, and is often represented as hovering over the kings in battle, as giving them the victory, and as demanding the punishment of the vanquished.

All round us in the Nimrud Gallery are the remains brought from the palace of Ashur-nazir-pal II. and the temple to the war god, Adar. They were dug out of the mound of Nimrud, the grave of the ancient city of Calah, twenty miles south of Nineveh.

Look first at the statue of Ashur-nazir-pal II., with his fine curled beard, his fringed robe hanging to his feet, of which only the toes show straight to the front. You can distinguish an inscription on his breast; it gives particulars of his names and titles. This is the only perfect royal Assyrian statue in the Museum.

There are many other portraits in relief of this son [pg 160] of Ashur. Some are standing at ease, as on the slab that relates his most important conquests; others show him on the march in mountainous country, or passing over rivers with his army, or receiving tribute. Do not miss the vivid picture of the soldiers swimming on inflated skins--there is a relief on which they are shown blowing them out ready to start, as one does with an air-ball--the king's chariot is ferried over on a boat and the sensible horses are swimming behind.



Like most of the Assyrian kings, Ashur-nazir-pal found his chief recreation in hunting, and we see him on the reliefs pouring libations to the gods over dead bulls and lions. The fish gods and eagle-headed divinities are fearsome objects, and must have looked more remarkable still in the days of Ashur-nazir-pal and his attendants, if we are right in believing that the reliefs were all blazing with colour when they were new and fresh. It makes on think of our own blue dragons and red lions!

Imagine the stately procession as the great king passed by the guardians of his footsteps. He could not have moved quickly in such stiff garments. Besides, as the umbrella and fly-slappers remind us, it was often hot. The musicians with the stringed instruments--sounding perhaps like zithers?--heralded the arrival in the court lined with these slabs before us.

Some idea of the details of the palace may be gathered from the cases in the Assyrian Room. The bronze and iron objects are very interesting, such as the bells, the ornamental feet of a throne, the head of the ugly demon of the south-west wind, which, in Assyria, [pg 161] was the hot dry wind that destroyed the crops, and was trying to health.

Many of the ivory objects in a case in the Assyrian Room show relations with Egypt; especially the sceptre we have seen so often in the hands of Osiris; the cartouche of the "Rising Sun:; the Egyptian ladies' heads amongst those that illustrate the fashions in Assyrian hairdressing.

Amongst the beautiful bronze repoussé bowls, also in the Assyrian Room, are some with very fine designs, and especially interesting is the one with hawk-headed lions wearing Egyptian crowns. Those of later date remind us that the palace of Ashur-nazir-pal was not the only one at Calah.

His son, Shalmaneser III., about the middle of the ninth century also built a palace there, close to his father's. One wonders how he found time for building, for he was always at war, till at last he was master of nearly all Western Asia.



Let us first look at his famous black obelisk, in the Nimrud Central Saloon, close to the bull and lion from his father's palace. The pictures and writing inscribed by Shalmaneser on his obelisk give an account of the expeditions he made during thirty-one years of his reign.

There are exciting pictures of the tribute brought by the conquered peoples in five rows of sculptures. Dromedaries, buffaloes, elephants, apes, horses figure amongst the animals; gold, silver, lead, copper, ivory, and fine garments amongst the treasures. It is the second row that interests us most, for here is shown the [pg 162] tribute of Jehu, king of Israel--bowls, dishes, cups, and other vessels of gold.

On the stele of Shalmaneser III. close by, Ahab, another king of Israel, is mentioned as one of the allies of a king of Hamath, who had rebelled against Assyria. On this is a figure of the king in relief.

To find another most important work of Shalmaneser III. we must go down to the Assyrian Saloon in the basement where the famous metal coverings of the gates, made in cedar or some other wood, are shown in a case by themselves. The bands are eight feet long by one foot wide, and record the battles and conquests of the king who set them up. Amongst the most interesting are the pictures showing the march to the source of the Tigris, and the carving of the image of a king upon a rock. There are also scenes in the Assyrian camp, in one of which the soldiers seem to be amusing themselves with some game.

About a century later than Shalmaneser III. lived the Tiglath Pileser III., who is known in the Bible by his Babylonian name of Pul. He was one of the most warlike of the Assyrian kings, and recovered some of the ground lost by those who reigned just before him.

There is an inscription inside the doorway leading to the basement recording his conquests in what may be called cuneiform large hand; these characters are the largest known, and are very easy to examine. Following on are slabs showing the king standing with one foot on the neck of a prostrate foe; also his assault on a city, the gods of which are being borne off in procession.

[pg 163]

Near the black obelisk of Shalmaneser III. is a picturesque wall slab from the palace of Tiglath Pileser, showing the flocks and herds being driven off by the conquerors, and the women and children being taken away from the city in a cart.

You may remember that when Ahaz of Judah asked the Assyrian king to help him against his enemies, it ended in the Israelite tribes of Rueben and Gad, and the half tribe of Manasseh, being carried away into captivity by the Assyrians.

At the end of this eighth century the Assyrian king, Sargon II., came into actual conflict with the Egyptians, whom he defeated, after taking Samaria, and sending its inhabitants to settle another part of his empire. Torn from their country and all their belongings, whole bodies of exiles were settled in foreign lands amongst strangers. Many, no doubt, during the long and wearisome journey were grieving for dear ones killed in terrible fighting, such as we shudder to look at on the slabs.

The siege of Samaria lasted three years; think what that must have meant in the way of starvation and misery, followed by the fatigues of travel, lonely exile, and the bitter though that strangers, sent from other parts of the empire, were living in their old homes, and cultivating their fields. The Israelites felt it perhaps more keenly than others, because they loved their own country so passionately, and most of them hated to be mixed up with people who worshipped many false gods instead of the one great Jehovah.

"By the waters of Babylon we sat down and wept, [pg 164] when we remembered thee, O Zion." The wailing dirge still echoes across the centuries.

Sargon II. was a great builder as well as warrior. His chief palace was at Khorsabad, a few miles north-west of Nineveh. Most of the sculptures of this king are at the Louvre, because the French explorers were first in the field at this place. The great man-headed bulls in the Assyrian Transept come from the gateways of Sargon's palace. You will notice the clearly-cut inscriptions upon them, which tell of his great deeds. His portrait on a slab close by shows him talking to his officials.

In the Assyrian Room, on the upper floor, is a large cylinder inscribed with the history of Sargon's reign; it stands between the records of his predecessor, Ashur-nazir-pal II., and those of his own famous son, Sennacherib, so well known to us in Bible story.

We must remember that Sennacherib lived at the end of the eighth century. For more than twenty strenuous years he fought in many campaigns, and not only built the grandest palace ever seen at Nineveh, but repaired the works of the kings who had gone before him.

The remains of the great palace of Sennacherib were dug out of the group of mounds, called by modern Arab name, Kouyunjik--probably from the number of sheep feeding upon them. If you study the plan of the excavations in the Nimrud Gallery you will see where Kouyunjik lies, also the shape of the city of Nineveh within its ancient walls, and how a tributary of the Tigris runs through it.

[pg 165]

You will notice another mound called Nebi Yunus, where the prophet Jonah is said to have been buried; there is a mosque built on the mound now. One of the palaces of Sennacherib lies buried in this mound, the other, as we have seen, in Kouyunjik.



We can examine many of the slabs from this palace in the Nineveh Gallery. On one side are the reliefs which show Sennacherib's work as a builder, and here we can see for ourselves how the great palaces were set up.

Notice first the making of the mound, used as a platform. There are files of men mounting with loads of stones, bricks, earth, which they fling down, and then hasten back with empty baskets to refill and bring up again. Taskmasters with sticks stand over every gang. As in Egypt the cry ever is, "The stick is in my hand, be ye not idle!"

Next disentangle from the crowds of works the long ropes by which a sledge is pulled along over rollers, with wedges of stone and a powerful lever, worked by pulleys, to ease its passage. What is that on the sledge? Nothing less that one of the great winged bulls being dragged towards the doorway it was henceforth to guard and adorn. He is only in rough at present, having been so far shaped in the quarry from whence he has come by boat, just as the great blocks of marble and stone were brought down the Nile for the buildings on its banks. What a scene of hard labour, bustle, heat, oppression it all bring before us!

There are pictures of the marshy country (how do [pg 166] we know it is marshy? Look out for the eels!) where the great blocks of stone are shown no rafts formed of the trunks of trees lashed together. There is the maze of workmen carrying saws and hatchets, rollers, coils of rope, all sorts of materials.

You can imagine the strain and desperate tugging at the ropes by the captives and slaves under the lash of the overseers. There are numbers of soldiers, too, at hand to keep order, and to act as a guard to the king, himself superintending from his car.

Over his head runs the inscription: "I, Sennacherib, king of multitudes, king of Assyria, had the colossi male and female, the gods which had been made in the land of Balat, dragged to the lordly palace, which is within Nineveh, with exultation."

Notice the king's patterned cap, his tunic adorned with rosettes: also the pompous state in which his grand car is drawn along, and the fine umbrella with its trimmed draperies, the feathered fly-flaps, and the maces; what a brilliant patch of colour the gorgeous chariot and bright clothing of the king and his surrounding courtiers must have been in the sunshine!

The want of perspective in the drawing of all these slabs make them as difficult to understand as Chinese pictures; but persevere: try to make out the rivers and the marshes, with the disturbed animals amongst the reeds, such as the nine little pigs, answering to their mother's grunting.

Look, too, at the rafts and boats, some like British coracles of wicker covered with skins; the men fishing, and drawing up water in pails. Try as you gaze to [pg 167] imagine the babel of sound, the rumbling of the heavy sledge, the shouting of orders, the trampling of the weary workers all in the dust and heat. You can distinguish the man clapping his hands, and another blowing his horn as signals to "heave-ho" all together?

When Sir Henry Layard removed the great bulls from Nineveh some twenty-six centuries later, he found that three hundred men were needed to pull the cart on which one was placed. Many and great were the difficulties to be overcome in bringing the monsters from the Tigris to the Thames!

Other slabs in the Nineveh Gallery show Sennacherib at war; storming fortresses, taking captives, receiving tribute. It is a relief to turn from these crowded pictures to those at the end of the gallery in which we watch a procession of beautifully kept horses, most likely on the road between the river and royal stables. Look at their cropped manes, with tuft in front, their tails tied up in a loop. Many of them are unshod, the prancing one is full of life, and all look thoroughly intelligent, and as if kindly treated.

There are some more sculptures of Sennacherib's time in the Assyrian Saloon, besides those of Tiglath Pileser III. or Pul, which show the siege, assault, and capture of the city of Lachish. (Look this up in 2 Kings xix.) The kind is there on his throne receiving the account of the siege from his officers. Above his head run the lines--"Sennacherib, king of hosts, king of Assyria, sat upon his throne of state, and the spoil of the city of Lachish passed before him."

[pg 168]

It was after this success that Sennacherib sent a threatening message to Hezekiah, king of Judah, by his officers, his Tartan and Rabshakeh, chief generals, such as stand before him at Lachish. Two years before, the Assyrian king had laid siege to Jerusalem, after taking many cities and captives, and Hezekia was thankful to give him all the gold and silver he could take from the temple to purchase safety. Later, encouraged by Egypt, Hezekiah refused the promised tribute, so Sennacherib had two to punish--Tirhakah of Egypt and the king of Judah.

You know the story of what followed. Sennacherib with his army flushed with victory at Lachish, was resting near the frontiers of Egypt. He was on the eve of a great battle with the Egyptians, after which he hoped utterly to crush Hezekiah.

The battle was never fought, for a great disaster overtook the Assyrians in the night, and some think it was a sudden attack of plague. The Bible says "the Angel of the Lord went out and smote in the camp of the Assyrians 185,000 men." The remnant crept miserably home.

The famous six-sided cylinder in the Assyrian Room tells of many of Sennacherib's expeditions. It is worth while to read the long description on the label; it gives an insight into the style of the court historians. Although many particulars of victories are given, and of splendid tribute, even of shutting up Hezekian like a caged bird in Jerusalem, the mysterious loss of a fine army on the brink of further conquests is not mentioned.

[pg 169]

There are several other cylinders that give the account of Sennacherib's wars and buildings.

Close to them are the cylinders of his son, Esar--or Ashur-haddon, describing conquests, expeditions, subjugations, and other details of war, also the building of a new palace at Nineveh, and the rebuilding of the great temple and the two walls of Babylon. You will remember that it was Esar-haddon who took Manasseh prisoner to Babylon, which at this time was well under the power of the Assyrians. One is glad to know that Esar-haddon let his prisoner go home again.

For the portrait of Esar-haddon we must return to the Nineveh Gallery where there is a cast from a bas-relief cut in the rock, in Syria, in the valley of the Dogs River, near Beyrout, on the ancient highway of the nations. Rameses II. left three tablets on this rock in the thirteenth century, when he passed that way; Tiglath Pileser III., Shalmaneser V., Sennacherib also "cut their names" there to tell of their presence so far from home. You will notice on Esar-haddon's relief the royal cap, and the group of sacred symbols on a level with his head, amongst them the circle of Ashur, without the feathered man.

Esar-haddon was the third of the kings whose palaces were found buried in the ruins of Calah, in the mound Nimrud. You will remember that the others were Ashur-nazir-pal and Shalmaneser III. Another splendid palace built by Esar-haddon was buried at Nineveh, under the mound called after the prophet Jonah.

[pg 170]

The two great nations--the one on the banks of the Nile, and the other on the banks of the Tigris and Euphrates--came to very close quarters in this reign. Esar-haddon conquered the Delta lands, and later, when Tirhakah revolted, one of the first things his son and successor had to do was to restore the Assyrian power in Egypt.

It is sad to think of the industrious and prosperous valley of the Nile brought so low. Cities and temples were plundered, the crops trampled down, and the people lived in misery and want as the terrors of war ranged round them.

Ashur-bani-pal reigned for over thirty years in the latter half of the seventh century, during which time Assyria rose to its greatest height of power. All round the compass the generals pushed their conquests. The slabs in the Nineveh Gallery show the terrible methods of warfare in the case of the Elamites. Ashur-bani-pal winds up the account of the victory with these words: "With the cut-off head of Te-umman (the leader of the Elamites) the road to Arbela I took with joy."

In perhaps the only domestic scene in all the sculptures in the Assyrian Saloon, Ashur-bani-pal is shown reclining on a couch in Eastern fashion, in the palace garden, drinking wine with his queen, who sits on a high throne-chair with a footstool. The head of Te-umman hangs on one of the trees close by!

There are many other slabs in the Assyrian Saloon that illustrate the life of the last of the great kings of Assyria. Look at those showing wars against [pg 171] the Arabians, Egyptians, Babylonians. The camp scenes are very lifelike, especially that one of the horses drinking. Children do not often come into pictures on the slabs, but you can find one drinking from a skin of water, another riding on a man's shoulder, others led by the hand.

Ashur-bani-pal seems to have been even fonder of hunting than of war, and the slabs that show him at his favourite sport of killing are in the finest style of Assyrian art that has come down to us.



"I, Ashur-bani-pal, king of hosts, king of Assyria, whom Ashur and Belit have endowed with might, slew four lions. The powerful bow of Ishtar, the lady of battle, over them I held, and I poured out a libation over them." So had Ashur-nazir-pal some two hundred years before, as we saw in the Nimrud Gallery.

But Ashur-bani-pal went beyond lions and bulls. Wild horses and asses, harmless deer and goats all gave him the excitement of pursuit. See the processions of beaters, and men carrying nets and stakes; you see the great powerful dogs straining against the leash, and the heavy dead lion carried by six or more men.

Do not miss the cages in which the lions were brought to the field and then let out by a man raising the bars from the top. Lions in the seventh century B.C. seem to have become more scarce than when Amen-hetep III. killed his hundred and two lions in about the fourteenth century B.C.

If you try to picture Ashur-bani-pal passing over the pavement from his palace with the beautiful lotus [pg 172] flower and bud border, you must think of him as tall and strong, with a broad face, wide-awake eyes, a straight nose, long and wavy hair.

He was certainly always well and carefully groomed, with hair and beard perfumed and curled. One of his state costumes is thus described: a high mitre of white wool striped with blue. A wide band, ornamented with rosettes in golden thread, holds it in place upon the forehead; the two ends, being tied behind, fall upon the neck. The short sleeved dress is of very deep blue, embroidered with rosettes in red cotton; it is fastened round the waist by a wide sash, edged at the ends by a fringe decorated with glass beads. The designs on the heavily embroidered vest which completes the gorgeous array are minute copies of those we saw in the Nimrud Gallery of the king adoring the sacred trees, and struggling with lions. We must add the necklet and armlets of solid gold, and the umbrella with wide ends like a pugaree, to make the sketch complete.

But Ahsur-bani-pal was more than a great warrior, sportsman, and dandy; he was a great lover and collector of books. So had been his father, Esar-haddon; his grandfather, Sennacherib; his great-grandfather, Sargon; and, during the hundred years that this powerful family had ruled Assyria, they had founded and enriched libraries in the palaces they built.

In the Assyrian Room wall-cases are shown some of the most precious and wonderful books from the Royal library at Nineveh. They are of the same shape and kind as some of the documents we have already looked at in the upper room, being cakes of prepared clay, [pg 173] written upon with a specially shaped stylus when moist, and then baked hard in an oven.

Listen to the words which nearly every important tablet in this library bears upon it: "From the Palace of Ashur-bani-pal, king of hosts, king of Assyria, who putteth his trust in the gods who have bestowed upon him ears which hear, and eyes which see. I have inscribed upon tablets the noble products of the work of the scribe--and have arranged them in classes; I have revised them, and I have placed them in my palace, that I, even I, the ruler who knoweth the light of Ashur, the king of the gods, may read them." He finishes with the Assyrian equivalent for "Steal not this book for fear of shame, for in it is the owner's name--Ashur-bani-pal."

The ancient cities of Babylonia and Assyria had long possessed libraries, and the king sent scribes to make copies for him; he also had lists of words and signs drawn up, together with copies of the old Accadian classics, with translations in the Assyrian of his day.

You can trace the marks of fire which has scorched but not destroyed the books, and can see how often they are broken, most likely by falling from the shelves of wood, on which they were arranged, when the fire consumed the library in which they were stored.

We must dip into the books and find out what they are about.

In one of the cases we have the famous creation tablets, believed to be copied from far more ancient ones. They give an account of the creation of the world, in many respects like that given in the Book of [pg 174] Genesis. If you read the labels you will learn of the great water-deep when the heavens and the earth were not, and there were no plants. You will learn, too, of the creation of the stars and the appointment of the moon to determine the days, and so on, up to the crowning creation of Man.

Here are the instructions which Marduk, the champion of the gods, gave to the first man:

"Thy heart shall be pure before they God, for that is what is due to him; thou shalt pray, thou shalt make supplication, and bow low to the earth, early in the morning. Speak no evil against thy friend and neighbour."

In this case, too, is the thrilling fairy story or legend, perhaps, one of the oldest in the world, of the exploits of a hero named Gilgamish, which somewhat remind one of those of Heracles.

On his way to the mountain of the sunset, Gilgamish passes trees laden with precious stones instead of fruit, and a scorpion man and his wife. A sailor (it reminds you of another story perhaps) comes to the rescue and helps him and his friend to cross the sea, and then he hears the story of the Flood and the Ark, the swallow and the raven, from the man who was saved when all the rest of the world were drowned.

Next, we come to some of the history books of the collection, and familiar names such as those of Sargon, Tiglath Pileser, Sennacherib, meet our eyes.

Numerous letters about public and private affairs follow.

One is called the will of Sennacherib; another is a [pg 175] letter to Ashur-bani-pal respecting the transport of some colossi on boats.

Many relate to the treatment of the sick and the calling in of doctors. In one a lady is spoken of as grievously ill and unable to eat. The treatment of those times sounds very extraordinary to us. In one case the priest casts into the fire various objects, including a pod of garlic, a date, a palm frond. The idea seems to have been that illness was caused by being bewitched, and so all sorts of means are employed to get rid of the danger by charms and prayers.

Some of the prayers to the gods are very beautiful; especially so is the Accadian hymn to the Moon god. It ends up with these words:

"Among the gods, they brethren, there is none who is like unto thee, O though king of kings, whose judgments are inscrutable, and whose divinity is unsurpassed."

Amongst the bricks from the buildings of the kings of Assyria, in the upper galleries, are many belonging to Ashur-bani-pal; there are also some fine cylinders of this king--one, a ten-sided one, gives an account of his birth and education, his campaigns, and buildings. The stone stele sculptured with the figure of his twin brother, whom he made viceroy of Babylon, opens up a tragic story of the middle of the seventh century B.C. It ended in a palace in flames, in which the owner perished rather than surrender to the brother against who he had revolted.

How little Ashur-bani-pal, in his magnificence, could have imagined, that within thirty years of his death, near the end of this seventh century, his great [pg 176] kingdom which stretched from the Sea of the Rising to the Sea of the Setting Sun--the Persian Gulf to the Mediterranean--would all fall apart, and his splendid palace and library be burnt in the destruction of his capital, Nineveh, after a siege of two years.


(Chapter 10 typed by Janel Folden)


Previous Chapter  |  Next Chapter