Tuesday, April 16, 2013

Peoples of the empire: The Assyrians

The Assyrians are one of the oldest surviving nations in the world.  If the traditional identification of Aššur with the Sumerian name Subartu is correct, the city is at least four and a half millennia old, even predating the Old Akkadian period.

For possible ancestors of Yossarian the Assyrian, please see a different entry.

The eponymous capital was settled on the banks of the Tigris in northern Iraq around the 26th century BC and went through many phases (which I'm not going to go into) of ascendancy and decline, native rule interspersed with rule by Akkadians, Sumerians, Babylonians and others before the creation of the Neo-Assyrian empire (912-608 BC).  It was in this last period that Assyria gained its warlike reputation and status as Babylon's greatest rival and eventual conqueror.  The Neo-Assyrian empire's power stretched from Egypt to Persia and Urartu, and for a while it was the largest empire that had yet existed on Earth.  Although Aššur remained the religious center of the empire, its administrative capital was later moved to Nineveh (704), where it would remain until the empire's final few years.

Aššurbanipal (r. 668-627) was the last strong king of the empire.  His conquest of the Elamite empire (657), then centered at Susa, weakened that country, possibly allowing for the Persians to seize power in the faraway highlands of Anshan.  After his death, a succession crisis and civil war broke out, then Babylon under the Chaldean dynasty rebelled and formed an alliance with the Scythians and Medes.  In 612, the alliance sacked Aššur and Nineveh.  The Assyrian king Aššur-uballit II retreated to Harran, which passed between the Assyrian-Egyptian alliance and the Babylonian-Median one for four years; its final fall in 608 marked the end of the Assyrian state.  Assyrian forces then moved to Carchemish, but were defeated again in 605 by the famous Nebuchadnezzar II (Akkadian Nabû-kudurri-usur)

The lands of Assyria passed partly to the Medes, but largely to the Neo-Babylonian empire, whose last king, Nabonidus, is believed to have been an Assyrian from Harran who overthrew the young Chaldean monarch Labashi-Marduk.  With Cyrus' conquest of the Medes and Babylonians, Assyria became an Achaemenid possession called Athura.

Achaemenid Assyria comprised northern Mesopotamia and modern Syria, whose name is probably a Greek abbreviation of Assyria.  It was a rebellious country during the late 6th century, but also furnished troops for the imperial armies.  The Assyrians during Xerxes' invasion of Greece were commanded by an "Otaspes son of Artachaees" (Herodotus VII.63).

Nineveh remained barely inhabited in the days of Xenophon, but the rural countryside was heavily populated with many villages, and the region was agriculturally very productive.  Xenophon mentioned that bread, cheese and wine were still produced at Aššur.

After the death of Alexander, Assyria wound up in the hands of the Seleucid empire, then the Parthians.  The Assyrians rebuilt Aššur during this period, and it became the administrative center of Arsacid (Parthian) rule.  Assyrians founded the kingdom of Adiabene in the area (AD 15-117) before being briefly conquered by the Romans and then the Parthians again.  The Sassanids, who succeeded the Arsacids, referred to Assyria as the province of Asōrestān.  After the Islamic conquest and the spread of the Arabic language, Assyria as a region ceased to be recognized, but the Assyrian ethnic group held on, albeit as a minority.  Today, the largest population of Assyrians still lives in Iraq, with significant populations in Syria, Iran, Turkey, Lebanon, Europe and the Untied States.

From the time they entered written history, Assyrians spoke a dialect of Akkadian, an East Semitic language that became the lingua franca of much of Mesopotamia during the Old Akkadian period.  The conquest of Aram (Syria) during the Neo-Assyrian empire led to Aramaic, a northwest Semitic language more closely related to Hebrew and Phoenician, gaining importance; the Assyrians are largely responsible for the spread of Aramaic throughout the Near East during Classical Antiquity.  By the Hellenistic period, Akkadian was mostly reduced to liturgical and scholarly use, and went extinct around the 3rd century AD (with Akkadian cuneiform falling out of use around the turn of the 1st century).  Modern eastern membrs of the so-called Neo-Aramaic languages, being used mainly by Assyrians, contains some Akkadian loanwords.

I am unsure of whether an Assyrian of the Achaemenid period should more likely be speaking Akkadian or Imperial Aramaic, although either would be acceptable.

Akkadian was usually written in Akkadian cuneiform, while Aramaic used the Aramaic (or Syriac) script, derived from the Phoenician.  The Aramaic script was ancestral and pretty similar to the Hebrew alphabet of today.  The Nabatean alphabet, Pahlavi (Parthian) scripts of the Parthian and Sassanid empires and modern Arabic script are also derived from the Aramaic.

Assyrians in the Persian empire continued the native religious traditions of Mesopotamia.  Aššur was named for its patron god, and indeed the proper name of Assyria was actually mât Aššur, "country of Aššur."  Upon the conquest of Babylon in the Neo-Assyrian period, his name was conflated with Anšar, the god of the sky, and a new version of the Enûma Eliš was promulgated in which Anšar replaces Marduk as slayer of Tiamat and creator of the human world.  The Cyrus Cylinder speaks of repatriating stolen idols to the eponymous city, and the city's temples of Aššur and Ishtar were in continuous use during the Achaemenid and Hellenistic periods.  During the 1st century AD, Christianity, Judaism and Mandeanism began to spread, though the native religion held on for a few centuries more.  Assyrians today mostly belong to a variety of Eastern Christian denominations.

Clothing and arms
On the tomb of Darius the Great, the Assyrian is dressed simply in a tunic falling to just above the knee, bare-legged, belted and with a headband rather than a hat of any kind.  The details are a little difficult to make out in the photos I've seen but I also have a line drawing showing the tunic with long fitted sleeves and a round neckline.  At Persepolis, Syrians (who, if not identical with the Assyrians, probably dressed similarly) wear mid-calf tunics with short sleeves, and headbands and belts divided into four distinct rows, perhaps pleats.  They also wear boots that rise to just above the ankle and are laced in a curious manner with the laces from all four eyelets gathered and tied up in the middle.  See bottom photo on the left at the Nirupars gallery.

Assyrian men and women of the Neo-Assyrian period wore more complex garments which appear to consist of an ankle-length undertunic with a wide embroidered hem, and a wraparound shawl with a long fringe.  Such fancy clothing is unlikely to be worn by soldiers on campaign, but may be considered for civilian impressions.  Fashion-Era has instructions on wrapping the shawls properly as well as making an Egyptian-style short-sleeved tunic which is apparently similar to the Assyrian undertunic.

While the Neo-Assyrians are known to have used cavalry, Herodotus lists them among the infantry in Xerxes' army.  He says that the Assyrians in the army wore bronze helmets (which he helpfully explains were "made in an outlandish fashion not easy to describe") and linen corslets, and "carried shields and spears and daggers of Egyptian fashion, and also wooden clubs studded with iron."  With regards to Egyptian arms, he says their shields were "hollow" with "broad rims" and that their swords were long.

I have found very little archaeological evidence relating to the Achaemenid period or to Assyrian arms in general.  Equipment is well-represented in reliefs from the Neo-Assyrian period, but obviously things may have changed significantly by the early 5th century.

Neo-Assyrian helmets were generally onion-shaped with small rounded extensions that are a little too short to be called cheek guards, and sometimes small crests (when these are present the helmet itself is usually shorter or even rounded, with the crest held atop a short tube).  It's hard to say what Herodotus might find "outlandish" about these and perhaps he is talking about a different style that was used in his day.

Shields were either round and deeply domed or conical, or tall pavises with flat bottoms and round or pointed tops curving back.  These latter find a vaguely similar counterpart in ancient Egypt, but whether this is what Herodotus is referring to, I cannot say.  So far as I can tell, Assyrian shields normally had central grips.

Interestingly, his point about swords and daggers seems to be backed up by the reliefs on Darius' tomb.  The Assyrian wears a short dagger tucked into his belt, and the Egyptian wears a long sword on his left hip; both have a strange two-branched pommel that is very unlike the unobtrusive little pommels on swords in Neo-Assyrian art.

The nearest I have found to a depiction of Assyrian clubs is a relief of maces from the late 8th century.

Lastly, although not mentioned by Herodotus, no discussion of ancient Assyrian martial arts would be complete without archery.  Archers are well-represented in art, wielding bows that are D-shaped or triangular with small recurved tips and wearing shoulder quivers.  Assyrian-style bows are widely available, though most have longer and less curly tips than those shown in period art.  I have found only one useful depiction of arrowheads, which are here shown as rather large and kite-shaped with a strong mid-rib, probably two-bladed.  (Note also the dagger with its mushroom-shaped pommel, ribbed grip and odd scabbard, simultaneously attached to a shoulder belt and tucked behind the waist belt.)  In this relief, the shooter uses a pinch draw.  Archers fought both from chariots and on foot, standing or kneeling behind pavises.

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