The news in recent years has brought us a lot of grim, violent stuff originating in Iraq. First came the forcible removal from power of the bloodthirsty tyrant Saddam Hussein, who during a long reign was responsible for the deaths of thousandsmaybe hundreds of thousandsof his own citizens. Then, upon Saddam’s fall, came a host of Iraqi mini-tyrants who have imposed a chaotic, anarchic insurgency upon that unhappy country, giving it a daily ration of suicide bombers, attacks on places of worship, and other horrors.
Iraq these days is a troubled and troublesome place. But when we look back across that country’s history, as I’ve been doing lately, we see a grand tradition of monstrous violence there stretching back thousands of years. Saddam wasn’t the first ogre to rule Iraq. Nor was heby some distancethe worst.
I ought to clarify, at this point, what I mean by “Iraq.” As a national name, that’s a fairly recent one. My eleventh Edition of the Encyclopaedia Britannica, published in 1910 and considered a reliable compendium of just about all that was known at that time, says nothing about “Iraq,” though it does have an entry for “Irak-Arabi,” which it tells us is “the name employed since the Arab conquest to designate that portion of the valley of the Tigris and Euphrates known in older literature as Babylonia.” Irak-Arabi, we learn, is made up of two unequal portions: “an extensive dry steppe with a healthy desert climate, and an unhealthy region of swamps,” the latter being in the southern region. Two great rivers run through the area, the Tigris and the Euphrates, which had led the Romans to give the area the name of Mesopotamia, “the land between the rivers.” Certain portions of the country, the encyclopedia reports, are periodically terrorized by uncontrollable Bed-ouin marauders, and the whole place, after a period of great prosperity in the early days of Arab rule more than a thousand years ago, “has now returned to a condition of semi-barbarism.”
The territory once known as Irak-Arabi had come under Persian rule in the fourteenth century, then fell to the Ottoman Turks in 1534, and entered into a long period of stagnation and disarray. The Ottomans divided it into two provinces, with Basra as the capital of the swampy south and Baghdad the capital of the central area where the two rivers are closest together. The old Roman province of Mesopotamia had had a third district north of that, which the Ottomans made a province with its administrative center at Mosul, close by the ruins of Nineveh, the ancient capital of the warlike kingdom of Assyria. When the Ottoman Empire was broken up after World War I, its three Mesopotamian provinces of Mosul, Baghdad, and Basra were combined by the victorious Allies to create the new independent nation of Iraq, with Faisal, an Arabian-born prince, as its first king. A revolution in 1958 expelled the royal dynasty and Iraq has been a republic ever since, under the rule of a series of oppressive dictators culminating in Saddam Hussein.
The key thing that emerges from this quick tour of history is that present-day Iraq is a hodgepodge of incompatible nationalities deriving primarily from the ancient kingdoms of Babylonia and Assyria. (The coming of Islam has added a further complication because of the division between Sunni and Shiite religious factions: the Sunnis are dominant in northern Iraq, the Shiites in the south, and the central area holds a mixture of both groups.)
Lately I’ve been delving into early Mesopotamian history, thanks to a fascinating book I acquired a few months ago called Ancient Records of Assyria and Babylonia. This, edited by Daniel David Luckenbill, a professor of Semitic languages at the University of Chicago, and published by the University in 1927, is a collection of translations of inscriptions left behind by the Assyrian kings. It’s easy to see from the fierce boasts of those bloodthirsty monarchs that Saddam had been using them as role models during his thirty years of rule in the region that had once been theirs. Anyone who had the sort of old-fashioned education that I was lucky enough to have, a couple of generations ago, is well aware, of course, of what bad guys the Assyrians were. Though I was never particularly religious, I did read the BibleKing James Versionfor its literary value, and in the Old Testament I encountered again and again the villainous Assyrians who forever made life so tough for my Hebrew ancestors.
In II Kings, for example, the tale is told of the Assyrian invasion of the two Jewish kingdoms of Judah and Israel. Israel fell first, and its people were carried off to Assyria in captivity. Then, II Kings reports, “in the fourteenth year of king Hezekiah did Sennacherib king of Assyria come up against all the fenced cities of Judah, and took them.” Sennacherib, who had previously conquered neighboring Babylonia and much of Palestine, demanded an immense tribute, “and Hezekiah gave him all the silver that was found in the house of the Lord, and in the treasures of the king’s house. And at that time did Hezekiah cut off the gold from the doors of the temple of the Lord, and from the pillars which Hezekiah king of Judah had overlaid, and gave it to the king of Assyria.”
Lord Byron, in a gaudy poem called “The Destruction of Sennacherib” that I loved when I was a boy, has this to say of the savage Assyrian attack:
The Assyrian came down like a wolf on the fold
And his cohorts were gleaming in purple and gold;
And the sheen of their spears was like stars on the sea
When the blue wave rolls nightly on deep Galilee.
In the Biblical version, and Byron’s, things end fairly well for the Hebrews: the Lord hears his people’s prayers, and the Angel of Death goes among the Assyrians in their camp outside Jerusalem, smiting them so vehemently that in one night “an hundred fourscore and five thousand” are slain, “so Sennacherib king of Assyria departed, and went and returned, and dwelt at Nineveh.”
Upon turning to Luckenbill’s Ancient Records of Assyria, I made two interesting discoveries: one, that the Assyrian invasion of Judah took place pretty much as the Bible describes, and, two, that the Jewish kingdom may have survived the onslaught not by the miraculous intervention of God but by the payment of that stiff tribute. For this is what the actual inscriptions of Sennacherib, who ruled Assyria from 705 to 681 B.C., have to say:
As for Hezekiah, the Jew, who had not submitted to my yoke, forty-six of his strong, walled cities and the cities of their environs, which were numberless, I besieged, I captured, as booty I counted them. Him, like a caged bird, in Jerusalem, his royal city, I shut up. . . . I imposed the payment of yearly gifts by them, as tax, and laid it upon him. That Hezekiahthe terrifying splendor of my royalty overcame him. . . . With thirty talents of gold, eight hundred talents of silver, and all kinds of treasure from his palace, he sent his daughters, his palace women, his male and female singers, to Nineveh, and he dispatched his messengers to pay the tribute.
Ancient Records of Assyria is, in fact, a voluptuous record of Assyria’s ferocious wars against its neighbors, one proud king after another describing his gory victories. Here is Sennacherib conquering Babylon:
With mines and engines I took the city. . . . Whether small or great, I left none. With their corpses I filled the city squares. . . . The city and its houses, from its foundation to its top, I destroyed, I devastated, I burned with fire. . . . Through the midst of that city I dug canals, I flooded its site with water, and the very foundations thereof I destroyed. I made its destruction more complete than by a flood.
And this is an earlier king, Assurnasirpal, defeating the city of Dirra:
For two days, from before sunrise, I thundered against them like Adad, the god of the storm, and I rained down flame upon them. . . . I captured the city, eight hundred of their warriors I struck down with the sword, I cut off their heads. . . . A pillar of living men and of heads I built in front of their city gate, seven hundred men I impaled on stakes in front of their city gate. The city I destroyed, I devastated, I turned it into mounds and ruins; their young men I burned in the flames.
Here is King Shamsi-Adad V, telling of his conquest of Urash:
That city I stormed, I captured. With the blood of their warriors I dyed the squares of their cities like wool. Six thousand of them I smote. Pirishati, their king, together with one thousand of his fighters, I seized alive. Their spoiltheir property, their goods, their cattle, their flocks, their horses, vessels of silver, splendid gold, and copper, in countless numbers, I carried off. Their cities I destroyed, I devastated, I burned with fire.
On and on it goes, two fat volumes of it, king after king blithely describing the most ghastly acts of war. “Karkar I burned with fire. Its king I flayed. . . .” “I slaughtered like lambs and bespattered with the venom of death the rest of the rebellious people. . . .” “I killed large numbers of his troops, the bodies of his warriors I cut down like millet, filling the mountain valleys with them. I made their blood run down the ravines and precipes like a river, dyeing plain countryside and highlands red like a royal robe. . . .” “Like a young gazelle I mounted the highest peaks in pursuit of them. To the summits of the mountains I pursued them and brought about their overthrow. Their cities I captured and I carried off their spoil; I destroyed, I devastated, I burned them with fire.”
Open the two volumes anywhere and it’s the same stuff: “I destroyed, I devastated, I burned them with fire.” I can readily imagine Saddam Hussein, who fancied himself as the successor to the kings of Assyria and Babylonia and set up some inscriptions of his own in the restored ruins of the city of Babylon, reading these books and nodding approvingly “Right on, Sennacherib! Way to go, Assurnasirpal!” and picking up some ideas on governance from them.
All of which proves, I guess, that the more things change, the more they remain the same. Perhaps it’s something in the waters of the Tigris or the Euphrates that has bred these monsters in the land once known as Meso-potamia and now called Iraq; or perhaps the Assyrian kings were no worse than any other rulers of their day, but were simply more enthusiastic in bragging of their atrocities.
What I find most interesting about these horrifying testaments of atrocity isn’t their ghastliness but the mere fact that we are capable of reading them at all, written as they were on tablets of clay in what is now a lost language and a strange wedge-shaped script. It strikes me as a good idea to talk about how we came to understand the inscriptions of the Assyrians and the Babylonians in the first place, next issue.