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Akhiqar - The Wise and Virtuous Man at the Assyrian Court

by Julius N. Shabbas

Posted: Thursday, July 20, 2000 at 12:03 PM UT

Akhiqar was a wise and virtuous man, Chancellor or Secretary at the court of the Assyrian Kings Sennacherib (704-681 BC) and Esarhaddon (680-669 BC). The history and wisdom proverbs of Akhiqar, those that are found, were written in Aramaic, an alphabetical form of writing and a much simpler system than cuneiform. This story may have had an Assyrian prototype which, so far, has not been found. Aramaic was already an official language in Assyria during the reign of Tiglath-Pilesar III (745-727).

The material used in writing Aramaic was on clay, an indestructible material; with ink on potsherds having some chance of survival; papyrus or parchment having practically no chance of survival over millennia.

Assyrian : assuritu : assuraiuA considerable number of translations, among them Assyrian (misnamed Syriac), Arabic, Armenian, Ethiopic, old Turkish, Greek and Slavonic, indicate that the story of Akhiqar was very popular in antiquity.

Akhiqar and his proverbs are not without historical evidence, in light of the discovery of an Assyrian tablet at Uruk from the Seleucid era, in which there is reference to Akhiqar. The tablet relates that "in the time of Esarhaddon, Aba-enlil-dari whom the Arameans call Ahuqar was ummanu, court scholar. [The text was first published by J.J. Van Dijk, as reported by J.C. Greenfield in the Journal of the American Oriental Society 82 (1962) 293].

The story of Akhiqar and his proverbial wisdom influenced the development of Jewish wisdom literature early in the Hellenistic period (3rd century BC to 3rd century AD). Similar ethical doctrines appear in the old Testament books of Psalms and Ecclesiastes and in the apocryphal books of Tobit and Ecclesiasticus. Traces of the story and the maxims are also found in other sources such as the Arabic Thousand and One Nights, the Greek edition of Aesop's Fables, and the Koran.

The story of Akhiqar is divided into two parts: Akhiqar's life, the adoption of his nephew Nadin and how he was betrayed; the other contains 142 maxims or sage observations on such matters as education, obedience, respect, gratitude, and retribution.

The narrative portion of the text relates the experiences of Akhiqar and, in his advancing age, realizing he would leave no offspring to pass on his wisdom, he decided to adopt his nephew Nadin, to whose education, in the form of a series of maxims, Akhiqar devoted much time and effort to take his place at court. After careful grooming with words of wisdom, Nadin was chosen his uncle's successor at the king's court. Akhiqar, however, ultimately convinced that his protegé was not equal to the task, disowned him. When Nadin was established in power, he forgot his benefactor and repaid him with evil; by means of forged letters he implicates his uncle in treason and slanders him before the king to have him put to death. However, Nabusemakh, a friendly and loyal executioner, secretly hides Akhiqar in an underground chamber, and a condemned slave was put to death in his place.

Men and women throughout Assyria were saddened when they heard that Akhiqar was killed. Sennacherib called Nadin to make preparations for a memorial festivity, but Nadin ignored the King's order, and went about feasting with his friends. Pharaoh, King of Egypt, was happy to hear that Akhiqar was killed. He dispatched a letter to Sennacherib stating that he is planning to build a castle between heaven and earth and to send him a skilled architect and wise enough to solve several profound riddles. The Pharaoh set a condition that if the architect builds the castle and solves the riddles, he would send a three-year revenue of Egypt to Assyria, but if he could not then King Sennacherib shall send the revenue of three years.

The king read the letter to his nobles, and their response was that only Akhiqar was qualified to resolve questions like these. Nadin, on the other hand, declined the challenge saying that not even gods can do these things, let alone men. The king was saddened to have Akhiqar executed by the words of a boy like Nadin. "Alas for thee, Akhiqar the wise, who will give thee to me for such a time as this? I would give him thy weight in gold," said King Sennacherib. When Yabusemakh, the loyal executioner, heard these words, he fell down before the king, admitting that he disobeyed the orders, and told how Akhiqar has been spared, is well and alive. Immediately the king mounted his chariot and rushed to see Akhiqar. The king wept and was ashamed to talk with him, saying that it was Nadin, your nephew, who sinned against thee and not I, Sennacherib. The king asked Akhiqar to go home, clean up, rest for forty days and then come to see him.

Akhiqar returns to King Sennacherib and hears Pharaoh's request. Sennacherib was rejoiced when he heard Akhiqar's positive response, and to not be concerned with this matter.



Immediately Akhiqar writes a letter to his wife Eshpagne to command his huntsmen to catch two young eagles; and command the workers in flax to make two ropes each the length of a thousand ells and as thick as one's finger. And to bid the carpenters to construct two cages for the eagles; and have two boys Ubael and Tabshelim who do not know how to talk, to teach them to say, "Give the builders mud, mortar, tiles, bricks, for they are idle." A practice session ensued wherein the boys sat in the cages on the backs of the eagles that were tied with the long ropes. After several days, the young eagles gained strength and the boys had learned their lines. King Sennacherib and his nobles marvelled at Akhiqar's ingenious device.

Akhiqar bid farewell to the king and took his leave with a force of soldiers. He arrives in Egypt, goes to the king's gate where the nobles inform Pharaoh of the arrival of a man whom the king of Assyria has sent. Akhiqar and his men were given a place of residence. And on the following day he calls on the king, and in a dignified way inquires about his health, and tells Pharaoh that he was a servant in the Assyrian kingdom, and was sent by his King, Sennacherib, to fulfill your desire. Pharaoh marvelled at the eloquence and educated presentation of the messenger. "What is your name?" Pharaoh asked. "My name is Awikam, a contemptible ant of the Assyrian Kingdom" replied Akhiqar. "Am I so despised by your lord that he has sent me a despised ant of his kingdom?", Pharaoh said. The king then ordered Awikam to go to his residence and return early in the morning.

Day one
Avikam returns the following morning to find Pharaoh sitting on his throne wearing fine linen, and his nobles dressed in red clothes. Pharaoh (asks Avikam): To what am I like, and to what are my nobles like? Avikam (responds): My lord the king, you are like Bel, and your nobles are like the priests.

Day two
The king was wearing white clothes, and his nobles dressed in white linen. King: To what am I like, and to what are my nobles like? Avikam: My lord the king, you are like the sun, and your nobles are like its rays.

Day three
The king was wearing crimson clothes, and his nobles dressed in black. King: To what am I am like, and to what are the nobles like? Awikam: My lord the king, you are like the moon, and your nobles like the stars.

Day Four
The king was robed in fine needlework, the nobles in diverse and varied colors, and the doors of the palace were covered with red hangings. King: To what am I like, and to what are my nobles like? Awikam: My lord the king, you are like the month of Nisan, and your nobles to its flowers. After hearing Awikam's responses to the four questions, Pharaoh asked, "To what is thy lord like?"

"Be it far from me, my lord the king, that I should make mention my lord Sennacherib, while you are seated", Awikam responded. Pharaoh was surprised at the daring and liberal statement Awikam uttered. The king then got up from his throne and said, "Now you can tell me." "My lord Sennacherib is like the God of Heaven and his nobles to the lightnings that are in the clouds; for when he wills, he fashions hail from the rain and the dew; and if he thunders, he restrains the sun from rising, and its rays from being seen; and he will restrain Bel from coming in and from going forth in the street (or market place), and his nobles from being seen; and he will stop the moon from rising and the stars from appearing."

And when Pharaoh heard these things he was intensely angry, and said to Avikam, "By the life of your lord, tell me truly what is your name?" Awikam honestly answered and said, "I am Akhiqar, the Secretary and Great Seal of Sennacherib, King of Assyria and Nineveh." Then the king said to him, "Didn't I hear that your lord had killed you." Akhiqar said, "I am yet alive, my lord the king, and God saved me from something which my hands did not."

Before the king dismissed Akhiqar, he told him to return the following day and to tell him a word which neither he nor his nobles, nor anyone in the city of his kingdom have ever heard.

After some meditation, Akhiqar wrote the following letter: "From Pharaoh, King of Egypt, to Sennacherib, King of Assyria and Nineveh, greetings. Kings have need of Kings and brothers of brothers; and at this time my gifts are meager, because there is deficiency of money in my treasury. Command and send me from your treasury 900 talents of gold and in a short time I will return them to you." He folded the letter, and the following day he presented himself to Pharaoh, and said that perhaps in this letter there is a word that was never heard by you. When Akhiqar read the letter, the nobles cried out, as they were commanded to do, and said that this has been heard by all of us and it is so. The king was surprised to hear when the matter of the debt of 900 talents due to Assyria was brought to his attention. At this point the king said that he is planning to build a castle between earth and heaven, and to a height of 1000 fathoms. Akhiqar asked the king to have his workers prepare mortar, bricks, mud and tiles. He then produced the young eagles, bound ropes to their feet, mounted the little boys on their back, and up they flew in the sky. The boys were shouting, "provide mortar, bricks, mud and tiles for the builders because they are idle." The king, the nobles and the congregation gathered were all perplexed. Akhiqar then took a rod or staff and beat the king's nobles in order to provide building material, until they ran away. The king was angry with Akhiqar and said, "You are mad, and who can carry up anything to these boys?" Akhiqar responded by saying that if it is difficult for you to carry the building material up, then how can we build a castle in the sky. If my lord Sennacherib had been here he would have built a couple of castles in one day.

The following morning Akhiqar presented himself to the king. Pharaoh said, "Akhiqar, explain to me how the horse of your lord neighs in Assyria, and our mares hear his voice here, and their foals miscarry." Akhiqar left the palace and commanded his servants to catch him a cat. He whips the cat in the streets of the city. The Egyptians report the incident to the king and say that Akhiqar mocks us. The king calls him in and says, "Why are you insulting us?" Akhiqar responds: "Last night this cat went to Assyria and tore off the head of the cock that had been entrusted to me by my lord, King Sennacherib, and returned." The king said "Akhiqar, you have grown old and absolutely mad. How could this cat, in a single night, go to Assyria which is a distance of 360 parasangs, cut the head of the cock and return?" Akhiqar said, "If the distance from Egypt to Assyria is 360 parasangs, how come your mares in this place hear the voice of the horse of my lord, and their foals miscarry?"

Pharaoh then asks Akhiqar to expound on the following riddles:

King: A pillar has twelve cedars on its head; each cedar has thirty wheels, and in every wheel two cables, one white and one black.

Akhiqar: My lord, the king, even the ox-herds in our country understand this riddle. The pillar that you speak of is the year; the twelve cedars are the twelve months of the year; the thirty wheels are the thirty days of the month; and two cables, one white and one black, represent the day and the night.

King: Akhiqar, twine me five cables from the sand of the river.

Akhiqar: My lord the king, bid them to bring me one rope of sand from your treasury, and I will make one to match it.

King: If you can not do this, then I will not give you the Egyptian tribute.

At this point Akhiqar went out and bored five holes in the eastern wall of the palace. And when the sun penetrated the holes, he scattered sand in them, and the sun's path began to appear as if the sand were twined in the holes. He asked the king to have these taken and he would weave others in their place. The king and his nobles were astonished.

The king then commanded to bring to Akhiqar an upper millstone that was broken to sew up the broken part. Akhiqar left and brought a nether (the mortar) millstone, and cast it down before the king and said, "My lord the king, since I am a stranger here, and do not have the tools of my craft with me, bid the cobblers cut me strips from this lower millstone which is the fellow of the upper millstone, and I will sew it together." Pharaoh laughed when he heard it and said, "The day in which Akhiqar was born shall be blessed before the god of Egypt; and since I have seen you alive, I will make it a great day and a feast."

Pharaoh then gave Akhiqar the revenue of Egypt for three years and he returned to Assyria. He went straight to his lord, King Sennacherib who restored him to his former position, and offered him anything he wanted. Akhiqar said, "My lord whatever you wish to give me, bestow it upon Nabusemakh, because he gave me my life. And as for myself, bid them give me my son Nadin that I may teach him a further lesson since he has forgotten my previous teaching ."

A number of Akhiqar's proverbial sayings have appeared in the previous issues of Nineveh magazine. I will cite a few more when he was grooming Nadin for the Court, and some others when he was betrayed.

Beauty fades but learning lasts, and the world wanes and becomes vain, but a good name neither becomes vain nor wanes.

My son, let thy words be true, in order that thy lord may say to thee, "Draw near me; and thou shalt live."

My son, bring not upon thee the curses of thy father and thy mother, lest thou rejoice not in the blessings of thy children.

My son, associate with the wise man, and you will become wise like him; and associate not with a garrulous and talkative man, lest thou be numbered with him.

My son, rejoice not over the enemy when he dies.

My son, the eye of man is like a fountain of water, and it is not satisfied with riches until filled with dust.

My son, smite with stones the dog that has left his own master and followed thee.

My son, judge upright judgment in thy youth, in order that in thy age thou mayest have honor.

My son, send a wise man and give him no orders; but if thou wilt send a fool, go rather thyself and send him not.

My son, a snare was set upon a dunghill, and there came a sparrow and looked at it and said, 'What doest thou here?' And the snare said, 'I am praying to God.' The sparrow said, 'And what is that in thy mouth?' The snare said, 'Bread for guests.' Then the sparrow drew near and took it, and the snare caught him by the neck. And the sparrow said, as he was being shaken, 'If this is thy bread for guests, may the God to whom thou prayest never listen to thy voice.'

My son, you have been like the man who saw his companion shivering from cold, and took a pitcher of cold water and threw it over him.

My son, you have been like an ox that was bound with a lion; and the lion turned and crushed him.

My son, you have been to me like the buck that led his companions into the slaughter house; and yet he did not save his own life.

My son, you have been to me like the bird that could not save himself from death, and by his voice slaughtered his companions.

My son, you have been to me like the dog that came to the potters' oven to warm himself, and after he was warm rose up to bark at them.

My son, you have been to me like the swine that had been to the baths, and when it saw a muddy ditch, went down and washed in it, and cried to his companions, 'Come and wash.'

My son, I caused thee to behold the face of the king, and brought thee to great honor; and you chose to do me evil.

My son, you have been to me like the young swallows which fell out of their nest; and a cat caught them and said to them, 'If it had not been for me, great evil would have befallen you.' They answered and said to her, 'Is that why you have put us in your mouth?'

My son, I have seen a she?goat brought into the slaughter house, and because its time was not yet come, it returned to its place and saw its children and its children's children.

My son, I have seen colts that have been slayers of their mothers.

My son, I trained up thy stature like a cedar, but thou hast humbled me in my life, and hast made me drunken with thy wickedness.

My son, thou hast been to me like the mole that came up out of the earth that it might see the sun, though he had no eyes; and a eagle saw him and struck him and carried him off.

My son, you have been to me like that palm tree that stood by a river, and cast all its fruit into the river, and when its lord came to cut it down, it said to him, 'Let me alone this year, and I will bring thee forth carobs.' And its lord said unto it, 'Thou hast not been industrious in what is thine own, and how wilt thou be industrious in what is not thine own?'

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