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Ashur and Ashurayeh (Athurayeh)

by Mark Samuel

Posted: Thursday, March 01, 2001 at 09:05 PM CT


History is a science that crucially depends on the study and analysis of past events with objectivity and impartiality. It is the chain that links the ancestors to their descendants and reveals the intact truth about the "Why" and the " How". Historians die but successors come to continue writing this never dying saga. With the Assyrians however, the game has not been fair. Many historians have identified Assyria (land of Ashur) as an ancient empire, vanquished with its inhabitants in 612 BC. "The Assyrians disappeared almost as completely as the lost tribes" [1]. This statement seems to be generalized in almost every history book or Encyclopedia that, furthermore, describe the fall of Assyria as a mysterious desertion. It has been said: "History is written by the victors" and this what really happened with the Assyrians. They have been forgotten for more than 2,500 years and their Assyrian name has only been mentioned in books dealing with ancient eras. Historians also recognized the Assyrian people as brutal & wicked. Many books don't even bother to mention a single detail about that great civilization but they concentrate on bloodshed just to make their stories more appealing. Will Durant, a historian who wrote a lot about Assyria & Assyrians says: " Civilization is a stream with banks. The stream is sometimes filled with blood from people killing, stealing, shouting and doing the things historians usually record, while on the banks, unnoticed, people build homes, make love, raise children, sing songs, write poetry and even whittle statues. The story of civilization is the story of what happened on the banks. Historians are pessimists because they ignore the banks for the river".

Assyrians or Ashurayeh, as their name indicates, are the followers of Assur or Ashur. Actually, Assyria is a Greek connotation of the word "Ashur". It can be written as Assyrios or Syrios (Syros) due to the dropping of the first syllable, a variation in Greek writing that is adopted from corresponding verified variations in Imperial Aramaic spellings [9]. Using the Greek word "Surayeh" (derived from Syrios/Syros) for "Ashurayeh or Athurayeh" is similar to using the Arabic word "Ashouriyeen" for the same significance.

Furthermore, the expansion of Assyria by the end of the 8th century BC covered the entire Levant. At that time, Aramaic language sneaked in and Assyrians started using it besides their original Akkadian language, which kept hold of its position as the language of the ruling elite and was still used for inscription purposes. In Imperial Aramaic, the word "Athur" was used to refer to "Assyria" [9]. Thus, this gave birth to what is known today as "Atour". This is not a coincidence since the usage of the letters 'T' and 'Th' is a trademark of an absolute assimilation between accents of diverse Assyrian tribes. For instance, saying "Tilon" or "Thilon" eventually leads to the same meaning, that is "they came". This is also the reason why, in today's Iraq, an Assyrian (Atouraya) is often recognized as "Athouri".

Ashur or Assur is the national god of Assyria, its religious capital, and Assyria itself. To begin with, Ashur, as a god, was initially regarded as a local deity of the city that held his name. From about 1800 BC onward, there have been probable strong propensities to associate him with the Sumerian "Enlil" (Akkadian: Bel). Conversely, during his era, the Assyrian king Sargon II (721-705 BC) was keen to correlate him with Anshar, the father of "An" (Akkadian: Anu) in the myth of creation [4]. In GENESIS 10: 1-22 on the other hand, Ashur is illustrated as being one of the sons of Shem, who, in turn, is the son of Noah who had two other sons, Ham and Japheth [8].

During Sennacherib's rule and due to the political tussle between Babylonia and Assyria, intentional attempts were made to relocate Marduk's archaic achievements to Ashur. Besides his religious position, Ashur always embodied Assyria's political identity and ambitions. Assyrians believed that the rule over Assyria was granted from him, and that he supported them in their battles against the villains [4].

As the religious capital however, Ashur (modern Qal'at Sharqat) was first among the successive Assyrian capitals. It was colonized for the first time in 2500 BC. Located on the western bank of Tigris, Ashur played a substantial role in being the hub for the adulation of the god Ashur and the goddess Ishtar/Inanna. This boosted its credit in enjoying prolonged reign as an Assyrian capital despite its weak strategic site, unlike its peers. Around 880 BC, Calah (Nimrud) became the new capital but Ashur preserved its vitality as a religious center [5]. Encompassing walls, 2.5 miles in length, guarded the inner city while the Tigris River washed its eastern borders, along which the Assyrian king Adad-nirari I ( 1295-1264 BC) put up colossal docks for the first time. On the other hand, a high escarpment and an arm of the river supplied its northern rim with natural defenses that were enhanced by structured walls and a semicircular tower of rusticated stonework, built by Sennacherib (704-681) and, in that time, known as "mushlalu". Besides, the southern and western frontiers were protected as well by a strong fortification scheme. Although less than one-third of them was discovered, 34 temples exisisted in Ashur. Some of the few discovered ones were identified as being those of Ashur-Enlil, Anu-Adad, Sin-Shamash, Ishtar/Inanna and Nabu. Additionally, 3 palaces were identified. Shamshi-Adad I (1813-1781 BC) was associated with the oldest of those. Family vaults were abundant underneath the floors of private houses. Also, the Assyrian law that respected land possession and other property rights had further phases concerning women, discovered on series of tablets assembled between 1450 and 1250 BC [4].

As a country, the heartland of Assyria was very small. On the whole, it extended along the Middle Tigris River. Its northern cutting edge was bounded by northern modern Mosul (near Nineveh), while broadening southward toward a range of hills called Jebel Makhul and Jebel Hamrin (west & east of Tigris respectively). Assyria is, in fact, split in half by the Tigris. The wide Jazira plain, which stretches westward as far as the Habur River, bounds the west of the Tigris with its northern mountain range, Jebel Sinjar. To the east, two major streams, the Great (Upper) Zab and the Lesser (lower) Zab Rivers, feed the Tigris within the Assyrian heartland. These streams ascend in mountain arrays, forming a rough quarter-circle east and north of Assyria. Thus, unlike the existence of a single plain in the west, the east is ripped into three sectors, one of which is the plain between the Great Zab and the northern mountains. The center of Erbil, which lies between the two Zabs, represents the second sector. South to the lesser Zab (as far as Jebel Hamrin) however, represents the third sector. Hence, the formation of the first sector added importance to Nineveh, the last and most famous Assyrian capital [3].

Nineveh, or ancient Ninua, was primarily inhabited in 6000 BC. In 705 BC, King Sennacherib established it as the new Assyrian capital and, in which, built the largest palace of its time, which was 42,000 km² large with at least 80 rooms. Also, around 650 BC, King Ashurbanipal founded in Nineveh his large and eminent library. This growth lasted until its destruction with the fall of Assyria in 612 BC [2].

Assyrians or Ashurayeh are the followers of Ashur, the national god, and the inhabitants of Assyria (Northern Mesopotamia- Mesos Potamos - The land between the rivers). Thus, Ashurayeh are northern Mesopotamian and not Mesopotamian as some people think or argue. This entails that the ancestral homeland of the Ashurayeh is Ashur & not the whole Bet-Nahrin ( Mesos Potamos).

The early Assyrian history is, somehow, enfolded with ambiguities. However, it seems that the first attempt to establish an independent Assyrian realm in the north was conducted by Shamshi-Adad I, early in the 1800 BC. This attempt appears to have been rapidly quelled by Hammurabi of Babylon who reinstated the traditional pre-eminence of the south over Assyria. Afterwards, the Assyrians would wait another four hundred years to realize their dream of an independent statehood. This would come in the turmoil of the Amarna period. During the second half of the 1400 BC, the south had become weak under the foreign Kassite dynasty. The Hittites who were pressing forward into Syria, disturbed the Mitanni kingdom, and Egypt, the ally of the Mitannian kings, was engrossed by internal problems due to the Akhenaten's religious revolt. All those events helped the Assyrian rulers, who were succeeding one another in Assur (Ashur), gradually and silently found an independent homeland. Thus, power was now transferred from the south to the north [2]. This minor kingdom would one day become one of the greatest empires the world would recognize. With it, the Assyrian art would be widely launched. This immergence reached its foremost climax with the Assyrian king Tighlath-Pileser III, known as "Pul" from the bible. This notable king was the founder of the greatest Assyrian empire. It was extended to a huge area covering, besides the Tigris and Euphrates valleys, the Persian Gulf and the red sea in the south, the Caspian and Black Seas in the north, parts of Egypt, modern Turkey, Persia, and the lands of the Armenians, Canaanites, Israelites and Phoenicians [1].

What is the relation between the Assyrians, Chladeans, and Arameans? To determine such a relation, an indispensable action would be studying the history of those people, in a way to analyze their roots, thus establishing a certain link, If it exists. As a hypothesis however, it is a controversial issue. Of course, this relation should not be understood as the original bound between all nations. In other words, going back to the immergence of the human race, all human beings can be easily considered brothers and sisters since they all descend from mutual parents. In the table of nations for instance, Noah had three sons: Shem, Ham and Japheth who themselves had sons after the flood. The Japhethites or sons of Japheth were named Gomer, Masog, Madai, Javan, Tubal, Meshech and Tiras. The Hamites or sons of Ham were named Cush, Mizraim, Sabath, Raamah and Sabteca. The Semites or sons of Shem were named Elam, Ashur, Arphaxad, Lud and Aram [8]. This entails that if Assyrians (Ashurayeh) and Arameans are brothers, since Ashur and Aram are brothers, then, by the same token, Assyrians and Elamites are brothers as well. This would be too general and the analysis would stop here. Thus, to determine the relation with the Assyrians, the historical background of both, Chaldeans and Arameans will be illustrated and, in turn, compared to the Assyrian milieu.

The Chaldeans were a group of Semitic people who spoke Aramaic-associated languages. They migrated to Babylonia from the west between 1100 and 875 BC. During the 700's BC, Chaldean kings governed Babylonia at various times [10]. In 721 BC for instance, the Chaldean Marduk-apla-iddina II (the biblical Merodach-baladan), Bit-Yakin's ruler, apprehended the Babylonian throne and held it until 710 BC in spite of Assyrian defiance. He eventually fled, and Bit-Yakin was set under Assyrian supremacy [4]. In 626 BC, Nabopolassar, a ruler of Chaldea (the southern part of Babylonia), became king of Babylonia, and then established the new Babylonian empire in 612 BC, after allying with nearby Media and Scythia to conquer Assyria. "This empire has been called the Chaldean Empire because Nabopolassar had ruled Chaldea" [10]. The whole new Babylonian period was of immense turbulence since there were always loyal-to-Assyrians cities and, furthermore, Babylonian command was recurrently evaluated by philo-Assyrians. This discord would shorten the life of such dynasty of only five consecutive kings. In 555 BC, king Nabonidus, who was loyal to the Assyrians, prioritized the Assyrian Moon-god Sin on the expense of Marduk, the principal god of Babylon. This act infuriated the priests and those faithful to Babylon. Thus, they welcomed Cyrus, the Conqueror of Persia into their city. Consequently, the Persian king invaded Babylon in 539 BC and transferred the center of the Middle East to his capital, Susa [6].

On the other hand, many authors used the term "Chaldean" to designate the priests and other educated individuals in the classical Babylonian literature, especially in astrology and astronomy [4].

As for the Arameans, they are described in many ancient Assyrian texts as " Bedouins from the desert" who, in times of disorder, infiltrated into the lands of Syria. Actually, they were forbidden to enter northern Mesopotamia by consecutive Assyrian kings. Like the Amorites before them, the Arameans accepted the established structures of native ethnicity while they moved from one area to another, and consequently, the Assyrians included them among the Hittites who lived in northern Syria. In 1000 BC, many Aramean and Hittite rulers promoted Assyrian art and wished to imitate the royal setting of the Assyrian kings. As a result, they enclosed palaces with guardian lions, winged bulls and monsters. After the battle of Karkar in 853 BC, led by Shalmanesser III against a coalition headed by the Aramean Adadidri and Ahab of Israel, the Assyrian superiority in the Levant was ascertained. During that whole period, many Aramaic and Hittite rulers were taken to Assyria. This offered them the chance to get more acquainted with Assyrian art and, thus, unfolded a new horizon for the north Syrian art. To commemorate this new immergence for instance, Kapara of Guzana (Tell Halaf) and Kilamuva of Sam'al (Zinjirli) presented the edifice of their palaces with the following phrase: " What my fathers did not accomplish, I did achieve". So the motivation of the Assyrian examples made way for the north Syrian art to occur and prosper [2].

On the other hand, Guy Rachet, a scholar, describes the tribal background of the Arameans. He explains that they should not be considered as a civilization because they were small tribes traveling from one place to another. He goes on stating that they even should not be strictly related to "Aram", son of Shem, son of Noah, and that most likely have Hittite origins [7]. This negation of the Arameans-Aram relation seems to be proven with the definition of the term "Aramean" by the Encyclopedia Britannica. It asserts that the Aramean tribes occupied Aram, a large region in northern Syria, between the 11th and 8th century BC [4].

Hence, it is palpable that the Assyrian regime regarded both, Chaldeans and Arameans as foreigners from the land of Ashur. This led to conflicting years between Assyria, on one side, and the Chaldean and Aramean tribes, on the other. During successive kingships, the Assyrians tried to ban those groups from infiltrating into their territories and, moreover, stood firmly against any of their possible attempts to self expand into northern Mesopotamia (Bet-Nahrin). Apparently, they did not always thrive in doing so. This resulted, for instance, to the confiscation of Babylon by the Chaldean Merodach-baladan from 721 to 710 BC. Such acts periodically ended up with an Assyrian offensive response to restore the temporary occupied provinces and the escapism of the attempters. Therefore, the depicted liaison between Assyrians, Chaldeans and Arameans of antiquity can be best described as one of brawl and mutual antipathy.

The fall of Nineveh in 612 BC put an end to the political influence of Assyria over the Middle East region. On the other hand, it boosted the Assyrian art by spreading it in diverse directions. Opposite to what many historians believed, the Assyrians did not perish with their empire. They were scattered into different neighboring lands and became ruled after they had been the might rulers of the entire Levant. This did not curb their heritage from flowing into new streams. In a book for Julian Reade, entitled "Assyrian Sculpture", the author states: "…Eventually political control passed through warfare first to Babylon and then to Persia, but these subsequent states inherited a world that was largely the creation of Assyrian arms, and they seem to have used Assyrian administrative techniques to hold it together. While the Assyrian palace sculptures had no immediate direct successors, Assyrian artistic traditions had been widely disseminated in other ways, partly perhaps through small decorated objects and textiles that have perished, partly through painted provincial palaces such as the one at Til-Barsip in Syria. The Medes of eighth and seventh-century Iran must have been familiar with such things, and so, through the Medes, were the Persians. We see, without surprise, reminiscences of Assyrian work on the walls of Persepolis and Susa" [11, p. 33]. Once again, this proves that the people, exterminated by many historians' claims, have always been "The people who never die".


  1. Who's Who in the Bible, Peter Calvocoressi, Penguin Books, England, first published 1988, reprinted with minor revisions 1990.
  2. The Art and Architecture of the Ancient Orient, Henri Frankfort, Yale university Press, Pelican history of art, 1996.
  3. The might that was Assyria, Henry Saggs, Library of Congress, 1984.
  4. Encyclopedia Britannica.
  5. Encyclopedia of the Orient, Tore Kjeilen.
  6. Ancient and Lost Civilizations, Crystalinks main page.
  7. Dictionnaire des civilisations de l'Orient ancien, Guy Rachet, Paris : Larousse, 1999.
  8. The Holy Bible - Old Testament.
  9. A presentation on "Assyrians after Assyria", Dr. Simo Parpola, (MELAMMU project, University of Helsinki), Los Angeles, September 4, 1999.
  10. "Chaldea," Discovery Channel School, original content provided by World Book Online, John A. Brinkman.
  11. Assyrian Sculpture, Julian Reade, British Museum press, London, first published 1983, second edition 1998.

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