Reflections from the 48th Rencontre Assyriologique Internationale (RAI)
The 48th Rencontre Assyriologique Internationale (RAI), or the International Congress of Assyriology and Near Eastern Archaeology, took place in Leiden, Netherlands (Holland), between July 1 and 4. The theme of the Congress was "Ethnicity in Ancient Mesopotamia". Some 80 papers were presented by scholars from all over the world.
The focal point "Ethnicity" was presented from the various perspectives of anthropology, history, language, religion, and archaeology. Interestingly, the subject of ethnicity was not argued from a political science perspective. Efforts were made to define this term that many consider to be a modern phenomenon related to the last three centuries of industrialization and nation-state formation. Nevertheless, some believe that ethnicity is in fact a much older form of identification.
Dominique Collon in her paper "Aspects of Ethnic Differentiation on Assyrian Reliefs" showed clearly that Assyrians left detailed records of the way they viewed those of different ethnic background. This was generally indicated by the variations in headdress, hairstyle, moustaches, dress, footwear, equipment, context and, occasionally, facial features.
Ethnicity is one of the most complicated matters to argue. Few believe that ethnicity is in the eye of the beholder, and as Prof. M. Rivaroli put it "a people or group is only how they see and represent themselves". Many scholars deeply think that it is specific attributes that make one group of people different than another. Such features, argued Prof. A. Starting included language, religion, custom and habits, food, dress, folklore, common destiny and others. Prof. Starting argued that what makes one group to be distinctive from another is not the consideration of one of these attributes alone, rather the whole of these features combined, since it is easy to show that any one of the attributes mentioned above on its own can hardly distinguish a unique ethnic classification. But when we combine a group of people's specific dress, with a certain religion, combined with a settled language, mixed with a particular custom, added to a fixed destiny, one can create a unique group of people of a special ethnic background.
In the United States, the term ethnicity began to be used in 1960s due to the influx of different immigrant groups from various foreign countries. Ethnicity, in today's political world, has become a powerful phenomenon, a strategy to mobilize a group of people in opposition to other in order to achieve certain goals, and today, 90% of political conflicts are ethnic difference generated, stated Prof. Starting.
How important is territory in relation to ethnicity? Prof. R. Van Der Spek in his paper "Ethnicity in Hellenistic Babylon" stated that territory within the concept of "ethnicity" is 'symbolic' while for the notion of "nation" it is physical and vital. In order to define the two terms "ethnicity" and "nation" one can say for example that an Assyrian can live in Asia, North America, or Australia and still be ethnically an Assyrian. But when Assyrians succeed to establish their own defined territory with defined borders, then the Assyrians fall under the definition of what is known as a "nation".
Prof. Richard Frye speculated in his paper "Ethnicity in the Assyrian and Achaemenid Empires" whether people changed because of political manipulation. He questioned whether deportees or prisoners from other regions became Assyrians, with time, after pledging allegiance to Assyria. Assyrians, he argued, had seen many phases ethnicity. First it was during the Imperial Era; secondly, it was purely religious with the coming of Christianity. Any people prior to this latter phase were now considered ignorant, which explains why Assyrians forgot their pagan past. Thirdly, the Assyrians lived and exercised the rise of nationalism in the 19th century just as did the rest of the world. Prof. Simo Parpola argued and in fact answered Prof. Frye indirectly when he stated that even though there are records for Neo-Assyrian kings with Aramean wives or mothers, the empire had a unified Assyrian identity.
How important are names in this complicated picture and are names an indication to ones ethnicity, asked Prof. T. Boiy in his paper "Akkadian-Greek Double Names in Hellenistic Babylonia"? The answer is a clear 'no'. During the Hellenistic period, double names were much in use. The phenomenon was especially known from Ptolemaic Egypt, and it happened in Hellenic Babylon. Inscriptions indicated that people had Greek names, but they were identified as Babylonians. The double-name phenomenon was present yet earlier in Neo-Assyrian and Neo-Babylonian periods. Inscriptions show that in Assyria, for example, Aramean parents who were brought to Assyria gave their children Assyrian-Akkadian names.
One of the best presentations was that of Prof. Simo Parpola titled: "National and Ethnic Identity in the Neo-Assyrian Empire." (See NOTES below) Here is an abstract from that paper:
"The Neo-Assyrian Empire was a multi-ethnic state composed of a plethora of previously independent polities and nationalities. The openly stated mission of all Assyrian rulers was world dominion and the expansion of the borders of the Empire in all directions. Contemporary and later Greek, Egyptian, Persian and Jewish sources make it clear that outsiders regarded the territories controlled by the Empire as uniformly Assyrian, and that these territories continued to be identified as Assyrian for centuries after the fall of the Empire.
However, just how far did the masses of population outside the so-called Assyrian homeland share this identity? A scrutiny of the available evidence indicates that the policy of cultural, social and economic integration pursued by the Neo-Assyrian rulers did indeed, with time, result in the obliteration of previous ethnic identities in favor of an Assyrian one in the territories annexed as provinces to the Empire. Once established, this identity has persisted in the relevant territories until the present day."
One final remark: I would like to express great appreciation for two scholars who were there defending the Assyrians in every possible way and in every opportunity possible. They are Prof. Richard Frye and Prof. Barbara Porter. I cannot say enough regarding their remarks and responses whenever needed.
Finally, next year 49th RAI is to be hosted by the London Center for the Ancient Near East, acting for the British Museum and the University of London, between 7 and 11 July 2003, and the theme of the Congress will be "Nineveh".
Professor Parpola's hand-out
Other books published by Professor Simo Parpola