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Assyrians after Assyria

Posted: Monday, July 03, 2000 at 11:22 AM CT


Presented at The Assyrian National Convention in Los Angeles, September 4, 1999
To be published in the Journal of Assyrian Academic Studies, Vol.  XIII No. 2, 1999

LegacyIn 612 BC, after a prolonged civil war, Assyria's two former vassals, the Babylonians and the Medes, conquered and destroyed Nineveh, the capital of the Neo-Assyrian Empire. The great city went up in flames, never to regain its former status. Three years later the same rebels razed Assyria's Western metropolis, Harran, crushing the last-ditch resistance of Assyria's last king, Ashur-uballit II. This event sealed the fate of the Assyrian Empire, and that is where the story of Assyria usually ends in history books.

What happened to the Assyrians after the fall of Assyria? This is a question that is not easy to answer for two reasons. Firstly, the issue has hardly been touched by Assyriologists. Most of them seem to tacitly agree with the idea of a more or less total wipe-out, as suggested by Sidney Smith in 1925: "The disappearance of the Assyrian people will always remain a unique and striking phenomenon in ancient history. Other, similar kingdoms and empires have indeed passed away but the people have lived on... No other land seems to have been sacked and pillaged so completely as was Assyria."

Secondly, in contrast to the abundance of information from the imperial period, information on post-empire Assyria and Assyrians is scanty and scattered. The near-total lack of information from Assyria itself would seem to support the idea of a genocide, which also seems to be supported by ancient eye-witness testimonies. When the Greek historian Xenophon 200 years after Nineveh's fall passed through the Assyrian heartland and visited the sites of two great Assyrian cities, he found nothing but ruin and could not retrieve much about them from the nearby villagers. The territory where these deserted cities lay was now Median, and the Greeks assumed that their former inhabitants had likewise been Medes.

Yet it is clear that no such thing as a wholesale massacre of all Assyrians ever happened. It is true that some of the great cities of Assyria were utterly destroyed and looted -- archaeology confirms this --, some deportations were certainly carried out, and a good part of the Assyrian aristocracy was probably massacred by the conquerors. However, Assyria was a vast and densely populated country, and outside the few destroyed urban centers life went on as usual. This is proved by a recently discovered post-imperial archive from the Assyrian provincial capital Dur-Katlimmu, on the Chabur river, which contains business documents drawn up in Assyrian cuneiform more than a decade after the fall of Nineveh. Apart from the fact that these documents are dated by the regal years of a Babylonian king, Nebuchadnezzar II, nothing in their formulation or external appearance would suggest that they were not written under the Assyrian Empire. Another small archive discovered in Assur, written in a previously unknown, presumably Mannean variety of cuneiform, proves that Assyrian goldsmiths still worked in the city in post-empire times, though now under Median command.

Moreover, over a hundred Assyrians with distinctively Assyrian names have recently been identified in economic documents from many Babylonian sites dated between 625 and 404 BC, and many more Assyrians undoubtedly remain to be identified in such documents. We do not know whether these people were deportees or immigrants from Assyria; their families may have settled in Babylonia already under the Assyrian rule. In any case, they unequivocally prove the survival of many Assyrians after the empire and the continuity of Assyrian identity, religion and culture in post-empire times. Many of these names contain the divine name Ashur, and some of the individuals concerned occupied quite high positions: one Pan-Ashur-lumur was the secretary of the crown prince Cambyses under Cyrus II in 530 BC.

Distinctively Assyrians names are also found in later Aramaic and Greek texts from Assur, Hatra, Dura-Europus and Palmyra, and continue to be attested until the beginning of the Sasanian period. These names are recognizable from the Assyrian divine names invoked in them; but whereas earlier the other name elements were predominantly Akkadian, they now are exclusively Aramaic. This coupled with the Aramaic script and language of the texts shows that the Assyrians of these later times no longer spoke Akkadian as their mother tongue. In all other respects, however, they continued the traditions of the imperial period. The gods Ashur, Sherua, Istar, Nanaya, Bel, Nabu and Nergal continued to be worshiped in Assur at least until the early third century AD; the local cultic calendar was that of the imperial period; the temple of Ashur was restored in the second century AD; and the stelae of the local rulers resemble those of Assyrian kings in the imperial period. It is also worth pointing out that many of the Aramaic names occurring in the post-empire inscriptions and graffiti from Assur are already attested in imperial texts from the same site that are 800 years older.

Assur was by no means the only city where Assyrian religion and cults survived the fall of the empire. The temple of Sin, the great moon god of Harran, was restored by the Babylonian king Nabonidus in the mid-sixth century BC, and the Persian king Cyrus claims to have returned Ishtar of Nineveh to her temple in Nineveh. Classical sources attest to the continuity of Assyrian cults in other Syrian cities until late antiquity; in Harran, the cults of Sin, Nikkal, Bel, Nabu, Tammuz and other Assyrian gods persisted until the 10th century AD and are still referred to in Islamic sources. Typically Assyrian priests with their distinctive long conical hats and tunics are depicted on several Graeco-Roman monuments from Northern Syria and East Anatolia.

We know little of the political status of Assyria in the decades following its fall, but it seems that the western part of the Empire as far as the Tigris fell into the hands of the Babylonians, while the eastern Transtigridian areas, including the Assyrian heartland north of Assur, came under Median rule. Under the Achaemenid Empire, the western areas annexed to Babylonia formed a satrapy called Athura (a loanword from Imperial Aramaic Athur, "Assyria"), while the Assyrian heartland remained incorporated in the satrapy of Mada (Old Persian for "Media"). Both satrapies paid yearly tribute and contributed men for the military campaigns and building projects of the Persian kings. Assyrian soldiers participated in the expedition of Xerxes against Greece (480 BC) according to Herodotus, and Assyrians from both Athura and Mada participated in the construction of the palace of Darius at Susa (500-490 BC).

Interestingly, it was the "Median" Assyrians who executed the gold works and glazing of this palace, whereas the Assyrians from the satrapy of Athura provided the timber for the palace from Mt. Lebanon. In the Babylonian version of the Persian inscription, the name Athura is at this point rendered Eber nari, "land beyond the river (Euphrates)." This shows that the Western, originally Aramean, half of the Assyrian Empire was already at this time firmly identified with Assyria proper, an important issue to which we shall return later on.

We thus see that by Achaemenid times, Assyria, though split in two, had re-emerged as a political entity of considerable military and economic strength. In 520 BC, both Athura and Mada joined the revolt against Darius, trying to regain their independence. This revolt was a failure, but in a sense the Assyrian Empire had already been re-established long ago. Actually, in the final analysis, it had never been destroyed at all but had just changed ownership: first to Babylonian and Median dynasties, and then to a Persian one.

Contemporaries and later Greek historians did not make a big distinction between the Assyrian Empire and its successors: in their eyes, the "monarchy" or "universal hegemony" first held by the Assyrians had simply passed to or been usurped by other nations. For example, Ctesias of Cnidus writes: "It was under [Sardanapallos] that the empire (hegemonia) of the Assyrians fell to the Medes, after it had lasted more than thirteen hundred years. "

The Babylonian king Nabonidus, who reigned sixty years after the fall of Nineveh and actually originated from an Assyrian city, Harran, refers to Ashurbanipal and Esarhaddon as his "royal forefathers." His predecessor Nebuchadnezzar and the Persian kings Cyrus and Artaxerxes are correspondingly referred to as "Kings of Assyria" in Greek historical tradition and in the Bible. Strabo, writing at the time of the birth of Christ, tells us that "the customs of the Persians are like those of the Assyrians," and calls Babylon a "metropolis of Assyria" (which it, of course, in fact was too, having been completely destroyed and rebuilt by the Assyrians in the early seventh century BC).

The Babylonian, Median and Persian empires should thus be seen (as they were seen in antiquity) as successive versions of the same multinational power structure, each resulting from an internal power struggle within this structure. In other words, the Empire was each time reborn under a new leadership, with political power shifting from one nation to another.

Of course, the Empire changed with each change of leadership. On the whole, however, the changes were relatively slight, one could almost say cosmetic only. The language of the ruling elite changed, of course, first from Assyrian to Babylonian, Median, and Persian, and finally to Greek. In its dress the elite likewise followed its national customs, and it naturally venerated its own gods, from whom its power derived. Thus Ashur was replaced as imperial god first by the Babylonian Marduk, and then by the Iranian Ahura Mazda, Greek Zeus, etc.

On the whole, however, the old structures of the Empire prevailed or in the long run gained the upper hand. Cuneiform writing (now in its Babylonian, Elamite and Old Persian forms) continued to be used for monumental inscriptions. Aramaic retained the status of imperial lingua franca which it had attained under the Assyrian Empire. The gods of the new elites gradually became assimilated to Assyrian gods. The supreme god of the Persians, Ahura Mazda, was now represented by the winged disk of Ashur; the Iranian goddess Anahita acquired features of the goddess Ishtar and finally became to all practical purposes fully assimilated to her. The same happened to the god Mithra, who was transformed into the Iranian equivalent of the Assyrian savior gods Nabu and Ninurta.

The list could be made much longer. The Assyrian calendar and month names remained in use in the whole Near East, as they still do today. So did other imperial standards and measures, the taxation and conscription system, royal ideology in general, the symbolism of imperial art, organization of the court, court ceremony, diplomatic practices, and so on. The continuity of Assyrian imperial culture was certainly aided by the fact that the Babylonians and Medes had for centuries been vassals of Assyria, while the Persians, as former vassals of the Elamites and the Medes, had long been subjected to Assyrian cultural influence. Both conquerors of Nineveh, the Babylonian Nabopolassar and Median Kyaxares, had previously served as Assyrian governors in their respective countries.

Thus, the Assyrian Empire continued to live on despite the fact that the Assyrians themselves were no longer in control of it. However, they still contributed to its government and expansion. From an analysis of the inscriptions of Nabonidus we know that this Babylonian king employed scribes who had been trained in Assyria and were familiar with its literary traditions; later on, the same scribes served the Persian king, Cyrus. The role of Assyrian artists in the construction of Susa and Persepolis has already been referred to. The governorship of the Persian satrapy Athura seems to have been often in the hands of Assyrians. The Book of Ezra (ca. 450 BC) refers to a governor with the name Sanballat (Assyrian Sin-ballit), and the Greek historian Xenophon writing in 400 BC mentions a governor with the Aramaic name Abracomas.

The Greek historian Thucydides reports that during the Peloponnesian wars (ca. 410 BC), the Athenians intercepted a Persian named Artaphernes, who was carrying a message from the Great King to Sparta. The man was taken prisoner, brought to Athens, and the letters he was carrying were translated "from the Assyrian language. " The language in question of course was Aramaic, which, as already noted, continued as the lingua franca in the Achaemenid Empire, as it had done in Assyria.

We thus see that two hundred years after its fall, the Empire created by the Assyrians and its language were still prominently associated with Assyria, and this with a markedly Aramaic tint. This state of affairs continued under the Macedonian rulers of the Seleucid Empire. The area of the Seleucid kingdom initially largely covered that of the Assyrian Empire, and its capital soon moved from Babylonia to Syria/Assyria. Despite the heavily Greek orientation of the ruling elite and the imposition of Greek as the official language, the Seleucid kings were commonly referred to in Greek sources as "kings of Syria," a designation that still retained a strong association with Assyria.

The Greek word Syria and the adjectives Syrios and Syros derived from it are originally simple phonetic variants of Assyria and Assyrios, with aphaeresis of the unstressed first syllable. The dropping of the first syllable is already attested in Imperial Aramaic spellings of Ashur, and the variation in Greek is thus likely to derive from corresponding variation in Aramaic. In Greek texts, both variants are usually freely interchangeable and can refer to both the Persian province Athura and the Assyrian Empire. For example, Strabo writes that "the city of Ninus was wiped out immediately after the overthrow of the Syrians," while his older contemporary Diodorus, quoting Herodotus, writes that "after the Assyrians had ruled Asia for five hundred years they were conquered by the Medes. " Only in Roman times, do the two forms start to acquire the distinct meanings that Assyria and Syria have today.

Syria and Assyria are still interchangeable and refer to the Assyrian Empire in the Geography of Strabo, who however makes a distinction between Assyrians at large and the Assyrian homeland on the Tigris, to which he refers to as Aturia/Assyria:

The country of the Assyrians borders on Persis and Susiana. This name is given to Babylonia and to much of the country all around, which latter, in part, is also called Aturia, in which are Ninus [...], Nisibis, as far as the Zeugma of the Euphrates, as also much of the country on the far side of the Euphrates ... and those people who in a special sense of the term are called by the men of today Syrians, who extend as far as the Cilicians and the Phoenicians and the sea that is opposite the Aegyptian Sea and the Gulf of Issus. It seems that the name of the Syrians extended not only from Babylonia to the gulf of Issus, but also in ancient times from this gulf to the Euxine... When those who have written histories of the Syrian empire say that the Medes were overthrown by the Persians and the Syrians by the Medes, they mean by the Syrians no other people than those who built the royal palaces in Babylon and Ninus; and, of these Syrians, Ninus was the man who founded Ninus in Aturia, and his wife, Semiramis, was the woman who succeeded her husband and founded Babylon. These two gained the mastery of Asia... But later the empire passed over to the Medes.

Two generations later, Pliny the Elder (ca. AD 70), while utilizing the work of Strabo, already prefers the name Assyria for the Empire. His contemporary Flavius Josephus likewise consistently refers to the Empire as Assyria, and uses Syria in referring to the Seleucid Empire and the Roman province of Syria. This terminology anticipates the situation after the reign of Trajan, who after his campaign against the Parthians (AD 116) created a province called Assyria in the east, probably annexing the semi-independent state of Adiabene which the Assyrians had succeeded in establishing in their ancient homeland.

The new distinction made between Syria (in the west) and Assyria (in the east) recalls the split of the Assyrian Empire into the Achaemenid satrapies Athura and Mada and can be explained as follows.

In the Strabo passage just cited, the adjective Syros is used both in a historical sense referring to inhabitants of the Assyrian Empire and as an ethno-linguistic designation referring to speakers of Aramaic who identified themselves as Assyrians. The area called "Syro-Media" was the Assyrianized part of Media where Aramaic was commonly spoken instead of Iranian languages. This entire Aramaic-speaking area, that is Assyria/Syria, had long been controlled by the Seleucid Empire. At the time when the Seleucid state was annexed to the Roman Empire, 64 BC, its area had however shrunken to encompass only the Transeuphratian part of Assyria/Syria, which now became the Roman province of Syria. As the remnant of the Seleucid Empire, this area still was strongly identified with Assyria; there was no need to distinguish it from ancient Assyria. Only later, when the Roman Empire expanded further eastward, there arose a need for further distinctions. The name Syria now became established for the Roman province, while Assyria was reserved for the Transtigridian Aturia/Adiabene and by and by for ancient Assyria as well. It is likely that this distinction reflects linguistic realities, the Aramaic words for Assyria having lost the initial syllable in the west but retained it in the eastern dialects.

To sum up the long discussion: whatever their later meanings, in Greek and Latin usage, Syria and Assyria originally both referred to the Assyrian Empire, while speakers of Aramaic were identified as Assyrians and the script they used as Assyrian script. How, when and why did this intrinsic association of Assyria and Assyrians with Arameans and Aramaic come about?

The Empire extended beyond the Euphrates already in the 12th century BC and from that point on Arameans constituted the majority of its population. In the 9th century BC, Assyrian kings initiated an active policy of assimilation and integration, the goal of which was to put a definite end to the endless revolts that had vexed the Empire in the past. The results of this new policy were soon to be seen. Rebel countries were now annexed to the Empire as new provinces, whereby hundreds of thousands of people were deported to other parts of the Empire and the annexed country was totally reorganized in Assyrian fashion. This involved imposition of a uniform taxation and conscription system, uniform standards, weights and measures, the conversion of the local royal city into an Assyrian administrative center, and, above all, the imposition of a single universal language and script, Aramaic.

By the end of the 8th century the provincial system covered the entire Levant from Palestine to central Iran, and it was further expanded in the seventh century. At this time Aramaic was already spoken all over the Empire, and Assyrian imperial culture had been dominant everywhere for centuries.

The Aramaization of Assyria was calculated policy aimed at creating national unity and identity of a kind that could never have been achieved, had the Empire remained a loose conglomeration of a plethora of different nations and languages. And it did pay off. Even though Akkadian retained its position as the language of the ruling elite and cuneiform script continued to be used for prestige purposes, Aramaic soon became part and parcel of the imperial administration too. It was by no means the language of subjected peoples only but fully equal with Akkadian, and eventually it became the language of the ruling class as well.

Men with Aramaic names are found in high state offices from the ninth century on, and by the eighth century, every official document was drawn up both in Akkadian and Aramaic. By the beginning of the seventh century the whole ruling class was certainly fully bilingual, for most of the administrative correspondence of the Empire was now carried out in Aramaic. Many scribes who wrote in cuneiform appear to have spoken Aramaic as their first language. For example, the scribe who wrote a beautiful copy of the first tablet of the Epic of Gilgamesh for the library of Ashurbanipal, made a mistake which only a speaker of Aramaic could have made: he used the cuneiform sign for "lord" for writing the word "son," Aramaic mara' "lord" being homophonic with Akkadian mara' "son."

It can be considered certain that by the end of the seventh century BC, Aramaic language and imperial culture had become essential parts of Assyrian identity. While Aramaic was the unifying language of the Empire, it was not spoken outside of it. The same also applies to the imperial culture and religion. While local gods continued to be worshipped in different parts of the Empire, the whole Empire shared the belief in a single omnipotent god and his earthly representative, the Assyrian king.

All these features survived the fall of the Assyrian Empire and helped give its successors their specifically Assyrian stamp, despite the alien customs and cultural elements introduced by the new overlords. It can even be surmised that the foreign habits of the new rulers may rather have strengthened the Assyrian identity of the masses. This will have been the case especially in the areas longest attached to Assyria, that is, the later Achaemenid/Roman province of Athura/Syria and, of course, the Assyrian heartland itself.

It goes without saying that in the centuries following Assyria's fall, Assyrian imperial culture underwent significant changes. This is but natural; even under Assyrian rule, it had constantly absorbed new impulses from all sides. The successive periods of Persian, Macedonian, Roman, Byzantine, Sasanian, and finally Arab and Turkish rule each left their lasting traces in the Assyrian cultural heritage, which now is significantly different from what it was 3,000 years ago. But the same thing has happened elsewhere, too; the Greek culture of today is not the same thing as it was in antiquity, nor are the modern Greeks. The essential thing is that the Assyrians still preserve their ethnic, cultural and linguistic identity in spite of their loss of political power and the heavy persecutions they have experienced especially in the Christian Era.

Not even the thousand years of Greek rule under the Seleucids, Romans and Byzantium were able to annihilate Aramaic as a language and Assyrian cultural identity from the Near East. On the contrary, the Seleucid Empire soon became "Syro-Macedonian. " The Roman historian Livy, quoting two second century BC testimonies, Manlius and Titus Flaminius, observed that "the Macedonians of Seleuceia and Babylonia have degenerated into Syrians [and] into Parthians ... The armies of Antiochus III were all Syrians."

Several writers and philosophers of late antiquity born in Roman Syria identify themselves as Assyrians in their writings, for example the second-century bellestrist Lucian of Samosata, who introduces himself as "an Assyrian ... still barbarous in speech and almost wearing a jacket in the Assyrian style. " Another second-century writer, a certain Iamblichus who wrote a novel set in Babylonia, "was a Syrian by race on both his father's and mother's side, a Syrian not in the sense of the Greeks who have settled in Syria, but of the native ones, familiar with the Syrian language and living by their customs. " The famous namesake of this writer, the Neoplatonian philosopher Iamblichus also originated from Syria. The name Iamblichus is a Greek version of the Aramaic name Ia-milik, which is already attested in Assyrian imperial sources.

All these self-professed Assyrians were well-versed in Greek culture but at the same time perfectly aware of the greater antiquity and value of their own cultural heritage. The second-century Church Father Tatian, in his Oratio adversus Graecos, describes himself as "he who philosophizes in the manner of barbarians, born in the land of the Assyrioi, first educated on your principles, secondly in what I now profess," and then goes on to reject Greek culture as not worth having.

I take such expressions of Assyrian identity seriously, despite the communis opinio of classicists which sees in them simply references to the writers' linguistic background and doubts the persistence of Assyrian cultural traditions in the Hellenized Near East. Yet how could such traditions not have persisted, when we know that Greeks and Romans from Plato till late antiquity kept learning spirituality and science from the Assyrians and Babylonians? The cursive nature of the Syriac script alone, from its first attestations, implies the existence of an extensive Aramaean literary corpus in the post-Assyrian centuries. As noted by Fergus Millar, "the Syriac-speaking inhabitants of what had been ancient Assyria apparently did not suffer from historical 'amnesia'... [T]he Syriac Chronicle of Karka de bet Selok (present-day Kirkuk), written in about the sixth or seventh century, begins with the foundation of the city by an Assyrian king, mentions further building by Seleucus and goes on to speak of martyrdoms under the Sasanids. " Such historical details would not have been possible without written records reaching back to Assyrian times.

Since Late Antiquity, Christianity in its Syriac elaboration has constituted an essential part of Assyrian identity. As I have tried to show elsewhere, conversion to Christianity was easy for the Assyrians, for many of the teachings of the early Church were consonant with the tenets of Assyrian imperial religion. In fact, it can be argued that many features and dogmas of early Christianity were based on practices and ideas already central to Assyrian imperial ideology and religion. Such features include the central role of asceticism in Syriac Christianity, the cult of the Mother of the god, the Holy Virgin, and belief in God the Father, his Son and the Holy Spirit, formalized in the doctrine of the Trinity of God.

The Trinitarian doctrine enters Christian theology only in the third century AD. As late as in AD 260, Pope Dionysios of Rome could still be shocked by the idea of three hypostases proposed by Origen. Where did Origen get his ideas from? His teacher was Clement of Alexandria, who in his turn had been taught by an Assyrian, Tatian. We do not know exactly what part of Assyria/Syria Tatian came from, but we do know that he was an Assyrian and as such part of a religious tradition in which Trinitarian ideas had been current for centuries. I would submit there is a great likelihood that he is the ultimate source of Origen's Trinity.

For an outsider who does not know the facts it will be difficult to recognize the link between imperial Assyria and the oppressed and persecuted, Aramaic-speaking Christian Assyrians of today. And if this recognition is lacking, it will be all the more difficult for the Assyrians to regain their lost place among sovereign nations. For this reason it is imperative that the facts establishing the link be systematically collected and presented in a way that will settle the issue definitely.

To make this possible, the State Archives of Assyria Centre of Excellence of the University of Helsinki has initiated a long-term project called MELAMMU, "divine splendor," which aims at systematically documenting the continuity and transformation of Assyrian culture and ethnic identity in post-empire times until the present day. A central objective of MELAMMU is to create an electronic database bringing together all the relevant evidence and make it available worldwide on the Internet. The project has an international steering committee and a board of consultants representing several different branches of study, from Assyriology to classical, Iranian and religious studies. With the support of Assyrian institutions in the United States and Sweden, we hope to have the database ready and operational within a few years.

I am convinced that, once completed, MELAMMU will not only greatly boost research in Assyrian and Babylonian cultural heritage but also significantly help modern Assyrians in their struggle for a brighter future. I particularly hope that MELAMMU will become a source of inspiration for young computer-generation Assyrians and inspire them to work for the future of their nation. For they have plenty of reasons to do so with pride. They are descendants of a great nation which has given much to the culture of mankind and spread Christianity farther than any other people in antiquity.
 



Related Information

Professor Simo Parpola
Assyrian Identity in Ancient Times and Today
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