Taliban Bibles and Evil Empires: The Story of Assyria (Part I)
I’d like you to take a moment to entertain a little thought experiment for me. I want you to imagine time-traveling far into the future, say two thousand six hundred or so years from now. Let me warn you in advance: this one’s going to ruffle a few feathers, and by ‘a few’ I mean, ‘a whole mattress full’.
Now, here’s the thought experiment: let’s say that the only account of the terrible events of September 11th, 2001, and the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq that followed, was from a perspective that was sympathetic to the Taliban. Even worse, let’s say that this account, this text, was a popular story, with hundreds of millions of adherents. In fact, let’s say that it was the scripture of a major religion.
Take a moment to imagine what kind of a world that would be. As far as these people are concerned, the Taliban were heroes, virtuous fighters who dared to face down the Evil American Empire. Maybe they have a slightly different take on al-Qaeda, or maybe they think that what al-Qaeda did was justified, too. Can you imagine how terrible that would be?
My point isn’t that these people would be right to believe any of this. Without getting too much into politics even though I’ve just opened a huge can of worms, I’m adamantly against both the Taliban and al-Qaeda. But that’s not the point: the point is that as far as these people in our thought-experiment are concerned, this pro-Taliban narrative is the correct one. In their story, the Taliban and possibly al-Qaeda are the plucky and heroic rebels, and America is an evil empire.
Does that sound like any stories in our own culture? Some of you might point out that this is kind of the plot of the American Revolutionary War as we’re taught it in high schools (speaking for those of us who are American, of course). But you know what else it reminds me of? Star Wars.
Think about it: Luke Skywalker, Leia, Han Solo and Chewie join the plucky rebels, and in that first movie there’s this audacious, super-risky plan to blow up the Death Star. And what is the Death Star, but the cornerstone of the Empire’s national security policy? They spend the entire trilogy fighting the Empire and the evil forces behind it, i.e. Darth Vader and Emperor Palpatine, in one way or another.
It’s kind of like in Lord of the Rings, when Frodo is tasked with traveling from his home, aided by his companions, to destroy the One Ring. And why does he need to destroy the One Ring? Because there’s a Dark Lord, Sauron, with an Evil Empire!
Now let’s get back to that ‘Taliban Bible’ I was talking about, from our thought experiment. As a matter of fact, something like that already exists, in some form. The Evil Empire in question is the Assyrian Empire, and for a long time essentially the only accounts of it that were accessible to Westerners were found in the Bible. Even today the biblical accounts are far more commonly read than any others.
In other words, the most influential accounts of the Assyrian Empire have come down to us from a people who were, as it so happens, absolutely tyrannized by them. Take a look at some of what the book of Isaiah has to say about Assyria:
“’Woe to Assyria, the rod of My anger
And the staff in whose hand is My indignation.
I will send him against an ungodly nation,
And against the people of My wrath
I will give him charge,
To seize the spoil, to take the prey,
And to tread them down like the mire of the streets.’”
~Isaiah 10:5-6, NKJV.
Of course, all of this raises the question, What about the Assyrians’ point of view? Well, we’ll get to that, but before we do I want to raise another provocative point, this one in the form of a question: is there anything good about empires?
Some of you probably already know where I’m going with this. It’s not a new argument: for a long time, some historians have been saying that really, empires are good for social stability and prosperity. They replace warring kingdoms and tribes with one united rule, and that allows them to build roads and foster trade, and then you have cities flourishing, and on it goes. This is the positive view of empire: you’ll hear historians talk about the Pax Romana, the Roman Peace, and there’s a Pax Islamica for the early caliphate and a Pax Britannica for the British Empire, and so on.
But that’s not a very politically correct answer, is it? I can’t speak for many of you in other parts of the world, but here in the West there’s this idea that empires are terrible. Imperialism has become a dirty word, a smear: no country wants to be accused of imperialism! And to be fair, you have to give these folks some pretty major points: empires don’t play the game of empire to be altruistic, they play it to conquer people and take their stuff!
I like to keep both of these views of empire in mind when looking at empires in general. But with the Assyrians it’s especially interesting, since the only way most people are familiar with them is from the Bible, and they come off as pretty villainous.
All right, I think that’s preamble enough. It’s time to meet the Assyrians.
Bronze Age Cold Wars and Upstart Assyrians
I think there’s a lot of truth in the idea that like individuals, if you want to understand societies, you have to understand where they came from. So in order to really understand the Assyrian Empire, we need to understand how it started out, and for that we need to go way back in time—and I mean way, way back.
Let’s start off on our time-traveling odyssey with a couple of maps. Our destination is an exciting, fascinating time period called the Late Bronze Age. Unfortunately, we can’t stay long, since this isn’t when the main action went down, but it’s when our story begins.
So in this first map we have the world of the Late Bronze Age, covering the period from about the 15th century (1400s) BCE to about the 13th century (1200s) BCE. The two main powers that dominated this Eastern Mediterranean world were the empires of Egypt in the south, and Hatti, the Hittite Empire, in the north. They were the two great rivals of the Late Bronze Age, kind of like the U.S. and the Soviet Union in the Cold War.
But it was even more complicated and interesting than that, because the Late Bronze Age was a time marked by this amazing international scene, including a sort of ‘great powers club’. So in addition to Egypt and the Hittites, you had Babylon, and you had the Kingdom of Mitanni for a little while, about 1500-1350 BCE (Saggs). If you look to the east of that white blob on the map that marks the Hittite Empire, you’ll see Mitanni.
Now the reason Mitanni is important to our story is that for a little while there, Mitanni actually managed to subdue Assyria. The ruling elite of Mitanni were basically newcomers to the area: they were Indo-European invaders with chariots, whereas the Assyrians, the Babylonians, and many others were Semitic-speaking peoples.
Basically, Assyria was screwed because she was right smack dab on the Mitanni warpath. And a little after this, the Assyrians would get hit from the west by another Semitic people, the Aramaeans. I’ll let author H. W. F. Saggs explain:
“Situated in northern Mesopotamia on the open plains immediately south of the great mountain ranges of Armenia, the people of Assyria had borne the brunt of the pressure generated by Indo-European peoples on the move in the steppes of Russia.
“We have already seen that Assyria was for a time actually a vassal of Mitanni, and in the following centuries, up to about 1000 B.C., it was to be subject to constant pressure from Aramaean peoples [from] the region to the west. The human response to this continual pressure was the development of a sturdy warlike people prepared to fight ruthlessly for their existence.”
So basically the Assyrians were getting slammed from the north, and then later from the west. I love that last sentence there, because it really explains so much of why the Assyrians were the way that they were: they were like the kid in those cheesy 80’s karate movies, the kid that would get picked on by bullies and then go learn 1980s-Hollywood’s version of martial arts.
Speaking of, once they’d shaken off the Mitanni, the Assyrians lost no time at all in trying to take their place in the ‘great powers club’. Now, the way it worked back then was you had to introduce yourself and mingle. Assyria, like a lot of awkward newcomers in upscale social clubs, had a bit of a rough time of it: Babylonia was none too thrilled about these up-and-comers, and neither was the Hittite Empire (Feldman). Funny thing, though: under Tukulti-Ninurta I (ruled 1244-1208 BCE), the Assyrians captured and sacked Babylon, an event so shocking that author H. W. F. Saggs likens it to a Medieval Scottish king capturing London.
Their rough-and-tumble upbringing may have turned them into great fighters, but the Assyrians’ track record was still kind of hit-or-miss for the next couple of centuries. I mentioned the Aramaeans above, but the whole story is more complex than that, because it involves a kind of “dark age” that affected pretty much the whole Middle East around this time (roughly the 12th-11th centuries BCE).
There’s a lot that we still don’t know about this period, but what we do know is still far too much to adequately cover here, since it’s not really our main story. This proved to be kind of a “thing” with the Assyrians, though: they’d roar onto the stage of history and kick massive amounts of ass, and then fall into decline. We’ll see more examples of this down the road.
Comeback Kings of the Iron Age
The Assyrians started to make a comeback in the late 10th century, especially under their king Adad-nirari II (r. 911-891 BCE). You really get the feeling that they thought they had something to prove, since their earlier conquests seemed to focus on retaking areas they’d lost since the Late Bronze Age. In fact, what the Assyrians were doing was basically regaining lost provinces that had since become independent kingdoms: as far as they were concerned, these lands had, in Bedford’s words, “tried to withdraw from the natural condition of belonging to Assyria.”
Probably the really interesting thing, though, is just how different the world had become. You know that whole Cold War-looking scene in the map above, with Egypt and the Hittites? Yeah, that was gone: the Egyptians had lost their empire and were stuck with just their own country, and the Hittite Empire was gone entirely. Babylonia was still around, but like the Egyptians, the Babylonians had lost their taste for empire—at least for the time being.
As long as we’re going to be talking about Assyrian kings, it’s probably worth a brief digression to give ‘em a closer look. The Assyrian kings themselves claimed a special relationship with Ashur, the Assyrians’ national god, who was especially associated with the ancient city-state of Ashur from which Assyria had come. In theory the king was an absolute ruler, but in practice “religion, legal precedent, and the temper of his nobles and officials” limited his power in some important ways (Grayson).
In other words, the Assyrian kings were despots, but they were pious despots—or at least, they claimed to be. The religious angle is actually a really interesting one. You see, the Assyrian kings were also the high priests of the cult of Ashur. This was unusual by Mesopotamian standards: as any book on the subject will tell you, in Babylonia the high priest of the national god Marduk was most certainly not the king. The Assyrians were actually pretty fixated on their god Ashur, though, so much so that, as we’ll see, they constructed an entire ideology around him to justify their conquests.
In the 9th century, the 800s BCE, the Assyrians regained pretty much everything they’d lost before, and started to conquer new lands. The reign of Shalmaneser III (858-824 BCE) saw the Assyrians go farther west than they had ever gone: they crossed the River Euphrates and started taking over some of the much smaller kingdoms in northern Syria.
In 853 BCE, Shalmaneser III fought a coalition of the kings of this region, including one king some of you may recognize from the Bible: Ahab son of Omri, king of Israel. The Assyrian records claim that Ahab showed up with 2,000 chariots and 10,000 infantry, pretty respectable by the standards of the time, though even this was probably an exaggeration.
It’s important to understand something about this whole region, though, the whole region of what is today the countries of Syria, Lebanon, Israel and Palestine, and Jordan: the whole thing was divided into a series of smaller kingdoms that were often hostile to each other.
I’ll let author Johns explain:
“Here he [Shalmaneser] had to reckon with Hamath, Damascus, and Israel. …Hamath lay eighty miles south, Damascus one hundred miles farther, and Israel bordered the kingdom of Damascus. Israel then controlled Judah, Moab, and Edom. Damascus and Hamath were in alliance with the western city-states [of Phoenicia]. There was incessant war between them as each in turn sought supremacy” (95).
The fact that these typically hostile kingdoms could set aside their differences to meet a common enemy gives you some idea of how seriously they had to take Assyria. Now, there’s actually been some controversy about whether or not Shalmaneser III won the Battle of Qarqar as he claimed, because we know from his own records that the army advanced no further. Since no Assyrian king would ever admit defeat, that was the kind of ‘spin’ that they had to put on things.
On the other hand, there’s Shalmaneser III’s Black Obelisk, which besides having as metal-sounding of a name as you could want, gives us an important clue about the outcome of the Battle of Qarqar. Take a look: see the man kneeling on the bottom there? That’s King Jehu of Israel, Ahab’s successor.
Shalmaneser III is also important for another reason: he was the first Neo-Assyrian king to intervene in Babylon. As we’ll see, this would become something of a theme in this period: Assyria and Babylon had a pretty complex relationship, and later on, after the time of Shalmaneser III, the Assyrian kings actually took the kingship of Babylon, too.
After all of Shalmaneser III’s conquerin’ and empire-building, the Assyrian Empire was—well, take a look at the map. That light purplish line marks the extent of the empire under Shalmaneser III.
But what sort of empire was it? It’s time we stopped to take a look at that question. Early on, the Assyrian Empire was essentially a plundering operation: the Assyrians would send the army into neighboring territories to raid and collect tribute. While they were at it, they would confirm loyal vassals as the rulers of their respective territories. Think of it as being a little like a Mafia protection racket: the Assyrians did some looting to show they meant business, but they ‘protected’ loyal clients.
From about the time of the reign of Shalmaneser III, this ‘plundering operation’ started to evolve into something very different. The Assyrians established provinces in some conquered territories, but in others, especially areas that were reasonably far from the Assyrian homeland, they left rulers in place so long as they cooperated. In fact, at least early on, they seem to have fixated on one major geographical feature, the Euphrates River, as especially significant: east of the river, they sought to make conquered lands properly Assyrian, while west of the river, they maintained native ‘client’ rulers to send them tribute.
Over time, though, this system simply broke down. The Assyrians’ efforts at protection-racket imperialism, where vassal rulers would govern their own territories and send Assyria tribute in exchange for the Assyrians not sending an army to wreck their shit, simply didn’t work: the vassal rulers were too inclined to rebel. Time and again, the system of client rule failed, and the Assyrians had to turn more and more of their conquered lands into provinces.
So far we’ve followed the story of Assyria from the Bible, where it comes off as the original Evil Empire, to its rough-and-tumble beginning as a Bronze Age upstart, and then on down to its act as the comeback king of the Iron Age. The world has already changed a great deal, and now Assyria is starting to play the dominant role in shaping it. Next time, we’ll take a look at the mighty Assyrian army, the war machine that enabled them to conquer so many lands, and we’ll watch as Assyria continues its march to greatness, paved with the kicking of many asses.
For Part II:
- Taliban Bibles and Evil Empires: The Story of Assyria (Part II)
The Assyrian war machine made military history, turning Assyria into a superpower. But like so many empires since, the Assyrians found out that empire has its limits, and its price.