The Buried Cities of Assyria

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The Buried Cities of Assyria


During the nineteenth century, archaeological discoveries in the Middle East changed the way scholars thought about the history of Western civilization. The translation of the ancient languages of Mesopotamia coincided with the spectacular excavations of the palaces of Assyrian kings and the biblical city of Nineveh. Eventually Mesopotamia was to be recognized as the location of the world's first urban civilization, even more ancient than Egypt. Some of the writings uncovered there parallel accounts found in the earliest sections of the Hebrew Scriptures.


Mesopotamia is the name of an ancient region including parts of what are now Syria, Turkey, Iraq, and Iran. Its heart was the rich "Fertile Crescent" between the Tigris and Euphrates Rivers, long known as a cradle of civilization. A Mesopotamian city called Ur of the Chaldees is said to be the birthplace of the biblical patriarch Abraham, whom Jews and Arabs regard as their ancestor.

Abraham's people were Semites, nomadic tribes whose remote origins were probably in Arabia. The Sumerians, among whom they lived in Mesopotamia, stood poised at the dawn of history. They built the world's first cities and invented writing, using wedge-shaped symbols called cuneiform, about 5,000 years ago.

By about 2300 B.C., the Sumerian civilization was weakening. The population of their cities had increased faster than their ability to provide housing and sanitation. The rich soil of their farmlands had become depleted as irrigation leached nutrients from the over-cultivated fields. Finally, they were overrun by another Semitic people known as the Akkadians. The descendants of the Akkadians and other invaders formed kingdoms and empires, and ruled parts of Mesopotamia for the next 2,000 years. They included the Babylonians, the Assyrians, and the Amorites.

The influence of the Sumerians lived on in Mesopotamia, as their successors adopted much of the Sumerian culture as the basis of their own. It was also a major contributor to the civilization of the Hebrews, who took it with them to the eastern Mediterranean almost 4,000 years ago. Through the Bible, it helped to form the foundation of Western culture and thought.

Some of the great Mesopotamian cities such as Nineveh were mentioned in the Bible, and also in the writings of ancient Greek historians including Herodotus and Xenophon. In the twelfth century, the rabbi Benjamin of Tudela (b. 12th century), traveling from Spain to visit Jewish communities in the Middle East, correctly identified the ruins of Nineveh. But in medieval Christian Europe, the lost civilizations of Mesopotamia were all but forgotten.

The Renaissance revived interest in learning about the ancient world. After 1530, Mesopotamia was controlled by the Ottoman Turks. Over time, trade and diplomatic relations increased, and more Europeans started traveling to what was now a remote and neglected provincial backwater. With renewed scholarship, understanding of the historical importance of the region grew. In an era when every educated European knew the Bible well, the places mentioned in the Scriptures held special significance.


The first archaeological excavations in Mesopotamia were made in 1780 by Abbe Beauchamp, an emissary of the Pope. His finds included a number of inscribed bricks, but at the time no one could read them. Still, his memoirs became quite popular, and increased interest in the area.

In 1756, the king of Denmark sent a scientific expedition to the Middle East. Tragically, five of its six members were felled by disease. However the sixth, the German Carsten Niebuhr (1733-1815), explored the ruins of the 2,000-year-old palace of the Persian kings of Persepolis. There he found and copied inscriptions in three different languages, all written in the same cuneiform script. He published an account of his discoveries in 1772.

The first of the three languages to be deciphered, in 1802, was Old Persian. This was accomplished by a German schoolteacher named Georg Friedrich Grotefend. The key was his being able to pick out repetitive phrases used to honor Persian kings, as well as the kings' names, from his knowledge of Greek historical texts.

Henry Creswicke Rawlinson (1810-1895), a British diplomat and scholar first posted to Persia on military duty in 1835, climbed sheer cliffs at Behistun to copy another multi-lingual set of 1,200 cuneiform lines. The most inaccessible inscriptions were reached with the help of a "wild Kurdish boy" slung from a rope taking papier-mache casts.

This larger body of text helped Rawlinson decipher the second language, Babylonian. The Babylonian language was a later dialect of Akkadian, a Semitic language related to Hebrew and Arabic. Rawlinson published a preliminary translation of the Babylonian text from the Behistun cliffs in 1851. The third language, Elamite, belonged to a people centered at Susa in southwestern Iran. They preceded the Persians and seemed to be native to that area. Elamite is not similar to any other known language. It was not deciphered until much later, and is still incompletely understood.

Rawlinson's linguistic breakthrough fortuitously occurred just as the great age of Mesopotamian archaeology was beginning. In 1843, Paul Emile Botta (1802-1870), while serving as French consular agent in the Iraqi city of Mosul, discovered the city of the Assyrian king Sargon II, dating from the eight century B.C.

Sargon, which means "declared king," was the name of three rulers of ancient Assyria. The first, Sargon of Akkad, was the first great emperor in history, and ruled for 61 years. It was he who conquered the Sumerians and began the period of Akkadian rule in Mesopotamia 23 centuries ago. He extended his empire as far as Persia to the east, and the Mediterranean Sea and Asia Minor to the west.

Sargon I reigned about 500 years later. Little is known about him, although his kingdom was active in forming trade colonies. Sargon II was one of Assyria's last and most powerful kings, although his relatively short reign lasted only from 722 to 705 B.C. He conquered Babylonia, Armenia, and Philistia, and destroyed one of the two adjacent Jewish kingdoms on the shores of the Mediterranean, scattering the famous 10 lost tribes.

Sargon II built a new capital to celebrate his victories, but soon died in a battle in Persia. Eventually his city crumbled into a raised mound of earth at the Iraqi town of Khorsabad. Botta had been having little success digging for a year at a site in nearby Kuyunjik that was later to yield spectacular discoveries. However, acting on a tip from a villager, who said that antiquities were underfoot in Khorsabad, he moved there and was almost immediately successful. Botta's finds included huge statues of winged bulls and lions with human heads, and many exquisite bas-reliefs. Most were shipped to Paris and exhibited at the Louvre.

The English archaeologist Austen Henry Layard (1817-1894) found eight more Assyrian palaces a few years later. In 1849, he excavated a mound at Kuyunjik and uncovered the famous city of Nineveh. These discoveries earned him the title "Father of Assyriology." Like Botta, he shipped most of the artifacts he found back to his own country, where they were displayed at the British Museum. There were similar statues and about two miles (3.2 km) of bas-reliefs. Most significant of all, there was a library of about 24,000 cuneiform tablets assembled by the learned king Ashurbanipal, who reigned in the seventh century B.C.

The Crimean War of the 1850s put a damper on archaeological expeditions. Attention turned to studying the cuneiform languages, with Ashurbanipal's library now providing a large amount of material to work with. The script was primarily syllabic; for example, there were seven different "r" symbols, corresponding to ar, ir, er, ur, ra, ri, and ru. However, some symbols were shorthand for complete words, similar to the way we sometimes use the symbol "&" for "and."

Linguists quickly noted the similarity of Akkadian to other Semitic languages such as Hebrew and Arabic. But the cuneiform script didn't seem adapted particularly well to the Semitic language family. For example, there were vowel patterns in Semitic tongues that had no corresponding expression in the script. At the same time, Akkadian did not have a symbol for "lion," although lions were common in ancient Mesopotamia and had even been known to eat the guard dogs of nineteenth-century archaeologists. This suggested that Akkadian had originated elsewhere, presumably at a time before the appearance of the Semitic Akkadians in Mesopotamia. The uncomfortable fit of the written symbols to the language prompted scholars to surmise that the Akkadians had, after their arrival in Mesopotamia, borrowed the script of the earlier, non-Semitic inhabitants to express their language.

Layard had found tablets in Ashurbanipal's library upon which Akkadian words were listed next to unknown words in another language, written in the same script but unfamiliar. Rawlinson proposed in 1855 that this unknown language was that of the originators of the cuneiform writing. The mysterious people were identified as Sumerians in 1869 by Jules Oppert, after he studied Akkadian inscriptions referring to "king of Sumer and Akkad."

The most spectacular discovery to emerge from Ashurbanipal's library was found by George Smith (1840-1876), a young scholar reading through the tablets at the British Museum. Suddenly he came upon an Akkadian version of the biblical story of the great flood. He read how a flood had come to punish mankind. Like Noah, a king named Utnapishtim, along with his family and animals, survived the deluge in a ship of his own making. The rain stopped after six days, and the ark came to rest on a mountaintop. Just as in the Genesis account, a bird was sent out, and its failure to return indicated the re-emergence of land. Another fragment of text contained a story resembling that of Adam and Eve.

The fascination with the ancient land of Mesopotamia and the light it sheds on the earliest days of Western civilization was sparked by the many discoveries of the nineteenth century, and continues to this day.


Further Reading

Baumann, Hans. In the Land of Ur: The Discovery ofAncient Mesopotamia. New York: Random House, 1969.

Brown, Dale, et al. Sumer: Cities of Eden. Alexandria, VA: Time-Life Books, 1993.

Cottrell, Leonard. The Quest for Sumer. New York: G.P. Putnam's Sons, 1965.