dimanche 14 avril 1996

Assur, the Craddle of Mankind

In 1962, at spring, I went to Shergat, a locality at a hundred and twenty kilometers in the south of Mosul. In the same occasion, I decided to visit Assur, the first capital of Assyria, very near, which haunted my dreams since months, blazing memory of heroic times.

I arrived on the imposing site, perched on a rock buttress of Djebel Hamrîn, which dominated right bank of the Tiger. Some walls and doors, like the door of Tabira at West, remained erected. Like a huge clayed-igloo, high of thirty meters and sifted by holes, a ziggurat – tower of a stored-temple - overhung the landscape. Herds of sheep sought a rare food among the grassy monticules. I moved firstly in its direction. Symbol of the City, it was dedicated to Enlil, the god of the air. Formerly, it connected earth and heaven, present and eternity. In one jump, I sprang to its conquest, but the ground weathered under my feet.

I nearly smashed and went down. But I was a nosy curious, and I crossed a door dug by the workmen in this heavy mass. “Provided that it does not run out on me, I thought, by while inserting myself in the black cave. A shiver of anguish shook my shoulders. Little by little, my eyes were accustomed to the darkness and I distinguished, here and there, scattered heaps of brick heaps. Hastily I went out.

I walked towards the north-eastern end of the rock horn. An Othoman citadel, built in XIXeme century, on the site of the temple of the god Ashur, had been arranged in museum. Ali, the warder, a young man with orant’s round eyes welcomed me with exubérance. He was bored and hastened around me. He showed me charts, diagrams, plans, shelves, statuettes of clay, and other lucky finds of the archaeologists. He gave me the cord and I was inserted in the past of Assur, as an adventurer throws top of a bridge at the bottom of the mysterious and dark water which runs with his feet.

A long history

The town dated from the most ancient period. Inscriptions and potteries revealed that i twas inhabited since the beginning of the IIIrd millenium by a Semitic people. The city was occupied by the Akkadian King Narâm-Sin (2259-2223 B.C.), then integrated by the IIIrd Sumerian dynasty of Ur (2111-2003 B.C.). Beautiful and busy, it then devoted to the trade of fabrics, copper, tin with Anatolia, Syria, and Mediterranean places.

A dark night wrapped it during centuries. Did it sleep on it ? Assur started again to be an important metropolis in Shamshi-Adad 1er’s Paleo-Assyrian (1813-1781 BC.). At the XIVth and XIIIth century, it became the capitale of a Medio-Assyrian kingdom, which spred from the Euphrat to the mountains of Persia.

Under the reigns of the energetic princes, Ashurnasirpal II (883-859 before J.-C.) and Salmanazar III (858-825 B.C.), it continued its rise. The first gave up it to transfer the seat from the capacity to Kalhu. But Assur remained the great religious center of Assyria .
Our ancestors placed the spirit of their country under the protection of Ashur, the local god, which was at the origin the master of the vegetation and revival. They showed it in a winged disc, armed with an arc. With the development of the Assyrian empire, they had given him the attributes of Enlil, the chief of the Sumerian Pantheon, the organizer of the universe .
Thus the king was chosen by the god Ashur. He looked it with favour, pronounced his name (which sometimes followed his own) and reserved him a great destiny. As the first servant of the divinity, the sovereign had to obey him blindfully. In exchange, he gained the victory when his military campaign. He obliged even the defeated countries to come towards Ashur and to offer their spoils to him. At the festivals of the New Year, the divine Master was led in procession to the temple and its splendid gardens. The monarch participated to the ceremonies. Ashur had given its name to the city which had been spread like a fan, offering to the eyes of dazzled visitors its sumptuous monuments, decorated with planks and paintings: The old palace, the new one, the double temple of Anû the god of Heaven and Adad, the lord of rain and storm, with his towers scratching the sky, the temples of Sin and Shamash, gods of the moon and the sun.
Followinf the warder’s advice, I choose to go to Ishtar(s temple, the goddess of love and war, the queen of doves. It was a very old sanctuary, built about 2030 B.C, and located at the south of the processional way. Alas, only ground and heaps of stones remained ! I thought with emotion of ancient days, of the enthusiastic creatures who had crossed the court. They had gathered in the large rectangular room, furnished with benches along the walls, for the ex-votos. They had sung, psalmodiated anthems and lamentations, with the sound of harps and lyres, inebriated with incense, cedar and cypress scents.

During the same time, priests, soothsayers and exorcists exalted by prayers and gifts their protective. On a podium, Ishtar stood, richly adorned, and its breath floated on the heads of its believers..

Slowly, I went up to the "old palace". Shaken by whole sides, its walls had been rebuilt at one meter height. The diggers had discovered there five tombs, among which Ashur Bêl Kala (1074-1057 B.C.), Ashurnasirpal II (883-859 B.C) and Shamshi-Adad V (823-811 B.C.)'s graves. When the king left toward his destiny, the wives of his harem anointed with fine oile and aromatics his corpse, kissed him, and mourned him tenderly. Then they were going to purify themselves in the Tigris, according to the habit. Adorned with his royal dresses, the dead one was put in a simple stone vault, enriched of some treasures, whose lid was sealed by bronze cramps.

The sovereigns of Assyria did not invest considerable sums to set up monuments or pyramids, like Pharaons. They were not made momifier, they did not regain an "area of light". Like all the men, they went down to the "country without return" to carry out a dull existence to it, sinks, dusty.

I leaned above Ashur-Beautiful-Kala's sarcophagus which was widely opened under the sky. It had been plundered, damaged by the wind and the rain. It had not kept any vestige of a prestigious past.

A storm of sand

I continued my walk on the site. The sky was darkened, filled of rumours and of predict. Then the wind started to blow, raising reddish grey sandy clouds, which pricked my eyes. The storm attacked me, seizd my neck. I fought to release myself. While running towards the shelter of the museum, I thought of another storm: It had devastated the city in year 614 before our era...

Where are you flying, cruel Medes with your impetuous chariots and your spirited steeds ? What are you going to do with Asur ? Its hour of fire and ashes has sounded... His humiliated face is dislocated like a figure of Picasso. The ground resounds of the hard noise of the shoes, of the deafening din of the palates which break down, of the howls of incandescent cliff!

Then a deep silence fall down again on the useless arm of the river...

I was quite relieved to reach the museum.

— Ashurs is angry like in the past, joked the warder. Let's come in quickly, or he will transpierce you of a cruel arrow!

I dropped myself on a bench, idle. I wiped my cheeks and my hands, then I sneezed several times. I saw that a fine layer of sand covered everything around us.

Ali gave me seat and sat down near to me. I continued to talk :

— But why this god is angry ? For which hidden fault did he abandon to Medes his own city ? Impossible that it was totally burnt... Its flammes still burn my soul.

— That's right, answered the young scholar, Assur did not disappear. After these terrible events, survivors came back to inhabit it. They could not forget the suzerainty of a name scenting myrrh, incense and cassia ! The city flourished again during the Hellenistic period (323 B.C. -end of the 1st century A.D.). Led by Sîn, the caravans which moved towards Arbeles, Hatra or Palmyre, shook the dust of the road, in the shade of the caravanserais placed out of the walls . They honoured with offerings the ancient divinities - among them the god Ashur - installed again in their restored temples.

Later, Parthes, an Indo-Iranian people, conquered Mesopotamia. They still supported the resurrection of Asur, with splendid buildings and districts of dwelling.

The Roman troops of Trajan ransacked Assur in 116, those of Septime Sévère in 198.

Layard discovered the site in 1847. During the excavations of 1903, the German Walter Andrae's staff found numrous remains and Aramaic graffiti, dated of this period. At the center of the city, sttod up a beautiful palate. Four iwans - deep rooms for cult and reception opened on a side - surrounded the court. They were head up with semicircular vaults and adorned with Greek borders and garlands in stucco and plaster.

But soonly Sassanids devastated the area. About 256 AD, they plundered the Holy City, that Assyrians's craddle, and the tomb of the kings. How Ashur's heart could support this second destruction?

- That is the question, observed in English the warder. He rose, seizes a rag and started to wipe antiquities. Then he offered a coffee cup, and we awaited the end of the storm.

Around six o'clock, Ali closed the museum, took his Volkswagen, and proposed to bring me back at Shergat, where I spent a night.

In my dream, I saw the ancient city of Asur. It lightened of its most beautiful plasticity. Firmly standing on its cliff, proud of its high walls, its notched towers, its temples and its majestuous palates, leaning toward the Tigris its jealous and quarellish face... I walked along its bituminized brick quays.

Musicians played for the dignitaries of the city. They sailed on the river, in boats with heads of dragons, drawn by bearded oarsmen, with white clothing. During my feverish sleep, I intended to make resound their toothings-stone, their cymbals and their quadrants, and my hand bathed in the water lapping to my bed. Dawn bleaches the panes, the city died out and is absorbed again at the bottom of the pit of eternity.

From Mésopotamie, paradis des jours anciens, édition l’Harmattan, 1996, Paris, chapitre 4, page 37.

The site of Asur is a treasure, it is today threatened by the building of a dam. After the serious events in Iraq, the project has been stopped, but concern remains. This site should be protected, against floods, stoppings, degradations, plunderings. Doesn't it belong to the inheritance of humanity?