The Faces of Assyria
A few time later, I was in Dohuk, a town at seventy-five kilometers from the north of Mosul, next to the defile of a mountain which has the same name. It was famous for its fig trees, its vineyards that crowned it by vine branches and leaves, and for its granada trees that produced smooth-barked fruits, with a delicious bitter-sweet taste.
I hadn't forgotten the splendid rupestral reliefs which stood not far from the close village of Maltaï.
One afternoon, I climbed up slowly to the Bekher mountain. After twenty minutes of walk, I watched with my own eyes, shivered of emotion, the portrait of a king, engraved in the rock : Sennacherib. He had made represent himself twice on each pannel of the cliff. He was standing front of Assyrian gods, who were crowned with high tiaras, and appeared to him, sitting or riding their animal-symbols. He was waiting for me, as it seems to myself, to commemorate a splendid victory that resounded now in my spirit....
Evening was falling, reliefs bathed in a rose lightness then vanished. The so-vivid past returned in the shade.
The following days, I dashed off in pursuit of Assyrians' track, who had built citadels, carved other rocked walls, at Mala Mergué and, more in the east, at Hinis Bavian, no far from the city of Ain Sifni. They had marked with their own seal Upper-Mesopotamia. I fitted their quartered sandals and, untiring traveler, unworry of anything, I went over their stiff and fertiles lands. They spred mainly between the Tigris and its affluent the Zab.
I crossed mounts and valleys, hills and woods, I passed through pastures scored by rivers of fresh water, I touched lightly bushes, buzzing by moired flights of bees. I strode over the fields of a forgotten time.
Everywhere, I was seeking for the Other one, the Assyria of yesteryear, that which one does'nt see but that quivers in the shade. It was my blood sister, wasn't it ? While I was walking, I evoked its name with its voiceless and flourished syllables, full of mysteries. I watched for its footprints which filled up antiquities. It had founded a dazzling civilization, that lasted more than thousand years, and of which litghts were still shining.
It carried me, I was all the greater for it, like Mesopotamians from yesterday and nowadays. It prolonged in me its rich customs, its irresistible dashes, its generous dreams.
Bible had kept the memory of the fascinating Assyria. It mentionned
with eloquence ...
The Assyrians its neighbours, Dressed with blue-tinted fabrics,
chiefs and governors et chefs, All of them young and charming,
Riders on their horses.
governors et chefs, All of them young and charming,
Riders on their horses.
All of them young and charming,
Riders on their horses.
Riders on their horses.
But alas, more often basing themselves on partial and hazardous informations, the Bible depicted this great power as a formidable ennemy, with a stern and pitiless face, a sovereign of Fear, inclined with conquests and plunderings, these sources of richness.
Terrible Assyria ? It wasn't only. At this remote time, all the nations let themselves do barbarian acts. Prophet Elias slit 450 priests of Baal's throats didn't he ? (I Kings, 18, 40 ) The king of Israël, Jehu, raised deliberately two pyramids of heads at the gate of his palace. ( II Kings 10, 9 )
And what about the countries that make today so such atrocities, massacres, and acts of genocides ?
We had to wait for the middle of the nineteenth century for doing justice to the land of Assur and at last for telling the truth. Western diplomats Paul-Emile Botta, Henry Austen Layard, Victor Place, and others, took off with their passionate hands the bloody mask of Assyria and unveiled its moving face, powdered of gold. Their eyes met the fire of its look and they burnt for it. They breathed its elating scent,a mixture of myrrh and blackcurrant. They tried to preserve the dress by which the Civilization had ornamented it.
They followed it in the ruines of its palaces, decorated with a great care, which stood up yesteryear in a pleasant landscape and smelt cypress, mulberry, juniper and pistachio trees.
These diggers of the past listened to the vibrant voices that were still raising from tablets and bas-reliefs and related princes' exploits, the valiance of soldiers with pointed-helms, the piety of linen-dressed priests, the pure-bred beauty of horses and lions. They marvelled at finely carved ivories, unearthed in Kalhu, the second Assyrian capital.
At the twentieth century, archeologists found again precious objets d'art, ciselled jewels as a token of craftsmen' exquisite taste and dexterity.
Contrasting by beings and ladscapes, both faces of Assyria, the Biblic one 's, appealing but violent, dominating, and archeologist's one, captivating and refined, ended up to merge, in my eyes, in the symbolic personification of Semiramis, the queen with her golden headband. Subtle, bright and a fierce Amazon, her beauty outshone all the ladies of the palace.
It seems that Sammuramat, King Shamshi-Adad V's wife, who ruled in Kalhu from 823 to 811 B.C, was at the origin of this legend.
Semiramis might have married Omnes, the governor of Ninive and later was the second wife of King Ninos. When she became widow again, she would have attempt some conquests, lead a military expedition until India, found Babylon and created these wonderful gardens.
She could not really die and she lived on in a white dove, the bird which is assimilated to gods.
Semiramis preserved the memory of her country, reaching the dimensions of a myth. She fired the imaginations of Greeks, Herodotus, Ctesias, Diodorus of Sicilia, but Romans, Armenians and Europeans too. Crébillon, Voltaire, Valéry, Gluck, Rossini, made her the heroin of literary works and operas. Degas dedicated her an academic picture.
In my turn I was bewitched by the Queen. She came back to me in the nightdreamings. My imagination wasn't wearied to invent her, to embellish her. I sought her, I found her, I lost her. I concentrated on her image until I found her again....
Sing, Semiramis, sound the strings of your harp ! Sing the greatness of Assyria, when all the nations bowed down before it. Your hairs ornamented with stocks, speak to me about glory, speak to me about love...
With the passing of the years, archeologists were let subjugate by the faces of the last kings of which they withdrew from the ground steles and statues. Didn't they personify Assyria, too ? Wearing some kind of fez, the princes seemed appeased behind their brilliantined beards. Their large cold eyes, formerly like dark velvet, looked at fixedly in front of, to the past, as if the story could start again...
These monarchs were not libertines with flabby bellies, weak and lascivious, nor bloodthirsty tyrants as they had been sometimes pictured. Made-up, perfumed, covered of jewels, certainly, but viril, energetic, always in movement.
Being passionate about an impossible peace, they felt they were pressed to the most brilliant conquests and the highest vertigos by neighbouring populations, who tightened, like rushes, the borders of their empire and put them in danger. Robust warriors, more raging than floods, they annihilated their ennemies, crushed their shields, they set their triumph on territories and hadn't any rivals. They compared war, that ensured them economical perspectives, to a fight against Evil. Convinced of the valiability and the real supériority of Assyrian civilization, they wanted that it was recognized and adopted by surrounding countries. Those paid a tribute to Assyria but benefitted from its economical stability and enjoyed the moral and material advantages of the royal protection.
Inside this immense empire, which, at the seventh century, spred from Cyprus to Iran and made communicate populations, languages and cultures, sovereigns didn't exert absolute power, as Louis XIV, in France. Their speeches were not a sharp blade. They were to count on the Ancients' assembly and on nobility and military caste.
These magnificent, charming, artist, humanist had duties to their country. They had to develop agriculture, to maintain temples and canals, to built dams, to make respect laws. Thanks to a policy of prestige, a centralized administration, they tried to warrent to their subjects self-dignity, well-being, prosperity. They associated them to their own triumphs and joys.
At the time of the inauguration of their splendid palaces, kings invited sometime the inhabitants of cities to copious feasts and satisfied them for several days with delicious foods, choice wines, and songs.
Assyrians were indeed Sumerians and Akkadians' heirs. Like Gilgamesh, their wisdom consisted in enjoying cleverly an existence rhythmed by music. Didn't Ishtar, the goddess of Arbil advise to Assurbanipal to eat, to drink and to be happy, and to make his people's happiness because from his lips flood good words and because he satisfy stomach and ears ?
Simple representantives and gods' servants on earth - especially in Ashur - the kings were not immortal. After their death, they went down to the Land without return as any of their employees. They didn't built pyramids as the Pharaohs of Egypt, but simple tombs. They didn't care to bring their own goods with them.
The greatness of these sovereings did not come only from their prowesses or their opulent luxury. They wanted to make shine in all the word the name of Assyria, that they venerated. Their true conquest was the conquest of peace, beauty, life.
Extract from the book : « LEpopée du Tigre et de lEuphrate », Ch. 11, Editions lHarmattan, Paris, 1999