CreditsDirector: Antti Kaskia
Catalog number # 23
25 minutes Color
Age Range: 14 to Adult
Closed Captions and Interactive Transcript
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Mesopotamia was ruled by the Assyrians from the third millennium before Christ right up to the sixth century of the Christian Era, when the Persians conquered most of the country. At its greatest, the Assyrian Empire stretched as far as Ethiopia in the south and as far as Libya in the west.
One of the Assyrians' capitals was the mighty Nineveh, the ruins of which lie close to the modern Iraqi city of Mosul. The walls which once surrounded the center of Nineveh, complete with gates, remain today. This metropolis was one of the most important architectural creations of its time. Thousands of years of habitation, wars and the systematic destruction visited on the city several times have left little behind.
The walls of Nineveh and, here, a restored gate.
This gate was consecrated to the god of the Underworld, Nergal, and is typically decorated with statues of winged bulls.
The gate here is also being restored.
"I am the Assyrian king Assurnasirpal. I ruled from 883 to 859 B.C. according to your way of reckoning time. We Assyrians are generally recognized as having been martial kings, which is true, because we were constantly surrounded by enemies, but we also practiced art. I'm sure you will allow me to tell you something about the life of a typical Assyrian king, and about our customs and interests. A great deal of my time went on drawing up royal edicts. How I hate this red tape!
"And how about entertaining: meeting the leaders of other countries and tribes is hard work. Ceremonies, ceremonies, just like at this festival arranged by my colleague, Sargon. Note the salute of honor: the right hand is raised with palm spread. Dress is according to rank: the long royal beard, weapons and the symbols of power, a pine cone, by means of which pollen was taken from a bucket and then spread to fertilize a palm flower, for example, a fertility symbol. Apart from that, of course, plants represented divine characteristics, especially the flowers and fruits of trees. The royal garb also includes a bracelet with flower symbols."
"Formal greetings are exchanged, the courtiers follow the proceedings from a distance. They hold their hands in a position which indicates humility and obedience. The servants and the women are allowed to be present, but further back. Assurances of admiration and sincere respect are given, but both know that an attack would be immediate if one could only be sure of victory. Signs of uncertainty and fear must be looked for in the other's face. Do they reveal anything?"
"Thank Shamash that the visit is over. Now I can devote myself to my favorite royal pastime: lion hunting! There is nothing to compare with this sport. The drivers ride in groups. I and the other hunters in chariots try to get within shooting, range. The lions roar around us and may behave unpredictably, but always bravely. If there are no lions, some are brought over in cages from the royal menagerie. A wounded lion is dangerous, it fears nothing, not even me, the king. Let all my subjects know that I am just as brave as the wildest lion. Let the story of my hunting expeditions be carved in stone for all my people to see."
"At the end of a successful hunting trip, I make a sacrifice to the gods to show thanks as custom demands. And then a Bacchanalian feast! Music, wine and merriment! Look, those of you who dare, your king is taming a lion with his bare hands!"
Winged bulls like this are probably the mightiest examples of Assyrian art still in existence. This pair of bulls in the National Museum of Iraq are believed to be the largest known. They were found in King Sargon's palace at Khorsabad in northern Iraq. The bulls guarded the main entrance to the palace. A special feature is that the bull has five legs, the 'extra' one being between the forelegs. A statue like this, made of alabaster, weighing 35 tons and standing four meters high, certainly intimidated anybody coming through the entrance, and inspired humility, the first manifestation of state propaganda! King Sargon reigned during the eighth century B.C. Behind the bull is a relief depicting a god-creature with wings on its back and bearing the symbols for royal fertility and expurgation in its hand.
This four-meter-high limestone statue of the god Nabu was found in Nimrud. Nabu was an important Assyrian god of knowledge and wisdom.
A war has broken out! Men to arms, let the king put an end to his sacrificial ceremonies and transform them into a ceremony of war! Let the king make haste to form army units in accordance with the mobilization plan. Assembly and outfitting camps will be established. A city of tents will spring up and the logistics of feeding an army set in motion. An army eats a lot and several camels are gnawed down to the bone each day.
Officers are assigned to lead the military units. They are in 10-men groups, 50-men troops, 100-men companies, battalions of a few companies, and divisions, which are thousands strong. The army can contain from 50 to 100,000 men. This system was later adopted by the Romans and it is still the basis of today's armies
The king arrives to inspect the troops as they set out. The march begins. Cavalry followed by infantry. The supply units bring the food with them. It walks on its own feet.
Pioneers have already examined the river crossing places and quickly built a pontoon bridge. A military force could expect to have to cross water bodies quite often in Ancient Mesopotamia. The largest rivers were crossed in boats, or else large rafts were built. If the current was not too strong, a large bridge was built. Pioneer units floated logs to the crossing place in advance. No time must be lost!
Contact with the enemy has been made! Arrows flash towards the column. A defensive line is rapidly formed, archers in front to give cover. Cavalry circles around the rear of the enemy to cut off his supply lines. The enemy throws his fast camel units into the attack. Close-range fighting begins. The defenders' fire is accurate and the camels are relatively unprotected and easily hit. The camel troops are brave, mercy is neither asked for nor given. The camel-borne troops are soon thrown into disorder and the remnants retreat.
Now the pursuit begins. The fast riders give chase. The infantry, still in the shelter of the chariots, fights on. The battlefield is awash with blood. With anxious hearts the citizens watch. Some of them have relatives in the armies. There lies a father, brother, a man who has given his all for his God and king. May they find peace in the Underworld, may the gods be merciful towards them.
In the meantime, the enemy has retreated to the shelter of his fortress, and now a new stage in the war can begin, the siege. Palm trees are felled and the besiegers try to get them against the walls. The enemy responds with a shower of stones. However, the most determined succeed and are greeted with a sharp spear or sword, with the shield held in a defensive position. The battle continues.
The enemy is tough. What one needs now is the latest in military technology: catapults and, above all, battering rams for the walls. These are wagons in which a heavy ram suspended on chains can be swung to batter a wall. The men are protected by strong armor. The work yields results, the wall crumbles and, with archers providing cover, the attackers storm into the breach.
Commando forces go into action: frogmen try to get into the fortress under water. They use goatskin bags as breathing apparatus. The air force is also reconnoitering: an eagle flies a man.
The keys to victory are in the Assyrians' hands. The wall is down, the enemy forces nearly defeated. The king arrives. A real pyramid of enemy, heads soar in front of him.
Horses and cattle are taken as war booty. The civilian population flees. The plunder is duly listed. The men who have surrendered are taken prisoner, and their future is slavery.
Women and children fleeing. Robbed, abandoned.
A macabre punishment has been reserved for war crimes.
The troubles of war and the fear of death are over for the victors. We'll show them! Let them remember their punishment for a long time. And we shall save our face in the eyes of the world.
The defeated, free men just a little while ago, will labor in stone quarries from now on. No revolt can succeed as long as only stones are available as weapons. The guards' large shields reveal that this possibility has been thought of. Some of the laborers have to drag massive blocks to the courtyard of the royal palace. On them is depicted the same battle, as seen by the victors.
The merry sounds of a victory feast already resound on what was so recently a battlefield.
The leader of the insurrection and others responsible for the war are forced before the king to swear their repentance, before they are executed. The king's commander-in-chief will probably be promoted and get a share of the booty. The still-bleeding head of the enemy commander is impaled on a tree branch to attest to the victors' feasting. The king can breathe a sigh of relief once again.
The Assyrians' highly developed martial skills were not the only factor which led to the birth of their empire. The Assyrian kings brought quarrelling tribes under their own rule and created a superior administrative system throughout Asia Minor. The Assyrian Empire is considered to have come to an end with the destruction of Niniveh in 612 B.C. That was accomplished by the Mede ruler Cyaxares, from what is now northern Iran.
This, the so-called black obelisk, which is made of monolite, tells about Assurnasripal's son, Shalmaneser conquering expeditions. They extended really far: the tale is one of the subjugation of other countries, of remote and strange animals, such as twin-hump Indian camels and elephants, which were seen both in Africa and in India. The obelisk was found in Nimrud.
During the early years of this century, archaeologists found King Assurbanipali's enormous library in Niniveh: more than 22,000 clay tablets covered in cuneiform script. This warrior king, who is said to have been quite cruel, was a friend of literature: here one can also find translations of Sumerian texts, which have proved valuable. The history of Mesopotamia is based largely on material from this library. Some of the Assyrian kings' lists of rulers and curriculum vitae are also found here.
Here, in Nimrud, is a portrait of Assumasirpal's son Shalmaneser in two halves. Above the portrait is the god Assur shown symbolically in the form of a bull. There are 300 glazed tiles on the wall.
Archaeologists digging in Nimrud found this beautiful ivory miniature of a woman's head at the bottom of a well in the king's palace. It has been nicknamed The Mona Lisa of Nimrud.
A lioness has killed an African. These ivory sculptures and reliefs were used to decorate furniture in the homes of the upper classes. There were a couple of them.
Ivory art objects could be brought to Niniveh from very far afield. Many objects are believed to be of Egyptian or Phoenician origin.
These reliefs showing a struggle between a lion and a wild ass once decorated the head of a bed. The sleeper must have had strong nerves.
About 40 kilometers south of Niniveh, nowadays Mosul, lies Nimrud, the ancient Kalhu. It was here that King Assurnasirpal built a summer palace first, and then a whole city, even making Nimrud the capital of his whole empire for a while.
Nimrud was once a riverside city. But now the channel has shifted a few kilometers away, and all that remains of the former harbor is a few puddles left by the spring rains.
The palace was inside a fortified area, and one corner of the palace area was dominated by a ziggurat. We are looking down from the top of the Nimrud ziggurat. In front of us spread the ruins of the Nimrud temple. The palace area in Nimrud. On the left, in the bottom of the picture, is the ziggurat, beside it the temple, which, after a dividing wall, becomes the king's palace. On the right, in the top of the picture is the Nabu temple.
The English archaeologist Sir Max Mallowan conducted digging operations at Nimrud from 1949 to 1960. The excavations begin to fill up again in thirty years or so. Now the Iraqi authorities are trying to restore the area and make it suitable for permanent exhibition. We are looking at the Ninurta temple, and in the background rises a ziggurat, which was certainly also used as a watch tower, as after all, Nimrud was a major garrison city. This tower also dominates a broad plain. Assurnasirpal was an excellent strategist.
In the distance appear the ruins of a huge ancient art gallery. It was from here that the Assyrian kings ordered large winged bulls and stone statues commemorating ceremonies or conquering expeditions. In general, only a specific clan or family was responsible for these creations. The statues were transported all over the empire by water.
A plan of the palace. On the left, a wall shared with the Ninurta temple, then a broad courtyard, which was once coated with tiled slabs. In the middle is the palace's ceremonial rooms as well as a large throne room.
One reaches the room via a door, which was guarded by two winged bulls with their king's facial features. His great deeds are inscribed on the stone.
Statues of this kind were intended to arouse respect and fear in those trying to speak to the king. They also showed the divine and supernatural power of the king.
A winged-god creature with a bird's head pollinates stylized palm blossoms. The instruments for this ritual are a large cone and a vessel of pollen.
King Assurnasirpal's palace was once a splendid showpiece of Assyrian architecture.
A cuneiform text describing the opening ceremony in the palace has been preserved. It gives details of what must have been one of the major events on the social calendar of the day. There were 69,574 guests. They consumed 2,200 oxen and 16,000 sheep, washed down with 20,000 barrels of wine and beer. The whole thing lasted 10 days and nights.
Public buildings of this kind generally contained many stone columns covered in cuneiform writing. The Akkadian language, of which the Assyrians and Babylonians spoke dialects, was once the language of diplomacy and culture throughout the Middle East. The most recent cuneiform texts date from about the beginning of the Christian Era.
Reliefs of King Assurnasirpal. They were often painted. The black paint of the beard and hair still remains; it was bitumen. The kings are shown in the rigid poses of traditional rituals. Kings were supposed to look like gods, because they were gods. These stone surfaces more than two thousand years old still exude naked power, even cruelty. However, this is only one side of the matter. The kings were also cultured men, who uncompromisingly pursued the interests of their people. They developed administrative models which aspired towards justice and stable conditions. Everyday realities, man's eternal thirst for power and the grudges he harbors are written in blood in most chapters of Assyrian history.
The king's throne room, marked with the letter Y, saw its days of splendor from about 880 B.C. onwards. This lasted about a thousand years, first under its founder and then under his son and after that under kings Adadnirar, Tiglathpileser and finally Sargon. Sargon established a new capital, Dur-Sharruikin (now Khorsabad) to the north of Niniveh.
Thus the sumptuous court life, with its feasts, art pursuits, menageries and pets gradually faded away in Nimrud, and when the Persian rulers directed ever stronger attacks at Assyria and succeeded in conquering Niniveh in 612 B.C., the Assyrian period came to an end.
A person who has embraced Western culture is, often without knowing it, greatly indebted to the Assyrian cultural tradition, which has passed on to him and developed the most outstanding achievements of Mesopotamian civilizations lasting thousands of years.
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