“I cut their throats like sheep. My prancing steeds, trained to harness, plunged into their welling blood, as they would wade into the Idigna. The wheels of my chariot were bespattered with blood and filth. I filled the plains with their corpses and dragged their shorn heads behind my chariots.
As to the Sheikhs of the Chaldeans, panic overwhelmed them like a demon. They abandoned their tents and fled for their lives, their chariots crushing the corpses of their own men, their tunic stained, as they passed hot urine and voided their excrement out of sheer terror.
And then, as I left, I spread salt all over the lands so they would never ever grow any food again…..”
– Sennacherib, King of Assyria (691BC)
*** ’Idigna’ was what the river, Tigris, was called those days ***
North of Babylon lived a people, who at the height of their ascendance in the late 8th Century BC occupied a territory roughly 100000 sq. miles in area, carved out of northern Iraq, north-western Iran, southeastern Turkey and eastern Syria.
The empire began sometime around 1900BC, 160 miles north of present day Baghdad, as a waystation known as Assur, which served as an R&R stop for passing caravans that stopped by to replenish their stocks of food and water and to rest their horses and camels and maybe find a woman to spend the night with. Oh yeah, all through history, every little wayside town has had to have a whorehouse. Assur must have looked the way that Deadwood, South Dakota or Tombstone, Arizona or Dodge City, Kansas looked like in the early 1800s.
As trade grew, so did Assur, getting increasingly wealthy and we know all too well that prosperity brings with it the desire among folks in the fringes to unfollow that particular tenet of the Ten Commandments, which says something about coveting what others own. Heck, we are a race that has always loved to covet what others own and Assur’s neighbors were no exception.
Soon a bunch of folks – who had been living due south of Assur for some time and had begun organizing themselves a couple of hundred years prior – began to take note of Assur’s growing prosperity. They began to feel the competition when more and more caravans began passing through Assur, instead of taking the route they usually took, due south through their city – Babylon.
A neo-con Babylonian – must have been distantly related to Dick Cheney’s ancestors – spread the word that Assur was planning to attack and this triggered an endless cycle of blood-letting which didn’t stop until 1200 years later when Assur and its people ceased to exist, ceding their empire first to the Babylonians, then the Persians and later on, the Greeks.
Assur is mentioned in the biblical Book of Genesis, which says that it was founded just after the Great Flood by a semitic man named Assur, son of Shem, who was one of the three sons of Noah, (yeah the same guy who built the ark in which Scarlett Johanssen and I weathered the deluge and begat you all). Assur went on to found the other important Assyrian cities, like Nineveh, which still stands till this day. The name ‘Assyria’ is said to have come from ‘Assur’, but don’t take my word for it. It doesn’t matter anyway.
The Assyrians were so different in nature, from what you and I essentially are, as humans. Let’s begin with what they definitely weren’t – they were not the kind who sat around Sunday brunches, sipping beer, playing ‘what’s the good word’ and ambling over to browse garage sales. They were a lot more aggressive and didn’t mind playing ‘shove my neighbor’s nose in the dirt’ instead.
Thanks to the constant threat of invasion, by the Babylonians and others outside their borders, Assyria turned into a society gone mad with militarism and to that end, they maintained a very muscular foreign policy. The need to protect also created a wellspring of technological progress and resourcefulness.
Around their fast-moving chariots, the Assyrians built an army that was almost modern in its structure, with supply depots, military engineers and bridging equipment, transportation and logistics divisions and dedicated men on swift horses who galloped up and down the marching columns maintaining a steady line of communication over a vast battle front.
As with the German army in the initial years of the Second World War, the Assyrians were technologically very advanced. Their royal engineers built highways on which entire divisions moved so fast, that they could go over and fight a battle 300 miles away and be back for supper by sundown the next day without breaking into a sweat. The Assyrians were also the first to mass-produce and equip their soldiers with armor and arms made of iron and siege machinery and battering rams that had iron heads on them.
However, unlike the Nazis, the Assyrians were quite progressive and didn’t believe in all that ‘master race’ crap. They encouraged – under the pain of crucifixion of course – all the folks of conquered lands to be Assyrians in every respect and they looked upon every able-bodied man in the annexed territories as a potential military-economic resource.
And the Assyrians were on campaign mode all the bloody time, most battles being pre-emptive strikes, triggered by the fear that an invasion was brewing, which had to be nipped in the bud. That constant aggression caused great resentment in the conquered lands of course. Under Assyrian rule, there was this constantly boiling and frothing revolt in the far flung provinces, annexed territories which for some strange reason, the Assyrians never bothered to strengthen their grip on by establishing strong local government, like the Romans (and the Greeks before them) did. The Assyrians’ philosophy seemed simple – rape, pillage, loot, deport, enslave, burn and raze to the ground – then, after having sucked up all the wealth like a large vacuum cleaner, abandon and move back to base. Some historians suggest that the Assyrians deliberately encouraged revolt so they could move in, conquer and loot all over again – the way farmers harvest crops.
Naturally, there were lots of guys outside the borders who were itching to get even, the main opposition coming from the Medes (Iranians), the Elamites (again, pre-Iranians) and the Babylonians in the south. The Assyrians had been pissing these guys off for centuries and they were dying to kick Assyrian butt for ages.
Then there were the ‘barbarian hordes on horseback’, fierce nomadic marauding tribes of Turkik-Mongol origin. Don’t dismiss these dudes offhand – they were the ones who brought down the Roman Empire, remember, so what if they never ever bathed and therefore stank to high heavens?
Over the 12 centuries of its existence, Assyria waxed and waned repeatedly, as any empire with no natural geographical or ethnic borders is likely to do. Under Shalamaneser-I and his son, Tukulti-Ninurta-I (1274-1208BC), the empire spread up to the Persian Gulf in the south, only to collapse back after their deaths. A century later, Tiglath Pileser-I expanded Assyria once again, this time to the west, up to the shores of the Mediterranean. Then, after he began raising the daisies, it gradually shrank back until, by 900BC, it was a pathetic 50 by 100 mile area.
Then, in the last 300 years, from 900BC to 612BC (when Assyria finally ceased to exist) – a period termed by archaeologists as the Neo-Assyrian era, it once again grew into a monster that was constantly at war, terrorizing the entire Middle-East in order to ensure a steady flow of booty and tribute into its treasury.
But what set the Assyrians apart from all other great empires of the time was their reputation for extreme cruelty (they would be matched in brutality only by the Mongols, 2100 years later). Drawing and quartering, disemboweling, beheading, stoning, burning and skinning alive, crucifixion, tearing limb from limb, casting into vats of molten lead, ripping unborn fetuses from the wombs of pregnant women – these were stuff that an Assyrian soldier learned to do in kindergarten.
That the Assyrians never felt sorry they caused such mayhem and in fact were quite proud of their sadism is evident by the fact that they painstakingly preserved their gruesome deeds in bas reliefs, paintings and sculptures that have survived and are on display in museums all over the Middle-East and Europe. There are more beheadings depicted there than there are blowjobs on the walls of Khajuraho.
One inscription, unearthed by a German archaeological dig, accredited to an aide to Esharhaddon (700BC), ruefully says, “The king knows that they don’t love us.” The ‘they’ must have meant Assyria’s subjugated neighbors. No kidding, really? In just half a century, between 700BC and 650BC, Assyrian armies sacked Babylon(680BC), Sidon, Lebanon(677BC), Memphis, Egypt(671BC), Thebes, upper Egypt(663BC), Babylon again(648BC) and Susa, Iran(646BC). And ‘sacking’ was a pretty broad definition – for rape, enslavement, pillage and arson.
Of all the victims of Assyrian aggression, Babylon bore the brunt especially during the rule of Tiglath Pileser-I (1114-1076BC). During his time, it became almost like a hobby or sport to sack Babylon. I try to imagine what an Assyrian general would be saying to his deputy, Friday evening, “ Hey Shakman, what you doin’ this weekend?”
“Aww, its our anniversary comin’ up and the wife wanted a noo Nubian slave. The one we have don’t get a hard-on no more. So we’re plannin’ on skinning him alive and making a tobacco pouch outa him and then takin’ a division or two and riding down ta Babylon, sackin’ it and getting us a few well hung dudes.”
“Sounds boring…., but do try to be back by Sunday evening. The Shakri Tukmars are comin’ over. We have an orgy planned…..” (Disclaimer: I frankly don’t know if Assyrian generals loved orgies or not).
How did the Assyrian Empire thrive that long? I am not sure which PR firm the Assyrians used but I think I have the sense of their strategies as far as spreading their hegemony is concerned and it seems to have been a simple one – strike terror in the enemy and your battle is won even before it starts.
Now that is the kind of foreign policy that has worked over the centuries since. Take the 2003 invasion of Iraq for example. So psyched were the Iraqi generals after the shock and awe they had witnessed in 1991, that they put up no resistance at all, when the Americans filtered through the Saudi border in 2003. The Afghan Taliban melted into the countryside the moment the cruise missiles and smart bombs began crashing down, in 2001. The Japs threw up their hands the moment the ‘Little Boy’ struck Hiroshima (Nagasaki was simply an implosion reaction test explosion). The Chechen rebels lost heart the moment they saw what Putin could do to their wives and daughters.
The Assyrians’ use of terror worked in defense as well. Outsiders simply didn’t like the idea of messing with them. After all, the best way to fight off aggressors is to keep them from attacking you in the first place. To that end, the Assyrians had worked out a great strategy, one that has stood the test of time until the present day…
Build a reputation that you’re crazy and capable of doing anything. Make it clear that you will take your enemies down with you when you lose, in a ‘scorched-earth, wipe everything out, even your own’ policy. Show your enemy your willingness to be horrendously sadistic and by that, make it evident that no act of violence is too extreme to you. Last but not the least – leave no doubt in the mind of the aggressor that you are ready and willing to the very last man to die fighting him, that not a single one of your soldiers will flee the battleground. Nothing works like an aura that an empire creates around itself, one that precedes it and seems to transmit to one and all one clear message – that fighting the empire just isn’t worth it.
Kim Jong-Un has successfully created the belief that he will not hesitate to nuke South Korea or anybody else, if pushed to a corner – this, without even firing a single shot. He proves one stark reality – that it doesn’t matter how well armed and equipped you are, but how your enemies see you. If they see you as being brash and unpredictable, they will probably leave you alone. Haven’t you heard those so-called foreign policy wonks repeatedly aver about Kim Jong-Un, ‘Oh he has nothing to lose, he will take everything down with him…’
India hasn’t made a single move to invade Pakistan and wipe out its terrorist training facilities for the very same reason, although God alone knows that there has been enough provocation over the last seven decades. And in a way, the Israeli-US nexus is also the same reason why Israel is left alone by its neighbors.
But of course, in aggression, shock and awe will work only at the initial aggressive phase. Later, things invariably begin to unravel. The invaders, drunk on victory, don’t know when to pause and make peace, treat conquered citizens with respect, rebuild and leave the conquered nation as a partner – strong, stable and friendly. Instead, they usually stir up implacable hatred, ethnic tensions, racism and alienation, mistrust and a burning desire for revenge, culminating in more war and in more fronts. That is what eventually happened with the Assyrians.
Even today, aggressors are yet to learn to think beyond the immediate battle. Iraq 2003, I bet no one in the US Congress (leave alone the White House) asked, ‘Where does invading Iraq and deposing Saddam leave us, the ordinary Iraqis and the stability of the whole region? What other battles will we trigger down the road? Have we thought this thing out many moves in advance, just as a chess grandmaster does? What are our long-term goals? Are we being dispassionate? Is invading Iraq really an appropriate response to 9/11?’
The Assyrians didn’t have those questions on their minds either. In the end, they fell when their last great ruler, the great warrior and patron of arts, Ashurbanipal, passed on around 627BC, triggering a bloody battle for succession between his sons. The civil war consumed Assyria and left it vulnerable to the waiting hordes of nomadic horsemen, as well as their traditional enemies, the Medians and Babylonians, by then powerful in their own right.
All those Assyrian temples, those gigantic bas reliefs, those magnificent zigarats and minarets – they are all gone now. The destruction of Assyria was so complete that within two generations of Assyria’s fall, no one could tell anymore where the great Assyrian cities had been, much like the 100-year search for Troy that began in the late 19th century AD.
All that is left of Assyria are bits and pieces of pottery and masonry, tablets, monoliths and parchments that have been filched during early 20th century excavations by European archaeologists and smuggled away to be put on display in the museums of Europe’s capital cities, for folks like you and me to look quizzically at.
Sure, history shall repeat itself. Who knows, maybe one day, two thousand years from now, an archaeologist’s robotic scarab bathyscaphe will discover the clam-encrusted hull of an Ohio-Class ballistic missile submarine, off the ridge of a by then submerged Diego Garcia atoll and marvel at how advanced this empire that called itself America had been and how it eventually fell – on its own sword.
The other day, there was an ancient artifacts show at the Montreal Museum of History and for a tenner, I spent an hour inside, bored to death, staring at shattered pieces of clay and heads of iron spears lying inside temperature controlled showcases. I overheard a young student whispering to his companion, “That’s it? So what the f—k is so great about pieces of fookin’ clay?”
You are fookin right, dude. One day that’s exactly what they’ll say about our cities.
The Assyrians today
There are currently around 4 million Assyrians living in the world today. I don’t know when they switched from Semitism to Christianity but the Assyrians today are Christians, known widely as Assyrian-Christians or Syrian-Christians. A majority of them still make the Middle-East their home, spread over regions that currently fall under Kurdistan, Turkey, Syria, Iraq and Iran..
Looking at them, you would have difficulty imagining them behaving the way their bloodthirsty ancestors did, 3000 years ago. The tables have turned in fact. Today’s Assyrians are by and large a mostly sweet, docile, peace-loving bunch of folks, facing sporadic persecution from the Muslim majority in the region.
Assyrians have also migrated to parts of South-Asia. The South Indian states of Karnataka and Kerala are home to a large number of them. They are a prosperous community, much like India’s Parsis. And like Parsis, they are endogamous – marrying strictly within their community. The gene pool being deliberately restricted, birth defects are not uncommon. But like their Middle-Eastern cousins, the Indian Syrian Christians too are largely peaceful, law-abiding citizens.