Nineveh, The Bloody City – Part One

“The winged bulls of Nineveh! The bulls with mens’ heads! By the saints, Ali, the old tales are true! The Assyrians did build this city! The whole tale’s true! They must have come here when the Babylonians destroyed Assyria – why, this scene’s a dead ringer for pictures I’ve seen – reconstructed scenes of old Nineveh! And look!”

Robert E. Howard, “The Fire of Asshurbanipal”

One of Robert E. Howard’s preoccupations was the evanescence of civilization and life itself. Conan believed very much in “now”. “Let me live deep while I live,” he said to Belit. Conan’s adopted land of Aquilonia fell to a barbarian invasion a few centuries after his time. The entire age and world of Conan was destroyed in a cataclysm, leaving only a few names and legends to survive into the world of the history we know. Howard’s work concerning the faded glories of the Picts, the fall of Rome, the conquest of the Irish Gaels by the Normans, and the broodings of his failed Irish king Cahal Ruadh O’Donnell in “The Sowers of the Thunder”, all reflect it.

In a couple of poems he deals with the subject of this post, the great ancient city of Nineveh. From its beginnings to its end it lasted far longer than others, long enough to make Rome seem like a sapling. It was older than the Erech (Uruk) and Nippur REH describes in “The House of Arabu”; its origins as a Neolithic hamlet dated to before 6000 BCE. None could have imagined then what a mighty, opulent metropolis it would become after the Assyrian Empire rose.

It lay in northern Mesopotamia, about a hundred kilometers south of Lake Van, just across the Tigris River from modern Mosul. For at least 2000 years from its origins it remained a little town at the centre of a farming region. Painted pottery from that period is typical of the early chalcolithic cultures in Mesopotamia, and during the fourth millennium (4000-3001 BCE) farmers used clay sickles edged with flint teeth like those found further south and characteristic of the Ubaid Culture, which implies that there was contact between the two and some southern influence. Late in that same millennium, about 3200-3001, roughly made beveled bowls that were probably used for agricultural offerings to the gods have been found in the Nineveh region, and they show an exact correspondence with pottery in the Uruk (Erech) region of the lower Tigris-Euphrates valley.

Erech is mentioned in REH’s story “The House of Arabu” set in the early times of many warring and intriguing city-states, Erech and Nippur among them. The main character is Pyrrhas, an Argive mercenary in the service of Nippur, whose leadership and fury in battle “broke the hosts of Erech on the field, and the yoke of Erech from the neck of Nippur.” The legendary king Gilgamesh ruled over Erech “like a great wild bull”, but his name doesn’t come into the story, and “The House of Arabu” may be meant to take place after his death. Perhaps he conquered Nippur and it became independent again later. Anyhow, in Pyrrhas’s time, Egypt saw men toiling “beneath the lash to rear the FIRST pyramids” (emphasis mine), Crete still had nothing better to show than “a rude town of rough stone and wood”, and Troy was “a mud-walled trading village.”

The very first Egyptian pyramid known was the step pyramid of King Djoser, built in the 27th century BCE. Djoser belonged to the Third Dynasty, and so did Sekhemkhet, Sanakht and Khaba, all of whose pyramids were unfinished. Thus REH’s story “The House of Arabu” may be set in that century. We can pretty much take it as unfolding before the reign of Sargon of Akkad, anyway, and he reigned from about 2334 to 2279.

By then – in fact by 3000 BCE – Nineveh had become an important cult center for the worship of the goddess Ishtar. The town had been built right on an earthquake fault line, though, and one such convulsion leveled the first temple of Ishtar. Manishtusu, an Akkadian king, rebuilt it in 2260 BCE.

Ishtar is a goddess often sworn by in Conan’s world and time, often with reference to her lusty sexuality and gorgeous body. Pelias, in “The Scarlet Citadel”, one wizard by no means averse to sensuous pleasures, mocks the slain eunuch Shukeli with the words, “By the ivory hips of Ishtar, who is our doorman?” Later he observes, “Wine is a curse – by the ivory bosom of Ishtar, even as I speak of it, the traitor is here!”

In “Iron Shadows in the Moon”, when Conan asks the pirates, “Who’s your chief?” his old enemy Sergius of Khrosha swaggers forth and bawls, “I, by Ishtar!” When Taramis first sees her evil twin in “A Witch Shall be Born” she gasps, “Ishtar, I am bewitched!” In the same story, Constantius the Falcon leers, “By Ishtar, Taramis, I find you more alluring in your night-tunic than in your queenly robes.” The soldier Valerius swears by Ishtar. When the savant Astreas writes to his colleague in Nemedia concerning the events in Khauran, he confides that the witch has “ … abolished the worship of Ishtar … which, inferior as it is to the true religion of Mitra … is still superior to the devil-worship of the Shemites.”

The Shemites of Conan’s world appear to be pseudo-Assyrians, though divided into small city-states instead of ruling a unified empire. They worship a god called Pteor, grossly male, not Ishtar. If the “sons of Shem” in the Hyborian Age are based on Assyrians, then the description of them as characterized by “wild beast ferocity” and “the utter lack of doubt or mercy”, as well as delighting in skinning their captives alive, is no exaggeration. Plenty of ancient kings carried out massacres and tortures during their conquests, to subdue the defeated peoples, but they didn’t brag about their atrocities with the fiendish delight of the Assyrian rulers.

REH’s poems “Dreams of Nineveh” and “The Gates of Nineveh” both contain vivid, telling images, and both mention Sargon as a notable warrior king. There were two ancient Mesopotamian monarchs by that name. Sargon of Akkad, the earlier of them, had a long reign of about fifty-five years and built one of the first great empires. The Middle Chronology gives his reign as spanning the years 2334 to 2279 BCE. He’s credited with challenging posterity with the words, “Now, any king who wants to call himself my equal, wherever I went and conquered, let him go!” An impressively fine bust which may well depict this Sargon was found at Nineveh and dates to the 23rd or 22nd century BCE.

He’s unlikely to be the “Sargon” of REH’s poems, though. They clearly associate the king with Nineveh and particularly with its doom, not with Kish or Akkad. Sargon II must be meant, the Assyrian king who reigned at the end of the eighth century BCE. His capital was Nineveh, the “bloody city” denounced by the prophet Nahum in the Bible.

These are the gates of Nineveh: here
Sargon came when his wars were won –
Gazed at the turrets looming clear,
Boldly etched in the morning sun.

Down from his chariot Sargon came,
Tossed his helmet upon the sand,
Dropped his sword with its blade like flame,
Stroked his beard with his empty hand.

“Towers are flaunting their banners red,
The people greet me with song and mirth,
But a weird is on me,” Sargon said,
And I see the end of the tribes of earth.

“Cities crumble, and chariots rust –
I see through a fog that is strange and grey –
All kingly things fade back to the dust,
Even the gates of Nineveh.”

— Robert E. Howard

Sargon of Akkad (Sargon the Great) is of interest, though, because the Assyrians were already a distinct people in his time, and one of those he conquered, incorporating them into his empire. Their chief city at the time was Asshur, also the name of their chief god. Nineveh was still just a town. To quote Wikipedia, “In the late 24th century BC, Assyrian kings were regional leaders only, and subject to Sargon of Akkad who united all the Akkadian Semites and Sumerian speaking peoples of Mesopotamia under the Akkadian Empire which lasted from c. 2334 BC to 2154 BC … However, towards the end of the reign of Sargon the Great, the Assyrian faction rebelled against him; ‘the tribes of Assyria of the upper country—in their turn attacked, but they submitted to his arms, and Sargon settled their habitations, and he smote them grievously’.”

Not much is definitely known about the very early kings of independent Assyria, after the Akkadian Empire joined “the ruins of all the unborn or forgotten empires which etch the twilight of the lost ages” (“The Sowers of the Thunder”). The Assyrian king lists give the names of a number of primordial kings who “lived in tents”, such as Tudiya, who would have reigned in the 23rd century BCE. The name of his successor, interestingly, was Adamu! About a dozen kings later, Ushpia became the Assyrian ruler, and according to his legend founded the temple of Asshur in the same city, circa 2030 BCE. Sulili, his son Kikkiya, and grandson Akiya, all reigned in the 21st century, but little is known about them either.

Puzur-Asshur I founded a new dynasty circa 1975 BCE . He was the first Assyrian king to bear an Akkadian name; those of his predecessors were Hurrian or Amorite. He is credited with founding temples in Asshur and colonies in Asia Minor.

When Hammurabi of Babylon came along, to produce the famous law code and conquer the first Babylonian Empire, he extended his rule down to the Persian Gulf and up the Euphrates as far as Mari, where he claimed the title “King of the Amorites”. He made the Assyrian kings Mut-Ashkur and his successor Rimush acknowledge Hammurabi as their overlord, but after Hammurabi died circa 1750 BCE, the kings who followed him were not able to maintain his empire and Assyria became independent again.

Now it’s necessary to compress a story of centuries into one paragraph. We’d never reach the days of Nineveh’s greatness otherwise. The kings of Assyria didn’t, so far as the evidence shows, build there to any great extent between 2000 and 1001 BCE. Shalmaneser and Tiglath-pileser I, two kings who reigned between 1300 and 1075, added to Asshur’s architectural glories but not to Nineveh’s. Assyria enjoyed a period of empire and great power between 1365 and 1075. It even continued as a strong and stable realm when other civilizations such as the Hittite Empire collapsed in the disastrous “Dark Age” period of the Late Bronze Age, though it did suffer a certain decline. There were mass migrations of aggressive barbarians, like the famous “Sea Peoples” who overthrew the Hittite Empire and then menaced Egypt, and Aramaeans from the Arabian peninsula. While they did not bring down Assyria, they all but wrecked its foreign trade and deprived it of the subject kingdoms to its west.

After 1000 BCE, the state known as the “Neo-Assyrian Empire” arose. The Bronze Age had ended in the Middle East, and the Iron Age begun. The Hittites had been the first major power to employ iron on a large scale, and now the Assyrians followed suit.

When Asshur-Dan II came to the throne of Assyria in 935 BCE, he devoted himself with energy and sense to strengthening his kingdom within its own borders. He improved the internal communications, built government offices in all his provinces, and saw to it that ploughs were produced for distribution throughout the land. Record grain output followed. Without it the subsequent expansion couldn’t have been carried out; then as now, soldiers couldn’t fight if they were starving. Granaries in the ancient world were a measure of prosperity.

Asshur-Dan’s son Adad-nirari II is regarded as the first king of the Neo-Assyrian Empire. Building on the foundation his father had laid, he led his armies against the subject realms that had broken away or acknowledged Assyrian lordship only in name. Neo-Hittite, Aramean and Hurrian peoples in the north all felt the weight of his hand and were deported en masse to distant places where they could cause no trouble. He attacked and defeated two kings of Babylonia, his great rival to the south, and deprived it of large territories. He campaigned against Aramean states to his west as well, subjugating them and taking immense plunder. He was a busy lad. His successors kept themselves fully occupied too.

Asshurnasirpal II (reigning from 882 until 859) engaged in conquest and expansion even more widely. He conquered as far north as Lake Van in modern Armenia, then crushed the Arameans and Neo-Hittites west of the Euphrates to the Khabur River. His ruthlessness provoked a revolt that he crushed with even greater ruthlessness, a practice other Assyrian kings were to follow, boasting about it on their monuments. These inscriptions of Asshurnasirpal are a fair representative sampling:

I flayed as many nobles as had rebelled against me, draped their skins over the heap; some I spread out within the heap, some I impaled on stakes above the pile … I flayed many throughout my land, draped their skins over the walls.

In strife and conflict I besieged [and] conquered the city. I felled 3,000 of their fighting men with the sword … I captured many troops alive: I cut off of some their hands; I cut of others their noses, ears, [and] extremities. I gouged out the eyes of many troops. I made one pile of the living, one of heads. I hung their heads on trees around the city.

I cut their throats like lambs. I cut off their precious lives (as one cuts) a string. Like the many waters of a storm, I made their gullets and entrails run down upon the wide earth. My prancing steeds harnessed for my riding, plunged into the streams of their blood as a river. The wheels of my war chariot, which brings low the wicked and the evil, were bespattered with blood and filth. With the bodies of their warriors I filled the plain, like grass. Testicles I cut off, and tore out their privates like the seeds of cucumbers.

I cut off the heads of their fighters, built with these a tower before their city. I burnt their adolescent boys [and] girls.

There isn’t much point in citing the inscriptions of later Assyrian kings like Esarhaddon and Shalmaneser. It was just more of the same. When God ordered the prophet Jonah to go to Nineveh and preach repentance to the people there, I don’t wonder he preferred to run to Tarshish instead. “Nineveh? Call on that lot to repent? No thanks, Lord. Get someone else.” Another prophet, Nahum, in Chapter 3 verse 1 of the book bearing his name, famously refers to Nineveh as “the bloody city”. It wasn’t mere prejudice. The great palace there had extensive reliefs depicting just such mass amputations, impalings, and so forth.

The king who rebuilt Nineveh as a truly great city of the ancient world was Sennacherib. But he came after Sargon II, the subject of REH’s poem above. He was Sargon’s son. Sargon himself may have been an upstart without royal blood; he became co-regent with King Shalmaneser V in the year 722, and then sole monarch after Shalmaneser died in that same year. Hmm. Did he fall or was he pushed?

Sargon II made a particular point of stressing that his rule was legitimate. On ascending the throne he took the name Sharru-kin (“true king”), which in westernized spelling became Sargon. That does seem like a case of protesting too much. As Howard says in the poem, Sargon did have various wars to fight. In 720 BCE he met defeat when he moved against Elam, but after that he won victory after victory. He trounced an Aramean coalition and gained control of the lands as far as Damascus; he conquered Gaza, a Philistine city, and beat the Egyptian forces; in 717 he conquered the city of Carchemish (which REH turned into Khorshemish for a metropolis of his Hyborian Age), won a campaign against Urartu despite serious problems getting over the rugged terrain and through dense forests, suppressed a rising in the Philistine city of Ashdod, turning it into an Assyrian province, and completed the defeat of the Kingdom of Israel.

After that, in 710, he moved against his greatest foe, the Babylonian king Marduk-appla-idina. One army moved against Babylon’s ally Elam, the other, led by Sargon himself, struck at Babylon. He besieged it, victoriously, and Marduk-appla-idina fled. Babylon submitted to Sargon, and by 710 Cyprus had accepted Assyrian sovereignty too. Midas, King of Phrygia, the man with the golden touch in Greek myth, submitted to Assyrian rule, partly to gain protection against the fierce nomadic Cimmerians from north of the Black Sea (it’d be driving a tack with a sledge-hammer to say that REH made use of them too), who had also drastically weakened Urartu before Sargon had conquered it.

It was Sargon who decided to move the empire’s capital from traditional Asshur to Nineveh. He commanded the building of a new palace and town there, to be called “The House of Sargon” (Dur-Sharru-kin). As an incentive to the workers, he had the labour force’s debts all cancelled. Vast olive groves were planted. The town was laid out on a rectangular grid plan, and Sargon had the exact length of the walls calculated numerologically to correspond to his name. He had his court move there in 706, even though the town was still unfinished.

REH’s lines about Sargon coming to “the gates of Nineveh” when “his wars were won” are accurate enough, then. Perhaps he even had the gloomy premonitions REH describes. “All kingly things fade back to the dust.” If he did, they proved too true. The very next year, 705, Sargon went on campaign again, and this time he fell in the fighting. His opponents? The Cimmerians (the historical Cimmerians), who had moved south in force to invade Armenia, then called Urartu, and Asia Minor.

This blogger had intended to deal with the subject in a single post. As usual, I find it stretching out into a couple. Next time, I’ll cover the days of Nineveh’s greatest glory and its ultimate fall, with sidelights on Assyrian dealings with Egypt and Judah. And, of course, more references to REH’s work as it relates thereto.

Read Part Two