Nineveh, The Bloody City – Part Two

Various racial distinctions were evident in the human figures — the hooked noses and curled black beards of the dominant race wore plainly distinguishable. Their opponents were sometimes black men, sometimes men like themselves, and occasionally tall, rangy men with unmistakable Arab features …

And suddenly Kane remembered where he had seen similar carvings, wherein kings with black curled beards slew lions from chariots. He had seen them on crumbling pieces of masonry that marked the site of a long forgotten city in Mesopotamia, and men had told him those ruins were all that remained of Nineveh the Bloody, the accursed of God.

“The Children of Asshur” by Robert E. Howard

Last post finished with Sargon II’s death in battle against – REH must have smiled – the Cimmerians. It occurred in 705 BCE, not long after Sargon had moved the Assyrian Empire’s capital from ancient Asshur to Nineveh. He had begun to rebuild the city on a rectangular grid plan and taken the royal court there, but at his death there was still much to do. Sargon’s son Sennacherib inherited the task. He entered upon it with the prodigious energy that did generally belong to the Assyrian kings, whatever their other faults. He fulfilled his father’s intentions and made of Nineveh an utterly magnificent city. Besides laying out additional streets and squares on Sargon’s grid plan, he built therein the famous “palace without a rival”. The description was no empty brag, despite the justified Assyrian reputation for vainglory.

The palace was huge, especially by the standards of the time. It measured about 200 yards by 210 and contained at least eighty rooms. They were lined with sculpture reliefs. Many depicted the standard Assyrian atrocities against conquered rebels and other foes, intended to frighten as well as glorify. The Assyrians made a practice of atrocity and terror. Some of the doorways were flanked by statues of the famous Assyrian human-headed winged bulls. (They were carved with five legs, so that when viewed from the front they appeared to be standing with their forelegs together in dignified stasis, but from the side, they showed in profile with one leg behind another, as though actively walking.)

In his story “The Fire of Asshurbanipal”, REH describes Assyrian architecture and statuary in terms that seem perceptive and true to this blogger. “… great, somber images, half human, half bestial, partaking of the brooding brutishness of the whole city … awesome magnitude and sullen, breathtaking splendor …”

Sennacherib was also the king whose army met its doom from Jehovah’s angel of death when he sent it against Jerusalem. Lord Byron’s famous poem describes the event in romantic terms. There are of course two versions of that historical occurrence … the Biblical account in the Second Book of the Kings, Chapter 18-19, and the Assyrian record. The Biblical account would be the one that Solomon Kane believed, and he had evidently beheld the remains of Nineveh at some point in his travels. But that’s getting ahead of the story a bit.

Nineveh at its greatest, largely made so by Sennacherib, was splendid even by imperial standards. Fifteen great gates led through its extensive walls. Eighteen canals supplied it with water. A great aqueduct supplemented them. The population exceeded 100,000 and may have reached 150,000. In the ancient world that was enormous. Even Memphis in Egypt, at its utmost – supplied with water by the Nile, fed by the proverbially lush grain yields of that country – contained no more than 200,000 people.

Sennacherib was an able, intelligent king. As crown prince, in his father’s day, he did well as an administrator and diplomat. He declared himself that he was a man of “clever understanding” and his record justifies the boast. He wasn’t merely warlike, astute and a great builder. He was innovative. In his reign he sent expeditions to search for new sources of alabaster and building stone; he discovered new sources of huge timber in the mountain forests, and a more efficient method of casting bronze; he made use of new equipment for raising water from wells; and he introduced the cotton plant to his empire.

His greatest problem lay in the major revolts which began as soon as Sargon II died. Some took place in Palestine and the Mediterranean districts, inspired by Egypt. The kings of Sidon and Ascalon, and Hezekiah, king of Judah, listened to the Egyptian provocateurs and rejected Nineveh’s lordship. Sennacherib sent an army against Sidon, whose king fled to Cyprus, while King Sidka of Ascalon was captured and taken in fetters to Assyria. Egypt sent an army to support the rebels of Ekron, but it was defeated by the Assyrians, who put a puppet ruler on Ekron’s throne also. Then Sennacherib besieged Jerusalem, and his officials mocked Hezekiah for trusting to “the strength of this bruised reed, Egypt.”

Hezekiah refused to open the city’s gates and surrender. The Bible declares that he was encouraged in his resolution by the prophet Isaiah. Instead of taking the city, the Assyrians compromised for once, probably because Sennacherib knew he had potential risings in Babylonia and Elam to handle which were going to be much more serious. He hadn’t time or resources to waste on Judah. He settled for taking a huge indemnity; 30 talents of gold, 800 talents of silver, and “all kind of valuable treasures as well as [Hezekiah’s] daughters, his harem, his male and female musicians” and several towns too.

It was believed, based on the Biblical accounts, that later in his reign Sennacherib had made a second campaign against Judah with a view to marching against Egypt afterwards. The Bible declared that God’s angel smote his host so that “one hundred fourscore and five thousand” died. Lord Byron made the story the basis of his famous poem, “The Destruction of Sennacherib.”

“And there lay the rider, distorted and pale,
With the dew on his brow and the rust on his mail,
The tents were all silent, the banners alone,
The lances unlifted, the trumpets unblown.

“And the widows of Asshur are loud in their wail,
And the idols are broke in the temple of Baal,
And the might of the Gentile, unsmote by the sword,
Hath melted like snow in the glance of the Lord!”

There’s no confirmation outside the Bible of a second campaign against Jerusalem by Sennacherib. Nor is there any mention of his army perishing in great numbers. His own records (in what is known as the Taylor Prism, to my gratification) say that “upon Hezekiah there fell the fear of the power of my arms, and he sent out to me the chiefs and the elders of Jerusalem with 30 talents of gold and 800 talents of silver, and diverse treasures, a rich and immense booty … All these things were brought to me at Nineveh, the seat of my government.”

It’s possible that while he was besieging Jerusalem, an outbreak of fever or other disease did strike his army, so that he decided to accept a huge indemnity and go home. That was common in those days. More soldiers died of fever and dysentery than were ever killed by weapons. The scribes of Judah may have exaggerated it while Sennacherib repressed it.

That campaign was a minor affair beside his war with rebellious Babylon, though of course the Bible doesn’t treat it so. His first campaign there, in 703, was against Marduk-appla-iddina II, a Chaldean prince who had also rebelled against Sennacherib’s father with Elamite allies. Sennacherib defeated him and drove him into exile again. Babylon was taken and the palace plundered. Sennacherib said in one of his inscriptions, concerning Babylon “Its inhabitants, young and old, I did not spare, and with their corpses I filled the streets of the city.”

Marduk-appla-iddina (Merodach-Baladan in the Bible) came back for another try in 700, but was forced to retreat into exile yet again. Despite being an authentically great king, Sennacherib was murdered in the end by two of his sons. They fled to foreign parts to escape punishment, and another son of his, Esarhaddon, succeeded him. Although he had been forced into exile by his parricidal brothers, he returned to Nineveh in a series of energetic forced marches. He defeated them in a short but no doubt ferocious civil war. They escaped, and Esarhaddon then conciliated Babylonia by rebuilding the capital city which had been partly destroyed when his father took it.

Among other nomadic tribes, Esarhaddon had trouble with the Cimmerians – the historical people by that name, not Conan’s folk. He beat them in a battle at Hubushna, and forced them to withdraw further west, which, if they were anything like their remote Hyborian Age ancestors, must have been no easy task, even for a notable Assyrian warrior-king. (With allies from Scythia and Ararat, or Urartu, the Cimmerians overthrew the kingdom of Phrygia in Asia Minor in 676 BCE.)

Esarhaddon had to deal with a revolt against his rule in Sidon. He captured and beheaded its king. He also fought a campaign against Urartu and two against Egypt, but even after he had decisively beaten the Pharaoh Taharqa, Egypt rose against Assyria as soon as Esarhaddon left. There were court intrigues at Nineveh by disloyal nobles, too. Esarhaddon had to return to Egypt with an army again. Then he died suddenly, and his Mesopotamian realms were divided between two of his sons, Asshurbanipal becoming lord of Assyria and the elder, Shamash-shum-ukin, of Babylonia.

Asshurbanipal, as REH spelled his name (the usual spelling these days is Ashurbanipal) was that rare combination, a man of great physical and intellectual energy. While all Assyrian kings claimed to be great hunters and warriors, and have themselves depicted in reliefs as such, Asshurbanipal seems to have had acceptable prowess at least in archery, hunting and equestrian skills – and “acceptable” in an Assyrian king required a pretty high standard. Unlike most Middle Eastern kings, he mastered writing and priestly knowledge as well. Besides the normal Akkadian-based cuneiform script, he could read Sumerian, long out of date by his time. As king he collected in Nineveh, from all over the ancient Middle East, one of the first great libraries ever known.

Howard’s horror story (it was published as straight adventure without the horror element also) “The Fire of Asshurbanipal” deals with an eerie jewel very like the one Cormac Fitzgeoffrey finds in “The Blood of Belshazzar”. I explored the possibility, in “The Blood and the Fire” on this weblog, that they were actually the same gem and that it had never been at the court of Asshurbanipal, that being merely one of the various contradictory legends that had been created around it.

I accepted other parts of the story as “real” – that there had actually been a dark sorcerer called Xuthltan at the court of Nineveh when Asshurbanipal reigned, and that he and his cult were driven out of Nineveh, eventually building a city in the wastes of Arabia, known in later times as Kara-Shehr and Beled-el-Djinn.

Asshurbanipal no doubt thought the dismissal of the dark cult a trifling matter beside his other activities. Like his father Esarhaddon, he had to quell a rebellion in Egypt. His brother in Babylonia, Shamash-shum-ukin, rebelled against him, gathering allies in Elam, Phoenicia, Lydia and Arabia for the purpose — and seeking them in Egypt too. Asshurbanipal besieged Babylon in 684 BCE to end his brother’s treachery. He probably felt by then that he had been tolerant of Shamash-shum-ukin for too long. The traditional story goes that when the traitor saw Asshurbanipal’s siege was sure to starve him out, he gathered all his treasures and concubines in his palace, sat on his throne, and turned the whole splendid heap into a pyre, burning with it.

Despite his intellect, Asshurbanipal was a cruel as other Assyrian kings to his defeated enemies, and recorded his actions for posterity in reliefs and inscriptions. Some pictures from ancient Nineveh depict him degrading a beaten king by putting a dog chain through his jaw and making him live naked in a kennel. When he defeated the Babylonian rebels, like his grandfather Sennacherib, he carried out a terrible massacre in the streets of the city.

Asshurbanipal probably died in 627 BCE, after a reign of more than forty years. He was the last great king of Assyria. A power struggle followed, between several contenders; the brothers Ashur-etil-ilani and Sin-sharish-kun, a general by the name of Sin-shumu-lishir, and the eventual new king of Babylonia, Nabopolassar. The Median king Cyaxares was proving an able and warlike monarch, and under his administration the army was greatly improved. The Medes and Babylonians formed an alliance; the daughter of Cyaxares married the son of Nabopolassar; this coalition attacked the weakened Assyrian Empire, and within three years it was shattered.

At the end of 612, Nineveh was destroyed.

The biblical Book of Nahum, a minor prophet, exults over Nineveh’s fall. As usual, he has been credited with prophesying events which in fact he had probably known to occur, and was writing about after the fact. He describes it as “the bloody city”, full of lies and robbery, rife with prostitution – which, as a great center of Ishtar-worship, no doubt it was. Nahum reminds the Assyrians of their oppressions, particularly of what they had done to the Egyptian city of Thebes, asking rhetorically whether Nineveh is any better. “Yet was she carried away, she went into captivity: her young children also were dashed in pieces at the top of all the streets: and they cast lots for her honorable men, and all her great men were bound in chains.” (Nahum 3:10) The Book of Zephaniah shouts in glee over Nineveh’s destruction, also. “This is the rejoicing city that dwelt carelessly, that said in her heart, I am, and there is none beside me: how is she become a desolation, a place for beasts to lie down in! Every one that passeth by her shall hiss, and wag his hand.” (Zephaniah 2:15)

As this blogger observed in “The Blood and the Fire”, supposing a dark cult led by the wizard Xuthltan, who trafficked with demons, had really been driven from Nineveh by King Asshurbanipal, they were lucky to be forced to flee a great distance. They were out of it before the destruction fell! Deep in central Arabia they found refuge and built a new city, perhaps beside the far more ancient ruins of H.P. Lovecraft’s “Nameless City”, whose inhabitants had not been human at all.

There is a fragment in the Solomon Kane series, “The Children of Asshur” which has the adventurous Puritan finding yet another lost city founded by Assyrians, this time in the depths of Africa. As with other interesting ideas put forward by REH, I couldn’t resist thinking about how that might have happened. Presumably the founders of Ninn started from Egypt, at one time part of the Assyrian Empire. It was Esarhaddon who subdued Upper Egypt, in the 680s, and when the Assyrian garrisons were withdrawn again, possibly one of its generals sought to make himself master of the country instead of going home. Beaten by the Pharaoh Necho, he was perhaps forced to make a great trek to the south-west, beyond Darfur, with his people.

However Ninn was founded, Kane recognizes it as an Assyrian center because of the resemblance of its art and reliefs to ruins he has seen in Mesopotamia, which locals told him were all that remained of Nineveh, “accursed of God”. Kane lived in the sixteenth century CE. To have seen Nineveh’s ruins he must have been in the city of Mosul, then part of the Ottoman Empire and ruled by a pasha. Mosul lay just across the Tigris River from ancient Nineveh. Perhaps Kane went there as part of his long search for the lost girl Marylin Taferal, or perhaps at some other time in his far-travelled career.

Two and a half centuries later, in 1842, a French diplomat at Mosul – Consul General Botta – took an interest in the huge mounds across the river and had local Arabs carry out excavations there. They came upon the ruins of the palace of Sargon II, the king REH mentions in two poems. Five years afterwards, the Englishman Sir Austen Henry Layard explored the ruins, and by 1849 he had found the remains of Sennacherib’s magnificent palace. It was Layard, too, who found the palace and library of Asshurbanipal, whose name features in the title of one of REH’s better known stories – the adventure featuring Steve Clarney, Yar Ali and a rather interesting villain, Nureddin al Mekru.

So Nineveh was rediscovered, after being no more than an accursed memory for two and a half millennia. Many peoples had reason to hate its oppressions and rejoice at its fall. It had been magnificent – and it had been just what it was called, “bloody”. REH’s poem on the subject is as apt as it’s evocative.

Silver bridge in a broken sky,
Golden fruit on a withered bough,
Red-lipped slaves that the ancients buy –
What are the dreams of Nineveh now?

Ghostly hoofs in the brooding night
Beat the bowl of the velvet stars.
Shadows of spears when the moon is white
Cross the sands with ebony bars.

But not the shadows that brood her fall
May check the sweep of the desert fire,
Nor a dead man lift up a crumbling wall,
Nor a spectre steady a falling spire.

Death-fires rise in the desert sky
Where the armies of Sargon reeled;
And though her people still sell and buy,
Nineveh’s doom is set and sealed.

Silver mast with a silken sail,
Sapphire seas ‘neath a purple prow,
Hawk-eyed tribes on the desert trail –
What are the dreams of Nineveh now?

Read Part One