Tuesday, February 24, 2009

Ancient Assyria & the Transience of Economic Strength

The Lamassu, From the Palace of the Assyrian king Sargon II
At the Museum of the Oriental Institute of Chicago

The extraordinary American economic crisis and the incomprehensible amount of borrowing and spending by government in response brings to mind the precarious nature of economic strength and power. From ancient Egypt and Rome to the British Empire, strength has been gained but later squandered, self-confidence has been built but then nerve lost.

I have been thinking of a Chicago colleague of years ago who was Assyrian, and would wax poetic about the long-lost wonders and glories of the ancient Assyrian Empire. The Assyrians in northern Mesopotamia spoke Akkadian, related to other Semitic languages such as Aramaic, Hebrew, and Arabic. I read that the metal trade, especially the tin necessary for bronze, was an important factor in their economic rise -- Colin McEvedy writes that the source of tin was in Caucasia, and "the opening of traffic with the north coincides neatly with the first stirring of Assyria," which controlled the trade routes. The Assyrians used their economic strength to embrace the newest game-changing military innovation -- the chariot, and developed the science of military logistics. They created the first large, ethnically diverse empire that at its height around the time of Sargon II stretched from Mesopotamia to southern Anatolia and Egypt. It was Sargon II who, among other things, is credited with deporting and dispersing the 10 "lost" northern tribes of the Hebrew state. But economic expansion leads to "imperial overstretch" and eventual decline (link), and the Assyrians were themselves eventually eclipsed by the next great power. Most later became Christian (now known as Syriac or Chaldean Christians) and many still live in northern Mesopotamia to this day. They have suffered much under Islamic rule, and many more have themselves dispersed, with a large number eventually settling in Chicago.

The story of the fleeting nature of nations and civilizations is on display in the remarkable Museum of the Oriental Institute (link) of the University of Chicago. The most spectacular objects (which is saying a lot) in the entire collection are from the palace of the aforementioned Assyrian king Sargon II, who ruled from 721-705 B.C. And the most impressive object of all is the 16 foot tall sculpture of a human-headed winged bull, called a Lamassu, which guarded the throne. In 1929, the fragments were painstakingly excavated, transported, and reassembled by Institute scholars. I should note that the Institute's interest in things Near Eastern is not limited to clay and stone -- through most of the last century and the early part of this one it worked on its now famous Assyrian Dictionary (link), a project known throughout the University when I was a student there, worthwhile in its own right but also as the archetypal U of C pursuit of knowledge however obscure or uncommercial. As a student at the University I would very occasionally drop in for a desultory stroll through the Institute's exhibits. If only I lived so close now.

Richard Balsamo