Assyrian Administrative Area

This is the letter I sent to Anna Eshoo, Congresswoman for the 14th district, in regards to the proposed legislation she would have put forward to House of Representatives in early January 2007. However, this bill did not make it to the House due to strong campaigning by the members of the KDP:

Dear Congresswoman Eshoo,
My name is Emil Soleyman and I am an Assyrian American from San Jose. It has
been recently communicated that you were considering a proposed congressional
resolution regarding the formation of an administrative area for Assyrians and
other minorities. In response to this effort, Mr. Fawzi Hariri, a senior Assyrian
member of the Kurdistan Democratic Party (KDP) and the appointed Minister of
Industry in Baghdad, and Mr. Praidoon Darmo, Deputy Secretary-General of the
Assyrian Universal Alliance (AUA) met with you to discuss this issue on January 17.
The result of the meeting was the temporary shelving of a critical congressional
resolution that would support the creation of an administrative area for Assyrians
and other minorities in northern Iraq.

Read the entire letter!

Assyrian Empire: Bringing Civilization to the Near East

This essay was written for the Mesopotamian Archaeology 123B course taught by Professor David Stronach at the University of California, Berkeley in 2000.

The impetus to change from a nomadic to an agricultural lifestyle forever changed the economic, political, and cultural landscape of the Near East. No longer would people migrate to other plenteous lands and no longer would people feel insecure in these newpossibly hostile surroundings. The agricultural-based economy that began to flourish in Mesopotamia guided the society towards greater collaboration. The fruits of this cooperation brought about advances in the sciences, the arts, and business and government administration.

At approximately 4750 BC, Assyria came into a single consciousness and realized the potential of her native figure and of her imperial destiny. Throughout the duration of their empire, the Assyrians contributed to mathematics, the military, city planning, governmental administration, architecture, and other notable achievements. But in modern times they are known for their ferocious cruelty and insatiable desire for blood lust. More so than ever before, one has to take a balanced view of Assyrian political and military policies and realize the importance of their contributions to the vast libraries of knowledge.

Preceding the emergence of the Old Assyrian Empire, the Assyrians lived in economic prosperity and relative peace. Trade among the Near Eastern states was developing well before 5000 BC. Anatolia, for instance, provided silver, tin, and obsidian while present-day Afghanistan provided
lapis lazuli, and trade networks came into existence for the commerce of these materials. It was the “location of Assyria [that] encouraged participation in these exchanges, and Assyrians developed far-flung interests.” I

By 2000 BC, The Old Assyrian Empire emerged as a commercial empire looking to expand its influence throughout the Near East. Assyria’s geographic location encouraged its tribal and religious center of Assur to control trade throughout the region. Archaeologists have uncovered evidence that a comprehensive trade network had developed between the Assyrians and the Hatti, Hurrians, and Hittites at this time.

Excavations in the karum, the merchant suburb outside the wall of the city of Kanesh, revealed evidence for trade with Assur over a period of three generations (about sixty years), from Erishum to Puzur-Assur II (c. 1880-1820 BC), and then contemporaneously with Shamshi-Adad and Samsu-iluna (c. 1800-1740 BC).II

Caravans from Assur traveled along imperial highways carrying among other goods, woolen textiles, carved figurines, tin, and clothing. Correspondence among trade companies in Assur to their representatives in Kanesh occurred frequently (and interestingly) between mother and son. Communication among trading companies in Assur and their representatives in Kanesh demonstrated a more human side to the Assyrians. To date more than 10000 cuneiform tablets have been found in the rubble of Kanesh to corroborate such statements.

The contents of the letters usually refer to the commercial process, but there are also letter about incidental problems (illness, the current political situation enroute, correspondence with agents). Legal documents are about commercial contracts, loans for goods on credit, contracts with the carriers on the inward and outward journey, legal proceedings? III

Many of the tablets comprise of business transactions, personal letters, and many more consist of legal documents. Assyrian presence in Anatolia effected the region significantly because the introduction of cuneiform text. Four hundred years later, this advancement led to the ascension of the Hittite Empire to power.

Many would attest to the fact that “the growth of the Assyrian Empire, as of its commercial interests, had much to do with its geographical location.” IV The Assyrians under their successive rulers Adad-nirari (1305-1274 BC), Shalmaneser I (1273-1244 BC), and Tikulti-Ninurta I (1243-1207 BC) proved to be an invincible force. To protect its ever increasing interests in the Near East, the Assyrian Empire went on the military offensive. The kings directed their campaigns against neighboring states from the comforts of Assur, the home of the chief god of the Assyrians. Assyria became periodically locked into the role of the aggressor, and ambitious kings saw no limit to their dominion. In a relief, Tikulti-Ninurta narrates his defeat of the Kassite king Kashtilash IV.

I brought about defeat of his armies, his warriors I overthrew. In the midst of that battle my hand captured Kashtilash, the Kassite king. I trod on his royal neck with my feet like a footstool. I brought him stripped and bound before Assur my lord. Sumer and Akkad to its farthest borders I brought under my sway. On the lower sea of the rising sun I established the frontier of the land. V

The ferocity and cunning of the Assyrians was unmatched in battle until the appearance of the Romans in modern-day Italy. The Assyrian juggernaut was not be stopped and conquests from Shalmaneser I occurred prior to Tikulti-Ninurta’s reign. This great king fought against the Ahlamu (or the Aramaeans) during his rule. The Aramaeans occupied what is now Syria and part of the Levant. Shalmaneser I campaigned there and defeated the kingdom of Uruadri (later known as Urartu) and occupied the area until the end of the Neo-Assyrian period.

Under the control of Shalmaneser I’s father, Adad-nirari I, the Assyrian Empire captured the Mittanian capital Washukanni, making Shattuara I a vassal of Assyria. Treatment of the conquered peoples depended wholly upon the goodwill of the Assyrian Empire and especially that of the king. Those surrendering to the Assyrians were treated fairly and allowed to stay in their city(ies) and were allowed to choose their own leaders. However, those that did not surrender were impaled on stakes, their cities burned to the ground, and their people relocated to different parts of the Empire.

German excavators W. Andrae and R. Koldewey began digging at Assur and other Assyrian cities during the early twentieth century. Much of the unearthed artifacts pointed to their religious fervor and devotion to the sanctity of the religion (Assurism). The ziggurat at Assur erected by Shamshi-Adad I was consecrated to the god Enlil. Monuments constructed by either Shamshi-Adad, Shalmaneser I, and Adad-nirari were far and few in between. With Tikulti-Ninurta I taking the reigns of the Empire, the King began an extensive building program at Assur. Tikulti-Ninurta built a moat round the city, rebuilt the Ishtar temple and began a new palace at the northwest corner of the city (partially built). In the end there were a total of three ziggurats: one for Assur, one for Anu, and one for Adad; there were also three temples: one dedicated to Ishtar, another to Sin, and yet another to Shamash.

In addition to the erecting of monuments, Assyrian kings had their talented artisans carve scenes of religious ceremonies and most of these detailed carvings existed in orthostats, wall paintings, and stone reliefs. In one relief, Tikulti-Ninurta I is shown kneeling before the alter of the god Nushu (the god of fire) while holding a small mace. VI The most interesting aspect of this relief is that the King is pointing to the god in a manner of praise and humbleness; no such scene has ever been depicted in Mesopotamia prior to this period. Moreover, another relief depicts the vegetation god being eaten by what seems to be two sheep. VII

The Assyrians contributed heavily to the sciences. The second half of the second millennium was a time of great prosperity and progress. The manufacture of glass was a technological breakthrough. The first examples of glass vessels are found in Northern Mesopotamia and date back to the fifteenth century BC. Glazed bricks have also been found in the palaces of Middle Assyrian kings.

What seemed to set apart the Near East from the Nile River Valley, the Hindu-Kush region, and even Anatolia was that Mesopotamia developed the first system of writing, the cuneiform script. Writing allowed scribes to record business transactions, legal documents, query of items, and other articles/items. Writing also allowed for the creation of libraries and gave civilizations to write down their histories for the sake of posterity for future generations. The system of writing that developed in the Near East was taken up by other cultures and today some alphabets in use in the world are derivations from that original alphabet.

Historically where the Middle Assyrian Empire marched towards imperialism, the Neo-Assyrian Empire sprinted and dominated the Near East (including Egypt). At this point in time the Assyrians were not subject to raids and invasions and no longer wanted nor needed to be in a defensive
posture. Kirk Grayson, in his article Assyria Rule of Conquered Territory in Ancient Western Asia states that “the motive for the initial conquests [were] defensive, fight or be conquered, [and except that] greed soon took hold and remained a compelling force.” VIII

The Assyrian Empire had become mired in military tradition such that every facet of the government, civilian and military, began to fit the desired mold. Assyrian political structure was militaristic such that every official held not only an army rank but also performed civilian duty. However, we can see that the Assyrians were becoming agitated and restless and looked forward to expand their ever-dynamic Empire. Under the leadership of many powerful kings, the Assyrian military numbered in the hundreds of thousands and reached it zenith under Tiglat-Pileser III. Unlike the Middle Assyrian Empire, the commanders of the Neo-Assyrian Empire carefully refined the structure of the military for particular campaigns.

Assyrian strategy for the subjugation of foreign territories incorporated diplomacy (psychological warfare), siege tactics, and open battles. Counter to biased thought, the Assyrians employed psychological warfare whenever possible and at times preferred it exclusively. Such that it not only saved the countless lives of the Assyrian soldiers but was also economical and highly effective. An informative illustration of such rhetoric appears in the Bible (KJV) in the Book of Isaiah

1 Now it came to pass in the fourteenth year of king Hezekiah, that Sennacherib king of Assyria came up against all the defenced cities of Judah, and took them.
2 And the king of Assyria sent Rabshakeh from Lachish to Jerusalem unto king Hezekiah with a great army. And he stood by the conduit of the upper pool in the highway of the fuller’s field.

13 Then Rabshakeh stood, and cried with a loud voice in the Jews’ language, and said, Hear ye the words of the great king, the king of Assyria.
14 Thus saith the king, Let not Hezekiah deceive you: for he shall not be able to deliver you.
15 Neither let Hezekiah make you trust in the LORD, saying, The LORD will surely deliver us: this city shall not be delivered into the hand of the king of Assyria.
16 Hearken not to Hezekiah: for thus saith the king of Assyria, Make an agreement with me by a present, and come out to me: and eat ye every one of his vine, and every one of his fig tree, and drink ye every one the waters of his own cistern;

The above mentioned incident occurred when Sennacherib busy elsewhere, dispatched a message to Jerusalem. The message delivered to the people challenged their reliance on the support of Egypt and went on to ridicule Egypt and emphasize Assyria’s importance. Archaeological evidence and the Bible state that the city refused to surrender and during the first day of the siege a plague hit the Assyrians and the military was forced to retreat.

However, if Assyrian conditions of surrender were rejected or if the Assyrians were confronted with armed forces then the total and unrelenting fury of the Assyrians would be unleashed. In the moments following Assyrian victory extreme acts of cruelty and violence were directed towards the
populace. “The houses were looted and set afire, the people were subjected to murder, mutilation, slavery, and rape.” IX The annals of Assurnasirpal II give a verbal account of such punishment:

In strife and conflict I besieged (and) conquered the city. I fell 3,000 of their fighting men with the sword. I carried off their prisoners, possessions, oxen, (and) cattle from them. I burnt many captives from them. I captured many troops alive: I cut off some of their arms (and) hands … I razed, destroyed, burnt, (and) consumed the city. X

With such graphic examples depicted on wall reliefs, orthostats, and paintings many foreign peoples were overwhelmed with fear such that they surrendered forthwith. Such was the value of psychological warfare and as such the Assyrians valued it greatly.

In addition to psychological warfare, the Assyrians also utilized siege machines, the infantry, and the cavalry to their advantage. The Assyrian army had at its core close order spearmen, the elite troops heavy infantry (the “shock troops”), supported by the innovative light and heavy two horse chariots, the light infantry, and most importantly the archers. The field army, when arrayed for battle, occupied an area of one and a half miles. In full battle gear, the Assyrians would be an impressive sight to behold and a very potent one indeed. As Lord Byron states in the first stanza of The Destruction of Sennacherib:

The Assyrian came down like the wolf on the fold,
And his cohorts were gleaming in purple and gold;
And the sheen of their spears was like stars on the sea,
When the blue wave rolls nightly on deep Galilee.

When it came to warfare, the Assyrians were inventive and innovative. The chariot and the cavalry were one of many advancements that the Assyrians pursued. The establishment of a chariot as an offensive force was first utilized in battles to scare and intimidate opposing forces; however, by the Neo-Assyrian period, the chariot had been transformed into an integral member of the army. In addition to the chariot, the Assyrians were the first to invent the world’s first large cavalry squadron. The cavalry at times constituted as many as 3000-5000 horses. Accompanied with saddled archers, the combination of speed and accuracy became a lethal combination. More importantly for the Assyrians was the innovation of iron. Iron established Assyria as the most technologically advanced power in the Near East and thus allowed it to dispatch its enemies with relative ease because of their use of bronze. Archaeologists have recently discovered 200 tons of of weaponry at Dur-Sharrukin made of iron. These advancements cemented Assyrian rule in the Near East for almost two millennia.

Assyrian architectural (and artistic), scientific, and military achievements reached their apex during the Neo-Assyrian Empire. Besides contributing heavily to ancient knowledge, the Assyrians have impacted the world with their technology and innovations. Archaeologists have excavated numerous Assyrian cities in Mesopotamia and have been apt to show theinfluence they had upon the region.

From 1949-1961, Dr. Mallow excavations at Kalhu yielding Assurnasirpal II’s Northwest Palace. The palace contained a ten meter wide by thirty to forty meter long throne room with an actually throne inside. Furthermore, stone orthostats and painted figurines were also found inlaid into walls. The orthostats often portrayed battle scenes, foreign diplomats, and hunting scenes. Some of the most important slabs depict foreign tributaries bringing gifts to Shalmaneser III from Phoenicia and the Levant and others show the king hunting lions, bulls, or elephants. Also at Kalhu, the Balawat Gates were found and measured to be eighty meters in height and plated with bronze sheeting. The bronze sheets had into them etched the many campaigns the Assyrians had undertaken. Shalmaneser III created a three sided figurine, the obelisk. The obelisk, aptly named Shalmaneser’s Obelisk, shows elephants and monkeys being brought into the presence of the king possibly by Phoenicians.

Sennacherib ruled his Empire from his capitol at Nineveh. The king saw Nineveh as becoming becoming a gem of elegance. Sennacherib created the first irrigation system in the world to redirect mountain spring water and the Khosser river to Nineveh. Furthermore, he also paved a road from his capitol to Tarbisu; thus, allowing fast access to and from his palace to that of the Crown-Prince’s. But Nineveh itself was a splendor to behold not only because it was the largest city ever constructed in the world at that time but because its walls stretched around the city for twelve kilometers. The city had fifteen gates through which individuals could enter the city and each gate was appropriately named for the region or city it was facing; for example, the Assur gate faced towards Assur and the Desert gate was in the direction of the Jebel Sinjar. Even more magnificent than the city was Sennacherib’s palace. The Lachish room contained therein had been found covered with orthostats of the siege of Lachish and the eventual victory for the Assyrians. It also lent a new point of view to the methods that were utilized in preparing for a siege.

Like Sennacherib, Assurbanipal embraced and extended the archetypal Assyrian style. Assurbanipal took great care to preserve the old traditions, but strove forth to create and modify new motifs. Bas-reliefs and orthostats in the form ritual lion hunting scenes, banquet scenes, and garden scenes abounded during his reign. “The style shows a remarkable development over that of his predecessors, and many bas-reliefs have an epic quality unparalleled the ancient world, which may well be because of the influence of this active and vigorous personality.” XI

Assurbanipal was a scholarly individual who gained the mastery of Sumerian and Akkadian and could compute complex mathematical equations. Due to his academic interests, Assurbanipal assembled in Nineveh the first systematically collected and cataloged library in the ancient Middle East. The library housed 22,000 clay tablets and fragments of which have been preserved in the British Museum. The library texts embraced collections of omen text, observation of events, the behavior and features of men, animals, and plants, and also the motions of the sun, moon, planets, and the stars. Due to Assurbanipal’s diligence and thirst for knowledge, the traditional Mesopotamian epics such as the story of Creation, the Flood, Gilgamesh and other have survived the onslaught of time.

Like many kingdoms of that time, the Assyrians frequently partook in meting out punishment to those that acted antagonistically towards the rule of the Empire. Brutal scenes of war and destruction are commonly found on Assyrian orthostats and reliefs. Moreover, the Assyrians, for the sake of posterity, recorded these deeds onto clay tablets. It seems that the word Assyrian is synonymous with cruelty and sinfulness. People are reminded know and again that the Assyrian were a savage, warrior race waging war against peaceful and civilized people for the sake of loot and goods. The Old Testament, a significant portion of the Jewish Torah, lambaste the Assyrians for their cruelty. For example, the prophet Jonah did not want to travel to Nineveh to preach God’s message to the Ninevites. He did not wish for Nineveh’s salvation because its inhabitants were the enemies of the kingdom of Israel. As such, he welcomed God’s anger and wrath upon them. In comparison to biblical biases, Delacroix’s Death of Sardanapalus (Assurbanipal) is an appalling and tortured rendition of an Assyrian king gone mad. Sources indicate it was an act of incredible cruelty on part of Assurbanipal. The king decided that the entire court had to die alongside him. Therefore, he ordered his slaves to kill the women, pages, and horses, while the palace burned together with him. This literary artwork attributes more to Delacroix’s sorrowful character than it does to the Assyrians. In Civilization Before Greece and Rome, H.W.F. Saggs states that:

Some of the manifestations of ancient (as of modern) warfare
were distinctly nasty. The Assyrians have gained a particularly
bad name for atrocities in warfare, from a combination of biblical
notoriety and their own striking war reliefs in the British Museum.
But in fact they were in no way worse than their contemporaries. XII

The Assyrians were open with their cruelty (as seen in their reliefs) to quell and deter rioting and opposition to their rule. The Assyrians were more prone to use psychological warfare and tactics and avoided direct confrontation. The Assyrians of that by-gone age should not be faulted for their actions. Their actions are often compared to the Ottoman Young Turks, the German Nazi’s, and Stalinist Russia and incorrectly so. It is time that individuals throughout the world are awakened to the contributions the Assyrians made to society, to the arts, and to the sciences. Assyrian knowledge of the planets of our solar system led to accurate predictions of solar and lunar eclipses. The siege machines that were used to attack fortified cities included the blending of mathematics and engineering skills.

Furthermore, the Assyrians were foremost authorities of government efficiency and military command; the use of governates and governors was used by the Assyrians to control their far-flung empire. The military was a perfectly oiled machine that had evolved for two thousand years on the plains of Nineveh – it created the cavalry as well as siege machines, implemented iron into weapons, and introduced the use of psychological warfare to the Near East. The Assyrians were not without fault, but it must be understood that civilization spread throughout the Near East by their hands alone and it is that achievement that must remembered.


I Curtis, J.E. and Reade, J.E., eds. Art and Empire: Treasures From Assyria In The British Museum.
New York: Harry N. Abrams, 1995. p.18
II Roaf, Michael. Cultural Atlas of Mesopotamia and the Ancient Near East. Oxfordshire: Andromeda,
1996 p113
III Heise, John. Akkadian Page. 16 Feb 1996
IV Art and Empire: Treasures From Assyria In The British Museum. p20
V Cultural Atlas of Mesopotamia and the Ancient Near East. p148
VI Malraux, Andre and Salles, Georges Eds. The Arts of Mankind: Nineveh and Babylon 5-8. Assur.
Altar of Tikulti-Ninurta I (13 Century BC) – Berlin museum
VII The Arts of Mankind: Nineveh and Babylon 7-9. Assur. Vegetation god (second half, 2nd millenium) – Berlin museum
VIII Grayson, Kirk “Assyria Rule of Conquered Territory in Ancient Western Asia” Assyria 1995 Eds.
Edited by S. Parpola and R. M. Whiting. Helsinki: Helsinki Univ Press. 959.
IX “Assyria Rule of Conquered Territory in Ancient Western Asia” Assyria 1995. 961.
X Grayson, Kirk The Royal Inscriptions of Mesopotamia, vol. 2, p. 201
XI Cherry, Assur. Assurbanipal Page.
XII Saggs, HWF. Civilization before Greece and Rome. Yale Univ. Press, 1991.

Assyrian Military Facts

Select excerpts from Karen Metz’s “From Sumer to Rome”.

In the 8th century B.C., when the entire Assyrian army included 150,000-200,000 men, a combat field army of 50,000 men would be equal to 5 modern American heavy divisions, or 8 Soviet field divisions.

When arrayed for battle, a field army occupied an area of 2,500 yards (almost 1.5 miles) across and 100 yards deep. After the fall of Rome, it was not until Napoloen’s re-institution of conscription that armies of such a size would be mustered.

The Assyrians were the first to invent large cavalry squadrons.

A special logistics branch, the Musarkisus, was created to keep the army supplied with horses. It was able to obtain 3,000 horses a month for military use. Once again, it was not until Napoleon that such large amounts of horses would be systematically procdured for the army.

In a climate such as the Middle East, a soldier would need 3,402 calories a day and 70 grams of protein to sustain him, in addition to 9 quarts of water.

A ration of 3 pounds of wheat daily (or 150,000 pounds daily for a field army) would only provide 2,205 calories daily, insufficient for the needs of a soldier.

The “strategic mobility” of the Assyrian army, or their ability to project their military force over a given area, was 375,000 square miles. After Rome fell, no army exceeded this area until the American Civil War, when the use of railroads made troop movements easier.

In terms of efficiency of organization, no military staff (i.e. administrators, logistic officers and engineers) would reach the proficiency of the Assyrian or Roman military staffs until the German general staff of the 1870’s.

The prototype of a modern soldier’s equipment (helmet, body armor, boots [a particular Assyrian innovation], and backpack) was invented by ancient armies and disappeared for almost 1,000 years after the fall of the Roman Empire.

The killing power of an ancient composite bow (i.e. the accuracy, force, distance, and speed of deployment) was not matched until the introduction of the Prussian needle gun in 1871.

According to modern tests, the body armor, helmet, and shield of the Assyrians would have provided excellent protection against firearms until Napoleon. If the dispersion of field formations, inaccuracy of early firearms, and rates of fire are considered, the Assyrian soldier would have been safer on a battlefield in the 18th century than on an Ancient Near Eastern one.


Richard A. Gabriel and Karen S. Metz. “From Sumer to Rome: The Military Capabilities of Ancient Armies.” New York: Greenwood Press, 1991.

Observations of Mesopotamian and Elamite Ziggurats

This essay was written for the Mesopotamian Archaeology 123A course taught by Professor David Stronach at the University of California, Berkeley in 2000.

The ziggurat is often defined in the context of a pyramidal, stepped temple tower that serves as the center of religious functions. Unlike the pyramids of Egypt where the pharoahs were entombed for eternity, the ziggurats of Mesopotamia were centers of worship for that city-state?s particular deity. This architectural structure was characteristic of the major cities of Mesopotamia (now in Iraq) from about 2200 until 500 B.C.. The ziggurat was always built with a core of mud brick and an exterior covered with baked brick. It had no internal chambers and was usually square or rectangular, averaging either 170 feet square or 125 x 70 feet (40 x 50 meters) at the base. Approximately 25 ziggurats are known, being equally divided in number among Sumer, Babylonia, and Assyria.

No ziggurat is preserved to its original height. Ascent was by an exterior triple stairway or by a spiral ramp, but for almost half of the known ziggurats, no means of ascent has been discovered. The sloping sides and terraces were often landscaped with trees and shrubs (hence the Hanging Gardens of Babylon). The best-preserved ziggurat is at Ur (modern Tall al-Muqayyar). The largest, at Chogha Zanbil in Elam, is 335 feet (102 m) square and 80 feet (24 m) high and stands at less than half its estimated original height. The legendary Tower of Babel has been popularly associated with the ziggurat of the great temple of Marduk in Babylon.

In order to have a greater understanding of the ziggurats of ancient Mesopotamia and Elam we must first investigate the historical and architectural aspects as such and second we must be aware of the similarities and differences that arose among the ziggurats of these two geographical regions.

We will first turn our attention to the ziggurat of Ur-Nammu (2112-2095 B.C.). According to the foundation-cylinders of Nabonidus, the original Third Dynasty Ziggurat was the joint work of Ur-Nammu and his son Dungi but it was left unfinished. The construction of the ziggurat was continued more or less in the same fashion for a period of 17 years. Approaching the end of the second millennium B.C., the disintegration of the Third Dynasty of Ur began in the early years of Ibbi-Sin’s reign. The gradual collapse of the government was in part due to the feigned ignorance of the year formulae of the Ur monarchy. The continuation of Ibbi-Sin’s reign brought about great conflicts among Ur’s core dominions and eventually led the populace to openly rebel against the government. The forces of Elam under the guise of Kindattu and Shimashki dealt the death blow to the Third Dynasty of Ur at 2002 B.C. I

The Elamite attack on Ur generated a good deal of damage to the public buildings; however, the damage to the Ur-Nammu Ziggurat cannot be accurately gauged but instead must be extrapolated from the condition of the surrounding buildings. The damage cause by the Elamites is explicitly described in parts of the Sumerian compositions of Lamentation over the Destruction of Sumer and Ur and The Eridu Lament:

The Su-peoples and the Elamites, ‘the destroyers’, looked at ‘the holy kettle, which no one may look at’. The attack is markedly compared to the ‘roaring storm’, distorting the ‘essence’ of the city, tossing the ziggurat ‘into a heap of debris’. Ibid.

Therefore, the evidence from the Neo-Babylonian foundation-tablets accurately corroborate the Sumerian texts in describing the overall condition of the structure. The Neo-Babylonian texts state that at the end of the sixth century B.C. only the lowest stage of Ur-Nammu’s Ziggurat was still standing but the structure remained tolerably well preserved in spite of its age of seventeen centuries. III

We will now cover the architectural aspect of the Mesopotamian ziggurat, but we will specifically focus on the Ur-Nammu Ziggurat. The ziggurat can be cataloged under the early southern variety due in large part to its rectangular platform and three staircases:

A three-storied solid mass of mud brick faced with burnt bricks set in bitumen, rather like a stepped pyramid; on its summit was a small shrine. The lowest stage measures at its foot some 210 by 150 feet (64 by 46 meters), and its height was about 40 feet. On three sides the walls, relieved by shallow buttresses, rose sheer. On the northeast face were three great staircases, each of 100 steps, one projecting at right angles from the center of the building, two leaning against its wall, and all three converging in a gateway between the first and the second terrace. From this a single flight of steps led upward to the top terrace and to the door of the god’s little shrine. VI

As an aside, the roof of the gateway at which the staircases converge is mired in academic controversy (may be not so much of a controversy). Two different theories persist in this argument – the first theory says that the roof of the gateway is flat, while the second theory states that the roof is domed. Moreover, these two theories also apply to the roof of the shrine at the top of the ziggurat.

The excavations showed that by the 3rd millennium B.C. Sumerian architects were acquainted with the column, the arch, the vault, and the dome — i.e. with all the basic forms of architecture. The ziggurat exhibited its refinements. The walls all sloped inward, and their angle, together with the carefully calculated heights of the successive stages, leads the eye inward and upward; the sharper slope of the stairways accentuates that effect and fixes attention on the shrine, the religious focus of the whole huge structure. Surprisingly, there is not a single straight line in the structure. Each wall, from base to top and horizontally from corner to corner, is a convex curve, a curve so slight as not to be apparent but giving to the eye of the observer an illusion of strength where a straight line might have seemed to sag under the weight of the superstructure. The architect thus employed the principle of entasis — the convex curve given to a column, spire, or similar upright member, to avoid the optical illusion of hollowness or weakness that would arise from normal tapering. Ibid

The Ur-Nammu ziggurat consists of four separate stages and evidence has been found that each of these stages was colored a particular, and different color. The four colors of the ziggurat: upper stage being red, the base being black, the middle being whitewashed, and the shrine being a bright blue glaze. The four colors are significant in that they correspond to the astrological views of that time: the stages represent the underworld, the earth, sky, and heaven.

Now, we turn our attention to Elam and the Choga Zambil Ziggurat. It dates from the thirteenth century B.C., the ‘golden age’ of Elam, when king Shutruk-Nahhunte overthrew the Kassite dynasty of Babylon and carried off the statue of Marduk to Susa. And as such belongs, of course, to ancient Sumerian architecture, and to that extent Elam is here following the experiment with modifications of the original design. Instead of the triple stairway against the facade of the building, its three flights converging at the center, the Elamite ziggurat has single stairways on three of its faces, and these have monumental vaulted gate-towers behind which the flights run through vaulted passages contrived inside the brick mass of the building. Here, apparently, we have evidence of originality on the part of Elamite architects; but even so their originality does not go beyond playing a variation on an old theme.

Moreover, the one aspect of the Elamite ziggurat that distinguishes itself from the Ur-Nammu and various other Mesopotamian ziggurats is the addition of the golden horns onto the exterior of the structure – the horns being an overly Elamite symbol that continues till today. Potts’ The Archeology of Elam references several sources that attest to this architectural addition, specifically Assurbanipal’s and Shilhak-Inshushinak’s texts. For example, Assurbanipal states that he destroyed the ziggurat of Susa and broke of its ‘horns’ of shining bronze. Shilhak-Inshushinak refers to the casting of the horns for a place of sacrifice while a horned building appears in the seal impression of Susa II. I


I Potts, D.T. The Archaeology of Elam.
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London 1939: 128-142
IV Roaf, Michael Cultural Atlas of Mesopotamia
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V Archaeologische Mitteilunge Aus Iran,
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VI Encyclopedia Brittanica: The Excavations of Ur