Women, Fundamentalism and Terror: Echoes of Ancient Assyria

Creator: Jana Traboulsi. All rights reserved.

When so-called ‘Islamic State’ (ISIS) fighters were reported to have blasted and bulldozed the ancient Assyrian site of Nimrud into the ground last year, the rest of the world lined up to condemn its actions. One ISIS militant, engaged in the destruction of Assyrian antiquities in the Mosul museum, told the camera ‘we were ordered by our prophet to take down idols and destroy them.’[1]

The stated intolerance of ISIS to pre-Islamic cultures like the Assyrians has not prevented it from exploiting the trade in smuggled Assyrian antiquities as a source of revenue. However, this is not the greatest irony in this sad state of affairs. Of all of the empires that have flourished in the Middle East throughout human history, ISIS has perhaps most in common with the ancient Assyrians.

Their commonalities include the brutal treatment of women; the use of terror for political ends; and religious fanaticism. In this article I explore the connections which can be made between these phenomena in the context of ancient Assyria, and argue that the similarities and linkages between the conditions of existence of the ancient Assyrians and ISIS is not as tenuous as might initially appear.

The Status of Women in Ancient Assyria

Evidence of how women in the ancient Middle East lived is patchy. There was simply no reason to record details of the lives of ordinary women - or ordinary men, for that matter, but we know more about the lives of men simply because more men held positions of power. Our main evidence on the status of women in ancient Assyria comes from administrative documents and law codes, and paints a picture of women as subordinated to men in all areas of life. From the evidence we have, we can say that the role of women in ancient Assyria, which made up much of what is now northern Iraq, does not appear to have been significantly different from women in Babylonia (in southern Iraq) or in other neighbouring regions. However, their treatment by the law and at the hands of their menfolk appears to have been significantly more brutal.

The best source on the status of Assyrian women is a law code that dates from the reign of the great King Tiglathpileser I (1115 - 1077 BC) of the Middle Assyrian period. It is concerned exclusively with women, and paints a grim picture of their situation.[2] Because of the incomplete state of the evidence, it is difficult to say exactly how much harsher the law was on women in comparison to men, but the provisions of the law code regarding women show clearly that this was the case. Women could be punished not only for their individual transgressions, but also for crimes committed by their relatives under the principle of ius talionis (an eye for an eye).

‘If a man forcibly seizes and rapes a maiden who is residing in her father’s house... the father of the maiden shall take the wife of the rapist of the maiden and give her over to be raped; he shall not return her to her husband, he shall take her (for himself).’[3]

The victim of the rape would be married to her rapist.

Punishments prescribed for various other offences a woman might commit included cutting off her ear and/or nose, and possibly by, though damage to the text means we cannot be sure, gouging out her eyes or tearing off her nipples.[4] In the absence of better information, we cannot determine whether men would be subject to similar punishments and for what crimes. However, the code itself makes it clear that a wife’s physical wellbeing depended on the whim of her husband. It stipulates: 'In addition to the punishments for a man’s wife [outlined above]… a man may whip his wife, pluck out her hair, mutilate her ears, or strike her; it bears no penalty.'[5]

The law in ancient Assyria did not systematically deprive women of all their rights, but they were still effectively second class citizens. As in many strongly patriarchal societies, a woman’s perceived value lay mostly in her supposed role as an incubator of male seed.[6] Therefore, her sexuality was tightly controlled by her family; her purity and faithfulness a matter of family honour. In this, ancient Assyria had much in common with other kingdoms of the time. However, as shown by these examples, it stands out for the brutality with which these conditions were enforced.

The Lives of Wealthy Assyrian Women

Evidence on the lives of actual women who lived in ancient Assyria is drawn from ancient documents; accounts which for the most part are not representative of all levels of society. The majority of women who appear in ancient Assyrian texts are associated with the Royal Palace. During the Neo-Assyrian period (883-608 BC), royal women certainly lived very different lives than most. There is evidence that they were independently wealthy, they could buy land, and we also know many sent and received letters.

The queen was an important figure in the Neo-Assyrian period, but her importance derived primarily from her status as mother of a future king. We know the name of ten queens from the Neo-Assyrian period, but only have substantial information about three, one of which was Sammu-Ramat. Sammu-Ramat is known to posterity by the Greek version of her name, Semiramis. She was the queen of Shamshi-Adad V (824 - 811 BC) and was, unusually, highly influential for the first five years of her young son Adad-Nirari III’s reign between 811 - 783 BC. Her position was such an exception to the usual role of women of the time that she became a fantastical, almost mythological figure in the stories told by the later Greeks and Armenians.

Other women also appear in the palace archives. Female officials appear to have had important roles running the households of royal ladies, and possibly others too.[7] Though there is no conclusive evidence that women in Assyrian royal palaces were secluded, female officials may have been employed to protect the purity of royal women; a later age would use eunuchs (castrated males).

Outside of palaces, we hear mostly of women being associated with temples. That women played important roles in worship is clear. The texts attest to the existence of many prophetesses, who proclaimed the words of the gods at various important cultic centres throughout the empire. Women also worked as priestesses. Despite popular belief, there is little actual evidence for the existence of temple prostitutes in ancient Mesopotamia. This appears to have been an invention of a much later Greek author who used the idea of sacred prostitution to illustrate the moral decline of Babylon.[8]

A few other women do appear in the texts as unconnected with palace or temple. The texts refer to them as harimtu, which was long translated as prostitute, but now appears more likely to mean a single woman with an independent social existence, tied neither to a husband, father or institution. Most harimtu seem to have been poor, although there were some notable exceptions. The term has negative connotations in several texts, where it is used as an insult. This likely indicates the vulnerability of women in ancient Assyrian society without the protection of family or the shelter provided by an institution; but it means that an independent existence for women, however precarious, was possible.[9]

The picture that emerges of the status of women in ancient Assyria is for the most part of dependence, their social existence largely subordinated to that of the men in their lives. This was common throughout ancient Mesopotamia, indeed throughout the ancient world. As noted above Assyria was only exceptional in the brutality with which this social order was enforced which, I argue, may be explainable in terms of Assyria’s unique political culture.

Terror as a Weapon of War

When Byron wrote ‘The Assyrian came down like the wolf on the fold’ in his famous poem The Destruction of Sennacherib in 1815, he accurately summarized what the world knew about the ancient Assyrian empire at the time, derived from the strongly negative portrait of Assyria in the Bible. Archaeological excavations that began soon after in Iraq and the deciphering of the Assyrian script later that century have added a great deal of detail to that picture, but left it largely unchanged: the Ancient Assyrians gloried in their own brutality. Look closely at the walls of the Neo-Assyrian reliefs in various museums around the world and you will likely see direct evidence of that. These reliefs tell variations of the same story: the mighty Assyrian king at the head of his army is victorious. Those who resist are dealt with brutally. Many are killed in battle, trampled underfoot and riddled with arrows, city walls are demolished by Assyrian siegecraft. Those taken alive have their heads cut off, or are flayed alive. Assyrian scribes then record booty - precious items, statues of the gods, metalwork, animals, and entire populations - to be carried off to Assyria while soldiers relax nearby by playing catch with severed heads.

One of the first kings to use terror as a weapon of Assyrian statecraft was the Middle Assyrian king Tiglathpileser I, who reigned between 1114 - 1076 BC, under whose aegis the law code on women was issued; he seems to have consciously cultivated fear in both his subjects and his enemies.

But later kings of the Neo-Assyrian period took this to a completely different level. The annals of Assur-Nasir-Pal II (883 - 859 BC), generally recognised as the founder of the Neo-Assyrian empire, boast of the atrocities he committed against prisoners: ‘Of some I cut off their feet and hands; of others I cut off the ears noses and lips; of the young men's ears I made a heap; of the old men's heads I made a minaret. I exposed their heads as a trophy in front of their city.’[10] Another of his texts recounts flaying the skin off the notables of a rebellious city and using it to cover the city walls.[11] The reliefs of Assurbanipal (668 - 627 BC) depict a defeated Arab king with a dog chain inserted through his jaw being forced to live in a kennel.[12]

This was not wanton brutality; it was psychological warfare, calculated to inspire terror. This terror had real military and political value. Fear of the consequences of opposing the military might of Assyria made it less likely that might would have to be used. Vassals would think twice about rebellion, and enemies would lose their nerve and surrender early in the hope that they would be treated more leniently. The annals of the Assyrian King Sargon II (722-705 BC) record that during a massive campaign against his northern neighbour, the kingdom of Urartu, the local population was too terrified to attempt resistance and many Urartian garrisons simply abandoned their posts at the approach of the Assyrian army.[13]

Religion in Service of the State

The Assyrians themselves justified this violence with what can be described as a political theology. Mesopotamian religion was polytheistic; they believed there existed many gods, with various attributes and abilities, all far beyond the human. Many cities or kingdoms had special associations with particular gods, hosting important cult centres dedicated to the service of the god in question. For example, although many gods were worshipped in Babylon, this city’s patron deity was Marduk, and Babylon was seen to serve him above all other gods.

Assur (pronounced and occasionally written ‘Ashur') was Assyria’s patron deity. Assur was also the name of Assyria’s first capital, and forms the root of the modern names for Assyria and Syria via ancient Greek.[14] The Assyrians came to assert that their god Assur was chief of all the gods. Therefore, as all other gods were subject to him, so too should all other people who served these other gods be subject to the chief servant of the god Assur on earth: the king of Assyria: on earth as it is in heaven.

The Assyrians even wrote themselves into the Babylonian creation myth Enuma Elish (named after its opening words ‘When on high’) to cement the religious justification for their political dominance. They rewrote the epic, in which Babylon’s patron god Marduk assumed the role of chief of the gods, to feature Anshar, a primordial god in the Babylonian pantheon they equated with Assur.[15]

The Assyrians cast their dominion in explicitly religious terms. Unlike the empires of the last few centuries, the Assyrians did not view themselves, their subjects and their enemies in racial terms. Their enemies were not as lesser human beings, they were simply ungodly. If the conditions of their social existence were radically different from the Assyrians they must also therefore be uncivilised and barbaric. The Assyrians even explained the terror their army inspired in religious terms. The annals of Assur-Nasir-Pal II recorded that ‘awe of the radiance of Assur, my lord, overwhelmed [the city of Suru].’[16]

The Army and the Empire

Given the enthusiasm of the Assyrian state for warfare, it is perhaps not surprising that the army was its major institution and its key state building instrument. Located in the fertile plains of northern Iraq on the middle reaches of the Tigris river, Assyria could support a large population and formed a single, relatively coherent and easily-controlled geographical unit. It was surrounded by strong kingdoms, the other major kingdoms of the second and early first millenniums BC - Egypt, Mitanni, the Hittites, Urartu, Babylon, Elam and later, the Medes. This meant that in times of weakness it would be vulnerable, given that it was surrounded on all sides. However, in times of strength it was also therefore in a prime position to dominate the region.

Assyria won its independence from its northern neighbour Mitanni late in the second millennium by force of arms, and eventually indeed annexed most of the Mitanni kingdom, defending itself from Hittites and Babylonians in the process. The army was the bulwark that managed to protect the heartlands of the Assyrian kingdom from the regional conflagrations which resulted in the collapse of most of the kingdoms of the Late Bronze Age in the late second millennium BC. Military campaigns under a succession of kings culminated in the reigns of Assur-Nasir-Pal II and his son Shalmaneser III, when Assyria became the preeminent power in the region.

However, a rebellion at the end of Shalmaneser III's reign and a protracted civil war resulted in a century of relative decline under weak kings. Then in 745 BC, the governor of Nimrud seized the throne in a bloody coup, massacring the royal family. He assumed the throne name Tiglathpileser III, reigning between 745 – 727 BC, and became one of the greatest conquerors in world history. Within his lifetime, his armies conquered most of the world known to the ancient Mesopotamians. His successors expanded the empire he had established, even adding Egypt to the vast imperial domain of Assyria.

The key to Tiglathpileser’s success lay in his reforms to the Assyrian state and army: he centralised power and professionalised the army, in the process creating what has been described as the first truly imperial structure in history. Previous empires had relied on small corps of professional soldiers and large seasonal levies of troops, and had conducted campaigns to loot and pillage, cowing their enemies into submission. By comparison, the bureaucratic and military structures Tiglathpileser III established were clinical in their efficiency – and systematic in their brutality. A dedicated corps of administrators supervised the confiscation of surplus from conquered peoples to support a full-time army of military professionals, drawn from the Assyrian population and subject peoples.

The scale of Assyrian imperialism also increased in the late Neo-Assyrian period. Policies which Assyrian kings had deployed since the 13th century BC, like the mass deportation of peoples to pacify conquered territories and increase the population of the empire’s heartland, were massively expanded. In 701 BC, after his third campaign to quell rebellions on the Mediterranean coast, King Sennacherib (705 - 681 BC) claims to have deported a staggering 208,000 people, which must have been a significant proportion of the region’s population at the time. [17]

Yet despite this formidable imperial edifice, it was difficult for the Assyrians to maintain control over their vast empire. Revolts were common, especially on the imperial periphery, and the empire was frequently racked by civil wars fought over the accession to the throne. The end, when it came, was swift. A civil war over the throne soon after the death of the empire’s last great king Assurbanipal was followed by protracted unrest and rebellions that critically weakened the empire. The Assyrian King Sin-Shar-Ishkun (627-612 BC) was unable to decisively stamp out a revolt in Babylonia led by Nabopolassar because of constant revolts in the Assyrian heartland.

By 616 BC Nabopolassar had succeeded in wresting control of most of Babylonia from the Assyrians. Nabopolassar then entered into an alliance with Cyaxares, king of the Medes, another former Assyrian vassal. At this point, the end was nigh for the Assyrian empire. By 612 BC, all of the cities of the Assyrian heartland had been captured and sacked. The last Neo-Assyrian king, Assur-Uballit II, managed to hang on in the west for a few more years before the Assyrian empire became a footnote in history.

Though the Assyrians themselves have survived until the present as a distinct community in Iraq, they were relegated to bit players in the service of other empires in the grand sweep of history. Assyrian troops served in the Persian army which the Athenians defeated at the Battle of Marathon in 490 BC. The Roman Empire recruited Assyrian legions. In more recent times, Assyrians served in the Iraq levies, the local troops that the British used to control Iraq after they took control of the country after the First World War. And of course the Assyrians, who converted to Christianity early under the Roman Empire, have suffered at the hands of ISIS.

Militarism, Fundamentalism, Terrorism and Women

This brings us back to the question of relationship between religious fanaticism, the use of terror for political ends and the brutal treatment of women. The common denominator between the Assyrian empire and ISIS is surely that they were both born of violence in a violent and unstable political milieu, in which military success was and is an essential condition of survival.

In such conditions of existential crisis, all resources are directed toward the immediate goal of domination to ensure survival. The ideological justification for this existential struggle becomes almost eschatological in its tone, invoking a Manichaean struggle between good and evil.

In the context of such a political project people don’t have rights, they have uses. This particularly affects women because in patriarchal societies, women are disempowered or at least in positions of structural weakness, and thus are more vulnerable to exploitation - both individually and as a group asserting their rights.

This is surely where the underlying similarities between the Neo-Assyrian empire and ISIS lie: they are both militaristic political projects served by extreme religious-political ideologies that use terror as a force multiplier in order to further their political goals. It is no surprise that the burden of harm in these political projects have fallen most heavily on women, the members of their societies that in a strongly patriarchal society are structurally in the weakest positions.

[1] Gianluca Mezzofiore, Arij Limam, Sabine Schwab, Iraq: Isis take sledgehammers to priceless Assyrian artefacts at Mosul museum - February 26, 2015 12:34 GMT


[2] Marten Stol, Women in the Ancient Near East, Translated by Helen and Mervyn Richardson, 2016 Walter de Gruyter Inc., Berlin, 2016, p.662.

[3] Ibid, pp.680-1.

[4]Damage to the text makes this difficult to ascertain

[5] Stol, p.681.

[6] Ibid, p.651.

[7] Stol, p.533.

[8] Ibid, pp.267, 399, 427.

[9] Stol, pp.417-8.

[11] Albert Kirk Grayson, Assyrian Royal Inscriptions, Part 2: From Tiglath-pileser I to Ashur-nasir-apli II, Wiesbaden, Otto Harrassowitz, 1976, p.124.

[12] C.L. Crouch, War and Ethics in the Ancient Middle East: Military Violence in the Light of Cosmology and History, Walter de Gruyter GmbH & Co, Berlin, 2009, pp.152-3.

[13] H.W.F. Saggs, “Assyrian Warfare in the Sargonid Period,” Iraq, Vol. 25, No. 2 (Autumn, 1963), pp.153-4.

[14] Richard N. Frye, “Assyria and Syria: Synonyms.” Journal of Near Eastern Studies, 1992, http://www.journals.uchicago.edu/doi/abs/10.1086/373570?journalCode=jnes


[15] Donald A. Mackenzie, Myths of Babylonia and Assyria, The Gresham Publishing Company, London, 1915, p.326.

[16] K. Lawson Younger, Jr., Ancient Conquest Accounts: A Study in Ancient Near Eastern and Biblical History Writing, Sheffield Academic Press, Worcester, 1990, p.311, fn.14.

[17] University of Arizona, Prism of Sennacherib: An Assyrian King’s Wars, http://www.u.arizona.edu/~afutrell/w%20civ%2002/prism.html

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