A monumental Neo-Assyrian black basalt royal stele of Adad-nerari III of Assyria
Written in stone

Bonhams Magazine

Issue 38, Spring 2014

Page 70

The Assyrians were quick to recognise the power of propaganda. They exploited it with monuments built to last. Gwendolyn Leick looks on in awe

Foreign delegates waiting for a royal audience with the Assyrian king, Adad-nerari III, found themselves staring at wall after wall of carved reliefs depicting the relentless progress of the mighty Assyrian army. The intention was that these images should intimidate, which is why military themes became the dominant subject of Assyrian art.

There was good reason to be frightened of the Assyrians: during the 9th century BC, this all-conquering empire extended its territories from what is now northern Iraq to the banks of the Nile. One contemporary from the neighbouring state of Judah, the prophet Isaiah, described them as the embodiment of God's wrath: "O Assyrian, the rod of mine anger, and the staff in their hand is mine indignation." Images of the king exercising power in "all four corners of the World" were distributed and set up in public places such as markets and temples.

These royal inscriptions were written sub specie aeternitatis, so they had to be robust. And so we find them inscribed on indestructible stone vases or mace heads, on tablets made of bronze, and on stone steles carved with images of the king, such as the one of the Neo-Assyrian king Adad-nerari III that is to be offered by Bonhams in April's Antiquities sale. The material chosen for this monument was basalt, one of the hardest materials available.

Objects such as these not only served the desire to achieve a measure of immortality, they were also votive offerings deposited in temples which, continually rebuilt over centuries, were as safe a place as could be found. Exhibited within the temple precincts, their message could be understood by the illiterate majority of the population.

Statues and steles represented royal authority, and so oaths were sworn in the symbolic presence of the king. They were not intended to show the features of an individual ruler but a stereotypical image of royal entitlement and the majesty of office, through garments and regalia, posture and gestures.

These effigies were meant to outlast their owners by many generations and the inscriptions are often addressed to future rulers who, when coming across them in the course of the renovation of a temple for instance, are admonished to treat them with care and respect. Not surprisingly, these statues and vases were highly prized and therefore made valuable trophies for rival kings who could carry them off and have their own name inscribed on them. To prevent this, these objects were secured with curses. Inscriptions implored the gods to punish the usurper of the statue by "tearing out his seed" and making his name and lineage extinct.

The propaganda value of royal monuments was recognised very early. A publicly displayed statue or a relief carved into a mountainside proclaimed the lasting presence of the conqueror. Many other ancient Near Eastern rulers, from the Egyptians and Hittites to the Persians, adopted the same practice.

The sizeable fragment in the Antiquities sale – the lower two-thirds of a stele – is a very good example of such a royal monument. The upper part, showing the head of Adad-nerari III surrounded by divine symbols, has been in the British Museum since the 19th century; this piece had been cut to make it less heavy and shows far more wear than the still-pristine lower part.

At the time it was commissioned (between 805 and 797 BC), the Assyrian hegemony in Upper Mesopotamia – an area now comprising the Kurdish-occupied Iraq and the Euphrates valley in Syria – was being challenged. This necessitated a more cautious policy: while rebellions still had to be subdued, now former enemies were reconciled and existing alliances strengthened. King Adad-nerari's inscriptions show that he was better able than his successors to strike the right balance and that he utilised his resources well.

We now know from Professor Karen Radner's reconstruction of the whole text inscribed on the stele that it was commissioned for the newly restored temple of a god called Salmanu in the strategically important city the Assyrians called Dur-Katlimmu ('Fort Katlimmu'). Excavations of this large site near the Syrian oil-town Deir ez-Zor show it to have been inhabited for millennia and to have been under intermittent control of various Mesopotamian states. The Assyrians had taken the city in the 14th century BC and held on to it for about 100 years. In the 8th century, Dur- Katlimmu was once again a prominent provincial centre under an Assyrian governor.

Adad-nerari's inscription on the stele, written by the way in a beautifully regular and evenly spaced cuneiform, reads:

"Adad-nerari, strong king, king of the universe, king of Assyria, son of Shamshi-Adad (V), king of the universe, king of Assyria, son of Shalmaneser (III), king of the four quarters. I mustered my chariotry and armed forces and gave the order to march to the land of Hatti. I crossed the Euphrates in flood. I went down to the city of aqirahubuna. Attarshumki, son of Abirame, together with eight kings of Hatti, who had rebelled and had trusted in their strength – the awesome radiance of the god Ashur, my lord, overwhelmed them. In just one year, I subdued the land of Hatti to its full extent. Towards the sea of the west I marched. I erected my lordly image in the city of Arwad in the midst of the sea. I ascended Mount Lebanon. I cut strong logs of cedar. At that time, I placed those cedars from Mount Lebanon in the gate of the temple of the god Salmanu, my lord. The old temple, which Shalmaneser (I), my ancestor had built, had become dilapidated and I, in a stroke of inspiration, built this temple from its foundations to its parapets. I placed the cedar roof beams from Mount Lebanon on top. When this temple becomes old and dilapidated may a future prince renovate its dilapidated parts and return the inscription to its place."

This inscription reports the successful suppression of a collective resistance, but also refers to another statue, placed on an island off the coast of Lebanon. Significantly, it mentions the cutting of cedar trees here – and how the timber was used to roof the newly restored temple in Dur-Katlimmu – to demonstrate the Assyrian commitment to the city. We also find the traditional evocation that a future ruler should honour the image.

The stele has another peculiarity: while it only depicts the Assyrian king, wearing a long-fringed cloak and holding his staff, there is another inscription dedicated by the governor of Dur-Kaltimmu, Nergal-eresh. His inscription is on the left side and takes up 25 lines.

While the carving of the cuneiform is less meticulous and less deeply incised than that of the king's text, the language is unusually literary and poetic. He says that he had presented a golden sword to the god Salmanu and that it was he who had commissioned the image of Adad-nerari "for the wellbeing of his seed, of Assyria and its people". In addition to the usual curses that threaten whoever removes the image from the presence of Salmanu, "by throwing it into the water or covering it with earth or keeping it in a place where it may not be visible", he adds a completely new curse that the evil doer "may live in a contingent together with the slave women of his land".

It is ironic that although the stele has survived for centuries safely buried in the earth, the name of Nergal-eresh has been erased by the Assyrian authorities who wanted to downplay his influence. However, historical artefacts found at the site could restore his reputation.

It goes without saying that the buyer of the stele would acquire not only a rare, well-preserved and expertly carved piece of antique statuary, but a unique historical text. They would also enjoy the blessings of the god Salmanu and escape the sorry fate of having to consort with slave girls.

Gwendolyn Leick lectures at Chelsea College of Arts. Her publications include the Historical Dictionary of Mesopotamia and Mesopotamia: The Invention of the City.

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