The laurel wreath of the ancient world does not belong to the Greeks, the Romans or even the Egyptians. These cities had nothing to do with the beginnings of civilisation. They were the offsprings and offshoots of a much older tree with roots that were considerably more ancient. It was in Mesopotamia that civilisation took its first breath and its first steps. The birth of this era was what set humanity on a path that we are still on–millennia after its conception.

Kings occupied a central position in the ancient world. They dominated political, military and economic life; as well as shaped the religious, cultural and artistic discourses of their time. They were the first monarchs of civilisation.

Religion was an integral part of Mesopotamian society and it is impossible to understand these civilisations without diving into the theology of the times. The ancient ones believed that Divine Will was shared and communicated to humanity through the omens and portents of the Gods and Goddesses.

The kings were conduits for the manifestation of Cosmic Will on earth. It was this perspective that shaped the theology of the times.

It coloured and created a worldview that shed light on the role of kingship as an essential component in the maintenance of the Cosmic Universal Order.

Assyria and Babylon

Assyria was always dependent culturally on Babylon. The two twin cities emerged as the first great neighbouring powers. While Assyria–Babylon’s northern neighbour–had already emerged as a separate state; Hammurabi captured its capital city, effectively aborting the future ambitions of the city-state. Babylon’s subsidiary status would remain problematic for the Assyrians.

Assyria relocated its capital on several occasions but Nineveh was always regarded as its greatest city. Nineveh is located on the outskirts of Mosul in what is now modern-day northern Iraq.

By the time Hammurabi established the first imperial state in approximately 1760 BCE, civilisation had already aged a millennia.

Enlil, later known as Elil, is an ancient Mesopotamian god associated with wind, air, earth and storms. The original Sumerian version of The Flood focuses on the selfishness of Enlil.

Despite the strides that humanity had made in its quest to consolidate power and create stability, the view that human existence was insecure was conceptualised and theorised.

This powerful god Enlil would neither protect nor sustain people if they became a source of annoyance. It was thus ascertained that as long as Sumerians executed and fulfilled their religious duties, they would survive.

Artist’s impression of Assyrian palaces from The Monuments of Nineveh by Sir Austen Henry Layard, 1853

Secularism

We should not, however, conclude that secularism was unheard of as powerful secular leaders did eventually come to control Sumerian cities. Disputes between religious leaders and political leaders would soon became commonplace.

Nevertheless, it was the obedience and piety of Sumerians which ensured that their city gods continued to be cherished. The status of temples, and their importance to city life, led them to be enshrined into the character of these cities.

In Mesopotamia, the concept of a temporary ruler acting as a custodian of the divine sought to solve the conflict that had arisen between secular and religious leadership. Despite the semi-divine status of the King, the concept that a deceased ruler could become deified was still considered unacceptable in Sumer.

For the Assyrians, war was just and good–because it conformed to divine plans for the maintenance of cosmic order; plans which were either decreed or justified through the interpretative omens of the gods. They did not view violence as unjustifiable and felt entitled to exercise violence. Nowhere in the texts is there any suggestion of mercy as being an obligation on the part of the victor. Assyrians did not believe in surrendering their arms. If they failed to achieve a military objective, they would try again.

The Assyrian army was a powerful killing machine–just as capable of defeating an enemy on the battlefield as it was of taking a fortified city by way of siege. They were the first to master siege warfare: a tactic that involves surrounding a garrison or a populated area with the goal of driving out the enemy forces by deteriorating their defences and cutting them off from reinforcements and vital supplies.

Although sieges were costly and time-consuming, in certain circumstances, they were considered easier than engaging the enemy directly in open battle or going house to house to root out the adversary.

This era would mark a peak in warfare activities that would go on to shape the concept of a righteous war–in other words, using ideological justifications to allow for killing an enemy and taking their territory.

Was it done in the name of ‘God’ or in the name of Empire? The present answer, perhaps, is that it was a mix of both.

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