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The King’s City: A Comparative Study of Royal Patronage in Assur, Nineveh, and Babylon in the First Millennium BCE

Periodic Reporting for period 1 - RoyalCities (The King’s City: A Comparative Study of Royal Patronage in Assur, Nineveh, and Babylon in the First Millennium BCE)

Okres sprawozdawczy: 2018-09-01 do 2020-08-31

Cities had a special status in ancient Mesopotamia as centers of civilization. The first city in the world was founded there 6,000 years ago, and Mesopotamian mythology claimed that the gods themselves created the cities, even before creating humankind to live in them. Imperial capitals emerged with the development and growth of empires in the first millennium BCE. These capitals acted as the king’s main seat of power in an ever-expanding territory and were home to complex administrative organizations and innovations in irrigation, architecture, and urban planning. This project focused on three of the most important imperial capitals in Mesopotamian history: Assur, the traditional religious hub and original capital of the Neo-Assyrian Empire (c. 1000-c. 600 BCE, northern Iraq), Nineveh, the political capital of the Neo-Assyrian Empire under the most powerful kings, and Babylon, the cultural and political center of the Neo-Babylonian Empire (c. 626-539 BCE, southern Iraq). The latter city was so magnificent that it inspired the biblical and classical legends of the Tower of Babel and the Hanging Gardens of Babylon.

Despite the prominence of these capitals, little work had been done on how royal patronage affected them. This project addressed the following questions: What constitutes a royal capital and what distinguishes it from other cities? How did kings conceptualize their capitals? What were the effects of the kings’ presence on the urban fabric and the social and economic structure of a capital? These questions were answered through detailed examinations of texts written by kings, officials, priests, and administrators in the Neo-Assyrian and Neo-Babylonian Empires. The royal inscriptions, which recorded the kings’ deeds, give a sense of what the kings prioritized and of how they displayed their power in the city itself, whereas letters from elites and bureaucratic documents present a more “realistic” image of urban development in the empire, one in which the king was often absent or unreachable.

This project found that capitals attracted more money, resources, and people than non-capitals, both via active royal patronage and by virtue of being the seat of kingship. Kings used their considerable resources and power to undertake important and expensive construction projects on the city’s infrastructural or monumental features. The royal court was based there, and officials across the empire routinely visited for audiences with the king. People also came to the capital for legal, administrative, and economic or trade reasons. Elite families often moved to these cities, which were safer against enemy invasion, drought, and famine.

This study also revealed negative effects that prioritizing the capital had on the rest of the empire. These impacts were subtler, but there are many cases in which a king’s need (or desire) to promote his capital had deleterious effects on other cities in the empire. Many cities were obligated to contribute money and manpower towards developing the capital without receiving treatment in kind. Archives from temples in non-capitals revealed how these institutions were sometimes forced to liquidate warehouse holdings and dispatch staff to support state initiatives, or relied upon local and neighboring communities to function on a daily basis. These findings challenge previous assumptions about urban development in these empires, demonstrating that an eclectic and ad hoc approach was the reality.
This project had 6 work packages (WP). WPs 1-3 comprised the compilation and analysis of hundreds of Neo-Assyrian and Neo-Babylonian texts. In these WPs, the Fellow and the Supervisor met regularly to collect and read relevant texts and process the findings. By assembling and comparing Neo-Assyrian and Neo-Babylonian data, this project generated a comprehensive analysis of ancient Mesopotamian capitals, imperial power, and society (WP 4), resulting in several peer-reviewed publications (WP 5): eight articles have been published or accepted for publication, with two additional articles under review. A further four articles are in an advanced state of preparation and will be submitted for review this year. These publications explore how royal patronage and the status of a capital city affected socio-cultural trends and urban development and how imperial apparatuses were built and maintained. A conclusion article will draw these smaller case studies together.

For WP 6, public engagement and dissemination, the Fellow presented 11 papers at international conferences and seminars, with four additional talks scheduled. She co-organized workshops at two ASOR annual meetings, the largest gathering of Ancient Near Eastern archaeologists and philologists, with a third workshop planned for the Rencontre Assyriologique Internationale, the annual meeting for Assyriologists. The Fellow also gave two public lectures, one in Sydney, Australia, where Assyriology is underserved at the local universities, and one for the Manchester Classical Association, which has been disseminated on Youtube. The Fellow also participated in outreach activities such as “Science Talk” at the University of Vienna, and this project was profiled for CORDIS Results in Brief.

For the transfer of knowledge, the Fellow was trained in Neo-Babylonian studies and, in return, taught a seminar on the Neo-Assyrian Empire and advised students interested in Neo-Assyrian studies, a subject not represented in the Department.
This project advanced the state of the art for studying ancient cities in several ways. First, it re-examined the definitions of “city” and “capital” using data from the original Akkadian, revealing that cities were often discussed as pars pro toto with reference to the palace and main temples. Second, this project compared, for the first time, two main cities of Assyria—Assur and Nineveh—with the capital of Babylonia. Comparing these cities in particular was productive because Assur was the traditional religious center of the Assyrian Empire and Nineveh was the political and administrative center, whereas Babylon represented both for Babylonia. This dataset for these three cities moreover crossed temporal and generic boundaries, combining Neo-Assyrian with Neo-Babylonian data while juxtaposing ideological and state-produced texts with archival and epistolary corpora. The analysis joined top-down and bottom-up approaches to span the lowest levels of society to the royal court and incorporated new methodologies from Social Sciences and the Humanities, revealing that royal patronage and presence played a significant role in the success of individual cities and in the construction of empire. For instance, cities in which the king lived tended to thrive, while other cities were left to sustain themselves. Some unfortunate cities became overburdened by state demands on their labor and finances or were neglected to the point of decay and abandonment. These results have allowed us to understand the world of 1st millennium BCE Mesopotamia better than ever and have the potential to influence future work in fields like Classics, Ancient History, and Urban Studies. Moreover, the data from this project are significant for society, not only for advancing our knowledge of the development of cities in the ancient world but also for its focus on heritage sites that have been chronically endangered by terrorism, looting, decay, and planned infrastructure projects.
Assyrian city, perhaps Nineveh, depicted in palace reliefs (British Museum, photo by author)
King Ashurbanipal carrying a work basket (British Museum, photo by author)