10th Anniversary Symposium of the Neo-Assyrian Text Corpus Project
Helsinki, September 7-11, 1995

Assyria 1995

The glory and fall of the Assyrian Empire

by Margot Stout Whiting
The Assyrian came down like the wolf on the fold,
And his cohorts were gleaming in purple and gold;
And their raincoats and umbrellas shone wet in the cold.
(Lines 1-2 “The Destruction of Sennacherib” by Lord Byron;
Line 3 “The Helsinki Weather Report” by M. S. Whiting)
The modern-day cohorts of the Assyrian kings descended on Helsinki on the 7th of September in the form of many of the finest scholars in the field of Assyriology. They came to help celebrate the 10th Anniversary of the Neo-Assyrian Text Corpus (State Archives of Assyria) Project which is directed by Prof. Simo Parpola. This truly international group of more than 70 scholars represented 15 different countries: Australia, Austria, Canada, Finland, France, Germany, Great Britain, Holland, Israel, Italy, Poland, Russia, Sweden, Turkey, and the United States of America, and included three representatives of the contemporary Assyrian community — Norman Solhkhah, his son Cyrus, and Peter Talia. This extraordinary group had come to participate in a five day symposium, ASSYRIA, 1995. The Symposium had two distinct types of papers — Scholarly Papers designed for exchanges of information and new ideas amongst specialists, and Public Lectures, a gift made by the Project to the people of Helsinki by inviting top scholars in the field to give a series of lectures designed for non-specialists. This was a challenge for these scholars and they all rose to it admirably.

Day 1 — 7th September
The Chancellor of the University of Helsinki, Dr. Lauri Saxén, opened the symposium, remarking on Finland’s long-standing association with with the field of Assyriology, having had one of the first chairs in the field and with the first courses in Assyriology having been taught here over a century ago.

There followed four public lectures on the topic of the Assyrian Empire. The large audience, consisting of people from many different fields, were treated to lectures intended to make our somewhat abstruse field comprehensible.

Prof. J. A. Brinkman of the University of Chicago led off with a paper entitled “Unfolding the Drama of the Assyrian Empire” which kindly included a very complimentary description of the Helsinki Project’s own contributions to that “unfolding.” Next came Prof. Hayim Tadmor of The Hebrew University in Jerusalem, whose lecture on “Propaganda and Literature: Cracking the Code of the Assyrian Royal Inscriptions” explained how Assyrian royal ideology was embodied in the royal inscriptions in a form that, among all the ancient empires, was peculiar to Assyria.

Prof. David Stronach of the University of California at Berkeley, an archaeologist who has recently been excavating at Nineveh, accompanied his lecture, “Urban Nineveh: New Perspectives from the Last Imperial Capital of the Assyrian World,” with slides illustrating not only the history of excavations at Nineveh beginning in the 1840’s but his own work which included the excavation of one of Nineveh’s gates with the jumbled skeletons of Assyrians lying undisturbed since that dreadful day in 612 BC when the city was destroyed. His work has also given new insights into how that destruction was achieved in practice by the enemy forces.

Prof. A. K. Grayson, Director of the Royal Inscriptions of Mesopotamia Project of the University of Toronto, spoke on “The Resurrection of Ashur: A History of Assyrian Studies.” His interesting presentation included a delightful anecdote from the earliest period of decipherment: three different scholars were given “sealed envelopes” containing identical copies of a cuneiform inscription and asked to translate it. When their translations were compared and found to be virtually indistinguishable, it was decided with a sigh of relief that, indeed, decipherment had truly been accomplished!

The afternoon was devoted to scholarly papers with the level of abstruseness soaring, though many members of the public, having been “hooked” during the morning, remained, and several registered for the Symposium.

At 17:15 in the Grand Hall of the University of Helsinki, the 10th Anniversary Celebration began with the song “The One Come Forth on High I Will Hail” sung in the original Sumerian by jazz singer Reine Rimón accompanied by her Hot Papas but to the tune of “Amazing Grace” with a distinctly jazz-like beat! Vice-Rector Arto Mustajoki gave the opening address, welcoming the participants and praising the international flavour of the gathering as well as that of the SAA Project. Next came “The Mystic Dance of Ishtar” performed by the Masrah Dance Group of Helsinki and choreographed by Tuija Rinne. The dancers, gorgeous in yellow and red, illustrated various aspects of the Mesopotamian goddess of love Ishtar, including “The Tree of Life, Wedding Dance, Giving Birth, Separation, Descent to the Netherworld, Battle, Death and Resurrection.” Prof. Paul Garelli of the Sorbonne, who is not only the senior Neo-Assyriologist but is also the head of the larger group of scholars in all branches of Ancient Near Eastern Studies, gave an address — “The Finnish Contribution to Assyrian Studies” — detailing Finland’s long and productive association with the field. Reciter Martti Mäkelä gave an oral interpretation of Enuma Elish (Primeval Water), the Mesopotamian epic of creation. Dr. Andrew George of the School of Oriental and African Studies, London, spoke on “Assyria and the Western World,” placing Assyria firmly as part of the western heritage and suggesting that as time passes, in the next millennia or so (after all, Assyriology is an infant field compared to Classics), Enuma Elish and other works of Mesopotamian literature will become as commonly studied and read as Homer is today. The Celebration Ceremony concluded with, once again, Reine Rimón singing an Assyrian elegy. The Hot Papas then led the guests off to a lavish reception hosted by Vice-Rector Arto Mustajoki to the music of “When the Saints Go Marching In!”

Day 2 — 8th September
Friday morning began with two scholarly papers, though members of the public were well in evidence. The Public Lectures continued, this day’s topic being “Assyrian Culture.” Prof. Erle Leichty of the University of Pennsylvania gave a lively lecture entitled “Divination, Magic, and Astrology in the Assyrian Royal Court,” which pointed out that all of these practices are still going strong in modern times, and not by any means confined to so-called “primitive” societies. He noted that horoscopes are the most widely-read literature in the world. This lecture generated such a cheerful and enthusiastic question and answer period, entered into equally by scholars and members of the public alike, that Prof. Leichty might be there yet had there been no time limit.

Dr. Irene Winter of Harvard University in her lecture on “Art in Empire: The Visual Dimension of Assyrian Royal Ideology” showed many examples of Assyrian art and discussed the role art played in the empire and how it was both used and viewed by the Assyrians themselves. It was interesting to note how Prof. Winter’s conclusions complemented those of Prof. Tadmor the day before and that her presentation could equally appropriately have been called ‘Propaganda and Art: Cracking the Code of the Assyrian Royal Reliefs.’

The lecture with the most intriguing title of the symposium, “‘Is Simo Parpola Crazy?’ An Answer from the Perspective of the Study of Jewish Mysticism,” was delivered by Prof Ithamar Gruenwald, Director of the Center for Religious Studies of Tel Aviv University. Contrary to some joking comments, it was not the shortest lecture ever given, requiring merely a three letter, single word answer. The lecture referred to Prof. Parpola’s recent work which compares the Assyrian Tree of Life to the medieval Jewish Kabbalah, and suggests, amongst other ideas, a direct line of descent from Assyrian religion through Judaism into Christianity, finding the concept of a messianic figure or “saviour god” in Assyrian religion. Though Prof. Gruenwald, an expert in Jewish mysticism, admits there is much work to do, he believes that Prof. Parpola’s creative, remarkable and risk-taking study has “cracked open” a very long-standing mystery, i.e. the origin of the Kabbalah.

Dr. Alasdair Livingstone of the University of Birmingham concluded the Public Lectures with “New Dimensions in the Study of Assyrian Religion” which demonstrated how the recent proliferation of research tools has made it possible to bring together widely disparate elements to increase our understanding of Assyrian religion.

In the afternoon, the scholarly papers continued, giving the archaeologists a chance to show some exciting new Assyrian period discoveries at Til Barsip in Syria, at Ekron in Israel, and over a wide area in the upper Tigris valley in Turkey.

At the close of the session everyone jumped on a train and travelled to Heureka, the Finnish Science Centre in Vantaa, for the opening of the exhibition, NINEVEH 612 BC. Dr. Evelyn Klengel, Director of the Vorderasiatisches Museum in Berlin, gave an illustrated lecture entitled “The Vorderasiatisches Museum and Its Assyrian Collection” outlining the history of the museum itself and the strange odysseys of some of the objects in this most magnificant of collections. Dr. Per-Edvin Persson, Director of Heureka and Prof. Simo Parpola officially opened the exhibit and cut the ribbon across the doorway of ... SURPRISE! An Assyrian royal reception room reconstructed in the great foyer of Heureka! The outer walls (L 10m W 4m H 4m) are the light clay colour with the same glittering sandy particles found in original mud-brick. The arched doorway is flanked by two large winged bulls with human heads, protective guardian figures found at the gates and doorways of Assyrian palaces. High on the interior walls are paintings — red, black, blue, and yellow (copies of originals from Til Barsip, Syria) — showing the enthroned king giving audience on one side and hunting lions from his chariot on the other. Above and below are bright geometric and floral motifs, while white rosettes decorate the red roof beams. Below the paintings, running the length of the walls are reliefs depicting the battle of Lachish (701 BC) and the king, the Tree of Life and guardian spirits. The lighting is indirect and captures the atmosphere of ancient oil lamps. Never mind that the walls are wood, the bulls styrofoam, the reliefs photographs and that the painting was done in 1995 in Finland, not 695 BC in Assyria — the effect is stupendous! The objects, however, in cases within the room, are all genuine. Thanks to the four lending institutions, the British Museum in London, the Israel Museum in Jerusalem, the State Hermitage in St. Petersburg and the Vorderasiatisches Museum in Berlin, and the support of Finnair, for the first time the Finnish public may see original Assyrian documents and artefacts — but in a setting they could see nowhere else, thanks to Heureka!

The cuneiform tablets, all found in the royal archives at Nineveh, and all published in the SAA series, illustrate various aspects of Assyrian life — politics, divination, astrological reports, prophecies, letters from scholars and foreign relations. The artefacts further illuminate the texts by filling out the picture of Assyrian life. They include seals used on clay documents, luxury goods such as carved ivory and glazed vessels, bronze bowls and weapons, pottery jars, apotropaic figurines, jewellery, and an original stone relief from the palace of Assurnasirpal II at Nimrud. The beautiful building including the display of the objects dramatically arranged on sand, was the creation of Heureka’s Exhibition Director Jouko Koskinen. The 520 guests were treated to a lavish buffet of fine Assyrian food — olives, grapes, apples, fresh vegetables, lamb, pita bread, wine and beer — that would have done credit to a royal banquet at Nineveh itself.

Day 3 — 9th September
Saturday morning the participants were back bright and early at Porthania for a full morning of seven scholarly papers on a variety of topics with a lighter moment supplied by Dr. J.M. Russell of Columbia University who described his and Dr. Julian Reade of the British Museum’s “archaeological” discovery of a genuine Assyrian stone relief under layers of plaster on the wall of a sweet shop in a boys’ school in England! The afternoon was devoted to two workshops: “Historical Geography of Assyria” chaired by Prof. Simo Parpola and welcomed by Prof. Paavo Talman on the premises of the fine Geography Department here at the University of Helsinki. The session discussed the new map of Assyria being prepared by the Project in collaboration with the Geography Department and the Tübingen Atlas des Vordern Orients, whose director, Prof. Wolfgang Röllig, was present. The second workshop was on the “Chronology of Post-Canonical Eponyms” chaired by Dr. Robert Whiting (see UH 2/1994). The day ended with a reception hosted by the Project and the Department of Asian and African Studies, and held in the departmental library. Guests were also invited to visit the Project’s headquarters during the evening.

Day 4 — 10th September
I am sure that everyone who has read so far in this article will have noted that the participants in the Symposium had, thus far, been kept extremely busy. Sunday was a break. At 10:00 the ship, the J.L. Runeberg, set off for Porvoo with all of us on board. The guests enjoyed the ride, the beautiful coastline, the Finnish folk music provided by two “strolling players,” and, naturally, talking with each other. After a wander through the old part of Porvoo and a visit to the cathedral, lunch was served at the Vanha Laamanni Restaurant, followed by a return to Helsinki by bus.

Day 5 — 11th September
The final day of the Symposium began with seven scholarly papers in the morning and a short film, “The Descent of Ishtar,” made by Scott Noegel, a recently graduated student of Prof. David Owen. It is a portrayal of the journey of the goddess Ishtar into the netherworld where she is held prisoner by the queen of hell; ultimately rescued, her return brings back fertility to the earth. The afternoon saw two final workshops covering “Creation and Management of Electronic Cuneiform Data Bases” chaired by Prof. D. Owen of Cornell University and “Desiderata in the Study of Assyrian Economy and Society” chaired by Prof. K.R. Veenhof of the University of Leiden. Our final evening together commenced with a glass of champagne at the Dept. of Asian and African Studies from where we proceeded on foot to the historic Officers’ Club on Katajanokka. We had a short tour of the building before sitting down to dinner in the Hall of the Generals and dining on “Pike-perch a la Mannerheim” under a portrait of the Marshal himself. Prof. Parpola thanked the guests for their enthusiastic participation and commented on how much useful and productive work had been accomplished. It was a happy ending to an extremely successful symposium and everyone seemed to have had a great time.

Obviously, no one would have had a great time, nor would it have been so successful without an enormous amount of work put in over the course of the past year, much of it done by Acting Director of the Project, Raija Mattila. During the absence of Prof. Parpola for the academic year 1994-95 she handled the correspondence with the various museums, worked with Heureka on the planning of the exhibition, edited the catalogue of the exhibition entitled “The Glory and Fall of the Assyrian Empire: Nineveh 612 BC” and much, much more. Prof. Parpola upon his return to the Directorship of the Project planned the 10th Anniversary celebration, working with the performers. Dr. Robert Whiting, Managing Editor of the Project, made sure that there were three new volumes ready for the Symposium. SAA XI and SAA XII, published by Helsinki University Press, were prepared with the assistance of Laura Kataja, the Project’s technical assistant, and SAAS III, published by the Neo-Assyrian Text Corpus Project, was completed with the assistance of Margot Stout Whiting, so that, including the catalogue of the exhibition, the Project completed four volumes since the beginning of 1995.

The smooth running of the Symposium would not have been possible without the assistance of our five hard-working students, Kaisa Åkerman, Pirjo Lapinkivi, Mikko Luukko, Tommi Mäkelä, and Juha Pakkala whose intelligence, linguistic excellence, helpfulness and sheer speed when needed turned many a potential catastrophe into triumph. Bradley Parker, our visiting Fulbright Scholar, turned his apartment into a breakfast room serving the fifty-some participants who were housed in the new University housing in Viikki and kept things running smoothly there in addition to participating in the Symposium by giving a presentation of his own archaeological work in Turkey.

The University Press and Heureka have both supported the Project for all its 10 years. The Press has published all 12 volumes thus far produced in the SAA series as well as the exhibition catalogue. The Project was fortunate to have worked with Heureka during the Science Centre’s own planning stages and was invited to assist in the creation of several exhibits. The Project looks forward to future collaboration with both these institutions.


Margot Stout Whiting is related to the SAA Project only by marriage, but helps out in times of crisis (i.e. symposia) by showing slides, writing articles and giving speeches on Mannerheim. She teaches Near Eastern Archaeology at the University of Helsinki.
This article is published in Universitas Helsingiensis, the quarterly publication of the University of Helsinki PR and Press Office. All participants in ASSYRIA 1995 will receive a copy of UH; others who wish to receive a copy (at no cost) can submit the form here:

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