Knowledge and Power in the Neo-Assyrian Empire

A teaching website


In the 7th century BC Assyria was by far the most powerful empire of the Mediterranean and Middle East. Its territories stretched across modern-day Iraq into Iran, Turkey, right down the eastern Mediterranean coast, and deep into Egypt. The ideology of empire centred on the symbiotic relationship between the king and the great god Aššur: military conquest was both an act of devotion and confirmation of Aššur’s support. But Assyrian kingship depended not solely on piety and military might: A retinue of scholarly advisors guided royal decision-making through the observation and analysis of omens and the performance of appropriate rituals. Some 1550 letters and reports to king Esarhaddon (680–669 BC) and his heir Assurbanipal (669–627 BC) show scholars advising the Assyrian royal family on matters ominous, astrological and medical, often with direct impact on political affairs. They give an extraordinary vivid insight into the actual practice of scholarship in the context of the first well-documented courtly patronage of scientific activity in world history.

“Knowledge and Power in the Neo-Assyrian Empire” brings together on a single website transliterations and translations of all those letters and reports, as well as the surviving examples of Assyrian court poetry, and materials from Karen Radner’s and Eleanor Robson’s undergraduate lectures and seminars at University College London’s History Department and the University of Cambridge’ Department of History & Philosophy of Science. The website also includes extensive reference lists of technical terms, the names of people, gods, and places, and a long bibliography.

The translations and transliterations are those of the standard editions in the series “State Archives of Assyria”:

           A. Livingstone, Assyrian Court Poetry and Literary Miscellanea (State Archives of Assyria 3), Helsinki 1989;

           I. Starr, Queries to the Sungod: Divination and Politics in Sargonid Assyria (State Archives of Assyria 4), Helsinki 1990;

           H. Hunger, Astrological Reports to Assyrian Kings (State Archives of Assyria 8), Helsinki 1992;

           S. Parpola, Assyrian Prophecies (State Archives of Assyria 9), Helsinki 1997

           S. Parpola, Letters from Assyrian and Babylonian Scholars (State Archives of Assyria 10), Helsinki 1993;

           S. Cole and P. Machinist, Letters from Priests to Kings Esarhaddon and Assurbanipal (State Archives of Assyria 13), Helsinki 1999.

The authors and copyright holders have kindly given their permission to make the material available online and Simo Parpola and the Helsinki Neo-Assyrian Text Corpus Project have generously provided the ASCII files used to produce the original volumes. Steve Tinney, Director of the Pennsylvania Sumerian Dictionary project, converted them to standards-based XML files and wrote the software that allows them to be viewed and searched online. The rest of the site was designed and implemented by Ruth Horry of the Whipple Museum of the History of Science at Cambridge.

As an e-learning resource designed to support Radner’s and Robson’s own face-to-face lectures, seminars, and discussion groups, the website moreover offers a set of tools for other university teachers to use in their own pedagogical settings, and it is also an interactive resource for self-directed learning and research, accessible, engaging, and comprehensible to anyone. Since going online in September 2007, the site has had 28,869 visits of 23,034 visitors from virtually all countries of the world (monitored with Google Analytics, as of 21 April 2009). The website has proven itself to be an efficient means of disseminating both the primary sources of and information about the Assyrian Empire, as a large proportion of visitors are not from university cities, or even from countries with a strong academic tradition, thus providing resources for those who do not have access to specialist libraries.

So far, the project has received funding from the Higher Education Academy’s Philosophy and Religious Studies subject centre and the University of Cambridge’s Centre for Research in the Arts, Social Sciences, and Humanities. The next stage of the website’s development will make available the political correspondence of Esarhaddon and additional pages on the cuneiform writing system; it is currently underway with funding from the Higher Education Academy’s History, Classics and Archaeology subject centre and University College London’s Executive Sub-Committee on Innovations in Teaching, Learning and Assessment and expected to be completed in spring 2010.

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