Wednesday, September 19, 2012

Naqia-Zakutu: Assyria's Last Great Queen

Neo-Assyrian Empire 750-625 BC

In the BC world of ancient Assyria, the 77 years between 704 and 627 witnessed the rise and rule of three prominent kings: Sennacherib (son of famed king Sargon II), Esarhaddon, and Ashurbanipal, creator of the superb library of Nineveh. Behind them all was one powerful, yet quiet force: a woman name Naqia.

She hailed from the ancient land of Canaan—an imprecise geographical term, though most sources agree that it included the region between the Jordan River and the Mediterranean. This area is roughly equivalent to the modern states of Levant (modern Israel, Palestine, Transjordan, Lebanon and coastal Syria).

Plaque: King Sennacherib
When Naqia arrived (or more likely was brought) to the royal court, she took the Akkadian name of Zakutu and began life as a “palace woman.” But clearly, she had brains as well as beauty and quickly demonstrated a talent for ladder-climbing. By 713 BC, she was associated with Assyria’s crown prince, Sennacherib, and soon bore him a son, Esarhaddon. The exact date of his birth is uncertain— apparently no one was paying attention to this low-born woman or her child. However, by 683 BC, odds are they were taking plenty of notice. Sennacherib, now king of Assyria, had named Esarhaddon as his successor, to the shock and dismay of his more nobly-born sons. 

Sennacherib's reign (705-681 BC) was marked by several military campaigns, but he still had sufficient time for some impressive building projects. Under his reign and the influence of now-wife Zakutu, the Assyrian capital of Nineveh was transformed into a dazzling showcase city, with broad avenues, public and private gardens, plentiful water, new and restored temples, and “The Palace Without Rival” for the crowning touch.

Archaeologist Layard's vision of Nineveh
Yet the king could not ignore the larger world  for long. There were lands to be conquered and rebellions to be quashed. It was during these times, when Sennacherib was off to war, that Zakutu could really show what she was made of. Throughout the king's absences, she acted as de facto ruler, doing so with singular efficiency..

Esarhaddon, son of Zakutu
As it turned out, Zakutu was destined to outlive her husband. In 681 BC, as Sennacherib prayed in a temple, he was stabbed to death by one or more of his sons (or, according to another version, crushed by the winged bulls that protected the sanctuary). The motivation for murder is open to discussion. Some believe it was Esarhaddon himself who did the dirty deed—with Zakutu’s approval. Others say that it was divine retribution for Sennacherib’s destruction and defilement of Babylon. Whatever the case, the king was dead and Esarhaddon was next in line.

There were jealous mumblings and open rebellion among his siblings—those noble-born sons—and Esarhaddon was forced to win by the sword the throne he had legally inherited. But win he did! Then, with the help of wise Zakutu, who now carried the title of “Queen”, Esarhaddon launched a grand project to atone for his father’s destruction of Babylon: a full restoration of the crushed city. Results exceeded expectations. Not only was the city rebuilt, but it was larger and more magnificent than before.

This righteous act was a stroke of pure diplomatic genius, winning the king the friendship of his Babylonian subjects.  Throughout the rest of his reign, that southern region of the realm gave Esarhaddon little trouble.


Queen Zakutu now was fated to outlive her son. In 669 BC, King Esarhaddon died while on his way to Egypt to secure his rule there. However, the path for a smooth transition of power had already been laid. For this, clever Zakutu most certainly could be thanked.

Ashurbanipal, Zakutu's grandson
In 672 BC, three years before his death, with the queen mother's encouragement, Esarhaddon proclaimed his son Ashurbanipal (Zakutu’s grandson) heir to the throne. Another son, Shamash-shum-ukin, was appointed viceroy of Babylon. After Esarhaddon’s death, the queen quickly went to work, issuing the Loyalty Treaty of Naqia-Zakutu to secure Ashurbanipal's succession as king. The very fact that she could do so highlights her exalted position in the king’s court.

Ashurbanipal's library
The reign of Ashurbanipal lasted until 627 BC. He was the last king of the Neo-Assyrian Empire. During this period, his grandmother, the Queen, died. Like her birth date, the date of her death is unknown, though I suppose it was recorded somewhere and may yet be discovered. However, it seems a sad, inglorious end to the life of a dynamic, intelligent woman. Her stellar rise to power from palace woman to queen and her long, devoted service in the court of the king have been mostly overlooked; treated as a footnote in history. Never acting on her own behalf, but in support of her husband, son, and grandson, Queen Naqia-Zukutu’s impact on the lives, rule, and kingdoms of these powerful men, though profound, remains largely unsung.

From a building inscription: Naqia-Zakutu, wife of Sennacherib, king of the world, king of Assyria, daughter-in-law of Sargon, king of the world, king of Assyria, mother of Esarhaddon, king of the world, king of Assyria . . .

Saturday, September 1, 2012

Ancient Nineveh: A Fragile Treasure on the Brink

“Beloved of blessed Ishtar, Nineveh sits like a jewel upon the banks of the Tigris where those sacred waters meet the river Khosr.” (The Hounds of Zeus)

In my last post, we left Babylon behind. Just as in The Hounds of Zeus, we now follow quick-flowing Tigris north, heading for the Taurus Mountains. Coming up to the Median Wall, built by King Nebuchadnezzar, we cross the spring-swollen river at Opis, a Babylonian city on the river’s east bank. Positioned near the confluence of Tigris and Diyala, this fortress city lies near what will become modern Baghdad. Next passing through the danger-infested scorched lands, we cross the tributary Lesser Zāb, sighting the ruins of Ashur, once a capital of fallen Assyria, on the Tigris’ western shore. Continuing north, crossing the Greater Zāb, we discover Calah, another wrecked Assyrian stronghold. Then, at last, we reach fabled Nineveh, as envisioned by Samir, the merchant adventurer.

 “It is a fortress city, such as the gods might build for themselves, with massive battlements towering above the plain and encircling its vastness. These are pierced by colossal gates through which a god might stride unimpeded and are guarded by giant shedu who stand as a welcome and a warning to any mortal who passes. ‘Enter as friend,’ they say, ‘and be at ease; but enter as enemy at your own peril. We shall know your heart.’

“Inside the gates, wherever you look there are splendors. It is a city of light and sparkling water, with broad streets and great public squares; parks and gardens and tree-lined canals. There are orchards of sweet fruit and a walled hunting park filled with birds and wild creatures wondrous and terrible. The bustling markets and artisan bazaars brim with delights from every corner of the world, and scores of splendid palaces, temples, and public buildings dazzle the eye. Upon the western heights of the city—the eminences of gods and kings—Ishtar’s temple rises to the sky and shines in the sun like bright copper. Near stands Sennacherib’s palace where halls and chambers are paneled with glowing alabaster upon which images have been carved of kings and heroes in battle, victory, or the performance of great deeds. There are rooms adorned with gold and silver, and magnificent winged bulls and lion sphinxes guarding the thresholds throughout.” (from The Hounds of Zeus)

But war crushed Nineveh in 612 BC, grinding to dust all monuments to her glory, struggles, and achievements. With her destruction and the end of the Assyrian Empire, these things were lost to the world. Never again would the Queen of Heaven’s temple shine like a copper beacon against the blue sky. Never again would the world know Nineveh’s like and, in time, she would fade from memory, but not from importance.

 Located near modern-day Mosul in Iraq, the ancient site of Nineveh waits to be preserved and further explored while looting, vandalism, suburban encroachment, and natural elements threaten its fragile continued existence. Though the subject of many excavations and exploratory expeditions since 1842, much remains to be done. However, in a war-torn country in a war-prone corner of the world, priorities rarely include preserving the past. After 2,700 years, the last of glorious Nineveh will disappear unless urgent steps are taken.

War is always a thief, robbing men of more than life.
For more on this topic, there’s an excellent article here: Saving Ancient Nineveh


Saturday, May 26, 2012

Euphrates and Tigris Rivers: Once Revered, Doomed to Dry Up

The Queen of Cities, have you seen her?
Come, friend, let me show you.

From the mountains of Anatolia spring the life-giving waters of quick-running Tigris and languid Euphrates. Ancient and eternal, they are the gifts of Ea who is builder of the world and king of the watery deep. Down from the heights they stream, god-sent towards their entwining with the distant Pars Sea. Cupped within their twin embrace lies a fertile sweep of earth—a bountiful garden nourished by their waters.

Now the gates of dawn have opened, and Shamash, bright as a molten gold coin, climbs the sky. His radiance falls like unseen rain and awakens the day’s heat to dance across the sprawling plain. Ah, look there! In the distance, behind the shimmering veil… Do you see? Colossal lion-colored walls and crenellated towers. A fortress city rising up like an impossible mirage. It is the splendor that is Babylon, a city like no other; the city of my birth. (The Hounds of Zeus, P. A. Peirson)
The Fertile Crescent
These words from The Hounds of Zeus embody some early Mesopotamian beliefs about the supernatural forces that shaped their world. Wind, fire, storms, rivers, lakes, mountains—all such things possessed supernatural powers and occupied a special place in the divine creation and maintenance of the universe. Later, theses supernatural forces took on human form and became a pantheon of gods. As their cosmic roles evolved, each god assumed distinct powers and executed certain duties.

Ea mentioned above, also known as Enki, was god of the fresh waters. As such, he was often depicted with two streams of water emanating from his shoulders: the Tigris and the Euphrates. Among his many duties were: “To clear the pure mouths of the Tigris and Euphrates, to make verdure plentiful, make dense the clouds, grant water in abundance to all plough lands …” and so on. Should the god fail in his duties, disaster would fall upon the land and its people.

In ancient times, just the water from these two rivers was revered and often gathered for cultic rituals. In Babylonian mythology, one story asserts that their precious flow sprang from the crying eyes of Tiamet, a primordial goddess and chaos monster, after she was defeated and order brought to the universe.

Historically, the twin rivers were vital to the development and survival of civilizations within the Fertile Crescent. Their waters irrigated crops, provided transportation, and sustained the people. While the Euphrates ran through the great city of Babylon, the shores of the Tigris hosted three of the most important successive capitals of Assyria—Asshur, Nimrud, and Nineveh. In short, their water was as important then as it is today.

So, how do great two rivers that have served mankind well for thousands of years begin to die? Which is exactly what is happening. According to recent news stories and a United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP) report, both the Euphrates and Tigris could dry up by 2040.

Apparently, land and water mismanagement, political expediency and tyranny, war, and consequences both intended and unintended are key players in this tragedy. According to a July 1, 2010 story in MEMRI focusing on the Tigris: “This environmental disaster is caused by the construction of multiple dams on the river, both upstream by Turkey and downstream by Syria. Both countries are planning to build even more dams, thus denying Iraq its share of the river waters.”

The impact of rerouting the Euphrates and deliberately drying up vast inhabited marshlands for authoritarian purposes have added enormously to the tragedy. According to UNEP in 2001, the destruction of the marsh ranked as one of the worst environmental disasters in history, thanks to former Iraqi “leader” Saddam Hussein.

Having spent a great of time researching these two great rivers, it saddens me to know that modern humans, who would without doubt view themselves as superior to their ancient kin and would dismiss the old beliefs as foolish, can and will destroy these beautiful sources of life in their land.

For more thorough understanding of this story, please refer to the articles on these sites:

Monday, April 30, 2012

The Date Palm and the Tamarisk: A Legendary Debate

The gardens of Mesopotamia: What can they tell us about the Land Between Two Rivers?

 In The Hounds of Zeus—a 6th century BC odyssey stretching from Babylon to the Altai Mountains of East-Central Asia—my hero's adventure begins and ends in his private garden in the Queen of Cities. So come along while I paint for you a general picture of the all-important gardens of Mesopotamia.

In this ancient realm, the walled garden was an urban innovation, creating by artificial means a natural landscape safely inside the city fortifications. It was a thing of beauty and usefulness; a public or private oasis of pleasure. There were palace courtyards where a king and his entourage often ate their meals; city parks and orchards, temple gardens, and hunting gardens containing all manner of zoological specimens. Many gardens were enhanced with artificial lakes and fishponds. The most famous of all, of course, was ancient Babylon’s Hanging Gardens, one of the Seven Wonders of the World.

What more can the gardens tell us?

The past—as seen through history books—is often colorless and a bit dusty, like an old black and white film, but not nearly as interesting. Why is that? What colors the past; makes it breathe? "Way-back windows." Stories and legends; personal accounts; letters between friends and lovers, and all such glimpses of everyday life. They help us see “back then” through the eyes of the people who lived it.

By diving into the ancient world, seeking these “way-back” windows, we can find stories thousands of years old, chock-full of details, color, and breath. Incredible! One day, “back then”, a scribe took a tablet of clean-washed, smooth clay and, while it was wet, imprinted it with thoughts and ideas via wedge-shaped letters (cuneiform) cut with a stylus. Today, those words and, more importantly, the thoughts behind them, live on. That scribe shows us his lost world.

It's like channeling the past, only through clay tablets instead of a medium.

Here’s a written snapshot of a garden planted close to 2,900 years ago in the Assyrian capital of Nimrud by Assurnasirpal 11 (883-859 B.C.). In the king’s own translated words:

“I dug out a canal from the Upper Zab, cutting through a mountain peak, and called it Abundance Canal. I watered the meadows of the Tigris and planted orchards with all kinds of fruit trees in the vicinity. I planted seeds and plants that I had found in the countries through which I had marched and in the highlands which I had crossed: pines of different kinds, cypresses and junipers of different kinds, almonds, dates, ebony, rosewood, olive, oak, tamarisk, walnut, terebinth and ash, fir, pomegranate, pear, quince, fig, grapevine … The canal-water gushes from above into the gardens; fragrance pervades the walkways, streams of water as numerous as the stars of heaven flow in the pleasure garden… Like a squirrel I pick fruit in the garden of delights.”


Here's a whimsical peek into another king’s garden and a glimpse of life 4,000 years ago. This popular piece of Babylonian literature was written in cuneiform on clay tablets as early as 2000 B.C.:

“The king plants a date-palm in his palace and fills up the space beside her with a tamarisk. Meals are enjoyed in the shade of the tamarisk, skilled men gather in the shade of the date-palm, the drum is beaten, men give praise, and the king rejoices in his palace. The two trees, brother and sister, are quite different; the tamarisk and the palm-tree compete with each other. They argue and quarrel together. The tamarisk says: 'I am much bigger!' And the date-palm argues back, saying: 'I am much better than you! You, O tamarisk, are a useless tree. What good are your branches? There's no such thing as a tamarisk fruit! Now, my fruits grace the king's table; the king himself eats them, and people say nice things about me. I make a surplus for the gardener, and he gives it to the queen; she, being a mother, nourishes her child upon the gifts of my strength, and the adults eat them too. My fruits are always in the presence of royalty'. The tamarisk makes his voice heard; his speech is even more boastful. 'My body is superior to yours! It's much more beautiful than anything of yours. You are like a slave girl who fetches and carries daily needs for her mistress'. He goes on to point out the king's table, couch, and eating bowl are made from tamarisk wood, that the king's clothes are made using tools of tamarisk wood; likewise the temples of the gods are full of objects made from tamarisk. The date-palm counters by pointing out that her fruits are the central offering in the cult; once they have been taken from the tamarisk dish, the bowl is used to collect up the garbage.”

My thanks to Stephanie Dalley for providing the inspiration and stories quoted in this article. She is the author of several books on ancient Mesopotamia and the intriguing article, Ancient Mesopotamian Gardens and the Identification of the Hanging Gardens of Babylon Resolved; Garden History, Vol. 21, No. 1. (Summer, 1993), pp. 1-13.

Friday, April 20, 2012

War and Oil -- Saving Ancient Babylon

I admit it -- I've developed a soft spot for Ancient Babylon while writing The Hounds of Zeus. However, my research and writing were so focused on discovering and recreating the ancient city that I was oblivious to her condition today. Now I find that what remains stands of the brink of final oblivion.

For more than a millennium, Babylon was one of the great cities of antiquity. Then, in 539 BC, the Queen of Cities declined and fell into ruin after it was conquered by the Persians under Cyrus the Great. Centuries of looting and neglect were followed by some hit-and-miss excavation efforts in which many treasures like Ishtar’s Gate were removed and placed in museums outside the country. (Possibly this saved them from total destruction as no one else seemed to find them worth saving until then, but I digress.)

The Lion of Babylon
In the 1980s, Iraqi leader Saddam Hussein wreaked further havoc upon the ruins by building an ostentatious palace over them. Then war came to Iraq, and it was open season on archeological sites in general. Countless numbers of these all over Iraq suffered at the hands of thieves.

For a short time after the withdrawal of American and Polish troops from the war-torn country, it seemed that the ruins of ancient Babylon might at last receive the careful treatment that they deserved. UNESCO, the United Nations' cultural and scientific organization, said it would be carrying out some initial repair work and pledged to begin the process of naming Babylon a World Heritage Site.

Next, the New York-based World Monument Fund stepped in to offer its help, spending $1 million in U.S. government and private funding to bring in experts to survey the site, train Iraqis in preservation techniques, and develop a site management plan, while supporting UNESCO’s goals.

Now it seems that all those efforts may have gone for naught. The country needs revenue and is looking to its one commodity of tremendous value: oil. How will this affect the preservation of ancient Babylon and its future as a World Heritage Site?

For more about the unfolding drama, please read Rami Ruhayem’s disturbing report “Iraq's clash of old and new: Oil pipelines in Babylon” at

If you could call the shots, what would you do?

Wednesday, April 18, 2012

Queen Nitocris’ Tomb

Long after her death, Queen Nitocris of Babylon slapped the hand of a Persian king while serving up a lesson on greed. I wish I could have worked her story into my novel Gryphon Gold, but as it had no place there, I’ll share it with you here.

This mischievous lady was queen of Babylon in the 6th century BC. Daughter of famed King Nebuchadnezzar II, she was riding the crest of her power around 550 BC. At the time, she was married to Nabonidus, the last ruler of Babylon.

In that same year, Cyrus the Great, king of Persia, was taking the first step towards carving out his empire by conquering the Median Empire. Next he would set his sights on the Lydian Empire and eventually the Neo-Babylonian.

Nitocris was both ambitious and clever. According to Herodotus, she implemented a number of diversions of the Euphrates, making it more difficult to navigate and improving its potential usefulness in defense of the city. She also had a stone bridge constructed that crossed the Euphrates (which cut the walled city in half). Herodotus also claimed that Nitocris ordered construction of an artificial lake basin outside the city. (Note: The site of the queen’s bridge has been uncovered by archaeologists.)

Fall of Babylon
Perhaps the queen’s most engaging contribution to history was her tomb. Wishing to perpetuate her name after death, she had arranged for her tomb to be built above one of the many gates of Babylon. Engraved on the outside of it was an inscription that said in essence: If one of the rulers of Babylon after me is in want of money, let him open my tomb and take however much he likes. But if he is not in need, he should beware and under no circumstances open it.

Babylon fell under Persian rule in 539 BC. The queen’s tomb went undisturbed until Darius the Great came to the city (around 520 BC).

According to Herodotus, the tomb was a source of tremendous aggravation for Darius. First, its epitaph was tantalizing and encouraged its plunder. Second, Darius could not walk under the gate because he could not walk under a corpse. Finally, he ordered the tomb to be opened so that he might take possession of Queen Nitocris’ treasure.

Imagine his annoyance at finding nothing but the body of the dead queen and this finger-wagging rebuke: If you had not been insatiable after gold and eager for shameful gain, you would never have violated the asylum of the dead.

The clever queen had the last word and, if she was still hanging around in spirit, a good laugh.

Darius Hystaspes Opens the Tomb of Nitocris

Wednesday, April 11, 2012

Rediscovering Ancient Babylon

Today, little remains of Babylon, the ancient capital of Mesopotamia. Its ruins cover about 30 square kilometers along the east bank of Euphrates, 90 kilometers southwest of Baghdad in modern-day Iraq. Though they have benefited from occasional scientific excavations (the most notable done by a German team in the early 1900s), efforts to construct a tourist attraction on top of the ruins were devastating and quite possibly covered or destroyed important artifacts and other valuable finds. War, terrorism, looting, and civil unrest have imposed their own damaging impact.

Basically, the site is a mess, with little hope of things improving in the near future.
Why should we care?

Around 3000 BC, the civilizing influences of agriculture and animal husbandry bred the first cities in the Land Between Two Rivers. It was the beginning of western civilization. These cities rose up around Uruk in the Sumer region of Lower Mesopotamia. Over the next several centuries, cities became empires, and empires fought, rose, and fell. In their wake came systems of writing and communication, medicine and magick, laws, systems for calculating time, water management, and so on.

So, where was Babylon in all of this?

In the twenty-fourth century, King Sargon I of Akkad (a region around modern Baghdad), rose to power. Known as Sargon the Great, he made Akkad an imperial force while enacting new and utterly ruthless policies of expansionist rule. Following his death, his empire did not survive for long, but his mark on Mesopotamian culture was indelible. It was during his reign that Babylon was founded.

As we fast-forward a few centuries, we encounter the most famous ruler of the Old Babylonian Empire—Hammurabi. Famed for his impressive and strikingly enlightened code of laws, Hammurabi’s reign lasted from about 1792 BC to 1750 BC. During that time, he pursued expansion of the empire through both military and diplomatic means. His reign marked a golden age in Babylon and Mesopotamia as a whole. However, once again, the empire would not long survive the death of its king. By the mid-sixteenth century, its power had crumbled.

Fast-forward again to the thirteenth century BC: The Assyrians were building and flexing their military muscles. By the time this mighty power went head-to-head with an also-resurgent Babylon, it was no contest. Babylon’s military strength was crushed, and Assyria became the dominant power in Mesopotamia. Then in 689 BC, Assyrian forces led by Sennacherib sacked Babylon thoroughly, leaving her a smoldering ruin. However, the decisive victory backfired. The burning and defilement of the city, especially the Esaglia, was viewed far and wide as an act of sacrilege.

It took awhile, but in 612 BC, Babylon rallied, smashed Assyria’s forces, and brought an end to the Neo-Assyrian Empire. Thus, Babylonian King Nabopolassar I (625 – 605 BC) restored The Queen of Cities to glory, and his son, Nebuchadnezzar II (605 – 562 BC) raised her to new heights of splendor.

It must have seemed, at this point, that Babylon and her empire would last forever. After centuries of struggle, she had, at last, assumed her rightful seat of power. Vast fortifications and splendid buildings rose. Paved streets, temples, palaces, and canals for life-giving water were built. The towering ziggurat was rebuilt. The temple of Marduk, the awesome Ishtar Gate, the wondrous Hanging Gardens all bore testament to Babylon's god-favored might.

 But it was not to last. What began in 612 BC ended by 539 BC when Cyrus the Great of Persia marched into Babylon.

Nevertheless, Babylon and the civilization it represented continued to exert a tremendously positive influence in the world. The Empire was built upon concepts of law and justice that strongly impacted future civilizations. Its cultural achievements in literature, science, and mathematics undeniably left their marks on both the ancient world and our world today.

How to rebuild Babylon, especially now, when she teeters on the brink of final oblivion?

That was my challenge, as a writer. This was the home of Samir, a wandering merchant; an adventurer. How would he see Babylon; feel about her; speak of her? What was it like to leave the protection of the civilized Queen of Cities and venture into the world as he might have perceived it—a world of barbarians, monsters, and alien gods?

Written descriptions of Babylon by classical historians like Herodotus were invaluable, as were drawings, maps, photographs, and relics, all within reach, of course, via Internet magic. Hats off to the many artists who have so beautifully visualized this lost city in their drawings and paintings. Some of these (all public domain, as far as I can determine) you see here.

Books such as Daily Life in Ancient Mesopotamia by Nemet-Nejat, Everyday Life in Babylonia & Assyria by H. W. F. Saggs, and The Harps That Once … by Jacobsen (Sumerian poetry) were a tremendous help, as well.

All of the above went into the mix. Imagination did the rest. With their help, I rebuilt Babylon’s indestructible battlements gleaming with one hundred brass gates. I restored the many-terraced gardens of Amytis reaching above the heights of her tawny walls and encircling towers—tier upon tier crowned with exotic verdure climbing up and up; a wondrous mountain of variant greens as dark and light as the banded whirls in polished malachite. And there! The soaring ziggurat, Etemenanki, gleamed once more, rare and blue as lapis lazuli, reaching higher still, to touch the sky. 

When the time comes and the book is launched, I hope you enjoy what you will see beyond the this once-great city’s Gate of the Gods.


P. A. Peirson