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 . . .

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