Sherghat, Asshur, Assur

shur'-gat, sher'-gat: The name of the first capital city of Assyria is known by the Arabs as Qala' at Sherghat, or the Fortress of Sherghat. Its ancient name was Asshur or Assur (Ge 10:11 margin). From it was derived the name of the country, Assyria, and of the people, Assyrians. The date of the founding of the city is not known. Apparently about 2000 BC a colony of Babylonians migrated northward along the Tigris River and settled upon the right shore about halfway between the Upper and Lower Zab, or halfway between the modern cities of Mosul and Bagdad. Assur, the local deity of the place, became the national god of Assyria. It is uncertain whether the deity gave the name to the city, or the city to the deity, but probably an early shrine of Assur stood there, and the people, building their city about it, became known as the Assyrians. At first the city was a Bah dependency, governed by priests from Babylonia. In time, as the city acquired a political significance, the power of the priesthood declined; allegiance to Babylonia ceased, and the Assyrian empire came into existence. About 1200 BC the political power had so increased that a new capital, Nimrud (Calah) was built to the North near the junction of the Upper Zab with the Tigris. In 722 BC the capital was transferred by Sargon to his new city, Dur-Sharrukin, and in 705 BC Sennacherib enlarged Nineveh, and it remained the capital city till the fall of the empire in 606 BC. Assur, however, as the seat of the national deity, never ceased to be the chief religious center.

The mounds of Assur are among the largest in Mesopotamia. They rise abruptly from the Tigris, which they follow for about half a mile, and extend a quarter of a mile inland. In the surrounding plain are other mounds, marking the sites of temples, and indicating that a part of the city was without the walls. At the northern end the mounds are surmounted by a high conical peak, which represents the tower or ziggurat of the temple of Assur.

Of the early excavators Layard and Rassam examined the ruins, but the fanaticism of the surrounding Arabs prevented extensive excavations. In 1904 Dr. W. Andrae, for the Deutsche Orientgesellschaft, began the systematic excavations which have been continued by Dr. P. Maresch for ten years. Discoveries of the greatest importance have been made. The city was found to have been surrounded on the land side by a double wall. The space between the walls, several rods in width, was occupied by houses, possibly the homes of the soldiers. The base of the outer wall was of stone; above it were mud bricks strengthened at intervals with courses of burned bricks. Along the outer upper edge was a parapet, protected by battlements. From the floor of the parapet small holes were bored vertically downward, so that the soldiers, without exposing themselves, might discharge their arrows at the enemy close to the base of the wall. Many of the holes are still visible. The wall was pierced with several gateways; the names "Gate of Assur," "Gate of the Tigris," "Gate of the Sun God" have survived. At the sides of the gateways were small chambers for the guards, and from them passageways led to the parapet above. The gates were reached by bridges which spanned the moat. Along the river side the city was protected by a high steep embankment, which was built partly of limestone, but chiefly of square bricks laid in bitumen.

The temple of Assur at the northern end of the city has been thoroughly excavated. With its outer and inner court and tower it conformed in its general plan to the older Babylonian temples. Several of the palaces of the early kings were discovered, but the best-preserved of the palaces was one which the excavators have called the residence of the mayor. It stood near the western edge of the city on the main street which ran from the western gate to the Tigris. It consisted of two courts surrounded by chambers. Grooves in the paved floor conducted fresh water to the kitchen, the baths and the chambers, and round tiles beneath the floor carried away the waste water to the arched city sewer and to the Tigris. To the rear of the mayor's house was a crowded residential quarter. The streets were very narrow and winding. The houses were exceedingly small; in some of them one could not lie at full length upon the floor. Among their ruins appeared little but stone mortars and broken pottery and other essential household implements.

Near the southern end of the city a most remarkable discovery was made. About a hundred monoliths, from 4 to 8 ft. high, were found still standing erect. On the side of each one, near the top, was an inscription of several lines, dedicating the stone to some individual who had been of great service to the state. They were not tombstones; apparently they had been erected during the lifetime of the people whom they honored. Of the greatest interest was one which bore the name of Sammuramat or Semiramis, the once supposed mythical queen of Nineveh. Its translation reads: "The column of Sa-am-mu-ra-mat, the palace wife of Samsi-Adad, king of the world, king of Assyria, the mother of Adad-Nirari, king of the world, king of Assyria, the .... of Shalmaneser, king of the four regions." The inscription not only makes Semiramis a historical character, but places her among the foremost rulers of Assyria.

The tombs of the kings and nobles were found deep in the ruins in the very center of the city. They were rectangular structures of cut stone, covered above with a rounded arch of burned bricks. In some cases the massive stone doors still turned in their sockets. The roofs of many of them had fallen in; others, which were intact, were filled with dust. From the tombs a vast amount of silver, gold and copper jewelry and stone beads and ornaments were recovered.

One of the chief temples of the city stood at short distance without the eastern wall. Nothing but its foundations remain. However, the temple was surrounded by a park, traces of which still exist. The soil of the surrounding plain is a hard clay, incapable of supporting vegetable life. Into the clay large holes, several feet in diameter, were dug and filled with loam. Long lines of the holes may still be traced, each marking the spot where a tree, probably the date palm, stood in the temple park.

A modern cemetery on the summit of the main mound is still used by the neighboring Arabs, and therefore it will likely prevent the complete excavation of this oldest of the capital cities of Assyria.

See further ASSYRIA.

E. J. Banks

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