Assyria: a terrifying superpower for hundreds of years. It began humbly enough as a Mesopotamian city-state in about the 21st century B.C.E. and would rise during the Iron Age to become a mighty empire. In its heyday – the Middle Assyrian period from the 14th to 12th centuries B.C.E. – its sphere of influence sprawled from Egypt in the west to Babylon and the Persian Gulf in the east. Its spread resulted, among other things, in the “Assyrian exile” resulting, according to tradition, in the Ten Lost Tribes of Israel.
And between about 900 to 600 B.C.E., the Neo-Assyrian period, the Assyrians expanded into southeastern Anatolia. It is there, today southeastern Turkey, that a subterranean compound carved into the bedrock was discovered in 2017 in the village of Basbuk, Prof. Mehmet Önal of the University of Harran and colleagues reported last week in Antiquity.
Inside the archaeologists discovered the only Neo-Assyrian relief known to have been created underground. Spanning almost four meters in width and showing a frieze of eight gods, it was not finished.
For this revelation we can thank thieves who cut a huge hole (2.2 by 1.5 meters, or 7.2 by 4.9 feet) into the floor of a two-story house in Basbuk in 2016. We can also thank the police who nabbed the wrongdoers. The following year, a rescue excavation was pursued and the extent of the underground complex was revealed – as was an extraordinary work of art.
Small, the complex is not. Just the entrance chamber accessed by the thief hole is 3.2 meters wide and 4.30 meters in height. It leads to a gallery, the archaeologists describe, which is 8.5 meters wide and 5 meters high. Steps lead to a lower gallery that was dug out to a length of over 30 meters, and it may go on much further.
The excavation had to halt after a couple of months because it was unstable, and will be continued in the future. But meanwhile, the archaeologists removed enough sediment that had accrued over the ages to discover the relief in the upper gallery.
The compound had been carved into the bedrock during the neo-Assyrian period, Önal says. It It has no relationship to the "underground cities" of Cappadocia, which were created some 1,500 years before and are believed to have served as refuge from marauders. "It must be an underground cult structure. Partly similar is the tomb of Mithridates in Commagene-Arsemia," he adds.
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Within that artificial cavern carved into the bedrock, artists began – but apparently did not finish – a wall relief almost 4 meters in length. Time-worn but unmistakably Assyrian in style, the panel shows a procession of eight major gods, the archaeologists say.
Moreover, the first three gods are accompanied by inscriptions. The gods are Syro-Anatolian but their names are Aramaic, in style and in writing. This is the only Neo-Assyrian relief found to date that has Aramaic text, the archaeologists say and as said is the only Neo-Assyrian relief ever to be discovered underground, though one was found in a cave at the source of the Tigris, the team philologist Dr. Selim Ferruh Adali qualifies.
What was it doing beneath the earth in a southeastern Anatolian village? “It is possible that this was the ritual place associated with the water sources or the place of contact with the gods of the underworld," Önal suggests. "The fact that god and goddess figures keep ears of wheat and have ear of wheat patterns on their heads shows that this monument may be related to fertility, product, and water. The fact that the settlement is located on the hill overlooking the plain also supports this view."
Making the Assyrian mark
The unique style of Assyrian relief art emerged about 3,500 years ago. Engraved onto soft alabaster or other rock, the reliefs are often found in the context of royal architecture. Not exclusively, of course – there is this new one found in an underground complex in a vassal village in Turkey; there are also monumental reliefs carved onto inaccessible cliff-faces, and more.
Assyrian reliefs typically show scenes of hunting or war, kings, and gods, battles and the subjugated, and gods, sometimes riding mythical animals.
The Assyrians were apparently a terrifying force to behold. The entire region quailed before them and their legendary brutality. As was their wont, the Assyrian conquerors reduced rulers who survived their onslaught to vassals, and turned the small local kingdoms into Assyrian provinces. (There is thinking that they never conquered Jerusalem during their massive campaigns because they were bribed, and the king of Jerusalem served as their vassal.)
As they did in Anatolia, which had been divided into city-states. Whether to toady, to show off their contacts or for other practical reasons, the envassaled monarchs and cowed elites typically adopted elements of Assyrian court style that they combined with local elements.
Which brings us back to the Aramaic inscriptions. When the Assyrians arrived, the tongues spoken in southeastern Anatolia were Luwian and Aramaic. The relief found underground at Basbuk could be an emblematic merger of Assyrian with local motifs, telling a tale of integration rather than violent acquisition.
The archaeologists note other examples of this “cultural negotiation” between Assyrian and Aramean expressions of power, such as the ninth century B.C.E. Neo-Assyrian-period basalt statue found in Tell Fakhariyah in Syria. It bears an inscription in both Aramaic and Assyrian Akkadian by its Aramean governor, Hadd-yit’I, which among other things heaps terrible curses on any who dare remove his name from objects in the temple of Adad. The least of them is “May illness, plague and insomnia not disappear from his land!”
Back in Basbuk, the relief shows of a procession of eight gods, of whom the archaeologists can identify half – partly by iconography and partly because the first three are associated with Aramaic inscriptions. The tallest of the carved figures was 1.10 meters in height.
The storm god
The procession begins with Hadad, aka ‘Adad, aka none other than Baal the storm god and nemesis of the Yahweh cult. In keeping with his image in those parts, northern Syria and southeast Anatolia, Hadad grips a triple lightning fork and wears a double-horned helmet crowned with a star. Depicted as bigger than the other gods, his image is similar in some ways to those found elsewhere but his hair-styling is different and other depictions show a rosette in his crown.
Anyway, much in keeping with scripture, Baal has a wife and is shown with one: an Ishtar-type goddess who also has a double-horned starred crown, and again her image is akin to others found elsewhere.
One caveat: The authors stress that iconography alone cannot be definitive of Hadad and Ishtar, because these attributes were also ascribed to local deities, some of whom would receive the same soubriquets plus geographical epithets. Baal itself was rather a morphing entity and name. But moving on.
The third in line in the sacred procession is wearing headgear crowned by a crescent and full moon, suggesting this is none other than Sin the moon-god of Harran, who is followed by Shamash the sun-god, the archaeologists interpret.
Who the other four might be remains mysterious but the bottom line is that the style is definitely Assyrian, down to the form of the male facial hair, which resembles depictions of the great leaders Assurnasirpal and Shalmaneser III. It bears adding that the headgear is Syro-Anatolian in style rather than Neo-Assyrian, as are the necklaces.
What do the inscriptions say? One is between Hadad and Ishtar; one is on Ishtar’s right shoulder; and one is on Sin’s right shoulder. In fact, there is also a longer Aramaic text carved onto the rock next to Hadad’s hat, but it can’t be made out.
Preliminary readings of the inscriptions that can be made out identify the gods. The text between Hadad and Ishtar apparently reads “HDD,” the archaeologists contend (Aramaic, like Hebrew, is written without vowels), which supports the leading deity’s identification as the storm god.
The text on Ishtar’s shoulder reads “TRT” and is, they postulate, an early variant of a goddess’ name in Syriac – A’Attar’atte. This is, the archaeologists write, the earliest explicit Aramaic-language reference to the goddess who would become known, in later historical references, as Atargatis – a major deity in Syria from about 300 B.C.E. through to the third century C.E. She was perceived as a fertility goddess married to Hadad.
“We are quite confident of the reading of the divine names,” Adali says; the text to the right of the storm god is less clear. The iconography is key to the identifications, plus his readings are based on photographs of the panel, he notes. Once the site is stabilized and the excavations can resume, more information should be forthcoming.
Moving onto the moon god: On his chest appears an archaic tsade letter form crowned with a crescent that is known to represent this deity in Harran, and is also known from elsewhere, including the Tell Fakhariyah inscription. The archaeologists believe the moon-god text reads “SY” and may read “SYN.”
And there is another inscription which the archaeologists believe spells out the name of a man, not a superpower: “Mukin-abua.”
Who was this? A Neo-Assyrian official during the reign of King Adad-Nirari the Third, who reigned from the years 811 to 783 B.C.E., the team says. They postulate that he ruled the region where Basbuk now lies and may have ordered the artwork done (and credited) in the village to “integrate with and win over locals.”
The name also appears (once) in the Assyrians’ annals, Adali adds: for the year 749 B.C.E., describing his official appointment.
So what have we here in this underground manse in southeastern Anatolia, near the border with Syria? A relief showing gods in a Syro-Anatolian context in the Neo-Assyrian style, showing from right to left, Hadad-Baal, ‘Attar’ata, Sin the moon god, Shamash the sun god and after that it isn’t clear but they are also clearly deities, but the work was not completed, the archaeologists postulate.
Why? Because the panel is 2.5 meters in height but the figure of Hadad-Baal is only 1.1 meters in height and is missing his body, which indicates that the work was not finished.
The incisions into the rock are 1 millimeter deep and filled in with black paint. These may be no more than drafts while the final images were never done, the team suggests. Why we do not know. Local unrest? Transition in power? Could have been anything. In 610 B.C.E., the Assyrian overlords lost control of southeast Anatolia once and for all, ousted by the Babylonians, and that was the end of that.
The rescue excavations were permitted and supported by Turkey’s Ministry of Culture and Tourism, led by Sanliurfa Archaeological Museum Director Celal Uludag and carried out by experts Yusuf Koyuncu and Aziz Ergin and workers, supervised by Prof. Mehmet Önal from Harran University.