The AssyrianBy: Nicholas Guild
At night outside my sleeping chamber the wind moans in the trees. The great firs, as old as the foundations of the world, high above us their needled branches are pulled about by storms that rise as the day perishes. I turn on my sleeping mat, awake and listening, for an old man finds little rest. Others hear only the wind, but I the speechless words of the Lord Ashur, King of Heaven. The wind is his messenger and in it I hear the voices of the dying.
Even here, at the edge of the world, the smell of corpses is in my nostrils. Among these people who know not the flint hard sun of my birthplace, no one speaks of omens, and yet I know. In the east the earth in which my fathers lie buried is soft with blood. The gods are carried off into slavery and their cities burn at their backs. The rich fields of barley, the swaying grass, all are waste. I see all this. I have only to close my eyes.
Yet are these phantoms only restless dreams? Are they nothing more? As a man’s life decays, day by day, sometimes his mind fills with shadows.
I believe it is more. Even while I was still a boy the god Ashur thought fit to open the future to my sight. He has not deserted me now. The walls of Nineveh are broken, and her people perish by the swords of foreigners. It was all foretold, a secret I have carried in my breast these many years, a black vision of what must be. That which I see with the soul’s eyes has happened—or will.
And if the end has come, if the throne of empire is cast down and the mighty are dust, then who but I, who have made my home among strangers, whose grandchildren speak with a borrowed tongue, can recall its beginning?
So let me open my tale, for the god, who rules in this life and the next, sets our feet upon strange paths. I am Tiglath Ashur, son of Sennacherib the Glorious, Terror of Nations, and my words ring with truth like silver coins.
My mother was Merope, a woman whom one of the seven kings of Cyprus had given to the King of the Earth’s Four Corners as an article of tribute. The king, being already in the afternoon of life, sent her to his son, whose two lawful wives had yet given him but few male children such as the gods did favor. Thus it was that this foreign woman, this stranger to the king’s city of Dur-Sharrukin, carried me in her womb through the halls of the house of women in the palace of the heir and prince, the Lord Sennacherib. She waited there, big with her burden, while the god perfected his design.
And as my mother approached her time, the great king, Sargon, Lord of the World, my father’s father, was making war in the land of the Kullumite, fighting against a people who lived in tents, wandering from one watering place to the next. In the mountains of the east, Sargon led the armies of Ashur so that these nomads would taste of our might and be sent limping back into the wilderness, never again to trouble the rich lands of Akkad and of Sumer, of the swift flowing Tigris.
It is a bitter place where the Kullumite dwells. Scarcely a blade of grass can force its way between the sharp stones. There is no comfort, neither for men nor beasts. It is a land of mountains, where the king’s chariot must be carried on the backs of his soldiers and he himself must abandon the saddled war horse for his own legs and climb the hard, rock strewn trails like any goat. And the Lord Sargon was already old.
On the twentieth day after his armies had last wet their sandals in the great Turnat River, the king ordered that a camp be struck in a plain beneath the nameless cliffs of shale and limestone, near a spring of living water that forced its way up through the ground like blood from a fresh wound. He decreed that all should rest there through two nights to refresh their spirits and find strength. The king pitched his tent and sat down before it, his hands resting on his knees, while the host of Ashur made themselves easy in his mighty shadow. The cooking pots were found and men who had forgotten the faces of their wives and the taste of fresh killed lamb stripped off their armor and washed the sweat from their faces, dancing in the cold, clear pools like children. A soldier is pleased with little and takes comfort when and where he can, and the king smiled upon them like a father remembering his age.
The Lord Sargon had ruled the wide world for seven years and ten. The kings of Tyre and of Sidon at the edge of the Northern Sea, the rich cities of Carchemish, Aleppo and Damascus, all wore his yoke. He had taken the hands of Marduk and made himself king in Babylonia. As far away as Egypt and Lydia and the wastes of the Arab desert, men sent him rich gifts and trembled at his word, for he was mighty and his anger had a long reach. The Land of Ashur had seen many great kings, restless conquerors who had made the earth quake under the feet of their armies, but Sargon was far the greatest. On his hard old body were the scars of many wounds, for his campaigns reached back to the days of his beardless youth. He was brave as the wild boar and cunning as an adder, and his soldiers loved and worshiped him as though he were the bright god in his own person.