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Ancient Assyrian Writing

Instructor: Tommi Waters

TK Waters has a bachelor's degree in literature and religious studies and a master's degree in religious studies and teaches Hebrew Bible at Western Kentucky University.

The ancient Assyrians produced many written works, ranging from royal letters and records to astrological texts, and even built the first library in the ancient Near East to store them in.

Writing in Ancient Assyria

Assyria was one of the most powerful nations in the ancient Near East up until the 7th century BCE. Because it was such an important nation, the Assyrians kept many records of their nation's history. These records were kept in the library of Ashurbanipal, an Assyrian king famous for his desire for wisdom. The library was probably the first in the ancient Near East and contained over 30,000 clay tablets! The tablets were organized by genre, and the library even had indices of what ''books'' were available.

The tablets were written in Akkadian, the language used in ancient Assyria as well as Babylon. Akkadian, unlike the later Assyrian language, was not a script that would be written on parchment with a pen, but was a type of cuneiform. Cuneiform is a type of writing where a scribe uses a special stylus, often made of reed, to press into a piece of clay before the clay dries. Akkadian letters were formed by how the stylus was pressed into the clay and groupings of these marks.

Royalty and Writing

Writings of ancient Assyria were interwoven with the concerns and actions of the royalty. Some of the most important writings we have from ancient Assyria are the royal annals, historical records that include detailed information about rulers and their achievements. These records were not written on paper, like we have today, but on multi-sided clay pillars called prisms.

The prism of Tigleth-pileser I, an Assyrian ruler from the 11th century BCE, contained some of these annals. In addition to detailing battles and political information, they also talked about how powerful the ruler was, portraying him as a warrior and even relating him to the gods. Sennacherib's annals is another important historical writing from the ancient Near East. In addition to singing the praises of Sennacherib, it details his invasion and siege of the Israelite city of Jerusalem in 701 BCE.

One of the prisms containing the Sennacherib annals.
One of the prisms containing the Sennacherib annals

Letters are another way we have records of the history of ancient Assyria and the nation's interaction with other nations. Letters were typically sent from one ruler to another - again, on clay tablets rather than paper. The Amarna letters, found in Egypt, show an exchange between the Egyptian pharaoh and the Assyrian ruler. The letters dealt with political information like military forces and plans, but also included information about arranging marriages, trading goods, and exchanging gifts.

Fragment of one of the Amarna letters
Fragment of one of the Amarna letters

Prophetic Writings

The ancient Assyrians were heavily involved in mystical studies, like astrology, omens, and predictions. Omens were a fairly common type of writing that were predictions of something that would happen in the future, good or bad. However, omens were not definite things that would happen, but were causal, meaning the thing might happen if something else happened first. They were essentially ''if ... then'' statements.

An example (on a much smaller scale) of an omen would be something like: ''If John eats the cookies before dinner, then his mom will be upset with him.'' But in Assyria, omens would be on a much larger scale, usually having to do with the success of the nation or the ruler.

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