Ashur: The God and City of Ancient Assyria
Ashur was both the name of a god and a city in ancient Mesopotamia. The god Ashur was the head of the Assyrian pantheon and the patron deity of the city of Ashur, which was the capital of the Assyrian Empire for most of its history. Ashur was also associated with the sun, the winged disc, and the tree of life.
The city of Ashur was located on a plateau above the Tigris River in what is now northern Iraq. It was founded around 1900 BCE by the Akkadians, who named it after their god. Ashur became a major center of trade and commerce, as it lay on a caravan route that connected Mesopotamia with Anatolia and the Levant. Ashur also became a political and military power, as it was the base for the expansion of the Assyrian Empire, which dominated much of the Near East from the 14th to the 7th century BCE.
Ashur was not only a political capital, but also a religious one. The city had many temples dedicated to various gods, but the most important one was the temple of Ashur himself, which was rebuilt several times by different kings. The temple housed an image of the god, which was carried into battle by the Assyrian army as a symbol of divine protection and victory. The temple also served as a royal necropolis, where all the great Assyrian kings except Sargon II were buried.
Ashur’s importance declined after the fall of the Assyrian Empire in 612 BCE, when it was sacked by the Babylonians and Medes. The city was later occupied by the Parthians, Romans, Sassanids, and Arabs, but never regained its former glory. The ruins of Ashur were rediscovered by European explorers in the 19th century CE, and excavated by German archaeologists in the early 20th century CE. Ashur is now a UNESCO World Heritage Site, but it faces threats from looting, erosion, and dam construction.
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The Cult of Ashur
The worship of Ashur was the main feature of the Assyrian religion. Ashur was regarded as the supreme god, the creator of the universe, the king of the gods, and the father of the Assyrian people. He was also seen as a warrior god, who fought against the forces of chaos and evil, represented by the dragon Tiamat and her allies. Ashur was often depicted as a winged sun disc, a symbol of his power and authority. He was also sometimes shown as a bearded man wearing a horned cap and holding a bow or a ring.
Ashur had no consort or offspring, but he was associated with other gods and goddesses in the Assyrian pantheon. The most important of these were Anu, the god of heaven, Enlil, the god of wind and storm, Ea, the god of wisdom and water, Sin, the god of the moon, Shamash, the god of the sun and justice, Ishtar, the goddess of love and war, Ninlil, the goddess of air and wife of Enlil, Ninurta, the god of war and agriculture, and Zababa, the god of battle. These gods formed a council that advised and supported Ashur in his decisions.
The cult of Ashur was centered in his temple in the city of Ashur, but he also had shrines and altars in other cities and regions. The Assyrian kings were considered his representatives on earth, and they often took his name as part of their royal titles. The kings also claimed to rule by his mandate, and to carry out his will in their conquests and policies. The kings also offered sacrifices and gifts to Ashur on various occasions, such as coronations, victories, festivals, and new year celebrations. The most common offerings were animals, such as bulls, sheep, and goats, but sometimes also human captives or enemies.
The Legacy of Ashur
Ashur was one of the most influential gods in ancient Mesopotamia. His cult shaped the identity and culture of the Assyrian people for centuries. His name became synonymous with Assyria itself, and his symbol of the winged sun disc was adopted by many other nations and empires. His image and attributes were also borrowed by other gods, such as Marduk in Babylon, Ahura Mazda in Persia, and Aten in Egypt.
Ashur’s legacy also survived in other ways. His name was preserved in the biblical genealogy as a son of Shem and a founder of Assyria (Genesis 10:22). His name was also used by some Christian groups in Mesopotamia and Syria, who called themselves Assyrians or Nestorians. These groups maintained their distinct identity and faith despite persecution and migration. They still exist today as one of the oldest Christian communities in the world.
Ashur’s city was also a source of inspiration and fascination for many generations. Its ruins were explored by travelers and scholars who marveled at its ancient monuments and artifacts. Its history was reconstructed from its inscriptions and records, which revealed its achievements and atrocities. Its legends and myths were retold by poets and writers who imagined its glory and downfall. Its culture and art were admired and imitated by artists and craftsmen who reproduced its motifs and styles.