Islamic State (ISIS) shocked the world with the recent release of a YouTube video showing its destruction of the ruins of the ancient city of Nimrud, also known as Calah. Militants attacked the 3300 year old archeological site with sledgehammers and power tools before finally using explosives to blow it up.
Famous for the lamassu, or large winged bull statues that guarded its gates, Nimrud served as the capital of the Neo-Assyrian Empire. UNESCO says Nimrud’s “frescoes and works are celebrated around the world and revered in literature and sacred texts.” Mark Altaweel, a professor of archeology at University College London, told CNN’s Nic Robertson in March that Nimrud was a large site, the full potential of which had not been uncovered. “I would describe Nimrud as one of the really unique archeological sites in the entire ancient Near East,” he said. “Nimrud is the capital of the first empire in this long series of empires that have profound significance in the way this region develops and ultimately how it affects our own society.”
But, besides destroying priceless artifacts, what is the true cost of Nimrud’s destruction? What does its loss mean for our heritage and culture?
In his paper, “The Mesopotamian Soul of Western Culture,” Professor Simo Parpola of the University of Helsinki, shows the profound influence of Mesopotamian, and specifically Assyrian, religious philosophy and scientific knowledge on ancient Greek culture and, therefore, Western Civilization. The key to understanding this influence is contained in the throne room of King Ashurnasirpal II in Calah, or Nimrud!
Dominating the wall behind the throne was a large carved relief containing winged genies and a stylized palm tree. While these images are common throughout the palace, this is the only one in which the tree is topped by a winged solar disk and surrounded by two mirror imaged royal figures. Let’s look at its elements and thus discover its meaning.
According to Simo Parpola, the winged figure standing behind the king represents the culmination of man’s spiritual development, a mythical sage who’s mystical knowledge has earned him a place in heaven. It functions as the guardian angel of the king, protecting him against sin, cultic impurity and evil spirits.
The tree’s placement in the center of the relief is not accidental. In 1983, the American art historian Irene Winter concluded that the tree in the center of the relief symbolized the “balance of the state in relationship to the divine principles,” the divine world order upheld by the king as the god’s representative. The winged disk hovering above the tree symbolized Ashur, the supreme god of the empire. Some versions of the tree resemble the menorah, the Jewish seven-branched lampstand, and there is an anthropomorphic version of the tree from Ashur.
Contemporary texts and the relief itself show that the king was equated with the tree. This corresponds to the passage in the Book of Daniel where the king of Babylon sees himself as a huge tree growing in the center of the world. When sitting upon his throne, the king literally merged with the tree from the viewpoint of those looking upon him. He was the “perfect man,” representing the divine order embodied within humanity. This same idea occurs in Kabbalah, where the Tree of Life depicted as man represents Adam Kadmon, the perfect, sinless man.
In Kabbalah, the Tree of Life also depicts the cosmic world order as an equilibrium of powers emanating from the transcendent God. Realization of the equilibrium in humans restores the perfection of the soul lost with the fall from Eden and opens the path to heaven and eternal life.
Simo Parpola reveals that the Kabbalistic Tree of Life is more than likely based upon its Assyrian predecessor. When the divine powers of the Kabbalistic tree are replaced by their Assyrian counterparts, an overall structure is revealed exactly matching the three generations of the Mesopotamian divine family. Furthermore, this hierarchy can be mathematically proven.
This connection between Assyrian faith and Jewish mysticism, provides new insight into the Assyrian religion. The seeming multitude of gods can now be seen as aspects of the supreme god, Ashur. He is the “sum total” of all of the gods and the powers represented on the sacred tree are his manifest “body.” When broken into its component pieces, the Neo-Assyrian spelling of Ashur can be translated as “the only, universal God.”
He is represented as the winged solar disk hovering above the divine tree, or manifest world, and is seen as a transcendental, almighty God in whom all of the other gods, or powers, converge. He is the “eternal, infinite ocean of light and goodness surrounding the physical universe and radiating brightness into it.”
So, the destruction of Nimrud is not just the loss of ancient ruins and relics, but rather the loss of evidence for monotheism itself. We may never know all that we have lost. But, isn’t it ironic that in claiming to destroy idols and preserve true monotheistic faith, ISIS actually destroyed evidence of its origins?
Samuel Griswold is the author of the new historical thriller, True Identity, about a Mossad agent who receives past life visions while working undercover in Iraqi Kurdistan. Available now on Amazon!