Online Review: Book

Assyriens Könige an einer der Quellen des Tigris: Archäologische Forschungen im Höhlensystem von Birkleyn und am sogenannten Tigris-Tunnel

Andreas Schachner


Reviewed by Reinhard Bernbeck

IstForsch 51. Pp. x + 288, figs. 238, tables 60, plans 8, maps 15. Ernst Wasmuth, Tübingen 2009. €35. ISBN 978-3-8030-1772-7 (cloth).

In recent times, the upper Tigris region in southeastern Turkey has received increasing interest because of the salvage excavations that have been carried out, and are still conducted, in connection with the construction of the Ilısu Dam. While most research has taken place in the Batman-Bitlis region, Schachner and colleagues became interested in an archaeological site, the Neo-Assyrian Bırkleyn rock reliefs and inscriptions, which has been known for a long time and written about extensively but has never been documented in a detailed fashion.

This substantial volume is an authoritative account of both archaeological and textual remains at the so-called Tigris tunnel, the site of Bırkleyn in the upper reaches of the Tigris River, locally called Dibni Çay. One of the book's main strengths is the many maps, charts, and excellent overview photographs of the landscape, as well as of the geographic location of the reliefs and inscriptions. Equally important are photographic close-ups of reliefs and details of cuneiform inscriptions. The urgent character of this impeccable documentation is underscored by a number of photographs taken at different times since the 1970s that show the fast and irrecoverable loss of parts of the reliefs, apparently caused by what was initially minuscule damage from gunshots. Through freeze and thaw cycles, such small-scale destruction quickly results in major loss of the monumental texts and imagery. Therefore, it was timely to take a new set of paper squeezes of the inscriptions, documented in an appendix by Helmholz.

An outline of the complex geological and geomorphological context by Doğan describes the development of the karstic caves where the Dibni Çay disappears in a natural tube and reappears less than 1 km downstream. The place where it reemerges from the mountains was apparently taken to be the source of the Tigris by the Neo-Assyrian kings. The spectacular setting became the site of several reliefs and inscriptions. The geomorphology section analyzes five stages of the region, from the development of a paleovalley in the Eocene to the formation of the tunnel, which happened during the last of these stages.

An overview of the different caves and the location of the reliefs and inscriptions follows. Among the five texts, Inscriptions 1 and 2, each accompanied by a relief of an Assyrian king, are located at the exit of the Dibni Çay from the natural tunnel together with Inscription 3. Inscriptions 4 and 5 are located at the mouth of Cave 2 on the northern side of the Dibni Çay's paleovalley. That cave, based on the wall remains in opus caementitium, must have been used in Byzantine to Early Islamic times. Nearby is Cave 3, with stalagmites and stalactites. In a pit resulting from illicit digging, Schachner and team found a bronze bangle of a typical Iron Age Anatolian style with lion ends. In Cave 4, the roof broke down after the Iron Age (sherds from that period are buried under the boulders).

A fifth small cave is briefly mentioned. Finally, to the south, a castle high above the river's southern side dates to Late Antique to Islamic times, as revealed by sherds that have fallen off the 40 m high cliff on which the stronghold had been built. Useful cross-sections and plans accompany the descriptions of the caves and the castle. Excellent photographs provide a good overview of the topography and ruined architecture as well as other features of the castle.

Interestingly, much of the dateable pottery collected at Bırkleyn is from prehistoric periods. Cave 3 contained many Hassuna-period materials. Most later periods are also well represented, except for the third and second millennia. It is interesting that no Late Bronze Age materials from the times of Tiglat Pileser I (1114–1076 B.C.E.) were found, although he left Inscription 1, and his relief is prominently visible in Cave 1.

Radner's work on the inscriptions is both philologically and historically interesting, as she provides transcriptions, translations, and commentaries for all five examples. Footnotes include a history of research on the various readings and interpretations of the inscriptions as well as their relations to other royal Assyrian texts, mainly annals. Four inscriptions are from the time of King Shalmaneser III, with Inscriptions 3 and 5 dating to the year 852 B.C.E., and Inscriptions 2 and 4 to 844. Radner's close study of the cuneiform signs reveals systematic differences between Inscriptions 3 and 5, pointing to two different stone-cutters at work during the 852 B.C.E. campaign. However, signs of Inscriptions 2 and 5 are closely similar, as are those of Inscriptions 3 and 4. She concludes that the same two stone-cutters came along on both the 852 and 844 B.C.E. campaigns to the region, called Šubria by the Assyrians.

The two reliefs of Shalmaneser III that accompany the texts are much more difficult to date. Schachner and Radner do not come to the same conclusion on their chronological position, but arguments by both depend on a close consideration of the actions illustrated on Bronze Strip X of the Balawat Gates, which gives a relatively detailed account of the earlier campaign to the Tigris sources. In this connection, both authors mobilize arguments that inappropriately presume an Assyrian desire for an almost photographic rendering of the site's topography. I doubt that the Balawat rendering of the events can help at all in the dating of these Bırkleyn reliefs.

The book stands in the good German tradition of an exhaustive and detailed documentation of historical sources. Where the authors proceed toward interpretations, it is always done along a strictly empiricist path from textual, archaeological, and pictorial sources to more abstract conclusions. The one chapter that reaches beyond Bırkleyn is Schachner's distributional study of the finds. I limit my remarks here to the section that is likely of greatest interest to readers, namely the Late Bronze and Iron Ages. Despite a complete lack of Middle Assyrian pottery at Bırkleyn, Schachner claims that the site was firmly within the empire's reach under Tiglat Pileser I. However, in the ninth century under the Neo-Assyrian king Shalmaneser III, the Tigris sources are assumed to have been outside of Assyrian as well as Urartian purview. The reasons for Schachner's reconstruction of Tiglat Pileser I's grip on the region of Bırkleyn are problematic: Schachner makes a categorical difference between "local" Rillenkeramik and "Assyrian pottery." However, it remains unclear which shapes are supposed to denote the presence of "Assyrians" and why Assyrian-ness should at all be tied to such mundane objects as pottery. A similar problem appears in his discussion of the royal reliefs. He objects to Harmanšah's ("Source of the Tigris: Event, Place and Performance in the Assyrian Landscapes of the Early Iron Age," Archaeological Dialogues 14 [2007] 179–204) discussion of Bırkleyn as a symbolic statement of Assyrian political power. Schachner assumes that the monumental depictions at Bırkleyn, if interpreted politically, can only be a Grenzsymbol and argues instead for a religious interpretation. Assyrians venerated the source of the Tigris and therefore carved the rocks in the territory of Šubria at a site that was outside of their range of power. That is why the figures are in low relief and lack detail: it was too dangerous for the Assyrian army to stay for too long at this spot. Schachner implicitly conceptualizes the Assyrian empire as having clear boundaries and a provincial structure. However, if we take into consideration Liverani's ("The Growth of the Assyrian Empire in the Habur/Middle Euphrates Area: A New Paradigm," State Archives of Assyria Bulletin 2 [1988] 81–98) claim that much of the imperial periphery was a network of Assyrianized bridgeheads and a network of royal roads, then Harmanšah's interpretation of Bırkleyn as an Assyrian lieu de mémoire, an impressive symbol of Assyrian power to tame wild landscapes, remains a distinct possibility.

A discussion of the early and apparently problematic expedition by Belck and Lehmann-Haupt, who documented the Bırkleyn site in 1899, round out this volume. Anyone researching the Assyrian empire's ideological manipulation of landscapes will need to consult this book. It is equally of interest to scholars who investigate the long-lasting methods of imperialist powers to memorialize themselves and to domesticate nature's wilder elements, metaphors of the enemy of empire.

Reinhard Bernbeck
Institute for Near Eastern Archaeology
Free University of Berlin
14195 Berlin


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