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Semiramis Queen of Assyria

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Semiramis Queen of Assyria
This article is, partly, inspired by the article of Georges Roux, appearing as chapter 9 of the book “Everyday Life in Ancient Mesopotamia” by Jean Bottéro, translated from the French by Antonia Nevill, The Johns Hopkins University Press, 2001. It is also inspired by Guy Rachet’s book “Semiramis,” in French.

For those unfamiliar with the subject, Assyria is the northern part of present day Iraq.

The Assyrian empire, on the other hand, covered entire Iraq, parts of Iran, eastern Turkey, Syria, Lebanon, Palestine and Egypt.

The legend of Semiramis, queen of Assyria, is about a woman who, while possessing great beauty, became a warrior and conqueror, and whose conquests extended from Ethiopia to India. She founded towns, built palaces, parks and hydraulic structures for irrigation.

The first author to mention the name of Semiramis is Herodotus, the Greek historian, who, in the middle of the fifth century BC traveled to Babylon.

Semiramis, as a legendary queen, is found in the works of Diodorus of Sicily, who lived in the first century BC.

Another author who has added some new elements to the history of Semiramis is Justin I, Roman soldier, then Byzantine emperor (450-527), who wrote in Latin.

The question arises as who was the source of Diodorus, and where did he get his story from? He, that is Diodorus himself, tells us that it was Ctesias, a Greek doctor, a native of Cnidus in Caria, southwest of modern Turkey, who lived between the fifth and the fourth centuries BC. Ctesias emigrated to Persia around 415 BC, spent 17 years at the court of the Persian kings, and exercising his profession as a doctor. It is here that he might have had access to the royal archives.

The Legend

Semiramis was born from a mother, whose name was Derceto, the goddess and patroness of the town of Ascalon, in Palestine, on the Mediterranean Sea. Semiramis was the result of an illegitimate union with an unknown young man who had come to the temple of Derceto to offer her a sacrifice.

To cover her shame, Derceto killed her lover, abandoned her child in a deserted place, and threw herself into the lake that was close to the temple, where she immediately turned into a fish.

Semiramis was raised by some doves that were nesting nearby, feeding her milk and cheese with their beak.

Later she was discovered by shepherds, who took her to the head of the royal sheepfolds, a man called Simma. This man took good care of the little girl and gave her the name Semiramis, a name which according to Diodorus, is a variation of the word for dove in Syrian (meaning Assyrian, since the words Syria and Assyria were used interchangeably).

The word for dove, in Assyrian, to which Diodorus is alluding, is probably Summatu.

When Semiramis grew up and reached the ripe age of marriage, her beauty exceeded that of her other friends. One day, Onnes, the Assyrian governor of Syria saw her and fell in love with her. He asked Simma for her hand, married her and took her with him to Nineveh, the capital of Assyria, where she bore him two sons.

Onnes, her husband, had to leave Nineveh to join the army of Ninus, his king, the first king of Assyria, the founder of Nineveh. King Ninus had already conquered all of the Middle East, Egypt, and was in the process of conquering Bactriana, north of modern day Afghanistan. He had conquered several towns, but, Bactra, the capital, was strongly fortified. Onnes was worried about the outcome of the war, as the defenders of the city were fighting bitterly. He counted on the intelligence of Semiramis, and sent for her at once. Semiramis came to the war camp in disguised clothing, and started observing the conduct of the war. It did not take her too long to figure out how to neutralize the defenders’ tactics. She noticed that whenever the Assyrians attacked, the defenders, who were in the citadel highly perched on the rocks, would rush down to help those fighting at the ramparts. With a small number of soldiers, she climbed the difficult access to the citadel, from where help was coming, startled the defenders, who, demoralized, surrendered.

When King Ninus learned about the role played by Semiramis, he gave her many gifts and of course, fell in love with her. Ninus did not hesitate to tell Onnes to hand Semiramis over to him, in exchange for his own daughter, but, onnes refused. King Ninus threatened Onnes to gouge out his eyes, but, instead, Onnes commited suicide.

King Ninus married Semiramis, made her the Queen of Assyria, and she bore him a son the named Ninyas.

The legend goes on by saying that King Ninus, before dying, entrusted his empire to Semiramis, who then reigned for forty two years. She had King Ninus buried in the palace of the kings, and ordered a huge terrace built on his tomb.

From here Semiramis set up her mind on surpassing her husband in glory. She first decided to build a new town in Mesopotamia that would meet her ambitions. This town was called Babylon, and was surrounded by a wall around 44 miles long and wide enough to accommodate more than two chariots, side by side.

She built quays to promote trade, a big stone bridge over the river Euphrates, with two magnificent palaces on each end of the bridge. These two palaces were connected with an underground tunnel.

Next, Semiramis set out to visit her vast empire in Media, Persia, Egypt, Ethiopia and Libya, building monuments, parks, roads in rocky mountains, leaving her inscriptions for posterity.

Then, she decided to conquer India, for which she chose Bactra (today’s Balkh, northern Afghanistan) as her starting point.

She had to prepare to cross the Indus River, to fight against elephants and the huge army of Stabrobates, king of India. She spent three years preparing for the campaign, gathering foot soldiers, cavalry, chariots, and interestingly enough, false elephants driven by concealed camels. She brought Phoenicians, Syrians and Cypriots to build boats to cross the Indus.

When she launched her attack crossing the river, the Indians were defeated in the naval battle that ensued, after which the Indians withdrew to the eastern banks of the Indus River. Here, the Assyrians were defeated, and Semiramis, with a wound in the arm and the back had to return to Nineveh.

Semiramis reigned until age sixty two, when she decided to turn over the throne to her son Ninyas. Ninyas had previously plotted against his mother but was not successful.

After this, Semiramis disappeared mysteriously, but, according to mythologists, as recounted by Diodorus, she turned into a dove and flew away with the birds.

The names of Ninus and Ninyas, Semiramis’s husband and son, respectively, are fictitious names, because in the history of Assyria no name remotely resembles them.

Roux believes that, most likely, these names were derived from Ninua, the Assyrian name for Nineveh.

As to Semiramis herself, in excavations done in 1853 by Hormuzd Rassam, the Assyrian assistant to Henry Layard, the leader of the British excavations of the ancient city of Nimrud (former Kalhu), two statues of minor gods were discovered near the entrance to the temple of the great god Nabu. On one of the statues there was an inscription saying that the governor of Kalhu was dedicating it to Nabu “for the life of Adad-nirari, king of Assyria, his master, and for the life of Sammuramat, the lady of the palace, his mistress” as well as for his own life.

The name of Sammuramat evoked the name of Semiramis, and that of Adad-nirari was known from other inscriptions. Fifty years later, a German by the name of Walter Andrae, while excavating in the ancient city of Assur, discovered two rows of stelae with inscriptions. The inscriptions bore the names of high-ranking officials, several kings of Assyria, and two queens–Ashur-sharrat, lady of the palace of Ashurbanipal and Sammuramat. Roux writes “This time it was ‘Semiramis’ herself speaking and setting out her identity: ‘Stele of Sammuramat, lady of the palace of Shamshi-Adad, king of the universe, king of Assyria, mother of Adad-nirari, king of the universe , king of Assyria, daughter-in-law of Salmanasar, king of the Four Regions [of the World].”

Therefore, with these inscriptions, Sammuramat was historically placed in time, that is she was the wife of Shamshi-Adad V (823-811 BC), son of Shalmaneser III (858-824 BC), and the mother of Adad-nirari III (810-783).

From another inscription by Adad-nirari III, found in 1916, it is concluded that Adad-nirari actually reigned five years after his father’s death, probably because he was too young. Therefore, it was his mother, Sammurat, who acted as regent and had the power in her hands, just like Semiramis.

Berosus, a Babylonian priest, who flourished around 290 BC, had written a book in Greek titled Babyloniaca, which was based on genuine local archives. In that book Berosus interrupts the list of the kings of Babylon to cite the rule of Semiramis of Assyria. Berosus places Semiramis after the ninth king of the twelfth dynasty of Babylon, whose reign began in 812 BC. This matches perfectly the regency of Sammuramat (810-807).

Art and Literature

The legend of Semiramis has captivated the minds of many artists and composers.

Gluck, Christoph Willibald (1714-1775 AD) and Rossini, Gioacchino (1792-1868 AD) created operas for Semiramis, the one by Rossini being the most famous. Crèbillion, Prosper Jolyot, the French dramatist (1674-1762), who was soon imitated by Voltaire, Francois Marie Arouet (1694-1778), another French writer, made of Semiramis a heroine of tragedy.

During the 17th and 18th centuries, about the times of Antonio Vivaldi, the Italian Baroque composer, many Italian composers gave the name of Semiramis to their music.

The great Degas (Hilaire-Germain-Edgar, 1834-1917), French painter and sculptor, devoted his academic pictures of 1861 to Semiramis.

Guy Rachet, in his book mentioned above, provides the names of some Spanish dramatists who have written about Semiramis.

The first is Cristobal of Virues, who, in 1609 published a tragedy in Madrid titled La gran Semiramis. Calderon, is another Spanish dramatist, who following the lead of Cristobal, in 1658, published his La hija del aire (the daughter of air).

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