Introduction

In the first volume of this series, it was fittingly stressed that the existence of the Assyrian Empire of the eighth-seventh centuries B.C. was vitally dependent on a functional system of communications between the administrative centre and its periphery.[[1]] In this perspective, the Neo-Assyrian administrative letters which have come down to us represent an invaluable source for our knowledge of the organization and functioning of the vast empire created principally by the Sargonid kings. They give us a vivid picture of the "work in progress" in maintaining, developing and enlarging the political structure of the empire in its day-to-day evolution.

The Geographical and Historical Setting

The letters published in this volume are of special interest because of the particular geographical area from which they originate. This area extends, in the shape of a broad crescent, roughly from the Euphrates to the Diyala river, surrounding and enclosing the Mesopotamian plain to the north and to the northeast. From the geographical point of view, the various territories which lie in this wide area all share a common feature: they represent the transition from the alluvial plain to the highlands of Anatolia and Iran. As such, the area of provenance of our letters may be described as comprising two basic elements: a territory of piedmont, slowly or swiftly rising to considerable altitudes; and a territory of high mountains in some places forming major systems, such as the eastern Taurus or the Zagros chain.

The special interest of this area stems from the fact that its geography affected the political entities at the time concerned. The piedmont was the seat of Assyrian provinces, of both ancient and recent establishment. In the mountainous territories, by contrast, a number of local communities or kingdoms still retained their independence, untouched by the expansion of the provincial system. Set apart from this constellation of small polities, to the north, another imperial structure, the kingdom of Urarṭu, long a major power in the Near East, still rivalled the Assyrian empire.

Generally speaking, the mountain territories as a whole represented the periphery of the Assyrian empire; but, at the same time, some of them (those placed on the northern borders) also represented the periphery of the Urarṭian empire. This means that we are dealing with areas on the fringes of estabished states which witnessed many kinds of interaction, both between the provinces and their small neighbours, and between the two imperial systems directly.

In this general framework, our letters are seen to deal with two kinds of information. The first is concerned with foreign relations, either with the major power of the Urarṭian empire, or with the minor independent territories. The information about Urarṭu, even if restricted to particular situations, offers exciting material for research, since it differs radically from the relatively few official sources (mostly royal inscriptions) which survive from the Urarṭian side. As for the independent territories, some of them were located precisely between the Urarṭian empire and Assyria, so that our texts also deal with their relations with Urarṭu — a fortunate situation which partly counterbalances the nearly total lack of such data on the Urarṭian side. Naturally, the correspondence also contains information on the internal situation of the independent territories, and in this way offers the reader a unique occasion to view historical and social developments in these otherwise forgotten lands.

The second type of information found in our letters is concerned with the internal situation of the Assyrian provinces, whether in their relations with foreign countries, or with the Assyrian central government, or among themselves. Similar data are available from other provinces, e.g. those situated on the western or southeastern borders of the empire, so that our letters provide an excellent opportunity for comparing the internal situation and social evolution of these lands.

The geographical provenance of our letters assumes a particular interest against the background of the historical developments which took place during the reign of Sargon II. The reign of this strong king represented the most impressive stage of the expansion of the Assyrian empire and of its consolidation as the dominant power in the Near East. The inscriptions of Sargon describe what appears as an irresistible succession of conquests in virtually all directions. To the west, all the independent states which separated Assyria from the Anatolian plateau were conquered and annexed to the provincial system; to the southeast, Assyrian influence was firmly established on the Iranian plateau; and to the south, a drastic solution was found for the Babylonian problem. Yet, on the northern and northeastern borders, Sargon's expansionist policies met with two major obstacles: the power of the Urarṭian kingdom, unchallenged in this area notwithstanding the successes of Tiglath-Pileser III, and the natural obstacles formed by the mountainous nature of the border territories. Our letters are an excellent source for the study of this conflict in detail, since they come from the very area which was affected by the military operations and diplomatic manreuvres of the conflicting powers.



1 S. Parpola, SAA I p. xiii, quoting M. Liverani, "The Growth of the Assyrian Empire in the Habur/Middle Euphrates Area: a New Paradigm," Les Annales Archeologiques Arabes Syriennes 1984, p. 110ff. now SAAB 2 (l988), p. 92.

Giovanni B. Lanfranchi

Giovanni B. Lanfranchi, 'Introduction', The Correspondence of Sargon II, Part II: Letters from the Northern and Northeastern Provinces, SAA 5. Original publication: Helsinki, Helsinki University Press, 1990; online contents: SAAo/SAA05 Project, a sub-project of MOCCI, 2020 [http://oracc.org/geographicalandhistoricalsetting/]

 
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