The Correspondence of Sargon II

The excavations carried out in the palace area of Nineveh between 1850 and 1905 brought to light about 6,000 archival cuneiform texts, about half of which are letters belonging to the royal correspondence of Assyria. Chronologically and topically this epistolary material falls into two major groups. One large group, probably originating in the SW Palace of Sennacherib, dates from the mid-seventh century B.C. (c. 680-645) and consists chiefly of letters to Esarhaddon and Assurbanipal from various scholarly, religious and municipal authorities. These letters deal mainly with matters of the royal court, temple and babylonian politics. Another large group, probably originating in the North Palace, dates from the last two decades of the eigth century B.C. (c. 716-704) and consists almost exclusively of letters exchanged between the Assyrian king and his magnates on administrative and military matters.[[1]] This latter group of letters forms the bulk of the correspondence edited in the present volume. A lesser number of letters belonging to the same category was discovered in the excavations of Calah in the early fifties.[[2]]

The total number of texts and fragments assignable to the Sargon correspondence is about 1,300. This makes it the most extensive political correspondence of a major ruler extant from ancient Mesopotamia and probably from ancient times altogether. And considering the status of the correspondents, the nature and variety of topics covered in the correspondence, and not least the fact that Assyria under Sargon II dominated half the civilized world, it should without any further ado be clear that a highly significant collection of texts is in question.

This, however, is a point that still remains to be established. To date, no serious study of the correspondence has been possible because it has never really been made accessible for study. Almost half of the texts have been published in cuneiform copy only, if at all, and whatever editions have been available are either very selective or philologically totally inadequate.[[3]] In addition, the texts edited have generally been presented in arbitrary order among letters from other periods, so that the original structure of the correspondence has been completely obscured. It can accordingly be safely said that as an object of research, this extensive correspondence is still largely "unexplored territory". A revealing illustration of the state of affairs is that until very recently, nobody could tell, even as roughly as with the precision of several hundred texts how extensive the correspondence actually is!

A simple look at the texts themselves will suffice to make it clear why this deplorable state of affairs has come about. Like the rest of the Ninevite archives, the royal letter collections were smashed into pieces during the destruction of Nineveh by the Medes and the Chaldeans in 612 B.C. Accordingly, what the modern editor of this material is confronted with is essenually a jigsaw puzzle consisting of thousands of small, worn and utterly disordered fragments, a game which not only is very difficult and time-consuming to play with but also offers little prospect of ever being totally solved. No wonder previous research into the correspondence has been in the nature of quick forays into enemy territory rather than of a systematic attempt at permanent conquest. Admittedly it has been possible to collect a respectable amount of valuable booty even by this method. But to make full use of the mformation contained in the correspondence requires that the chaos of fragments be put in order permanently, so that its innumerable details be studied in orderly context and against a frame of reference that is now completely lacking. To provide such an orderly set of data is the aim of the present edition.

Naturally, ancient letters, in particular fragmentary ones, will always remain a difficult and problematic object of study, no matter how well and carefully they may be edited. But then they are also a fascinating object of study, holding the potential of taking us into the middle of life in an ancient, vanished civilization in a way no other type of our sources is able to do. It is hoped that the present edition will help put an end to one phase in the study of the Sargon correspondence and provide a starting point for another, more rewarding one. It is about time that this correspondence stopped being just a heap of meaningless junk and started to be its proper self, a key source to the administration, politics and daily life of the Assyrian empire.

1 On the archival background of the Ninevite royal correspondence see my study in K. Veenhof (ed.), Cuneiform Archives and Libraries (CRRA30, Istanbul 1986), p. 228ff. The chronology and topical structure of the correspondence are discussed in more detail in my article on "Assyrian Royal Inscriptions and Neo-Assyrian letters", ARINH (198I), p. I77ff.

2 See H.W.F. Saggs, "The Nimrud Letters", Iraq 17 (1955) 2150 and 126-154, 18 (1956) 40-56, and several further articles in the same journal. The 105 letters so far published mainly date from the reign of Tirath- Pileser III (744-727 B.C.).

3 Of the about 3,000 letters found in Nineveh, 1,471 were published in cuneiform copy by R.F. Harper in his monumental Assyrian and Babylonian Letters (14 vols., Chicago and London 1892-1914) and subsequently edited by Leroy Waterman in his Royal Correspondence of the Assyrian Empire (Ann Arbor, 1930-1936). Waterman's edition, which is philologically totally inadequate, is in practice the only medium through which a major number of Sargon letters (about half of the corpus) have been 'available' for study. Of the about 1,500 letters published in CT 53 and 54 only a small portion has hitherto been edited in transliteration and translation.

Simo Parpola

Simo Parpola, 'The Correspondence of Sargon II', The Correspondence of Sargon II, Part I: Letters from Assyria and the West, SAA 1. Original publication: Helsinki, Helsinki University Press, 1987; online contents: SAAo/SAA01 Project, a sub-project of MOCCI, 2020 []

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SAAo/SAA01, 2014-. Since 2015, SAAo is based at the Ludwig-Maximilians-Universität München, Historisches Seminar (LMU Munich, History Department) - Alexander von Humboldt Chair for Ancient History of the Near and Middle East. Content released under a CC BY-SA 3.0 [] license, 2007-20.
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