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The Dying Lion

     An excerpt from the author’s forthcoming book On Cruelty

The suburbs of the city of Mosul on the eastern banks of the Tigris overlay a huge expanse of ruins through which Iraqi army paratroopers in the autumn of 2016 took the lead in battling ISIS to recapture the city that had fallen to the terrorist organization in 2014. Inside the embattled city, hostages had been taken, summary executions pursued, and children forcibly conscripted to have explosives strapped to their chests and die for the fantasy of an Islamic caliphate. The million or so remaining inhabitants of Mosul remain as of this writing huddled in dread, not only of the battles to come but of the retribution that might follow in its aftermath.

The ruins of the fabled city of Nineveh (Nīnewēh in biblical Hebrew or Ninuwā in Old Babylonian and Arabic), capital of the ancient Assyrian Empire, over which this horror unfolded, had seen it all many times before. Celebrated warriors, the ancient Assyrians stood out among other empires of Mesopotamia for their cruelty and heartlessness in war. Assyrian inscriptions, for example, citing King Ashurbanipal on his sacking of Babylon (fifty miles south of today’s Baghdad) in the year 648 BC in these words:

As for those men . . . who plotted evil against me, I tore out their tongues. . . . The others, alive, I smashed. . . . I fed their corpses, cut into small pieces, to the dogs, pigs, . . . vultures, the birds of the sky and to the fish of the ocean.[1]

Presumed continuities between past and present, coupled as they always are with an air of fatalistic hopelessness about the future, will suggest to some a Mesopotamian penchant for cruelty. Others might argue that to invoke such continuities is not a politically correct way to think about the ancestral origins of the people of Iraq, into whom I was born. Politically correct or not, such stereotyping is bound to persist in these troubled times, not only in the western orientalist imagination but, more important, in Iraqi folklore and culture itself.

Consider, for instance, the notion that many Iraqis hold of themselves that they positively need to be ruled with an iron fist, such as was deployed by the Umayyad governor al-Hajjaj ibn Yusuf al-Thaqafi in the southern provinces during the eighth century. Consider also the nostalgia that has grown alongside the violence of daily life in post-Iraq for the good old days of Saddam Hussein, when, Iraqis can be heard to say on the streets of Baghdad, at least there was security and one knew if and when the electricity would be cut off. Such self-deprecating views of the collective Iraqi self will once again be reinforced when the full scope of ISIS’s savagery inside Mosul and the rest of Iraq and Syria becomes evident, and if the Shi’a militias running loose in Iraq are allowed to loot and level Sunni homes inside reconquered Mosul as they did in Ramadi, Beiji, and Tikrit.

My own exposure to gross physical cruelty of the sort that has for so long deformed Iraqi culture past and present occurred during a clandestine trip to the north of the country in the fall of 1991, when I and the filmmaker Gwynne Roberts stumbled upon what the world has come to know as the “Anfal” Operations, a systematic Ba’athist attempt in 1987–88 to do away with the “Kurdish question” by brutal mass eradication of villagers and villages alike. We entered by road through Turkey to locate and interview a fourteen-year-old boy, Taimour, who had miraculously survived execution by firing squad of his whole village, including his mother and sisters.[2]

A book Cruelty and Silence (1993) came out of that trip, which highlighted cruelties like that of the Anfal in Iraq and others in the rest of the Arab world, castigating those Arab or “pro-Arab” intellectuals, some of them acquaintances of mine, who stood “silent” in face of the horrors I had just witnessed in northern Iraq.[3] The book went down well among Iraqis, for whom dictatorship was the central preoccupation of their lives in those days, and badly among other Arabs, who could see only an “imperialist and Zionist” plot in the 1991 war against Saddam’s brutal sacking and annexation of Kuwait.

In retrospect I was far too shrill in my critique and would not write like that again. Seeing cruelty up close and personal, and then immediately writing about it, has that effect of knocking one off balance, making it harder to be convincing and take on the phenomenon as an Arab societal and cultural malaise that has to be faced up to. For survivors it is often simply impossible ever to take sufficient distance from what has happened to them, rending them unable to tell their stories convincingly to people who have no idea what it means to be thrown into a pit, fired upon by a ring of soldiers, and then have bulldozers shovel the dirt back in over your head, which is what happened to Taimour. I, who had written about atrocity in a removed theoretical kind of way in Republic of Fear, had never experienced it as intimately and bodily as I did in 1991. I emerged shell-shocked from my experiences in northern Iraq that year, and traces of that state of mind stayed with me ever since.

I went on to design a course at Brandeis University titled “Describing Cruelty,” whose underlying premise was to explore the phenomenon and the myriad of different ways of making it intelligible to others. But if that experience taught me anything, it was that cruelty was one of those quintessentially human but hard-to-discuss phenomena; “teaching” it amounted to getting as close as possible to what it was and then experimenting with how to think about it.

By definition, physical cruelty (organized torture at the extreme) defies common sense and reason, which is why neither philosophy nor social science has much to say about it (there is not a single platonic dialogue on cruelty, for instance).[4] Meanwhile, organized religion has for millennia done precious little to inhibit the practice. Quite the opposite as we saw during Europe’s religious wars of the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, and as we see today in the practices of all those movements that have “Islamized” politics in the Middle East. Since the Enlightenment that followed Europe’s religious wars, cruelty has in principle been rejected by modern sensibilities. But this rejection has had a limited impact on behavior (witness the return of torture in France after World War Two during the Algerian War of Independence, or in the US with Abu Ghraib and waterboarding in Guantanamo). A purely moral and never consistently practical rejection of cruelty makes it hard to convincingly repudiate, and one is led to conclude that perhaps our inability to do so stems from some deep and unfathomable corner of our nature as a species. And if this were true of the post Enlightenment world of the West, how much truer is it of the modern Middle East that has seen neither a reformation nor an enlightenment, and especially in countries like Iraq and Syria that in recent times have plumbed previously unimaginable depths of barbarism that undermine the very core of what it means to be human.

Slivers of hope in culture exist, however, and can be built upon to climb out of this abyss. Artists, unlike philosophers and thinkers, are rarely strangers to cruelty. Through their work, not the work of social scientists, we are permitted access into the phenomenon. From Dante and the traditions that governed the representation of the Crucifixion and other Passion scenes in Italian painting, to Goya, Dostoevsky, and William Hogarth, to name but a few, artists have successfully shone a light onto the terrible things that we human beings do to one another. My purpose in writing this essay is to add to the illustrious list of names above, one unknown ancient Assyrian artist (if he is one person; I am not sure of that).

My father’s last gift to me prior to his passing was a replica purchased from the British Museum of a dying lion that had been taken from the palace of the very same King Ashurbanipal whose blood-curdling words are cited above. He had, I later discovered, dispatched his reluctant nurse, who was never supposed to leave his side, to buy it from the museum shop, where the original sculptured reliefs, of which it is a small detail, reside. I did not think much about it at the time, finding it amusing that he had forgotten that my mother had already gifted the same very popular replica a decade earlier.

On the anniversary of his passing, I decided to visit the long stretch of corridor on the ground floor of the British Museum where the original stone relief, from which my replica had been made, was displayed. It was an exceptionally sunny day by London’s standards. Approaching the dark, artificially lit corridors west of the bright, sun-filled glass dome of the Great Courtyard, designed by Richard Rogers, is always a magical experience; I had walked it many times in the past. The Assyrian galleries always were a “must-see” family tradition when in London. The objects on display were therefore already very familiar to me. Only they had always been just a plain old set of carvings, relics of a lost imperial history that bore no relation to my own life. I took no special pride in them before my visit, as I now do after it.

For this time was different. I don’t know exactly why. Perhaps the anniversary of his death had something to do with it. Or the horribly pain-filled way he died, a process that dragged out for months and that made me think of my own dying and how I had to make sure it would never end up as world-destroying as his. Whatever it was, the impression left on me of the royal hunting scenes, from which the detail of my “dying lion” had been taken, felt completely new on that day; I was suddenly in the ancient past, not an outsider coldly observing its detritus. All that was familiar had turned strange and urgently in need of a new kind of internal reckoning.

Kanan Makiya "The Dying Lion" Photo 1

Thinking through my new feelings about the dying lion had to begin by knowing more about the Assyrian artifacts on display in the British Museum.

They were first discovered by Austen Henry Layard, a young amateur English archaeologist trained as an attorney who had spent years in the mid-nineteenth century searching for physical evidence that shed light on the stories in the Bible.[5] His first discovery was a huge obelisk with cuneiform inscriptions, followed by sculpted slabs of limestone weighing several tons each removed from the walls of the palace of the Assyrian king, Esarhaddon (680–669 BC), and the Northwest Palace of Ashurnasirpal II (883–859 BC). He had them meticulously drawn on site before removal to be cast in gypsum (in case they were destroyed or lost en route), then crated and placed on carts and trundled down to the Tigris to be loaded on barges that took them downriver to Basra where they were transported by steamship to Bombay, from where they were sailed around the horn of Africa to London, ending up in the two long corridor spaces squeezed between the ancient Egyptian and Greek galleries in the British Museum that I visited in the summer of 2016.

But it was not Layard who found the royal hunting scenes from which my replica had been made; it was his Assyrian assistant, Hormuzd Rassam (a native of what would later be called Iraq), who discovered the palace of Ashurbanipal (668–631 BC) in Nineveh. The lion-hunting scenes that included my dying lion replica had been carved out of huge panels of gypsum and limestone found in the hills around Mosul (a material still used in Iraq where it is called “Mosul stone”). They had adorned the interior walls of Ashurbanipal’s palace as integral elements of a whole scheme of interior decoration.[6] The kingdom of Assyria at the time these reliefs were made stretched from the eastern Mediterranean across Syria to the Persian Gulf. The artistic tradition it belonged to had peaked in the same century it all came to a violent end, in 621 BC, with the definitive destruction of the Assyrian empire and the entombment of its inscriptions and sculpted treasures under hills of rubble and decaying mud brick, which is how things remained for the next three thousand years until first Layard, and then Rassam, uncovered them.

In Ashurbanipal’s palace, Rassam found what is often described as the most important discovery of the Ancient Near East. Mixed in with the magnificent carvings of the lion hunt, he uncovered thirty thousand clay tablets and fragments written in cuneiform, each tablet averaging some 150 lines of text, among which were the tablets that contained the Epic of Gilgamesh, the world’s oldest work of literature. The room of Asurbanipal’s palace in Nineveh, whose walls were encased with the slabs of stone depicting the royal lion-hunt scenes now in the British Museum, was, it turns out, a royal library. And in that library was the Assyrian version of what is commonly referred to as the “Babylonian Poem of Creation,” a poem that gives us insight into what lion hunting meant in the world of ancient Assyria.

According to this creation story, civilization was the outcome of a terrible battle against the Great Mother of the universe, Tiamat, who had emerged out of a watery chaos. She had to be fought, cowed, and then shred to pieces out of which material the universe was fashioned by her conqueror and son, the god Assur (named Marduk in the Babylonian version), the founding god of Assyrian civilization. It is a very violent story indeed. However, Tiamat did not disappear; she is eternal and indestructible. The natural world as we see it was fashioned out of her carcass and can never be entirely subdued; it remained teeming with life.[7] The lions sculpted by my ancient unknown Assyrian artist (or artists) are, it turns out, brave and praiseworthy bits of this original Mother-Force whose continuous and never-ending suppression was as necessary as Tiamat’s original defeat was.

Nature was a source of disorder to the ancient Mesopotamian; everything had individuality and was alive, not an object separated from its observing subject, a distinction that is essential to our modern worldview. And the ancient Assyrian was aware that whatever order he acquired through the subjugation of this willfully anarchic force, always remained fragile and precarious, even after he found it. Order was not given as it was for the ancient Egyptian; it had to be taken “through a continual integration of the many individual cosmic wills, each so powerful, so frightening.”[8]

This absolute integration of family, community, and nature defined what a state was—the epitome of order—a notion later exploited by the totalizing tendencies of the Ba’athist state in Iraq and Syria. Naturally the Assyrian king was divinely appointed by the god Assur; he was high priest and custodian of his lands, responsible to him for its prosperity. The state whether then or now had to be all-encompassing: humans, land, built and unbuilt objects, as well as notions of justice and righteousness, all fell under its purview. But not all the competing anarchic wills that the state was meant to bring under one roof were equal; power differentiated the one from the other, and lions had great power, while slaves, children, and women had none.

Assyrian inscriptions from Ashurbanipal’s library tell us that it was the king’s duty to eliminate the danger these ferocious beasts, these resurgent leftovers of the all-powerful Tiamat, represented. The violence the king inflicted upon his lions (as on his subjects) was therefore justified, as violence is always justified, as a means to an end; it gave rise to the order that the ancient Assyrian so desperately sought, the kind of order that was on display in the king’s palace, whose walls were adorned by such magnificent scenes of the death and destruction of lions.

Stepping back from the detail of my dying lion to look at the whole scene, which can only be done by walking the length of the Assyrian gallery of the museum, the first thing one realizes is that the lions are actually in a huge arena encircled by soldiers and the king’s hunting retinue. There are many lions in various stages of combat with King Ashurbanipal and his soldiers. The lions are caged and released one by one. In one scene a child is shown standing on top of the cage, lifting its door to release a lion. He has his own little cage in which to duck into just in case the beast turns on him before the surrounding soldiers on horseback succeed in driving him toward the king’s chariot.

Kanan Makiya "The Dying Lion" Photo 2

Eighteen lions in all are inside the arena, confirming this is a ritualized act involving planning and coordination, no less complex than the Roman gladiator games of a later period. The arena dedicated to the warrior goddess Ishtar is inside the city of Nineveh (and therefore inside the city limits of today’s Mosul), and it has eighteen gates into Nineveh, indicating a magical connection between protecting the city and killing the lions.

The number of lions also indicates they must have been in no short supply in northern Iraq three millennia or so ago. Accompanying the exhibit is a note that says, “In the mid-seventh century, a series of good years with ample rain, lions were particularly common. The records of Ashurbanipal make the astonishing claim that ‘the hills resonated with their roaring, the wild animals tremble. They pull down the cattle, spill human blood as well. Corpses of men, cattle, and sheep lie in heaps as if the plague has killed them. Shepherds and herdsmen lament at what the lions have done. The villages are in mourning day and night.’”

Even accounting for desertification and climate change, the description feels exaggerated to one who has traveled through today’s largely barren landscape of northern Iraq. Could so many lions have roamed the plains around Mosul in the seventh century BC? And why were they brought to the king, into an arena surrounded by his watching subjects, instead of being hunted down in their natural habitat? There is a huge amount of organization, planning, and labor involved in such an enterprise, implying lions were not only numerous but crucially important to the ancient Assyrians in many ways.

Kanan Makiya "The Dying Lion" Photo 3

Killing lions fundamentally legitimated and shored up the Assyrian state. And in that are important lessons for the peoples of modern Iraq or Syria. There had to be many dead and dying lions for legitimation to work, the more the better, and the lions had to die over and over again for the sense of order to regularly impress itself upon the subjects of the god Assur’s successor, King Ashurbanipal. It is as though the death of a lion, like the beheadings of ISIS, was a form of sacrifice not made to appease the gods but to legitimate power by binding it to a cosmic world view from which it was deemed to originate.

While the hunt was underway, the ordinary men and women watching must have felt like guests at a festival of life and disorder confronting death and orders’ renewal. The rituals were no doubt designed to elevate the psychological tension and air of excitement leading up to the moment of the kill itself. This was the climax, like the slitting of a man’s throat, that released pent-up tensions focusing everyone watching onto the dying animal.[9] Because in dying, something very big was happening: the cosmic and the social were being realigned before spectators’ eyes, and this would happen over and over again every time there was a wild party that ended with dead and dying lions littered about the place. But if this is the enveloping ideology of the beginnings of the practice of lion hunting in ancient Assyria, one should have little doubt that by the time these extraordinary scenes in the British Museum were being carved, lion hunting had metamorphosed into a blood sport, the “sport of kings,” according to another Assyrian inscription.

The history of it all is illuminating; yet nothing I have said about the killings so far explains why a “Dying Lion,” familiar to me for decades, turned mysterious and strange on the anniversary of my father’s death when I revisited the corridors of the Assyrian gallery of the British Museum.

Kanan Makiya "The Dying Lion" Photo 4

What was my favorite unknown Assyrian artist thinking as he labored away at his masterpiece? I do not believe for an instant that he was thinking of Tiamat and the god Assur or his king, Ashurbanipal. He was studying in great detail how lions die. Lions are not easy animals to study. He had to have attended many royal hunts, and perhaps stood for hours outside the cages of captured lions, observing closely how their muscles were structured and how they rippled when they walked. He was looking at them, not at his lord and master, King Ashurbanipal. To do his job well, he had to know both their bodies and how the expression on their faces changed when they had something to say. He had to be able to distinguish between the meaning of one arrow’s entry point into a lion’s body versus another in a different location. He had to teach himself how to describe their pain and the dignity, or otherwise, of how they died. The greatness of his art, that which lasts forever, entirely rests on the closeness of such observations.

I cannot help but believe that my “dying lion” and all the other dying lions depicted in a variety of different poses (no two lions die in the same way), including a semi-paralyzed lioness, convey ideas that have nothing whatsoever to do with archaic Assyrian traditions concerning Tiamat and the like. And these ideas, call them feelings sculpted into stone, are what go on speaking to us over the centuries.

Compare the faces of the dead and dying lions with the face of the king who has just killed them. Here he is, King Ashurbanipal himself, in the tall, conical hat that identifies him as the absolute authority in the land:

Kanan Makiya "The Dying Lion" Photos 5-6

The lion is in pain; the king, all poise and erect, is expressionless. The lion’s eyebrow, nose, and cheek are wrinkled up as he turns in on himself, spewing blood. Yet the king is unflappable; he is order and politics incarnate. One can, I want to suggest, literally see intense feeling in the one, and its absence in the other. In a different life I was an amateur sculptor and can confirm from personal experience that what this unknown Assyrian artist from bygone times that I am putting on a pedestal has done is extremely hard to do—and hardest of all in stone.

Look at the dying animals and go back and forth between the faces of the lions and the face of the king. There is not a trace of sentimentality in either, just the sheer brutal fact of a pain-filled death beside gradually escalating power. There is a tenderness untroubled by pity in the face of the lion, as though in the declining powers of his ability to feel he is trying to understand what is happening to him. He falters as his pain grows, and the world recedes. The skill of the artist makes us viewers feel like we are in the lion’s presence but are losing the ability to connect with him. Our world, too, is shrinking. This is the moment of radical loneliness, his and ours, as we gaze at him. Strangely the fading animal is not afraid. He is still fighting through a few last gulps of air while his lungs fill up with blood that you can see pouring out of his mouth. Was an artery cut and unloading itself into a punctured lung? Is that why so much blood is spewing, literally out of stone?

It is the details, not the whole scene that plays with our emotions: the drooping head of the lion, the crinkling cheeks, the blood boldly pronounced and rendered as a flow—all small but critical evocations of feeling. It hardly matters that blood does not really look like that. We know instantly it is blood, not braids of hair, and we start to wonder which of the four arrows sticking in and coming out from every direction cut an artery that could have caused such a prodigious flow to spew out of his mouth. The care with which the arrows and their feathers have been chiseled is essential to the empathy that is being aroused in us. One of the arrows has conveniently exited, allowing us to view the arrowhead itself and thus imagine the havoc it must have wrought, its needle-sharp point and curvilinear metal instantly arousing in us the pain it must have caused as it streaked through flesh, cutting the tendons, sinews, and blood vessels in its way, and tearing to shreds the lion’s innards.

Pain cannot be seen; it has to be represented to be felt: by arrows in one dying lion, a spear in the next, or up close and personal with the short, thick blade of a sword in a third. This all-powerful king knows how to kill with every instrument at his disposal. That is one version of the story that had to be told in the lion-hunting reliefs of the British Museum. But there is another.

The edges and shape of the instrument used by the king, ever so daintily chiseled out of the stone, is our cue to the pain of the lion. A jab with a spear is one thing, a half-exiting arrow is another. Here are entry points allowing us to imagine the lion’s spirit reaching breaking point; now we have an arm’s-length sense of the kind of pain he must have been going through as his whole world collapsed in on itself.

Elaine Scarry makes a foundational observation in The Body in Pain: that physical pain has no referential content. Pain is never of or for anything. It is precisely because it takes no object that pain, more than any other phenomenon, resists objectification in language. Hearing, touching, desiring, hating, fearing, and loving are always of things in the world, outside our own bodies.

They make us reach out to something or someone else. They put us in the world, which is why it is easier to write about them and why so much of literature excels in their description. But pain is virtually impossible to describe because it happens only inside the isolation of our own bodies and is by definition inexpressible to others. Anyone hearing a torture victim tell his story, or the final, pain-filled stages of extreme old age as I did in 2015, only to experience the despair of not being understood, knows what I mean. Nothing exists for a body in pain other than itself.

I think our anonymous and unknowable Assyrian craftsman-artist (or perhaps there were more than one working under some religious scribe dictating the ideological message) intuitively understood these things. He was experimenting with how to visualize pain and suffering, wanting others to feel it through his work and empathize with the lion, not with his killer. Did he have an audience in mind? More than likely not. No great artist ever creates with the rest of us in mind. Our artist had only the lion he was working on in mind. The lion was his whole world. Is that too modern a way of putting it? Or could it be the word modern is itself out of place here?

Perhaps our ancient Assyrian artist is speaking to the timeless in our nature as human beings.

I thought I had seen all there was to see about my dying-lion replica many times before, but now I realize I only really saw those ideas and feelings for the first time on the anniversary of the day my father died. Now the dying lions’ reliefs mean something to me and will go on doing so for the rest of my life. They speak like Taimour spoke when I interviewed him in 1991, and dozens of others.

What is it about these extraordinary sculptures that could possibly speak? I suggest they are especially eloquent to those of us who come from countries like Iraq and Syria and have experience of rulers like Saddam Hussein and the Assad clan who, since 1968, have ruled as fiercely as their Assyrian forefathers had done, and ruled over much the same territory as the kingdom of Assyria in its heyday. Perhaps we have something more in common with them than a Londoner or New Yorker has. I don’t know. I make the suggestion in the belief that there is (or must be) some rock-bottom human truth, bordering on the universal, enshrined in my unknown Assyrian artist’s lion-hunting reliefs. Other words fail me. No doubt others have seen it before, but for some reason I failed to do so until the summer of 2016.

What about the artist himself? Or should I call him a craftsman because no one was called an artist in ancient Assyria? Paradoxically, in a smoothly functioning tyranny, artists can sometimes let themselves go in ways which in a free society they cannot get away with. Freedom demands self-restraint and imposes responsibility. In a tyranny, on the other hand, the artist is unconstrained, an outsider who is left alone and can sometimes, if he is gifted and lucky enough, get away with something that his king would not be able to see, like I did not see until the summer of 2016. Kings see only themselves most of the time; that is in the nature of being a king. On the other hand, myriads of little choices had to be made as my anonymous Assyrian artist chipped away at all that which was superfluous in an otherwise commonplace block of stone. Could such chippings be made other than with prior intent? I don’t think so. This intent that our artist breathed into his dying lions is the soul of the work. But at whom was it directed? Who was his audience? We shall never know, but I like to think he had us all in mind. But then did his supervisor, the religious scribe supervising him and worrying about Tiamat and Order and the overcoming of chaos, see what I saw in the dying lions in the summer of 2016? I doubt it. My unknown hero Assyrian artist was undoubtedly a rebel of sorts, one who I dearly hope got away with it. But we shall never know.

When, and it happens very rarely, we are blessed to see in a work of art a soul or spirit of some sort, we call the work creation. Great art is often compared to divinity. And rightly so. The Assyrian king was deemed divine, but a truer and deeper divinity lies in what his no doubt very lowly subject, the craftsman, bequeathed to the world. The truer divinity is not in the killer-king with his silly crown, the abstractness of whose power is reaffirmed each time he kills.

Killing, after all, is what he is all about. Divinity lies in what my unknown artist has gifted to us by way of his depictions of the king’s victims, the dying lions.

In this imagery of pain handed down to us across the ages, I like to think, is found a small connection between the world of the Assyrians and what the residents of cities like Mosul, Rakka, and Aleppo, all parts of the ancient Assyrian Empire, went through in 2017. And so I would say to all those critics who throw up their hands in hopelessness at the worlds of cruelty unfolding around us in Mosul, and that will unfold tomorrow in Raqqa and the rest of the Middle East: my unknown ‘Iraqi’ artist, not King Ashurbanipal, is the ancestor of those of us who would wish war-torn Iraq a less cruel future.

The words of the great British poet, Siegfried Sassoon, writing after the carnage of World War One, come to mind:

Babylon that was beautiful is nothing now,
Once to the world it tolled a golden bell:
Belshazzar wore its blaze upon his brow;
Ruled; and to ruin fell.
. . .
Babylon the merciless, now a name of doom,
Built towers in Time, as we today, for whom
Auguries of self-annihilation loom.[10]


[1] Joan Oates, Babylon, revised edition (London: Thames and Hudson, 1991) 123.

[2] The film first aired on the BBC in London under the title The Road to Hell, and on March 21, 1992, aired in the USA on Frontline as Saddam’s Killing Fields, winning the Edward R. Murrow Award for Best Television Documentary on Foreign Affairs in 1992.

[3] Kanan Makiya, Cruelty and Silence: War, Tyranny, Uprising and the Arab World (New York: W.W. Norton, 1993).

[4] See Judith Shklar’s seminal essay “Putting Cruelty First,” in Ordinary Vices (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1984).

[5] I am greatly indebted for the historical information in this article to Paul Collins’s superb book Assyrian Palace Sculptures (London: The British Museum Press, 2015).

[6] On Hormuzd Rassam, see Later in life, Rassam emigrated to the United Kingdom, where he was naturalized as a British citizen and settled in Brighton where he lived out the rest of his years until his death on Sept. 16, 1910.

[7] See Henri Frankfort and others, The Intellectual Adventure of Ancient Man (University of Chicago Press, 1946) 6.

[8] For a brilliant elucidation of this world view of the ancient Mesopotamian, see Henri Frankfort and others, The Intellectual Adventure of Ancient Man (University of Chicago Press, 1946). On the Babylonian poem of creation, see also the Introduction by N. K. Sanders to Poems of Heaven and Hell from Ancient Mesopotamia, p. 62.

[9] See W. Burkert, R. Girard, and J. Smith, Violent Origins: Ritual Killing and Cultural Formation (Stanford University Press, 1987).

[10] Siegfried Sassoon, “Babylon,” reprinted in Chapters into Verse, vol I: Genesis to Malachi, Robert Atwin and Laurence Wieder, eds. (Oxford University Press, 1993) 391–92.

All images in this essay are courtesy of Bushra Makiya.

Kanan Makiya
Kanan Makiya just stepped down as the Sylvia K. Hassenfeld Professor of Islamic and Middle Eastern Studies at Brandeis University. His titles include the nonfiction works Republic of Fear: The Politics of Modern Iraq (1989), The Monument (1991), and Cruelty and Silence: War, Tyranny, Uprising and the Arab World (1993), as well as the novels, The Rock: A Seventh-Century Tale of Jerusalem (2001), and The Rope (2016). Makiya has written for the Independent, the New York Times, New York Review of Books, the Times Literary Supplement, and the Times. He is currently working on a book in Arabic titled, On Cruelty, of which this article forms one chapter.