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At the Center of the World


The gates of dur-Šarrukin

Dur-Sharrukin (“Fortress of Sargon”), present day Khorsabad, was the Assyrian capital established on the virgin soil by Sargon II of Assyria (721–705 BC). Khorsabad is a village in northern Iraq, 15 km northeast of Mosul. The great city was entirely built in the decade preceding 706 BC. Sargon II ruled from 722 to 705 BC. After the unexpected death of Sargon in battle, the capital was shifted 20 km south to Nineveh.

The square-like city had been oriented with corners pointing towards the contemporary cardinal directions. namely north, south, west and east, and walls oriented according to the traditional Mesopotamian cardinal directions, namely NE, NW, SE, and SW. It was intended to be a cosmological centre of the world.

According to Sargon’s inscription, there were eight gates of dur-Šarrukin, two in each cardinal direction, and each gate was attributed to one deity from Assyrian pantheon according to the direction of the winds of heaven. The analysis of the list of these eight gods and goddesses proves that Sargon decided to use the esoteric Babylonian tradition in order to place his capital in the symbolic centre of the world.

The demands for timber and other materials and craftsmen, who came from as far as coastal Phoenicia, are documented in contemporary Assyrian letters. The debts of construction workers were nullified in order to attract a sufficient labour force. The land in the environs of the town was taken under cultivation, and olive groves were planted to increase Assyria’s deficient oil-production.

The great city was entirely built in the decade preceding 706 BC, when the court moved to Dur-Sharrukin, although it was not completely finished yet. Sargon was killed during a battle in 705. After his unexpected death his son and successor Sennacherib abandoned the project, and relocated the capital with its administration to the city of Nineveh, 20 km south. The city was never completed and it was finally abandoned a century later when the Assyrian empire fell.

It is obvious that the association of the south with Enki and of the west with Anu repeats both in MUL.APIN, in the catalogues of winds and in the gates of dur-Šarrukin. on the other hand, the association of the north with Enlil is attested only in MUL.APIN and Sargon’s document, and not in the catalogues of winds. It suggests that the priests, Sargon’s learned counsellors, used the astronomical schema rather than esoteric texts.

The only seeming discordance concerns the eastern gate, attributed to Šamaš and Adad, although one would expect Anu if astronomical tradition is assumed or Enlil if two catalogues of winds are to be believed. however, such a discordance is very easy to explain taking into account a fact that both Anu and Enlil have already been attributed to other gates and the god perfectly associated with eastern direction is Šamaš, the Sun-God who every morning departs the great gatein the mountains of the east.

Thus, the explanation of the first “row” of gods related to the gates of dur-Šarrukin is quite easy: here are the gods of three sky-sectors and the Sun-God representing the east, the direction of sunrise. Moreover, one may say that the relation between gods and their gates was more likely based on astronomical tradition represented by MUL.APIN than on secondary catalogues of winds.

Also the deities of the second “row” fit well to the system. In three cases they are the goddesses related to the gods of the first “row”. Mullissu is the spouse of Aššur, the main god of Assyria, associated with Enlil as the supreme king of gods and men. She was also connected to the north gate of Nineveh. ‘

The association of Ištar and Anu is even stronger in Mesopotamian tradition since at least the 3rd millennium when in Urukite tradition Ištar was believed to depose Anu from the throne of heavens. The planet venus was her planetary attribute and for that reason her relation to the heaven was firm and obvious, at least for Mesopotamian sky-watchers.

Belet-ilani, the Mother-Goddess, is a co-creator of the mankind in Mesopotamian mythologies, together with Enki the god of wisdom. And finally the last god of the second “row”, Adad, the master of storms, although not feminine, was often coupled with Šamaš in learned religious tradition, since both gods were frequently summoned by the priests as the patrons of divination.

It appears then that the names of gates in dur Šarrukin are arranged in such a manner that each direction has two divine patrons: one related to sky-watching tradition and the other associated to the first. The further astronomical background of four directions may be traced with the use of the catalogue of winds included in MUL.APIN.

The north direction is associated with the constellation of Wagon (mul mar.gíd.da), which can be identified as our modern Ursa Maior, the circumpolar constellation seen in the northern sky, also referred to in the name of the northern gate of Nineveh. Also the southern direction is quite clearly represented by the constellation of Fish (mul ku), “heading the stars of Ea”, and identified as Piscis Austrinus.

In Mesopotamia it was observed close to the southern horizon. Two other constellations are not so obviously related to their directions. The west is associated with Scorpion (mul gí, the east with Pleiades (mul.mul) and the old Man (mul š, also known under the name of Enmešarra and identified as Perseus.

Scorpion is located close to one visible end of the Milky Way while the remaining two constellations stand near the other end and this observation may have been a reason of their association with opposite directions. All tree constellations rise in the east and set in the west, but their association with one of these directions only is possible to explain in the grounds of symbolical geography.

The association of Enmešarra (one of dead gods in Mesopotamian mythology) and the eastern direction may be caused by the relation of the dead gods-ancestors to the mountain of decision-making (duku), identified with the mountain of sunrise in the far east.

The heliacal rising of Pleiades announced, at least according to the tradition of MUL.APIN, the beginning of the New year in Mesopotamian calendar. Thus, both constellationsare symbolically connected with the east, and for that reason Scorpion, the constellation observed in opposition to them (cf. MUL.APIN I iii 13), may have been viewed as connected with the west.

Such an astral symbolism is not directly referred to in Sargon’s inscription, but very likely it makes the background for the association of deities with the eight gates of dur-Šarrukin.

The orientation of dur-Šarrukin, resembling the orientation of Mesopotamian temples,and the divine names of its gates indicateratherclearly that Sargon decided to use the sacred geographical and cosmological tradition for placing his capital into the very centre of the world, between north and south, between east and west, precisely according to directions defined by the gods as main axes of the world.

In Sargon’s time the Mesopotamian sky-watching entered the phase of its greatest development and this interest in the “world above” was translated into Assyrian imperial ideology and, among others, into the plan of new capital. dur-Šarrukin may have been seen in terms of Sargon’s intention as the ideal city, representing the universe and embodying the world order set by the gods in remote times.

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