Archaeologist Victor Klinkenberg examined an old Assyrian settlement in Syria, near to the IS stronghold Raqqa. “Social life was more important than military life,” he concluded.
The Assyrian Empire (ca. 2000 to 609 BC) was highly successful. At its height, it stretched from Turkey to Egypt and the Persian Gulf. Historians have wondered for a long time how the Assyrians were able to maintain power over such a huge region.
Tell Sabi Abyad
Research by PhD candidate Victor Klinkenberg has now provided an answer to part of this question. He has shown that Assyrian dominance was by no means always secured by using violence and brute force. Klinkenberg drew this conclusion after studying the settlement at Tell Sabi Abyad in present-day northern Syria. ‘This village was inhabited around 1200 BC,’ Klinkenberg explained. ‘The Assyrians founded the settlement when they conquered the region, so you’d expect it to be mainly a military outpost, ruled from above. But that doesn’t seem to be the case.’
Kinkenberg found that the rooms and houses of Tell Sabi Abyad had many different functions, and that they changed frequently. At one time it was a café where visitors drank beer, and at another time it was a rubbish tip. Klinkenberg: ‘All this shows that social life played a much greater role than military life. Apparently, positive stimuli and local stability were important factors in the Assyrians’ imperial activities.’
Klinkenberg’s research is part of a larger project headed by lecturer Bleda Düring, financed with a subsidy from the European Research Council (ERC). In recent years, the work of the Leiden researchers has been severely hindered by the rise of the Islamic State terror movement. Tell Sabi Abyad is around 80 km from Raqqa, the capital of the IS caliphate.
It was impossible for Klinkenberg to travel to the settlement. ‘In the past five years, nobody from our team has visited the excavations,’ he explained. ‘We did hear recently that a lot of archaeological finds have been destroyed or stolen. That’s such a waste, particularly as most of the remnants have no financial value. They’re worth absolutely nothing on the black market, but their value to science is enormous.’
Fortunately, all the earlier excavations at Tell Sabi Abyad have been carefully documented. ‘The project has been running for 35 years. The ground area is photographed every season; the location of the finds is mapped and buildings and rooms are measured. These measures meant that I could do my research at a distance.’ Like every other archaeologist, Klinkenberg would have preferred to visit the site in person. ‘But that’s a minor inconvenience compared to the suffering of the Syrian people.’