Peeps at Ancient Assyria - Jamse Baikie

The King Goes Hunting

Morning, however, brings us the news that the king is going off to the foot of the mountains for a few days on a great lion hunt, and that we must hasten if we wish to see the Lord of the Four Quarters of the World. So we hurry away towards the palace, and erelong we see its enormous battlements towering above the rest of the city walls where these overlook the bank of the Tigris. Palace and temple stand side by side, and both are memorials of Ashur-natsir-pal's splendor and wealth, and of the wonderful success he has had in his wars; for only one who had conquered many nations could have commanded all the costly materials from distant lands which make these buildings the most gorgeous ever yet seen in Assyria. An Egyptian king would have put out all his splendor on a temple to the god who gave him victory, and would himself have lived in a comparatively simple and unpretentious, though exquisitely decorated, building. But an Assyrian monarch, though he may give much to the gods, never forgets to give more to himself, and the magnificence of the Palace of Kalah would make Pharaoh's home at Thebes look insignificant.

Along the east bank of the Tigris runs a great platform cored with unburnt, and faced with burnt and glazed bricks, except on the outer side where it forms the continuation of the city wall, and where it is faced with stone. On this platform, which is solid except for the drains that pierce it and carry off the rainwater, rises the palace itself. It is a great square, 350 feet long on each side. In the center of the square lies an open court, 125 feet long by 100 feet wide; and round this court are grouped all the rooms of the palace—the women's quarters on one side, the king's own apartments on another, while the great reception chambers and the offices of the state departments occupy the rest of the building. Most magnificent of all is the great hall of audience, where the king sits on his throne to receive his courtiers or the ambassadors of foreign powers, and to try cases of importance. An elevated platform, on which stands a great chair of ivory and gold carved with lions' heads on the arms and lions' legs for the feet, occupies one end of the hall, and from it the chamber runs for 154 feet. A little more width would have made it a very noble room; but the Assyrian was always afraid to build his rooms wide because of the difficulty of getting beams long enough to act as rafters, and though he knew how to build an arch of brick, he never ventured to vault over a whole room in this fashion. So the great hall is only 33 feet wide, and in spite of its gorgeous decoration looks more like a very splendid corridor than a king's chamber.

All around this gallery, and indeed round all the public rooms of the palace, runs a line of sculptured alabaster slabs. Each slab has carved upon it a picture of some of the achievements of the king, either in war or in the chase; so that as you walk round the rooms you have a pictured history of his reign before your eyes. The halls are roofed with costly cedar beams from Lebanon, magnificent curtains of varied colors hang across the entrances, and everywhere there is a profusion of gilding and decoration, so that the eye grows weary of splendor.

Ashur-natsir-pal II


But now the traveling chariot of the king is waiting at the gate of the inner courtyard, and in a few minutes the royal hunting party will be starting. The chariot seems heavy and clumsy to one accustomed to the light and graceful cars of the Egyptians; but it is gorgeously decorated with plates of beaten gold, and the three magnificent horses, which paw the ground impatiently as they wait for their master, are splendid in gold-mounted harness. Over the chariot, on the side where the king will stand, is fixed a great umbrella, gay with blue, white, and red, to shade His Majesty from the blazing Mesopotamian sun. Behind the chariot is drawn up a double line of horsemen, the royal bodyguard. Ashur-natsir-pal has paid great attention to the cavalry branch of his army, and these men are a pretty workmanlike force, though their saddles are very primitive, and the want of stirrups makes their seat somewhat precarious. One line consists of lancers who bear a long spear in addition to their swords and daggers; the other is made up of bowmen, whose bows, though smaller than those of the archers in the infantry divisions, are stiff enough to require both strength and skill in the bending of them. Both lines wear peaked bronze helmets and quilted cuirasses with metal scales sewn upon them.

Now the great bronze-plated cedar doors of the palace open, and the king himself comes forth in all his glory, his courtiers bowing to the ground as he passes. The great conqueror is a man of middle height, square-shouldered, broad-chested, and heavily bearded on both cheeks and chin, the black locks of head and beard arranged in a multitude of curls and heavily oiled and perfumed. On his head he wears the royal cap, of white woolen stuff, striped with blue, and adorned with a band of gold embroidery. His under-dress is of deep blue, and has sleeves coming down almost to the elbow, leaving the brawny and sun-burnt forearms exposed. Over this garment he wears a heavy cloak of white woolen stuff, with gay-colored astrakhan trimming, and heavy embroidery of red, blue, white, and gold. This cloak falls to his feet, so that the royal figure is completely enveloped in it, and looks rather shapeless and clumsy. In the broad golden girdle are thrust two daggers, while a short sword, with a sheath of ivory and gold, and a golden pommel of somewhat heavy design, hangs from the belt. His Majesty is bedizened with jewelry; heavy earrings hang down to his shoulders; a broad golden necklet encircles his thick neck, and each wrist is adorned with a massive bracelet. Altogether he makes a very sumptuous and imposing figure, thoroughly Oriental in its gaudiness and glitter and grease, as he steps into the waiting chariot.

With a plunge or two the fiery horses start, and as the charioteer pulls them into a more sober and stately gait the outer doors that open from the courtyard on the platform are thrown wide, and the royal chariot sweeps out between the colossal human-headed bulls and lions which guard the entrance, and glides down the long slope into the street which leads to the city gate. The guard clatters along behind the chariot, and the cars of the courtiers who are to share the royal hunt follow at a respectful distance; and the whole gay cortege winds off across the plain towards the distant blue hills at whose base the hunting camp has already been pitched.

Lions are still fairly plentiful in Mesopotamia, and they are peculiarly the royal quarry in hunting. In ancient days they were so numerous as to be an absolute terror to the land, and it was no less the king's duty than his pleasure to make war upon them, as upon any other enemy of the kingdom. Three hundred years before, Tiglath-Pileser I., a mighty hunter before the Lord as well as a mighty king, boasted as loudly of the lions, the wild bulls, and the elephants he had slain, as of the foes he had conquered. Times have changed, however, since the days when the elephant gave the great Pharaoh of Egypt, Thothmes III., such a narrow run for his life on the banks of the Euphrates. The elephant has disappeared, practically exterminated by constant hunting; the wild bull is growing scarcer and scarcer, and the lion no longer ranges almost to the gates of the big towns. Still, if you go to look for him in his lairs among the scrub at the foot of the hills and in the marshland, he is generally to be found.

By the time that the royal party has reached the hunting camp, the state huntsmen have succeeded in locating a pair of lions in a patch of jungle not far away, and the whole company moves at once towards the spot. Arrived there, the foot-guards and huntsmen, accompanied by a number of fierce dogs of a brindled mastiff type, proceed to beat the jungle, with the view of driving the lions to the open plain; while the chariots of the party, and the horsemen of the bodyguard, are ranged in a wide ring around the spot ready to intercept anything that may break out. Before long a fierce barking, with an accompaniment of thunderous growling, announces that the dogs are in touch with their quarry, and presently a big black-maned lion bursts out of the jungle, leaving behind him a guardsman whose helmet and skull have been crushed by a single blow, and a couple of mangled dogs. He evidently considers discretion the better part of valor, and rushes past the royal chariot, making for the hills; but the king's bow is drawn with a sure hand, and a swift arrow takes the fleeing brute right between the shoulders—a splendid shot which checks his speed at once. It is followed by a second which pierces the monster just behind the right shoulder, and a third which enters at the back of the ear; and, mortally stricken, the great beast sinks at once to the ground and dies almost without a struggle.

Ashur-natsir-pal III


Such good fortune is most unusual, and it is followed by what might well have been a tragedy. The king has scarcely had time to lower his bow after his last successful shot, when a shout from behind makes him turn hastily in the chariot. There within fifty yards of him is the other lion, which has broken out from the jungle while the attention of all was riveted upon his companion. A few strides will bring him upon the chariot, and long before the foot-guards who are in hot pursuit can divert his rage, all will be over. But Ashur-natsir-pal's eye is quick and his hand steady. The charging lion is met full in the chest by a well-aimed shaft. As he winces from the stroke, a second catches him in the flank, and a third in the crest. Unconquerable to the last, he still comes on, roaring with mingled anger and pain; but a fourth shaft takes him deep in the breast, and just as he raises his mighty paw to strike down chariot and huntsmen together, his strength fails, and he falls almost upon the king, while the royal bow is still bent for another shot.

It is a sufficiently splendid result for a short day's hunting, and the king is not a little proud of his success, and above all of the presence of mind which he has shown. It is not always, however, that such speedy triumph rewards the hunting party. Sometimes the lions take to the bush-covered islands in the great marshes, and it is a task of no small difficulty and danger to drive a light skiff through the tangled reeds and water-plants and to get within effective arrow-shot of the quarry. Indeed, on one occasion the king and all his party nearly paid for their daring with their lives. One lion had been secured and slain without much difficulty; when, as the oarsmen drove their craft through a narrow channel, half-choked with undergrowth and water-plants, a deafening roar was heard, and a huge lion hurled himself from the bank upon the very gunwale of the boat. Generally speaking, it would have been more than a man's life was worth for any subject to wound a lion while the king was there in person to do the killing; but this was no time for ceremony. As the boat heeled almost gunwale under beneath the mighty paws of the fierce brute, two guardsmen sprang to their feet and met the lion with the thrust of their spears, while a third covered the king with his shield. Ashur-natsir-pal never for a moment lost his presence of mind. His bow was drawn instantly, and an arrow flashed between the guardsmen into the lion's shaggy chest. After a short struggle the great brute fell back dead into the water, and was hauled out in triumph and slung on the stern of the boat. Then the guardsmen who had dared to come between the king and death bowed low before their master and craved his pardon for having been so presumptuous as to strike the royal game; and in consideration of the unusual circumstances and the need for haste, His Majesty was graciously pleased to forgive their impetuosity.

For the next two or three days hunting continues with varying success; but on the fourth day a courier arrives from Kalah with important news. The tribes of Northern Syria, upon whose territories Ashur-natsir-pal has long cast envious eyes, have at last given him the pretext which he desires. They have joined in alliance, have robbed several Assyrian merchants, and slain an Assyrian resident. Ashur-natsir-pal could not have wished for anything better. Now he has a plausible excuse for descending upon them and bringing them under the Assyrian yoke, as he meant to do all along. The hunting-camp is broken up, and the royal party returns to Kalah in haste, bearing the bodies of the slain lions slung on poles. Then in the palace, to the strains of sacred music, the royal hunter solemnly pours a libation of wine over the carcasses of the brutes, less ferocious than himself, whom he has vanquished, and turns to the arrangements for the still more congenial sport of hunting human beings.