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Ancient World Seminar: Jonathan Valk (Leiden), "Empire of Assyrians: Conceptualizing Assyrianness in the Assyrian Empire"

When:Tu 17-09-2019 16:15 - 17:30
Where:Courtroom, Faculty of Theology and Religious Studies, Oude Boteringestraat 38, Groningen
Lecture Jonathan Valk
Lecture Jonathan Valk


Empire is a bundle of unequal relationships. An imperial core establishes hegemony over and draws on the resources of other territories. This process involves making many distinctions: between center and periphery, ruler and ruled, civilization and barbarism, us and them. Such distinctions are the forge of imperial identities. Who gets to be “us”, who is obliged to be “them”, and on what basis? In the colonial empires of the last few centuries, the default answer to these questions has been to distinguish between peoples, between the Europeans who rule and the non-Europeans who are ruled. European colonialists have also positioned themselves time and again as the bearers of civilization, Christian and enlightened, to benighted barbarians mired in superstition and backwardness. There can be no doubt as to who is “us”, and who is “them”.

But this caricature is just one iteration of imperial identity. In the Assyrian Empire of the first half of the first millennium BCE – what Mario Liverani (2017) has called “the prototype empire” – imperial identity took on a different shape. “Us” and “them” was not a question of distinct peoples bound together in a fixed hierarchical relationship. Assyrianness was instead bound up in the universal promise of empire. Assyrian imperialism sought to impose the divine order over the mundane world. The boundary between order and disorder was simultaneously the boundary between the Assyrian empire itself and the lands beyond. That which was within was Assyrian: good, proper, “us”. That which lay beyond was the other: strange, improper, “them”. Although this conceptualization mirrors that of more recent colonial imperialism, it is not invested in a fixed differentiation between peoples within the empire. In the lands governed by Assyria, differences between peoples fade into insignificance. What matters is participation in the Assyrian order. Assyrianness reveals itself not to be an ethnonational construct, but rather a state of mind.

About the speaker

Jonathan Valk is University Lecturer in Assyriology at Leiden University. He obtained his doctorate from New York University’s Institute for the Study of the Ancient World. Jonathan works on the history of Mesopotamia and the broader ancient Near East in the second and first millennia BCE, with a particular interest in the history of Assyria. His research explores identity formation, social inequality, text production, language change, ancient economy, ancient sociology, empire and imperialism, and ancient literature.