Shato brikhto (Happy New Year of 2019)! I am excited to share a new design piece of mine — a visual expression of the Assyrian capital, Nineveh. I also detail some of my research, design process, and other musings in this post. Nineveh is part of a lettering & illustration series I am working on, which carries a heavy emphasis on architecture and archaeology of each city I explore and design on. I hope to discuss this cityscape series in a future post. But if you’re curious right now, please take a look at my Vibes of Sana’a project, which was the first design of this series. So without further ado . . .
LANGUAGES Represented by Lettering:
I composed Nineveh in four different forms, but in three different scripts: (1) Cuneiform, (2, 3) Syriac, and (4) Arabic. Scripts from top to bottom: Cuneiform, Syriac (Classical), Syriac (Eastern), and Arabic. I arranged these scripts in that order chronologically. The oldest language that would have been used in the Nineveh during ancient times lies at the top, which is Old Assyrian. The most recent language used by the inhabitants of this region lies at the bottom, which is Arabic (Iraqi dialect).
Let’s start from the top — Cuneiform. There are many versions of Cuneiform syllabaries. Different dialects and writing systems of Cuneiform evolved from the different regions within Mesopotamia (Assyria versus Babylonia). There are also differences of Cuneiform due to the different time periods spanning its usage, such as Old Assyrian (OA), Neo-Assyrian (NA), Old Babylonian (OB), and Neo-Babylonian (NB). There are clay tablets containing a mix of languages and dialects of Cuneiform (Sumerian mixed with Akkadian), and there are tablets containing a mix of ideograms and syllabaries (writing systems shifted over time).
The variant of Cuneiform I decided to choose to represent the name “Nineveh” is the Old Assyrian version. It took me a long while to research all the various Cunei-forms (heh) that can spell out “Nineveh”. So I really hope the ideograms or syllables I used in this illustration is accurate. If you are a linguist or Assyriologist and believe I made a mistake, I would appreciate you letting me know. The more I learn, the more I realise how much I still have to learn.
Below the Cuneiform, we have “Nineveh” written in the Estrangela Syriac script — the oldest written form of Syriac. Underneath Estrangela, we have the Madnhaya Syriac script (Chaldean or Nestorian) used by the eastern Assyrians. As I created this, I debated on whether to include an additional Syriac script in this piece. Serta (Maronite or Jacobite), was spoken and written by western Assyrians, in dialects like Turoyo. I felt, though, that including this third Syriac script would be inaccurate to represent Nineveh, as that script is more associated with western regions of the historic Assyria, such as in Tur Abdin (in modern day Turkey). So I left Serta out; however, I will happily include it in customized versions of this piece.
Arabic: Finally, we have Arabic at the very bottom. Although Arabic is the dominant language of Iraq and Syria today, it is not the official language of the Assyrian nation.
With the illustration, I aimed for a rustic look, somewhere between abstract and realism. I sketched two Lamassu (Lamassi?) on the foreground of either side of the design. The Assyrian “tree of life” stands in the background. Protruding from the tree are branches that twist and turn, and finish off with flowering leaves, in depictions of it on the Old Assyrian tablets and reliefs. The branches become one with the four languages of lettering I included, as they share a similar form. I wanted to really make this tree intricate and to hide the scripts within the branches to evoke mystery . . . but later I decided that my work and its meaning would become lost. Versions of a “sacred tree” or “tree of life” are quite universal in cultures beyond Babylon, and can be seen in Old Norse literature all the way to Mayan and Aztec works of art.
I started this piece in January 2018, while I was at my old job in the firm. I liked staying a little late to take advantage of the silence, the bright lighting, and large desks in the office (all features of which I lacked at home), as escapees from the office plunged themselves into heavy traffic. As always, my art work begins with anger. I was angry at several events that happened in areas of Syria and Iraq that we sentient and sensitive citizens of Earth have no control over. I needed to find a release somewhere, so I converted my negative emotions into creative energy. It started with a pencil lamassu sketch, based off a cell phone picture from Met. Museum in NY. Why couldn’t these colossal entities come to life and protect inhabitants of Assyria? Then I realized I could borrow the concept from my Sana’aa multi-lingual lettering design for a new piece featuring Nineveh, the lamassus, and . . . the Assyrian tree of life! I made two separate pencil sketches before digitally erasing my sloppiness, connecting missing lines, and completely reworking other areas in the design. Then I researched an appropriate colour palette. Assyrian and Babylonian art is often depicted with lots of neutral browns with a pop from lapis lazuli blue and gold.
Message from the Artist:
Take a look at a map of the Middle East, and you will not see a country labeled “Assyria”, nor will her borders be distinguished. Assyria is a region of the Middle East that covers eastern Syria, northern Iraq, and bits of southern Turkey and westernmost parts of Iran. In these four modern-day nations, there are ancient Assyrian ruins throughout, as well as contemporary Assyrian villages and cities. There was a time where Assyria was not only a vague territory or region, or a country even — she was an Empire. Her capital stood at Nineveh, near the modern Iraqi city of Mosul. After the fall of Nineveh in 612 BCE, Assyria ceased to be an Empire, though her many towns remained. Her languages survived. Her people survived and are still living today. And her culture survived. Nineveh has been through so much Arabisation since the spread of Islam across the Near East, as Arabic is the sacred language of the Holy Qur’an. Over the centuries, Assyrians have picked up on what quickly became the dominant language, but remained a people without an official autonomy. Assyria has been through far worse than just linguistic and cultural demise, though. Seyfo, which comes from the Arabic word sayf for ‘sabre’, was the genocide of the Christian populations that occurred during WWI by Ottoman troops between 1914-1920. 100 years later, today, we see even more atrocities being committed by ISIL/Da’esh whom are all anti- Muslim, Christian, Yazidi, Zoroastrian, Jewish, and Pagan. It’s sickening. It makes me sick that there is far too little that I, or anyone else, can do about these human rights violations to have an effect. Only few governments have the power to run the world’s affairs. At this point, can all we do is keep the memory alive? or sustain it? or can we make what is a declining culture rise again and become an influence in the Middle East?
We cannot let the dark forces allow societies in the Middle East to just tolerate one another’s existence and to “pray” for one another, but celebrate the diversity and richness within our homes and have open discussions for learning.