Šubria, a safe haven in the mountains

The kingdom of Šubria was situated in the mountainous regions to the north of the Assyrian holdings on the Upper Tigris. The country had a wide-reaching reputation as a haven for refugees and its kings were obliged by religious duty to follow this policy despite the fact that this caused friction with its powerful neighbour.

The Northland

The city of Uppume as depicted on Band VIII (top right) of the Balawat Gates of Shalmaneser III (858-824 BC) is identified by an accompagnying cuneiform caption: "I conquered the city of Uppumu, belonging to Anhitte of Šubria". The city in the lower register was probably also in Šubria, most likely Kullimeri. From L. W. King, Bronze Reliefs from the Gates of Shalmaneser King of Assyria, London: British Museum, 1915, pl. XLIV. View large image.

The kingdom of Šubria occupied the mountainous landscape on the northern bank of the river Tigris, opposite the Assyrian provinces of Amidi PGP  and Tušhan PGP  which had been established in the 9th century BC. Since then, Šubria was an Assyrian vassal and ally, constituting a buffer zone to Urartu with which it shared a long border in the shape of the substantial mountain ridges of the Taurus to the north and east of the small kingdom. To patrol its borders, Šubria relied in part on Assyrian troops, as demonstrated by a letter from the correspondence of Tiglath-pileser III (744-727 BC) in which a contingent of 300 Itu'ean crack troops is being requested (ND 2488 = SAA 19 77).

"Šubria" is the Assyrian designation, and this traditional Mesopotamian name simply means "Northland". There are at present no native sources available that would reveal under what name the country was known to its inhabitants but it is most likely that the kingdom shared the name of its capital city Kullimeri where a royal palace was located (SAA 5 25). In any case, this is the country's name in Urartian sources, where it is called Qulmeri, and in the Bible (Ezekiel 27:23), where we encounter it in the corrupted spelling Klmd (from the correct Klmr) as one of the partners in the trading network of the Phoenician kingdom of Tyre.

The best candidate for identification with Kullimeri is Gre Migro [http://maps.google.com/maps?q=http://www.ucl.ac.uk/sargon/downloads/gre_migro.kmz&t=k&z=18] (38° 1' N, 41° 11' E), the largest settlement mound by far on the eastern bank of the Batman Su river where the city must be sought. Situated some 25 km to the north of the confluence with the Tigris, the site occupies a strategic location that allows control of the river traffic and the monitoring of the passage leading across the Tur Abdin. On the other side of that mountain range lies the most important east-west connection of the Assyrian empire, the stretch of the King's Road leading via the Assyrian city of Naṣibina PGP  (modern Nusaibin) from Nineveh to the Mediterranean coast.

The other major city of the kingdom of Šubria is Uppummu (also Pumu) which lies in the extreme west of the country and corresponds to the site of Fum [http://maps.google.com/maps?q=http://www.ucl.ac.uk/sargon/downloads/fum.kmz&t=k&z=18] (38° 22' N, 40° 44' E) near modern Lice. This city was situated near the open air sanctuary of the "Tigris Source", as the riverine cave system at Birkleyn [http://maps.google.com/maps?q=http://www.ucl.ac.uk/sargon/downloads/birkleyn.kmz&t=k&z=18] (38° 32' N, 40° 33' E) was known to the Assyrians and probably also to the Šubrians themselves. Perhaps Šubria's most important sanctuary, this natural shrine combined the attractions of a spring and a mountain cave.

A safe haven for refugees

View of the exit of the riverine cave system of the Dibni river, a tributary of the Tigris identified as the 'Tigris Source' in antiquity. This unique landscape, including the relief and inscriptions left by the Assyrian kings Tiglath-pileser I and Shalmaneser III, was documented by a team from the University of Munich [http://www.vorderas-archaeologie.uni-muenchen.de/forschung/abgeschl_projekte/tigristunnel/index.html] in 2004. Photo by Andreas Schachner (August 2004). View large image.

Šubria was an ally of Assyria and regularly dispatched tribute, emissaries and intelligence reports on Urartu and other Assyrian enemies. King Hu-Tešub was a correspondent of Sargon II of Assyria (721-705 BC) and two of his letters have survived (SAA 5 44, SAA 5 45, possibly SAA 5 46). The country had an international reputation as a haven for refugees. This was a major problem in its otherwise straightforward relationship with Assyria: Assyrian subjects from as far away as Meturna PGP  on the Diyala fled to Šubria to escape justice (SAA 5 53) and could expect the king of Šubria to decline their extradition, no matter what their crime - even murderers could expect asylum. There was a sort of Underground Railroad of secret routes and people helping fugitives escape to Šubria, which the Assyrian officials found impossible to penetrate, as is obvious e.g. from a frustrated letter in Tiglath-pileser's correspondence (ND 2070 = SAA 19 186). The king of Šubria not only refused to extradite Assyrian fugitives but also Urartian refugees, as a letter from Sargon's correspondence (SAA 5 35) and, some four decades later, Esarhaddon's Letter to Aššur [http://oracc.museum.upenn.edu/rinap/rinap4/Q003262/html] (iii 28-34) illustrate. Extraordinarily, the Šubrian commitment went so far as to physically attack Assyrian delegations that attempted to bring back Assyrian subjects from Šubria by force (SAA 5 32).

What did Šubria stand to gain from such actions which were directed against both powerful neighbours in equal measure and alienated both? None of the other border kingdoms situated between Assyria and Urartu shared Šubria's remarkable behaviour. It clearly constitutes a deliberate policy that can be observed over several generations and that the kings of Šubria clearly were not at liberty to abandon - with ultimately dire consequences for the kingdom's survival. The policy was anchored in a religiously motivated tradition: an unfortunately fragmentary passage in one of the letters of Sargon's correspondence regarding Assyrian fugitives in Šubria mentions a sanctuary (SAA 5 54) while according to another letter, Hu-Tešub king of Šubria had justified his actions to his neighbour Ša-Aššur-dubbu, the Assyrian governor of Tušhan, with reference to his piety:

"I a[sk]ed the [Šubria]n: Why do you seize deserters [f]rom the Urarṭian (king) fleeing to Assyria, and [settle them in] the city? Why do you [protect dese]rters and not give them to us?" His reply: "I fear the gods"." (SAA 5 35)

The Tigris Source as depicted on Band X of the Balawat Gates of Shalmaneser III with an accompanying cuneiform caption: "I entered the mouth of the river, made sacrifices to the gods and set up my royal image". From L. W. King, Bronze Reliefs from the Gates of Shalmaneser King of Assyria, London: British Museum, 1915, pl. LIX. View large image.

While little else is known about Šubria's gods and temples, it is clear that the "Tigris Source" must have ranked high as a sanctuary not just in local but also in international esteem. Shalmaneser III of Assyria (858-824 BC) deemed a visit to the "Tigris Source" so important that in 852 BC he had his army take a detour on its march back from inner Anatolia to Assyria; he and his predecessor Tiglath-pileser I (1114-1076 BC) performed sacrifices at the "Tigris Source" and both left inscriptions and reliefs at the site. Based on this, but also on the fact that the Tigris was considered a major deity in the Hurrian world, we should rank the "Tigris Source" among such famous and important sanctuaries as the temples of Haldi at Muṣaṣir PGP  and of the storm god at Kumme PGP . Moreover, as a holy precinct in open nature, with unlimited water and shelter from the powers of nature offered by three caves in addition to the river grotto itself, the "Tigris Source" would seem uniquely qualified to serve as a refuge sanctuary.

Šubrian culture: bird augury and Hurrian language

Šubrian independence ended in 673 BC during the reign of Esarhaddon (680-669 BC). According to his justification in the Letter to Aššur [http://oracc.museum.upenn.edu/rinap/rinap4/Q003262/html], his attack on the long-standing ally was prompted by king Ik-Tešub's continuing refusal to extradite refugees. There is likely a connection with the flight of Esarhaddon's patricidal brothers and their supporters following the murder of Sennacherib and the resulting succession war: as long as they were alive they presented a threat to Esarhaddon's and his descendants' claim to the throne. A year after the conquest of Šubria, in 672 BC, Esarhaddon promptly announced the succession arrangements that would eventually bring his son Assurbanipal to the Assyrian throne. In the course of its integration into the Assyrian empire, Šubria was split into a western and eastern province, each of which received the name of its capital city, Uppummu and Kullimeri.

Funerary stela of Tarhunpiyas, showing him in a state of eternal bliss in his mother's embrace. The tame falcon and the writing tablet and stylus identify him as an augur TT . From Karamanmaraş (Turkey), ancient Marqasa PGP  in the kingdom of Gurgum, late 8th century BC. Louvre, AO 19222. Photo from the Louvre [http://www.louvre.fr/llv/oeuvres/]'s website. View large image.

But while the kingdom was lost, Šubrian culture continued. The local language was Hurrian and while no texts have survived as far as we know, a few words at least are documented in a letter from Sargon's correspondence (SAA 5 35: 31, r. 11). The names of the inhabitants of Šubria, including its kings, were Hurrian, and the names of a number of women listed in an Assyrian administrative document (ZTT 30) excavated in 2009 in the nearby provincial capital of Tušhan on the Upper Tigris (modern Ziyaret Tepe), dated to the 7th century BC, illustrate that the use of Hurrian names continued in the region.

The ancient Šubrian art of augury, used to predict the future by systematically studying the birds in the sky, also survived the end of independence. Augury was a branch of learning typical of northern Syria and Anatolia, rather than Mesopotamia, and when we encounter augurs in Assyria their origins are usually specified, with augurs coming from Hamat PGP , Kummuhi PGP  and Šubria. The latest evidence for Šubrian augurs was excavated at Tušhan only recently, in 2002: a legal document from Tušhan dating to one of the very last years of the Assyrian empire is witnessed by a Šubrian augur (ZTT 4: 12-13: LÚ*.da-gíl-MUŠEN Šub-ri-ia-a-a).

Our earliest evidence for Šubrian augurs in Assyria dates to the reign of Tiglath-pileser III. At that time, the Assyrian royal court included augurs from Šubria as demonstrated by an administrative memorandum listing wine libations for the gods of Kalhu and other ritual activities: it features eight augurs, at least one of whom is from Šubria (ND 3476). It is of course not surprising that the king of Šubria also had augurs in his entourage. The activities of one of them, a man called Parni-aldê, are documented in a letter to Tiglath-pileser (ND 2673 = SAA 19 76), in which this scholar is put forward as a potential advisor to the Assyrian king, suggesting that the rulers of the 8th century at times dispatched their top scholarly experts abroad on state business: an illuminating perspective on the mechanisms governing the exchange of ideas, concepts and information.

Further reading:

Dezsö, 'Šubria and the Assyrian Empire', 2006.
Radner, 'Between a Rock and a Hard Place: Muṣaṣir, Kumme, Ukku and Šubria', 2012.

Content last modified: 5 Nov 2012.

Karen Radner

Karen Radner, 'Šubria, a safe haven in the mountains', Assyrian empire builders, University College London, 2012 [http://www.ucl.ac.uk/sargon/essentials/countries/ubria/]

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