Mesopotamia on His Mind

You meet Assyrians in the strangest places.

By Jeffrey Felshman

Two spectacular statues guard an unremarkable one-story white building on the east side of Pulaski just south of Devon. Ten feet high and ten feet long, hybrid creatures with human heads and the bodies of winged bulls, the pair sit in a hutlike enclosure behind a white iron fence facing a small parking lot. No sign identifies the building, the parking lot’s gate is locked, and no one answers the building’s one accessible door, which has a sign that reads: “Please Use Side Entrance.” There is no side entrance.

An inquiry at the banquet hall next door is answered by the manager. “Those statues are called lamassu,” he says. “They’re a symbol of the Assyrian people–like the bald eagle is the symbol of America.” He says the building is the Mesopotamia Museum. How does he know this? “I am Assyrian,” he says, “and I know the man who started the museum.”

Though the museum won’t officially open until next year, Norman Solhkhah, the founder of the Mesopotamia Museum, has been keeping regular hours there–weekdays from 5 to 8 PM and weekends from 1 to 5. A couple of lectures by experts on Assyria have drawn enough people to fill a conference room, but otherwise visitors have been rare.

A short, ebullient man in his late 60s, Solhkhah is a psychologist by profession and Assyrian by ethnicity. Born and reared in Iran, Solhkhah was living in Argentina when he visited Chicago for his brother’s wedding in 1959. He stayed on here, earning his doctorate, building a practice, marrying, and raising children. He had no particular interest in archaeology or Assyrian history until 1995.

“My son called me from New York,” Solhkhah says, the words slightly accented and rushing out in a torrent. “He said, ‘Something’s going on in Finland, there is a conference on Assyrians, maybe you want to go?’ And I said, ‘OK, maybe I’ll go’–it could be interesting. So I fly to Helsinki and the first thing that struck me when I got off the plane is there are these signs, ‘Conference on Assyrians,’ and ‘Nineveh 612 BC.’ And after I’d been there a couple days I thought, ‘My God, here they are, so far up north, close to the Arctic Circle, and they know so much about my history and my religion.’ It’s Assyrian this and Assyrian that, and I don’t know anything about Assyrians.” He pauses. “It’s hard to explain, but when outsiders know your history better than you do, it sets something in motion.”

For a while Assyria, located in present-day northern Iraq and southeastern Turkey, was a major player in the region. At the peak of the kingdom’s expansion, beginning in the ninth century BC, it ruled most of the Near East from Egypt to the Persian Gulf. But it was gradually weakened by constant attacks, and the state was destroyed by Chaldean and Median invaders around 612 BC. As a conquered people, Assyrians hung on to their cultural and national identity, which later became entwined with Christianity.

Solhkhah stayed in Helsinki for a week, the length of the symposium, learning about Assyrian history. The exhibit of artifacts–mainly reproductions from museum collections around the world–continued for three months. “Fifty-five thousand people came to see this display,” Solhkhah says. “Finland is a small country, you know, so that’s quite a lot. They didn’t know what to do with these items afterwards, so I offered to purchase them. They said, ‘Yes, we’ll sell them to you.’ I paid $30,000. Six months later they said ‘Come and pick it up.'”

He stored the replicas in Wheeling while he scouted for a place to put them on display. In 1997 he settled on the white building on Pulaski, a former print shop. The things he’d bought in Finland didn’t fill it, nor would they constitute a very large picture of Mesopotamian history. So he hired a couple of artists he’d met at the conference, Paivi Millimaki and Miko Salo, to fill in the blanks.

Solhkhah had an idea that he’d like some paintings based on the cuneiform inscriptions from some of the replica tablets he’d purchased. One inscription described the eighth campaign of King Sargon II (721-705 BC), halted in its tracks near the city of Urmia by a lunar eclipse. “The inscription describes their fear at this red moon. The army said, ‘We’d better not go, the gods are telling us something.’ King Sargon told them, ‘Hey, the gods are telling something to those guys! Let’s go conquer the city!'” Beaming, Solhkhah adds, “And so they did.”

At Solhkhah’s direction, Salo painted the heads of seven Assyrian kings embedded in the Zagros Mountains. “I made an Assyrian Mount Rushmore,” Solhkhah laughs. Salo also laid out a reproduction of the pictures on the walls of the palace of King Shalmaneser III (858-824 BC) in a room off the main entrance, painted a replica of the Ishtar Gate of Babylon at the entrance to a conference room, and carved the wooden lamassu out front.

Millimaki left after a few months, but Salo stayed for a year. “I was going to keep him another year, but immigration wouldn’t let him stay,” says Solhkhah.

He explains that the lamassu is a symbol of power: it has the eyes and wings of an eagle, the intelligence of a god, the power of a bull. “These things were all over the place in Assyria. They were all over the palaces. The capital of Assyria changed four times,” so there were many palaces. Lamassu carved from stone during the Assyrian Empire have been dispersed all over the world. Six are in the United States, including the massive sculpture at the Oriental Institute here in Chicago, Solhkhah says. “There are six in Britain, a dozen in the Louvre. A bunch fell off a barge some years ago into the Tigris River. They were never brought up. And can you picture how many must be underground? There are many more palaces yet to be opened.”

Solhkhah has a map of modern Iraq in an office, with the locations of digs marked by stars. There appear to be at least 20 on the map. Since 1995, Solhkhah has gone on a few digs himself. “I give them some money and they let me observe.” But they were all in Syria. French and German archaeologists can dig in Iraq, but American and British teams aren’t welcome, Solhkhah says. Nor are Assyrians, he points out. They’re a persecuted minority there.

A painting of the brass carvings on the Balawat Gates shows an Assyrian king on a journey. “He’s going to Lake Urmia,” says Solhkhah, “where I was born.” Two small metal lamassu stand near each other on pedestals. A display case holds what Solhkhah says is a replica of the “first medicine tablet,” inscribed circa 2200 BC. The tablet describes ailments and prescriptions, he says, adding, “It took them 50 years to translate this.” A few feet away, a painted mirror on an easel depicts a king spearing a lion. A strip of masking tape covers the beginning of an inscription, which reads, “Presents King Ashburnipal of Nineveh.” On request, Solhkhah removes the tape. “Budweiser” presented this king. “There’s a big group of Chaldeans in beer distribution in Detroit,” he explains, “so Budweiser made this.”

In his museum office Solhkhah keeps 15 volumes of a dictionary in Akkadian, the language of ancient Mesopotamia, that’s still being compiled at the University of Chicago. “The project started in 1946 and it’s scheduled to be completed in 2006,” he says. “The head of the project, Martha Roth, gave a lecture here.”

Assyrians are dispersed around the globe. With oppression in Iraq and a far-flung diaspora has come a desire to reclaim their identity and history. Assyrian societies in Chicago and several Assyrian Web sites disseminate historical analysis and news of their countrymen back home. Looking at a replica of a tablet and a cone-shaped writing instrument that date back approximately 4,500 years, Solhkhah says, “Writing originated in Mesopotamia, you know. And with writing, history begins.”

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Yvette Marie Dostatni.