Ancient Assyrian: Palaces Power and Propaganda

Lecture transcript

Professor Colin Hope, 19 July 2012


Adrienne:  Colin Hope is an Associate Professor at Monash University, and he's the director of its Centre for Archaeology and Ancient History. He has participated extensively in archaeological fieldwork around the Middle East in Jordan, Syria and the Sinai as well as throughout Egypt since 1971.

One of his areas of particular interest is the interaction between the cultures of the ancient Middle East, the Mediterranean, and Northern Africa. His teaching and research focus is on Egypt. He has for many years also lectured on the cultural evolution of ancient Iraq, and its impact upon the region. Please give Dr. Colin Hope a very warm welcome. Thank you.


Colin Hope:  Well, thank you very much Adrienne for that introduction. I should like to start off by saying that it's a pleasure for me to be able to participate in this program, and bring some of the expertise that Monash also presents to your attention.

As you can see, I'm not simply going to talk about Assyrian palaces, but I'm going to put in Babylonian as well. In the talk tonight, what I wanted to do with you is to explore two aspects of the way in which we can begin to understand the culture of ancient Iraq, particularly in the first millennium BC.

The period I will be covering is the first 500 years, really from about 900 BC down to specifically 525. It's a period of over 400 years. During this period first the Assyrians, then the Babylonians, were undoubtedly the dominant power in the Eastern part of the Mediterranean. In looking at the cultural achievements, of course it's an enormous topic. What I want to do is to focus very specifically on what information we can get from the study of the major palaces that were produced by the Assyrians and the Babylonians.

I'm doing this, looking at it from different points of view. One, the study of the built environment; in other words, the palaces, their scale, how they were decorated, and what that tells us about the culture and the way in which the rulers, the kings of these periods, wished to present themselves and their culture. In that sense, it is a study of their notions of themselves in their world, the power they wielded, and the way they wished to present themselves to those who could actually access the palaces.

The other aspect that I want to do is to review another line of approach. That is, the study of the textural material that derives from the extensive archives that were preserved in these palaces. On the one hand, the built environment and the way they would visually represent themselves. On the other, the data we can get from the texts, and to see the way in which in fact, they present to somewhat contradictory but also complimentary ways of exploring the ancient culture. In doing this, I don't want to give preference to either one or the other.

It's really to show you how we need to explore these cultures using all the particular material that is left behind for us. Now, in looking at this, what I want to do is, to give you really just a brief summary of the Assyrian Empire and the Babylonian Empire, then to look at the buildings, and then to move on to the texts.

Now, the thing that I'd start off by pointing out to you, here you have the period, that we are looking at first of all for the late Assyrian, so, about 900 down to 612. What we are looking at is, in general terms, referred to as the Age of Empires. The whole political structure of the ancient Mediterranean in this first millennium and slightly later is dominated by the emergence of these large states, that we would really call empires.

The Assyrians, the Babylonians, then the Persians, of course followed on by Alexander the Great and then the Romans. So, a particular structure whereby one region expands beyond its natural geographic regions annexing others, and as part of this, we have an imperialist response to the area around, where areas that are conquered are dominated and exploited on behalf of the central regime that is expanding.

And of course, these expansions are largely military expansions. It's not a period of negotiated interaction. It's a period of annexation. And as a result of this, what you actually see is the cultures presenting themselves as world‑dominating groups. And they're not so much really presenting themselves as regional, local powers, but a power that has the potential to expand over broad regions.

Now, here you see the major rulers of this late Assyrian period. And as you will see, it's a long period, it's 300 years, when the Assyrians were the dominant power in East Mediterranean. I am not going to give you a blow‑by‑blow account. You'll probably be pleased of what happened in each king's reign.

I will simply give you a very potted version of this. You'll notice, I have put up the major sites on the right from which these monarchs ruled, and I will talk more specifically about Nimrud and Nineveh, two of the great palace centres that were developed in this period.

Here you actually see a map, and you may not be able to actually spot all the numbers on it, but what it actually shows us is the region one, in the northern most part of Iraq, which of course is the heartland of Syria. And in terms of the Syrian expansion, this is the core area.

You will then see, if you are close enough to the map, that in the early phases of expansion they will move down into the south of Iraq, the area that we refer to as it is marked on here with the Caldeans and over into Elam.

Also we notice them expanding in the north into Syria, then, moving down into the region that we would call Southern Syria into Lebanon and eventually down into the area of modern Israel. Notice the way they move over into the area of Venetia taking the Mediterranean coast, and then finally taking Egypt.

You can see that in the course of this expansion, the area that they will control will expand from Southern Iraq into the western part of what we call modern day Iran, all the way up onto the borders of Turkey, down through Syria, and over to Egypt. And this was the largest single territorial area controlled by any group up to that date.

So the Assyrians formed the first major empire. And it became multi‑national, multi‑lingual, and what you actually find is the Assyrians developing policies to try to deal with these particular issues. How do you keep a region that is so culturally diverse, linguistically diverse, together?

Of course they do this through military might, the power of threat. However, having said that, they allowed an enormous amount of cultural diversity. This can actually be seen, in the first topics that I want to talk to you about, and that is this palace building. The first one of these that I wanted to talk about is the great city of Nimrud.

Nimrud was really established by Ashurnasirpal, and you see this wonderful statue in the exhibition. Here you see the ideal way in which these Assyrian kings will present themselves.

It's not a statue that conveys a great deal of emotion. It's rather a blank expression. But notice the solidity, the actual scale of the body, the strength that is portrayed by these. So it is this actual ability to rule, that the statues convey. And of course this is shown very distinctly in the palaces which are built.

And as I've said, Ashurnasirpal, developed the great city of Nimrud. If you look at the plan, what you'll see is a walled city. It took him 15 years to actually build the city. It covers 864 acres, 350 hectares. So it's on an enormous scale. It is walled. It is divided into different zones and the principal zones are those dominated by the temples and palaces at the centre.

This is a very distinct link between the religious system and the administrative system. The kings are in a sense seen to be ruling the state on behalf of the gods. They claim this divine right for their rule.

These palaces are built on an enormous scale, usually on raised platforms so they're elevated above the other buildings. One of the great characteristics of them is the extent of decorations. They are mud brick buildings, lined with stone, which is elaborately decorated on the inside.

This reconstruction conveys to you the general layout that the palace decoration will follow. And it's very specifically controlled. You will find a similar pattern in each of these palaces. So it's not actually decorated at the whim of the individual ruler. There are certain elements which are always there and which are necessary to portray this notion of what the state is about.

If you look at this one to start with, you can see that the entranceways between major parts of the palaces are regularly dominated and protected by these great winged, human‑headed bulls. Of course, this is a mythological creature that is there to protect the palace from evil, from any threat, and these are strategically placed. It's one of the major symbols of course we have from the Assyrian and Babylonian regimes.

Notice the way that the wall decoration is divided into a series of panels. If you notice, at ground level, in the lower two panels, you can see this clearly. What you find are very regularly scenes that reflect the political expansion of the regime.

Right at the bottom, battle scenes. From both Assyria and Babylon, you actually have very specific battles being represented, those that were waged by the builders of the palaces. The structures, the cities that are being attacked are named. You get a good sense of what actually goes on.

Of course, one of the highlights, at least from my point of view, in the exhibition, are the wonderful reliefs that you have from these palaces, and of course the very nice graphic reconstructions that the museum has produced to actually explain what you're looking at in these scenes.

In the lower registers, there is this emphasis on the political might, success and expansion of the state. This is what visitors would have been struck by. Notice, I've called the talk propaganda. You could say that this sort of representation is propaganda of the state, how it wants to impress its power on those that look at the reliefs.

We are bombarded by propaganda all the time. In fact, there's so much of it that we hardly notice. It goes in one ear and out the other. But of course, who saw the interior of these palaces? It was a very limited number of invited guests, either at the major banquets, the major celebrations of state, or when the actual palaces were opened.

In fact, when the Palace of Nimrud was inaugurated, the celebrations lasted for 10 days, and it is recorded that there were 70,000 guests entertained. You could say that a large number of people saw them.

But of course, the guests are very selective. They're chosen because of their status within the community. Foreign delegates were also invited. There is propaganda involved here, but the propaganda is very targeted at the elite. They're not actually aimed at influencing large numbers of people, because the average Assyrian could never get into these palaces.

Remember propaganda will only work if it's visible. It's very targeted here. Also notice that on either side of the great winged bulls, what you see are these mythical creatures. You can see their human‑body animal heads with wings, and these are the great demigods or genie who protect the state and the palace also.

You have these protected forces at the entranceways, then you have the battle scenes, the statements of expansion and power in the lower registers. And then in the top, you can actually see the king interacting with the elite and the gods, and celebrating the divine power of the king.

Notice, this is where you will see the king interacting with the gods, and of course, it's placed higher up in the wall. It's a very deliberate positioning of these. And then of course you find the geometrics in the upper part.

If you look at some of these reliefs, now, as I've said, there are some very fine ones in the exhibition here. The reliefs are carved usually into limestone slabs. The slabs are about two meters high, four meters wide. They are pre‑fabricated. The designs are then drafted on to them and carved, and then they are positioned into the walls where they have to be set.

The thing that you have to remember is they were once elaborately painted. Most of that paint is gone. That's why I showed you that reconstruction first, because it gives you a sense of the vivid use of colour.

What you have to remember also is that there's a restriction of light. There's not large windows everywhere. You have the light backgrounds with the vivid colours, so it would have been muted, not quite as strong as that National Geographic illustration that I showed you.

Just to show you the sorts of scenes, as I've said, in the top walls, you have the statement of the power of the monarch himself. Remember, although they have advisors and they are drawn from elite groups, the king in both Assyria and Babylon is all‑powerful. Usually shown taller than him, you can see him marked by the umbrella.

Also notice the way that here, you have musicians performing for the king. They're always shown in a very rigid row. There's not a great sense of movement. The idea is to present information in these reliefs.

Notice, if you look at the figure of the king, he's holding a bow. He has a drink in his hand, and then lying at his feet is a bull‑‑unlikely to have occurred at a banquet or a scene of entertainment. Notice they're not depicting actual events, but status markers. Therefore, the king you will see regularly as a powerful being that even in contexts like these, subdues the bull, a major force of nature.

The other animal that you regularly see the king interacting with is the lion. These two animals are chosen very distinctly because of their strength and the way they symbolize nature. Here at the top, you see the king, accompanied by an archer.

The lion is actually shown as though in various stages and leaping at the king. You can see that in the top. The person defends the king with a shield. Again, at the bottom, you can see the lion, one of whom actually looks like it's having a dance at the side here. It's leapt up at the king, and then cowers before the equestrian figure.

Then finally, at the bottom, the king, in an offering to the gods, is seen with four lions, rather conveniently cowering at his feet. This notion is shown over and over again. The idea that the king is there to protect the state, not only in a military context, but also in these battles with the bulls and lions.

Notice once again, it is this image of power, and you can see it very clearly here. Also notice the wonderful attention to detail that is carved into these blocks with the lion at the bottom, and always this sense of the muscles, both in humans and animals being emphasized, to show the power.

Here, the lion has been transfixed with a series of arrows, and is dying underneath the chariot. In addition, you see the king here with these demigods. The gods of the state.

Also notice, these are mythical creatures. You can see this quite clearly. But look at the way the muscles are really emphasized. It's this notion of strength and power that the image actually conveys. Highly stylized, it's a very good graphic layout. But as you notice, there are stylized figures.

Here, the two other representations of these creatures and the one, sorry, this rather blue image. Of course, it's not blue, it should be yellow. It's my bad image. You notice here the tree, and this represents the tree of life, which is so regularly shown.

If you remember the actual reconstruction I had at the beginning, these figures are often on either side of the doors leading from one part of the palace into the other, and of course, the great wind bulls.

The Palace of Nimrud was the first of the great palaces to be erected and decorated in this manner. It does actually take its inspiration from earlier Assyrian buildings of the second millennium and also copies, to a certain extent, decorative styles that were found in north Syria and also Turkey of the second millennium.

One of the elements that were also incorporated into these palaces and are particularly famous from Nimrud are the ivories. On the one hand, you have this colossal artwork on the walls, but at the same time, there was extremely delicate work introduced, mostly in ivory and bone.

This actually shows another aspect of the art of the period, which is a major orientalising art style, which draws upon the traditions of the entire region around. These ivories are regularly referred to as Phoenician, and we know that many of the craftsmen who produced them came from that region, the coastal area of Lebanon.

The Assyrian rulers brought these craftsmen in to produce smaller artwork that was set into furniture, such things as boxes and thrones, and which actually showed, in a sense, that they were claiming this whole artistic tradition.

I just want to show you some of these rather nice ones. You may actually, if you look at these, detect the different influences that come to bear. One of the strongest ones you'll find within them, is of course Egyptian. This is a result of the fact that in the second millennium, Egypt played a major role in the Near East.

Egyptian art style was introduced throughout the region we call Israel, Syria and into Lebanon. It mixed with local traditions, and then produced this interesting, very eclectic style that you'll find in the ivories. You can see this Egyptian element very clearly here with the use of the sphinx.

With the parmates and other elements, this draws upon art style from both Syria and ancient Lebanon. Again here, and on the right, you'll actually see a lioness mauling a Nubian, someone from the Sudan. They're drawing on a wide range of cultural traditions.

This is a fragment of a piece of furniture to show the way in which the whole pieces could actually be elaborately carved.

The other major palace that I want to briefly mention for you is Nineveh. Nineveh became one of the major capitals of the Assyrian Empire. It was established by Sennacherib and developed under later rulers, particularly the last of the great Assyrian rulers, Ashurbanipal.

On the left, you have Sennacherib, on the right, Ashurbanipal. He's seated on the bed and he's accompanied by his wife. This great palace of Nineveh has been excavated since the middle of the 19th century. I'll show you just at the top, a drawing dated to the mid‑19th century, just showing the mounds expanding into the distance.

It's a huge site again, and the palace area is the focal point. Here, you see a reconstruction of what survives of the gateway, and then a suggested reconstruction of part of it with this typical recessed architecture. Notice the scale. These are huge buildings. The scale is meant to impress anybody that's in the region. Once again, at Nineveh you have this fantastic artwork lining the walls.

Sennacherib built this new palace. Notice there is this great tendency for each of these rulers to establish a new palace site. There is a great expenditure on building. The city was larger than Nimrud. It was surrounded with gardens and orchard.

Elaborate canals provided water, bringing water from the mountains around it. We know that one of these were so‑called aqueducts. Don't think of them like the Roman ones. These are like canals bringing water. One of them brought water from several kilometres away down to Nineveh to actually water the gardens.

The palace had over 71 rooms, and over 2,000 decorated slabs are known from the palace. You get some idea of the expenditure on the structures.

I mentioned these gardens and the watering, and it has been suggested by some scholars that the famous, one of the seven wonders of the ancient world, the Hanging Gardens of Babylon, were not at Babylon, but at Nineveh.

The point is we don't have them at either site, so they could be anywhere, and both of these sites would have had extensive gardens around them. It doesn't really matter where they were. Certainly it is a major feature of these.

We know that certainly the gardens were actually well watered. But we have evidence that one of the inventions that is accredited to Archimedes in the third century, the Archimedes screw for rotating water, the Assyrians had that at least 300 years before he did. You can see the achievements.

Again, just a few examples of these wonderful reliefs. This wonderful image of the dying lion. Over and over again, these are shown. It's not that they are fixated on killing lions, but it is a great symbol of extreme power and bravery.

If you look at this one, you can see not only that the lion is either bleeding or vomiting, but it's also defecating at the time of death. There's these wonderful little details that are shown in the reliefs.

In 612, as a result of uprisings in the south of Iraq, and then combined with problems that they had in Iran, the Assyrian Empire was overthrown. In 612, Nineveh fell. It fell to a combination of Babylonians from the south of Iraq and Meads from the area we would call Persia.

In 525, what we actually find is Babylon in the south became independent. For a much shorter period, you'll notice that the neo‑Babylonian period just lasts about 100 years. The Babylonians took over from the Assyrians. Here, you have the four major rulers, and of all of them, the greatest one of course is Nebuchadnezzar, who you see ruling for over 50 years.

The major site from which these rulers control the area is Babylon. Babylon was undoubtedly one of the greatest cities that ever existed in the ancient Near East. The history of Babylon goes back into the early second millennium. It's not something that was developed at this time.

But the rulers of this period developed the palaces. They were the heirs to the Assyrian tradition. They had been under the Assyrian control. When they gained independence, they then presented themselves as world rulers, and they built palaces again on the scale of the Assyrian palaces.

Notice although we divide them between Assyrian and Babylonian, it really is one cultural tradition, and I'll come back to that again in a moment.

Babylon is described over and over again in the ancient records. It's described in the Bible, it's described by Nebuchadnezzar, it's described by Greek writers. What you have to remember, of course, is that Babylon was the city that Alexander the Great made the centre of his empire. You have this very strong link into the Hellenistic world.

It's a huge site, divided by the river. You see that in the centre, with massive palaces and monumental gates. It's always nice to get these reconstructions. I always would warn you to take them with a pinch of salt. They look nice and impressive, but there's, let's say, there's a lot of artistic license in them.

But what you actually see is the way the river divides the site. There were bridges over the river, connecting both parts of it. You have the walled, central area with the ziggurat, the temples, the palaces. On the major approachway, you see that road coming in from the rear of the side, coming up to the monumental great Ishtar Gate, an aerial view showing that road coming down.

The site received, incidentally, a great deal of attention under the former regime in Iraq, because Saddam Hussein was attempting to use the past to reinforce his own regime by linking with the ancient Assyrians and Babylonians. He did actually do a certain amount of clearance and restoration, as well as a great deal of damage to these sites.

Here you see the wonderful Ishtar Gate, with these fantastic tiles, a reconstruction, and these wonderful mythological creatures. Mythical creatures that protected the approach to the city.

As you see, they're made from these small, glazed tiles, and there's a wide range of these mythical creatures. There's examples of these stretching from Iraq right through into Turkey. Many of the major museums in the Near East have examples of them.

Babylon, the outer fortifications cover 15 square kilometres. That's an idea of the scale. It was excavated originally in 1899‑1913. The inner city covers an area of 1.6 by 1.2 kilometres. The walls were wide enough for two chariots, drawn by four horses, to pass on the top of the walls. You've got some idea of the way in which the scale that they built at.

Inside, as always, the palaces and temples at the centre, and the administrative and economic buildings. It's suggested that the population was several thousand. Please don't ask me to be more specific. We never know how many people lived in these cities. There was a major processional road right through the city. It was built to impress.

There were over 100 temples in this site, and the meaning of the ancient name, Babili, Gateway of the Gods. Literally, it was filled with temples. We have to show representations of these Hanging Gardens. Whether they're at Babylon or not, it doesn't really matter.

You have to get away from these nice, fanciful notions, romantic 19th century images, but of course, when you mention Babylon and the Hanging Gardens, that's the image it evokes.

This is what it looks like today. As I've said, when you look at these palaces, their decoration, you get the sense of these cultures build on a grand scale, enormous expenditure on the residences in which the elite live and rule the region. They are statements of power. It's quite clear.

Propaganda may be in the relief, in the relief work. But as I've said, you can move beyond that. When you look beyond this, and if you turn to the textual material, there are tens of thousands of clay tablets coming from these palaces.

Each one of them had a major archive, relating to the achievements of the rulers who used the palace. But when you actually look at this material, what you tend to find is it gives you a very different impression of these states, which are often represented as aggressive, military machines.

Now they certainly were. They were very effective. But on the other hand, the palaces were the centre of a very elaborate and rich cultural tradition. When you look at these texts, this comes over. Now it's impossible in the remaining five minutes for me to really convey much about this, but I'm going to just really throw a series of points at you, to give you some idea of the achievements of those regimes.

When you think about them, I hope you can then go away and reflect upon their non‑militaristic achievements. Many of these were passed on to the Persians, or taken over by the Persians who conquered this region in 525. They were then handed on to Alexander's descendants, so they entered into the Hellenistic world, and then the Roman world, hence, into Western tradition.

A lot can be traced to the achievements of the Assyrians and the Babylonians. Now, remember they have an enormously long tradition of writing. The earliest texts from this region go back to at least 3,200 from Southern Iraq, and the great Sumerian cities. Throughout the second millennium and into the first millennium, they had a very elaborate education system that involved what we would call primary, secondary, and tertiary. They had the equivalent of tertiary education and you graduated through them. Now of course the first thing is that literacy was restricted. It was restricted to the elite, and this was a definite control mechanism.

Most of the literate people would work on behalf of the State, the King, the Temples and within the administration. However, having said that, they were incredible recorders of events.

They had an elaborate schooling system, and school started at sunrise and went to sunset. None of this, half the day and then you're back away; a complete sitting. Of course, you learned by rote, and we actually have the exercises that they were set. They had to memorize texts that were both literary, mathematical, scientific, engineering and they learned by rote.

If you didn't learn quickly enough, it was very austere. We know that it wasn't just a case of having to repeat the work that you got wrong, where you got beaten for getting it wrong, which was a nice encouragement to study a little bit more. We do actually have records of student rebellions, which is disconcerting given that I'm a university educator. We don't like that sort of thing. But anyway, they are recorded.

What you actually find is that the curriculum was diverse. It consisted of maths, but also quantity and land surveying, and it was very practically oriented. But combining this, everybody would have musical and literary training, and training in grammar. So, it was a very diverse range.

There were dictionaries for people learning different languages. And we also have examples of examination questions surviving.

Within the literary tradition, what you actually find is that, there was an emphasis copying earlier texts. And the most important texts that were copied were the accounts of the creation of the world, and also the Epic of Gilgamesh, the story of the man who was trying to find eternal life, and this was one of the most popular and important pieces produced in the Near East.

Thus, a large number of proverbs and wisdom literature and also philosophical treaties which are concerned with explaining why the righteous person is made to suffer. And in this, you actually find very distinct parallels with certain approaches taken by the ancient Greeks. Medicine, the texts actually make it quite clear that there was a professional body of doctors who studied like today for a long time.

Practical physicians, pharmacists, surgeons existed. We only know amongst all of these texts of one female doctor. The price of surgery was fixed, and if you received bad treatment, it resulted in the doctors being mutilated. So, it was a nice deterrent. And we even have records that some practitioners were put to death.

Not only there are records of physical intervention, and I should point out that when you look at these texts, they actually show that the patient came, spoke to the doctor, explained the symptoms, so what was the problem, the doctor tried to diagnose and then come up with the appropriate treatment.

So they went through the various stages that we are accustomed to and they not only physically attempted to solve problems, but they also had psychological analysis. There were doctors who specialized in women's diseases, and others who were what we could call, pharmacists.

An interesting thing as with all ancient medicine is that magic played an important part. There was always consultation with the divine forces to see what was going on.

And ultimately, of course, what we see is the submission to divine will, that no matter what was the problem, you had to submit, because regularly, illness was thought to be inflicted upon you by the gods. So, you had done something to deserve this.

Within mathematics and astronomy, what you actually find is that both the Assyrians and the Babylonians posed abstract problems. So, while they were involved very much in quantity surveying and practical problems to do with agriculture, they also posed more abstract ideas.

We can see the origins of algebra and geometry here and quadratic equations, which I'm still mystified by. Engineering problems were posed. One theory that we all have heard of, Pythagoras, yeah, well, the Assyrians were there before him.

The calendar was a lunar calendar. The New Year began on the first new moon following the spring equinox. There were 12 months of 29 or 30 days. So, it's coming remarkably close to our own. Each day began at sunset and it had 12 double hours. So, there were 24 hours in a day. And each had 60 double minutes. And this system was adopted by the Hellenistic empires and transmitted through Islam to the West.

There was an extensive decimal system that had no zero. Zero comes from India. They were the first to use the water clocks. There was an elaborate system of weighing, again, based on 60. They documented the movement of the sun and the planets. And they divided this into 30 degrees. And there's identification of the zodiac as the origin of our own.

The Greeks regarded them as the leading astronomers of antiquity, and they emphasized them as magicians and fortunetellers. However, that was a Greek distortion of them, and in fact, they were far most scientific than they were really into trying to predict things from the use of the stars.

They were great naturalists, zoologists, botanists, mineralogists, and geographers. And to end with, appropriate for this venue, they established museums. Both the Assyrians and Babylonians collected objects from their own antiquity. They weren't really put on display for public access.

They were stored in the palaces, and members of the ruling families were given territorial charge within these. And so, they were conscious of their past and their own achievement, and they wanted to preserve it for posterity. And I think, the exhibition that we have here, really shows the diverse ways in which they did contribute.

And also there are some very nice pieces in the exhibition which show the sense that they were aware of their past and their achievement. And that achievement has directly influenced western culture. Thank you very much for your attention.


Colin:  And in case you don't know what this is, I have got to mention it. It's the oldest map of the world, and of course, what is at the centre? Fittingly, Iraq!

[laughs][closing music]

Transcription by CastingWords

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