Since it is the beginning of the year, I thought I might go back–way back–to explore the ancient origins of asylum. As you may know, the word “asylum” comes from the Greek asylos, meaning that which is inviolable or that which cannot be robbed: “a” (without) + “syle” (the right of seizure). The word originally referred to a sacred place where fugitives could find protection from their pursuers.
The origins of asylum are probably more myth than history. One candidate for the creator of asylum is the ancient Egyptian King Assyrophernes, who supposedly erected a statue in honor of his dead son (King Assyrophernes does not appear on the Egyptian King Lists, and at least one scholar claims that the whole story was made up by an historian in the early 18th century). The son’s statue later became a place of worship for the king’s servants and eventually a place where people could seek asylum. Under this theory, the concept was transferred from the Egyptians to the Hebrews, who developed and codified the idea.
Another candidate for the originator of asylum is King Ninus of Assyria, the legendary founder of Nineveh who ruled a vast Middle Eastern empire during the 21st century BC. Whether King Ninus actually existed is also an open question–the oldest written record of the king is found in a fifth century BC account by the badly-named Greek historian and physician Ctesias of Cnidus, who supposedly learned about Ninus from ancient Persian records. In this story, Ninus built a statue to commemorate his father, Belus, which served as an asylum for people fleeing harm.
A third possibility is that asylum was created by the Persians. In the first century AD, the Roman Emperor Tiberius commissioned an inquiry into the origin of asylum in Greece. At the time, the Romans had conquered Greece and the Greek system of temple asylum–which allowed for the protection of fugitives who reached a temple–was a thorn in the side of Rome. In response to Tiberius’s inquiry, two Greek cities reported that their sanctuaries were founded by the Persian kings Cyrus and Darius (fourth and fifth centuries BC) during the Persian occupation. More likely, the right to asylum existed in other Greek communities at the time, and so the two cities in question petitioned the Persians for a right already found in other parts of Greece.
In each of these stories, the refugee obtains asylum by going to a particular place where he is protected. Whether any of these stories is true is an open question, but I suppose they demonstrate that human beings have been dealing with the issue of whether to protect strangers fleeing persecution for a long time.
The earliest written record of asylum in the ancient world comes from the Hebrews. These ancient rules for asylum were created at a time when family, friends or clansman of a murder victim would revenge the death by killing the murderer (or members of his clan). Revenge killings might take place even where the initial death was inadvertent.
To regulate this problem, the Torah (the Hebrew Bible) designates six divinely-designated “cities of refuge” to protect “one who has killed another unwittingly.” The purpose of the cities is to prevent unjustified revenge killings in cases of involuntary manslaughter: “Thus the blood of the innocent shall not be shed, bringing blood-guilt upon you in the land that the Lord has allotted you.” Interestingly, the cities would “serve the Israelites and the resident aliens among them for refuge, so that anyone who kills a person unintentionally may flee there.”
The Torah also created a method for adjudicating the manslayer’s intent. The cities of refuge were run by Levites (priests), and an assembly of such men would decide the case. The system of proof might seem a bit primitive by today’s standards. For example, if the manslayer used an “iron object,” he is a murderer and should be put to death. Ditto for stone or wood tools that “could cause death” (this one seems a bit tautological).
Even if the death was ruled inadvertent and the manslayer received protection in the city of refuge, that was not the end of the matter. If he left the city, and the “blood-avenger comes upon him outside the limits of his city of refuge, and the blood-avenger kills the manslayer, there is not bloodguilt on his account.” The punishment would remain in effect until the high priest died (the death of the high priest, like the death of the sovereign in other societies, signified a new era where prior legal obligations ended). Only then could the manslayer return to his home.
Although the Israelite system was primitive and somewhat arbitrary, it was better than nothing. It also marked the first historically documented system of asylum.