Introduction to Assyria

Assyria, one of the great empires of the ancient world, located in western Asia. Assyria originally encompassed only the foothill region between the Tigris River and the Zagros Mountains (now northern Iraq). At the height of its power, in the seventh century B.C., the Assyrian empire stretched from Urartu (later Armenia) in the north to Egypt in the south, and from the Persian Gulf on the east to the Mediterranean Sea on the west. Nineveh, on the upper Tigris, was its capital.

Assyrian Civilization

Assyrian dominance of the Middle East lasted about 300 years, from the early ninth century B.C. to the end of the seventh. During this period, the Assyrians administered a vast and prosperous empire. They built splendid palaces, temples, and public buildings. Aqueducts, canals, and roads were constructed. The caravan trade of the world centered on the Assyrian capital, then the most magnificent city in the world.

The Assyrians were feared as ruthless warriors and oppressors. They treated conquered nations without mercy, exacting homage from them and enslaving or killing all who dared to oppose them. Yet the Assyrians were interested in learning and the arts. That they contributed little that was new to civilization was a result of their constant involvement in warfare.

Culturally, the Assyrians were greatly influenced first by the Sumerians, then by the Babylonians, and later by the peoples they conquered. The expressive bas-relief sculptures that adorned Assyrian palaces and temples were probably their most original artistic achievement. The Assyrians excelled in the art of war; and no other power could match them in military organization, quality of weapons, and expertise in siegecraft.

Assyria's major contribution to posterity, however, was the accumulation and preservation of the knowledge and culture of Mesopotamia. Archeological discoveries of more than 25,000 clay tablets in cuneiform script (wedge-shaped symbols), containing historical, religious, and literary works, and of many bas-relief sculptures have provided invaluable information about the ancient peoples of the Middle East.


Early Settlement

There were settlers in the region that came to be known as Assyria before 4000 B.C. They built small mud villages, farmed, and raised flocks. Over the centuries, tribes from the desert region of Arabia migrated to Assyria, there intermarrying with descendants of earlier settlers. As a consequence, the Assyrians of historic times were a mixture of many peoples, but were predominantly Semitic and related to the Akkadians and the Amorites.

For most of the years between 2400 and 2000 B.C., Assyria was subject first to the Akkadians and then to the Sumerians. During this period, its people were mainly pastoral and peaceful. Their culture was similar to that of the Sumerians. They spoke Akkadidian, or Assyro-Babylonian, a Semitic language, and wrote in cuneiform script. Their principal city was Ashur (named, like Assyria itself, for their supreme god, Ashur).

Independent Kingdom

After centuries of being surrounded by hostile neighbors, invaded, and constantly threatened with invasion, the Assyrians developed into a hardy and vigorous people with a growing military spirit. Late in the 19th century B.C., Shamshi-Adad (reigned 1814–1782 B.C.), a Semitic invader from the west, made Assyria an independent kingdom. It remained a weak state for centuries, however—ruled by Babylonia in the mid-18th century B.C., menaced on its frontiers by the Hittites and Egyptians, and included in the Mitanni kingdom from about 1500 to 1360 B.C.

In the 14th century B.C., Ashur-uballit I (1365–1330 B.C.) built up the Assyrian armies and liberated Assyria from the Mitanni. Over the next few centuries, periods of territorial expansion and political dominance alternated with periods of weakness and withdrawal. Tiglath-pileser I (1116–1077 B.C.) directed several successful campaigns against hostile tribes, leading his armies to the shores of both the Black Sea and the Mediterranean.

After Tiglath-pileser's reign, Assyria suffered revolts, civil strife, and near economic collapse. It eventually emerged from this period of disorder as a thoroughly militarized state, led by warrior kings who were absolute rulers.

Formation of An Empire

In 884 B.C., Ashurnasirpal II (884–859 B.C.) ascended the throne and began to transform the Assyrian kingdom into an empire. He led his armies to the east, west, and north, extending Assyrian conquests to the Mediterranean. Early in his reign, Ashurnasirpal located his capital at Kalakh (modern Nimrud). The military victories of his son, Shalmaneser III (859–824 B.C.), gave Assyria control of important Mediterranean trade routes. Shalmaneser's reign, however, was beset by serious internal disorders that persisted for nearly a century through the reigns of less able monarchs.

The revival of the Assyrian empire was begun by Tiglath-pileser III (745–727 B.C.). Under this intelligent and vigorous ruler and his successors, Assyria rapidly became the dominant power in the ancient world. Tiglath-pileser conquered or made tributary provinces of Syria, Phoenicia, Damascus, Gaza, and Israel. In 729 B.C., he declared himself king of Babylon. Tiglath-pileser harshly suppressed revolts and initiated the practice of deporting troublesome populations of conquered territories and replacing them with alien peoples from other parts of the empire.

Almost continual warfare marked the reign of Sargon II (722–705 B.C.). He completed the conquest of Israel (renaming it Samaria and exiling the 10 tribes of Israel), conquered part of Urartu, and made the Medes his vassals. In 710 B.C., Sargon reconquered rebellious Babylon. He moved the capital of the empire from Kalakh to Dur-Sharrukin (now Khorsabad) near Nineveh. The Sargonids the dynasty begun by Sargon) brought the empire to the height of its power.

Sennacherib (705–681 B.C.) had difficulty maintaining the frontiers of the empire that his father had established. Several vassal states rebelled, but were again forced into submission. Sennacherib destroyed the city of Babylon in 689 B.C. During his reign, Nineveh was made the capital of the Assyrian empire. In 681 B.C., Sennacherib was murdered by one of his sons.

Esarhaddon (681–668 B.C.), Sennacherib's youngest son and legal heir, had to drive his brothers from Assyria to gain the throne. He rebuilt Babylon and in 670 B.C. brought Egypt into the empire as a tribute-paying province.

Fall of the Empire

During Ashurbanipal's rule (668–626? B.C.), the Assyrian empire reached the peak of its power. It included all of Mesopotamia, Egypt, Judah, Samaria, Phoenicia, Syria, and Urartu and part of Media and Elam. Ashurbanipal conducted several successful campaigns, but signs of disintegration began to appear. In 652 B.C. Egypt freed itself from Assyrian control. A Babylonian revolt also broke out that year; it took four years to put down.

Assyria was able to maintain its empire only as long as its armies could ensure order, for it was an empire based on force. Toward the end of the seventh century B.C., the Assyrian empire was on the verge of collapse. Its limited resources were strained by the vast extent of the empire; its armies were depleted by almost continual warfare; and its economy was too heavily dependent upon conquest.

For decades, Medes and Chaldeans had threatened the empire, but Scythians had helped defend it. Then in 612 B.C., Nineveh was devastated by an army under Cyaxares of Media and Nabopolassar of Chaldea. The Assyrian nation soon after ceased to exist and the Chaldeans (Babylonians) became masters of Mesopotamia.