The ancient kingdom of Assyria lasted from the mid 3rd millennium to the mid-1st millennium BC. In its last centuries it ruled the largest empire so far seen in world history.
Northern Mesopotamia had come increasingly under Sumerian influence from the 4th millennium onwards. It is possible that Nineveh, the later imperial capital of the Assyrian empire, may have begun life as a a colony of Sumerian merchants. The archaeological site of Nineveh, Tell Brak, reveals a city as large as leading Sumerian city, built around a Sumerian-style temple.
Urbanism declined in northern Mesopotamia around 3000 BC, for reasons which may have been to do with the climate, or perhaps with the movements of peoples in that area. From the mid-3rd millennium, however, it spread again. The region became a centre of long-distance trade, with Assyrian trading colonies springing up hundreds of miles away in Asia Minor.
At this time northern Mesopotamia was divided amongst several small kingdoms, one of which, Asshur (named after its chief god), was the nucleus of the kingdom which later historians have called Assyria. Links with southern Mesopotamia were strengthened with the rise of Sargon’s empire, which incorporated all of Mesopotamia into one state. Later, in the 18th century BC, northern Mesopotamia came under the domination of the king of Mari. This king was Samsi-Addu, and by 1796 he had extended his borders to take in most of northern Mesopotamia and much of Syria. The workings of his government, and that of his sons, are clearly glimpsed in thousands of letters and official documents found in the royal archive at Mari. His kingdom was ruled from three cities – Ekallatum, Ashur and Mari – and it included a host of petty kingdoms and semi-nomadic clans which caused the government no end of trouble.
After Samsi-Addu’s death, in 1776 BC, his kingdom was divided between his surviving son, Ishme-Dagan, who ruled the northern half, which we should now call Assyria, and Zimri-Lim, the descendant of a previous royal family of Mari, who ruled the south.
Under foreign domination
Assyria was again briefly united with southern Mesopotamia when Hammurabi, king of Babylon, brought the whole of Mesopotamia under his rule. After Hammurabi’s death Assyria reasserted its independence. In the next century, however, it fell under the control of the Mitanni.
In c. 1360 BC, however, the king of Assyria, Ashur-uballit I (1365-1330 BC), was able to break free from Mitanni rule, and then occupy the eastern half of the kingdom. With the Hittites occupying the rest of their kingdom, the Mitanni vanished from history.
The geography of Assyria makes her vulnerable to attack, with borders open to powerful neighbours from southern Mesopotamia and raids from hill peoples in other areas. To maintain her independence she had had to organize herself as a military state, ever-prepared for war; for example the Assyrians were amongst the first Middle Eastern powers to adopt the new military technology, the chariot, from neighbouring Indo-European peoples. This enabled her now to go onto the offensive against her neighbours, and over the following centuries she established herself amongst the leading powers in the Middle East, along with the Hittites, the Kassites of Babylonia and the Egyptians. She expanded her territories into northern Syria, northern Mesopotamia and Armenia. In the second half of the thirteenth century BC she joined forces with a newly expansionist Elam to bring Kassite-Babylonia to its knees. A dual invasion of Babylonia led to the Assyrians installing their own governors as rulers of Babylon (1235 BC), but Assyria immediately entered a period of political instability, with a series of palace coups. The Babylonians very soon revolted (1227) and restored their independence.
Just over a century later an able Assyrian king, Tiglathpileser I (1115-1077 BC) campaigned far and wide, reaching as far west as the Mediterranean Sea and inflicting defeat after defeat on the Aramaeans, a desert people who now posed a threat to the civilized areas of all Mesopotamia. Tiglathpileser finally brought Babylon again under Assyrian domination.
By the time of Tiglathpileser’s murder, in 1077 BC, the ancient states of Mesopotamia were all under threat from large-scale migrations of Aramaean tribes; and indeed the whole history of the Middle East now takes on a new character, with the eclipse of the ancient centres of civilization. The borders of the Assyria were relentlessly pushed back by the Aramaeans, who settled in newly formed kingdoms in Syria and northern Mesopotamia. Meanwhile, Babylonia fell into complete chaos, with Aramaean tribes and other peoples settling the land at will. One of these peoples were the Kuldu, known to history as the Chaldeans. They settled southern Babylonia in the region around Ur, which is why that city appears in the Bible as “Ur of the Chaldees”.
Towards the end of the 10th century, Assyria was at its lowest ebb. Its territory was just a narrow strip of land along Tigris. It was, however, still a compact nation, with an army trained by years of constant warfare, and under king Adad-nirari II (911-891 BC) and his son Tukulti-Ninurta II (890-884 BC), the Assyrians loosened the grip of their enemies, in wars which they clearly viewed as wars of national liberation. The Aramaeans were driven from the Tigris Valley, and other campaigns pushed the mountain tribes back. By the end of these two reigns Assyrian territory once again covered all of northern Mesopotamia.
By this time, great changes were affecting societies throughout the Middle East. Iron was coming into wide use, both for weapons of war and for farming implements; and alphabet scripts were replacing older forms of writing, such as the cuneiform system used in Mesopotamia. Both these changes would affect the Assyrians (see more on iron and the alphabet).
The reign of Ashurnasirpal II (883-859 BC) marked an important step up in the renewed rise of Assyrian power and ambition. He spent the first years of reign putting down rebellions and consolidating the kingdom, extending Assyrian territory somewhat, building and garrisoning some border fortresses and receiving the submission of neighbouring mountain tribes.
Then, in 877, Ashurnasirpal carried out a major military expedition through Syria, as far as the Mediterranean. This was not a war of conquest, but, being the first of its kind since the days of Tiglathpileser I, it announced the revival of Assyrian power in no uncertain terms. The entire Middle East trembled with fear.
As with many Assyrian monarchs, Ashurnasirpal’s passion for war was accompanied by a more refined element to his character. He had a taste for zoology and botany, bringing back from the lands through which he “travelled” exotic animals and plants for the imperial parks and gardens at home. He also had a passion for building – the mark of all great Mesopotamian monarchs, and he built himself a new capital at Nimrud.
The next monarch, Shalmaneser III (858-824 BC), surpassed his father in the number and scope of his military campaigns - 31 out of of 35 years as king were spent in warfare. Under him, the Assyrian army went further abroad than ever before – to Armenia, Cilicia, Palestine, into the Taurus and Zagros mountains, and as far as the Gulf. Shalmaneser’s was by no means a record of unbroken success, and he did not in fact extend actual Assyrian territory by much. However, his reign marked the high point of this phase, in which Assyrian armies conducted great long-distance raids across the Middle East.
In the reigns of Shalmaneser’s predecessors, Assyria’s wars had largely been defensive in character, aimed at protecting core Assyrian territory, and perhaps keeping vital trade routes open: westward towards Syria, northward towards Anatolia and Iran, and southwards to Babylonia. Under Ashurnasirpal, and more so under Shalmaneser, the wars were increasingly raids for booty, wealth and prestige.
The great raids
Almost every spring, the king mustered his troops and led them to war. At this time, his opponents (or perhaps more accurately, prey) were the rulers of small kingdoms and tribes, spread over an expanding area of the Middle East – in Syria, Palestine (including Israel), Anatolia and Iran.
Some princes opposed him bravely, though rarely successfully; others fled to the desert or the mountains; others submitted to the Assyrian monarch, bringing him presents and promising to pay tribute. But woe to those who failed to keep their promise! In another campaign, a storm swept over their country; the rebel leaders were tortured and killed, the population massacred and enslaved, the towns and villages set on fire, the crops burned. Terror-stricken, the neighbouring rulers hastened to offer gifts and swear allegiance. Annual tribute would be imposed (or re-impose) on all.
Then, loaded with spoil, trailing behind its human captives, flocks and herds, the Assyrian army returned home and disbanded.
A well-deserved reputation for cruelty preceded Assyrian armies and greatly aided them in their campaigns - many of their enemies were half defeated even before encountering them on the field of battle. Although Assyria’s actual territory did not expand greatly during this phase of its history, it sphere of influence - its “huntoing ground”, as one modern scholar has called it - increased enormously. Within this a growing number of terrified peoples professed obedience to the king of Assyria and paid him tribute.
In this way, while Assyria’s territory proper did not expand greatly during this phase of its history, it was surrounded by an expanding sphere of influence, or “hunting ground”, as one modern scholar has called it, in which terrified peoples paid tribute, or intermittently refused to do so, thus incurring the fierce wrath of the Assyrian king.
The one region which received different treatment was Babylonia. This region had suffered even more than Assyria during the “Age of Confusion”, as Babylonian scribes called the centuries around 1000 BC. Indeed, the problems had not really gone away: large numbers of Aramaean peoples remained, especially in the south, in the old Sumerian heartland. They represented a continual threat to the rulers of Babylon, who often controlled very little territory effectively. This was especially so when the different Aramaean groups acted together under one charismatic leader.
The Assyrians were naturally drawn into this situation, originally to take advantage of Babylon’s weakness and grab territory for itself. However, the Assyrians had an enduring and genuine reverence for the ancient city, of Babylon, ever since Hammurabi’s time the cultural and spiritual centre of Mesopotamian civilization. From Shalmanaser’s time onwards, the Assyrian kings took on the role of protectors of Babylon, treating the Babylonian kings with great respect and campaigning against their enemies – and, of course, expecting the allegiance of the king and his subjects in return.
Internal weakness and external threats
At end of Shalmanaser’s reign (827 BC) a serious rebellion shook the kingdom, led by one of his sons. He had the support of the chief cities of Assyria, Ashur and Nineveh, and 27 other cities. This revolt seems to have boon linked to resentments by the old nobility, whose power was centred on the old capitals and who were more or less excluded from the levers of power at the royal court in the new capital, Nimrud.
The rebellion took five long years to put down, by which time the old king was dead and his younger son, Shamshi-Adad IV (823-11 BC), sat on the throne. During this time, Assyria’s vassals shook of her overlordship, and Shamshi-Adad spent his entire reign bringing them back to their allegiance. On his death, his young son, Adad-nirari III (810-783 BC) was dominated by the queen, Sammuramas, about whom very little is known but about whom legends later gathered (the Greeks knew her by the name Semiramis). Sammuramas and Adad-nirari continued the work of Shamshi-Adad, and largely restored Assyria’s position – enabling Adad-niraru, for example, to act as protector of the king of Babylon against his Aramaean enemies.
At Adad-niraru’s premature death, however, Assyria sank again into a long period of internal instability, revolts and unsuccessful campaigns – made worse by severe epidemics that swept the country. At this very time, developments in the wider Middle East were making Assyria’s international position less secure. Assyria would need leadership of a high order to lift her out of the mire. Fortunately, in Tiglathpileser III, she would have just such a leader.
For about a century, the northern kingdom of Urartu had been on the rise. Like Assyria, she had surrounded herself with vassal states which paid tribute, acknowledged her suzerainty and followed her in war. Now, her political influence was spreading amongst the small states of northern Syria, who had previously acknowledged Assyrian suzerainty. The emergence of such a powerful nation had a decisive influence on Assyrian policy. Annual campaigns for prestige and booty would no longer suffice to ensure Assyrian dominance; the Assyrians now had to conquer, occupy and firmly hold territory in Syria and western Iran in order to keep out competing influences.
Tiglathpileser III (744-727 BC)
Luckily for Assyria, Tiglathpileser saw this clearly. He attacked into northern Syria, and defeated the Urartu army when it rushed to help its allies. Instead of withdrawing his forces, Tiglathpileser then established permanent Assyrian provinces in Syria, and kept garrisons in key cities there. Further troubles led to Tiglathpileser expanding Assyrian territory into southern Syria, with the annexation of Damascus and half of the kingdom of Israel’s territory. Many other Syrian rulers, including the king of Israel, rushed to acknowledge the Assyrian king as their overlord.
Tiglathpileser pushed the Assyrian borders deep into the Zagros mountains, and attacked Urartu itself, though without success.
By the time Tiglathpileser came to the throne, Babylonia had fallen into a state of complete anarchy. He therefore fulfilled the traditional Assyrian role of protecting Babylon by campaigning against its enemies in southern Mesopotamia, especially the Chaldeans. Then, Tiglathpileser departed from previous Assyrian practice by proclaiming himself king of Babylon.
At home Tiglathpileser carried out sweeping reforms of all aspects of the Assyrian state. He strengthening royal authority by multiplying the number of administrative districts, each being made smaller. This gave the king and his court more control over the country. Beyond the boundaries of Assyria proper he instituted a full-blooded imperial system for the first time in the Middle East, replacing many vassal kings with provincial governors.
The army, previously made up of Assyrian nationals performing military service for a year at a time, was now supplemented by a standing army of foreign troops, made up of contingents from conquered peoples. This new army proved more efficient than the old one, and was able to campaign for longer, not having to disband at harvest time to allow its troops to return to their farms. Crucially, this allowed permanent garrisons to be stationed at key points throughout the newly-organized Assyrian empire.
An efficient system of empire-wide communication between royal court and provinces was set up, consisting of special runners who carried messages between the king (wherever he happened to be) and the governors.
Notoriously, Tiglathpileser introduced the famous policy of mass deportation, whereby the populations of conquered towns and districts were forcibly resettled far away in distant provinces. Their place would be taken by people brought in from elsewhere. This policy was to have a major impact on Middle Eastern society.
It was under Tiglathpileser, therefore, that Assyria began to pursue a deliberately imperialistic policy, of conquering and holding huge tracts of territory in the Middle East, rather than just riding through it on massive raids. The Assyrian state now began to take on the shape of a true empire, with a huge, complex administrative machinery.
Tiglathpileser was succeeded by his son, Shalmaneser V (726-722 BC), who reigned briefly before Sargon II came to the throne. Sargon may well have been a usurper; his accession was certainly accompanied by a great deal of instability within Assyria, which he swiftly put down.
Sargon’s first act was to complete the capture and destruction of the city of Samaria, the capital of the kingdom of Israel (722 BC). This brought to an end the kingdom of Israel (this was the northern of the two Israelite kingdoms; the southern one, Judah, lasted for a a century and a half longer as an Assyrian vassal). Its territory was shared out between its neighbours, and its people deported to other provinces within the Assyrian empire.
On the broad geopolitical landscape of the Middle East, Sargon found himself confronting a new situation, brought about by Assyrian expansion under Tiglathpileser. The borders of the Assyrian empire had been pushed into the spheres of influence of two large states, Egypt and Elam. Together with Urartu, these were to form a trio of powerful enemies which (rightly) saw the militaristic power of Assyria as a deadly threat, and who were therefore intent on weakening Assyrian power. The resulting struggle engulfed the Middle East for more than a century and saw immense damage inflicted right across the region.
In southern Mesopotamia, Elam constantly supported Babylon’s enemies as a way to weaken Assyria, Babylon’s protector. These enemies were predominantly the Aramaean tribes, and particularly the Chaldeans, who assumed a position of leadership amongst them. In Sargon’s reign, the Chaldean leader, Merodach-Baladan, took advantage of the troubles which accompanied his accession by seizing the throne of Babylon, actively supported by the kingdom of Elam. Sargon had great difficulty in dislodging him, and it was only in 708 BC that the whole of Babylonia was again under direct Assyrian control.
Egypt twice supported major rebellions in Syria and Palestine during Sargon’s reign, each time being driven back by the Assyrians. Sargon also inflicted a crushing defeat on Urartu, reducing its influence.
On his death, Sargon left the Assyrian empire larger and more powerful than it had ever been. He had also built a new capital, Dur-Sharrukin (Sargon’s fortress). It took ten years to complete. A year after that, Sargon was killed in battle.
The news of Sargon’s death sparked serious revolts all around the empire, and Sennacherib was forced to spend the first years of his reign rushing hither and thither dealing with them. It was probably during this time that the famous Assyrian siege of Jerusalem took place, with the Assyrian army “encouraged” to withdraw by some natural calamity, according not only to the Biblical account but also to other ancient writers.
In Babylonia, the Chaldean leader Merodach-Baladan again led a great Aramaean rebellion. He captured Babylon and was proclaimed king. Sennacherib drove him out, and in a departure from the normal leniency that the Assyrians had extended to the Babylonians, he deported more than 200,000 people to Assyria. He installed first a puppet ruler, and then, after further revolts, his own son; and then conducted a major land and sea operation into Elam itself, which brought back a huge amount of booty.
Elam immediately retaliated by invading southern Mesopotamia, driving back the Assyrians and putting an Elamite puppet on the throne in Babylon. The Assyrians soon expelled him from the city, but the population of southern Mesopotamia was not subdued. In 689 they invited the king of Elam to support them against the Assyrians; a severe battle ensued in which the Assyrians were eventually victorious, and the exasperated Sennacherib carried out the unthinkable – he destroyed the venerable city of Babylon.
Sennacherib’s reign was not entirely spent in warfare. At home in Assyria, he did an enormous amount of construction work, erecting temples and other public buildings, restoring towns, and completing great irrigation schemes which boosted agriculture in the country. One of his first acts had been to bring the court back to Nineveh, and he restored, extended and beautified that city, making it a fit capital for the superpower of its day.
In 681 BC, whilst worshipping in one of the temples in Nineveh, Sennacherib was assassinated by one of his sons.
The death of Sennacherib found Esarhaddon, once his father’s chosen successor, in exile, a victim of rivalries within the Assyrian royal family. On hearing of the assassination of his father, Esarhaddon hastened towards the capital, gathering an army on his way. He swept aside his brothers and seized the throne, borne on a wave of popular support (according to Esarhaddon propaganda machine, at least).
His first act was to start the rebuilding Babylon, a task which took the whole reign. This act won him the loyalty of the Babylonian population, and there was little trouble from this quarter during his reign. Esarhaddon succeeded in putting a friendly king on the throne of Elam, which greatly eased the situation on that frontier.
It was during Esarhaddon’s reign that new threats began to make themselves felt – threats which would eventually bring about the fall of the Assyrian empire. In 679 BC a Scythian and Cimmerian horde broke through the Taurus Mountains. Esarhaddon swiftly drove them back. He also attempted to weaken the threat posed by the rising power of the Medes, a warlike Iranian people who had recently established themselves on the eastern borders of the empire. He did this by cavalry raids and by supporting princes hostile to the king
In the west, revolts persisted. In 677 BC Sidon rebelled. The famous city was destroyed, its people deported to Assyria and its territory given to its rival, Tyre. Finally, wishing to deal with a major threat to Assyrian power at its source, Esarhaddon led an army into Egypt, where, overcoming strong resistance, he conquered the entire country.
The defeated pharaoh fled south, but within two years was back, leading a resistance movement. Esarhaddon was marching to meet this threat when he died.
Esarhaddon had tried to make sure that the succession would proceed peacefully by having his vassals sign a treaty of loyalty to the crown prince, Ashurbanipal. He had also arranged for a younger son, Shamash-shum-ukin, to sit on the throne of Babylon as a king subordinate to his brother.
Ashurbanipal immediately set about completing his father’s mission of dealing with the Egyptian revolt. A general was despatched to that remote country, and recovered the city of Memphis. The Assyrians then marched south towards Thebes, but again on hearing that a revolt was about to break out in the Delta region, turned north again. The revolt was crushed before it could begin, and its leaders either executed or sent to Nineveh. However, the Assyrians realised that they needed local support, so, to bolster their power in Egypt, they showered favours on certain princes in the Delta area (some of whom had been involved in plotting the recent revolt). Two years later, to meet a new invasion from Nubia, a powerful Assyrian army marched south to Thebes, and destroyed that ancient city.
Meanwhile, rebellions in Syria, most notably at Tyre, led to further operations, though not, for some reason, to the terrible reprisals normally visited on rebel rulers and their people. In the following years Ashurbanipal campaigned on his northern and eastern frontiers, against the Mannai, Medes, Elamites (who had invaded Babylonia yet again) and the Cimmerians. Then, in 655, the Delta region of Egypt rose against the Assyrians under a local prince, Psamtik. With the help of Greek mercenaries, the Egyptians expelled the Assyrian army. At this time the Elamites had mounted yet another fierce attack on the Assyrians in southern Babylonia, at the opposite end of the empire, and the bulk of the Assyrian army was engaged in driving this invasion out. They could not restore their position in Egypt immediately – nor did they ever reconquer that country.
The Elamites were crushed and Elam put under friendly princes. However, Shamash-shum-ukin, Ashurbanipal’s younger brother and king of Babylon, then rebelled (652). He enlisted the support of a huge number of potential rebels and enemies of Assyria from all corners of the empire – Phoenicia, Philistia, Judah, the Arabs, the Chaldeans of southern Iraq, the Elamites, the Egyptians, and the Lydians in Asia Minor. He hatched a plot for all to attack Assyrian forces simultaneously. Such a plot could not be kept secret, and Ashurbanipal marched against his brother. A three-year war ended in Shamsh-shum-ukin dying in the burning wreckage of his own palace. Ashurbanipal put a puppet ruler on the throne of Babylon, and then set about dealing with his other enemies. A long but successful war against the Arabs was followed by a long struggle against Elam, which finally put an end to the threat posed by that country: Elam was devastated and its capital, Susa, destroyed.
As with many of the Assyrian kings, Ashurbanipal was interested in things other than war. He was deeply fascinated by the (by then ancient) civilization of Sumer and Akkad, and of Babylon of the time of Hammurabi and his successors. He ordered his officials to hunt out ancient tablets and send them to Nineveh, where he built a large library in his palace to house them. These tablets, discovered by archaeologists in the 19th century, are now stored in the British Museum, and provide an immensely valuable insight into many aspects of Mesopotamian civilization, and particularly its religious and literary life.
The last twelve years of Ashurbanipal’s reign are in almost complete darkness, as the royal annals come to an abrupt end in 639 BC. In 627 BC, Ashurbanipal died; coincidentally, the puppet ruler whom Ashurbanipal had installed in Babylon also died. Ashurbanipal’s son, Ashur-etil-ilani, succeeded his father in Assyria, and his brother, Sin-shar-ishkun, became king of Babylon. The following year, however, Sin-shar-ishkun was driven from Babylon by (yet again) the Chaldeans, now under a leader called Nabopolassar. Sin-shar-ishkun then rebelled against his brother, and a three year civil war ensued in Assyria. Sin-shar-ishkun was the victor, ascending the Assyrian throne in 623 BC.
Troubles were mounting for the Assyrian empire, however. A vicious seven year war in Babylonia failed to put down Nabopolassar’s revolt. Scythian and Cimmerian raiders from the steppes north of the Black Sea rampaged unchecked through Assyrian territory in Anatolia and northern Assyria; the appeals of Assyria’s subjects in those areas for help went unheeded.
In 616 BC the Chaldeans under Nabopolassar, who had styled himself king of Babylon for the past 10 years, invaded Assyria itself. This was an unprecedented turn of events, and was followed by another - the Assyrian king appealed to his former enemy, the king of Egypt, for aid. The Egyptians agreed, but any help they contributed arrived too late. For, in the following year, the Medes also invaded Assyria, and captured the Assyrian holy city of Ashur. Here, the Medes and the Babylonians agreed to act in unison (614 BC), and, after a year’s slow campaigning, they besieged the Assyrian capital, Nineveh (612 BC). After three months, the great city fell, and was utterly destroyed. All the other cities of Assyria were also taken and raised to the ground. Only villages were left in the land.
Two hundred years later, a Greek army marched through Assyria. The soldiers had no idea that the heaps of rubble they saw had once been the greatest cities in a great empire.
The huge Assyrian empire was shared out amongst its victorious enemies, the Chaldeans and Medes. A new era in Middle Eastern history had begun.
To continue the history of ancient Mesopotamia, see The Babylonian Empire.
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