Assyria (𒀸𒋗𒁺 𐎹 Aššūrāyu) was a major Mesopotamian East Semitic kingdom, and often empire, of the Ancient Near East, existing as an independent state for a period of approximately nineteen centuries from c. 2500 BC to 605 BC, spanning the Early Bronze Age through to the late Iron Age. For a further thirteen centuries, from the end of the 7th century BC to the mid-7th century AD, it survived as a geo-political entity, for the most part ruled by foreign powers, although a number of small Neo-Assyrian states arose at different times between the 1st century BC and late 3rd century AD.
Centered on the Upper Tigris river, in northern Mesopotamia (northern Iraq, northeast Syria and southeastern Turkey), the Assyrians came to rule powerful empires at several times, the last of which grew to be the largest and most powerful empire the world had yet seen.
As a substantial part of the greater Mesopotamian "cradle of civilization" which included Sumer, Akkad and later Babylonia, Assyria was at the height of technological, scientific and cultural achievements for its time. At its peak, the Assyrian empire stretched from Cyprus in the Mediterranean Sea to Persia (Iran), and from the Caucasus Mountains (Armenia, Georgia, Azerbaijan) to the Arabian Peninsula and Egypt.
Assyria is named for its original capital, the ancient city of Aššur (a.k.a. Ashur) which dates to c. 2600 BC (located in what is now the Saladin Province of northern Iraq), originally one of a number of Akkadian city states in Mesopotamia. In the late 24th century BC, Assyrian kings were regional leaders only, and subject to Sargon of Akkad, who united all the Akkadian Semites and Sumerian-speaking peoples of Mesopotamia under the Akkadian Empire, which lasted from c. 2334 BC to 2154 BC. Following the fall of the Akkadian Empire c. 2154 BC, and the short lived succeeding Sumerian Third Dynasty of Ur which ruled southern Assyria, Assyria regained full independence.
The history of Assyria proper is roughly divided into three periods, known as Old Assyrian, Middle Assyrian and Neo-Assyrian. These terms are in wide use in Assyrology and roughly correspond to the Middle Bronze Age, Late Bronze Age and Early Iron Age, respectively. In the Old Assyrian period, Assyria established colonies in Asia Minor and the Levant and, under king Ilushuma, it asserted itself over southern Mesopotamia. From the late 19th century BC, Assyria came into conflict with the newly created state of Babylonia, which eventually eclipsed the older Sumero-Akkadian states in the south, such as Ur, Isin, Larsa and Kish.
Assyria experienced fluctuating fortunes in the Middle Assyrian period. Assyria had a period of empire under Shamshi-Adad I and Ishme-Dagan in the 19th and 18th centuries BC. Following this, it found itself under Babylonian and Mitanni-Hurrian domination for short periods in the 18th and 15th centuries BC respectively, and another period of great power occurred with the rise of the Middle Assyrian Empire (from 1365 BC to 1056 BC), which included the reigns of great kings, such as Ashur-uballit I, Arik-den-ili, Tukulti-Ninurta I and Tiglath-Pileser I. During this period, Assyria overthrew Mitanni and eclipsed both the Hittite Empire and Egyptian Empire in the Near East.
Beginning with the campaigns of Adad-nirari II from 911 BC, it again became a great power over the next three centuries, overthrowing the Twenty-fifth dynasty of Egypt and conquering Egypt, Babylonia, Elam, Urartu/Armenia, Media, Persia, Mannea, Gutium, Phoenicia/Canaan, Aramea (Syria), Arabia, Israel, Judah, Edom, Moab, Samarra, Cilicia, Cyprus, Chaldea, Nabatea, Commagene, Dilmun, the Hurrians, Sutu and Neo-Hittites, driving the Ethiopians and Nubians from Egypt, defeating the Cimmerians and Scythians and exacting tribute from Phrygia, Magan and Punt[clarification needed] among others.
After its fall (between 612 BC and 605 BC), Assyria remained a province and geo-political entity under the Babylonian, Median, Achaemenid, Seleucid, Parthian, Roman and Sassanid empires until the Arab Islamic dominance of Mesopotamia in the mid-7th century, when it was finally dissolved, after which the remnants of the Assyrian people (by now Christians) gradually became a minority in their homeland.
- 1 Names
- 2 Pre-history of Assyria
- 3 Early Assyria, 2600–2335 BC
- 4 Assyria in the Akkadian Empire and Neo-Sumerian Empires
- 5 Old Assyrian Kingdom
- 6 Middle Assyrian Empire, 1392–1056 BC
- 7 Neo-Assyrian Empire, 911–627 BC
- 8 Assyria after the empire
- 8.1 Achaemenid Assyria, Athura, Assuristan, Assyria province, Adiabene, Osroene and Hatra
- 9 Assyrians after Assyria
- 10 Assyrian religion
- 11 Language
- 12 Arts and sciences
- 13 Legacy
- 14 See also
- 15 Notes
- 16 References
- 17 Literature
- 18 External links
Assyria was also sometimes known as Subartu prior to the rise of the city state of Ashur after which it was 𒀸𒋗𒁺 𐎹 Aššūrāyu, and after its fall, from 605 BC through to the late 7th century AD variously as Athura and also referenced as Atouria according to Strabo, Syria (Greek), Assyria (Latin) and Assuristan. The term Assyria can also refer to the geographic region or heartland where Assyria, its empires and the Assyrian people were (and still are) centered. The modern Assyrian Christian (AKA Chaldo-Assyrian) ethnic minority in northern Iraq, north east Syria, south east Turkey and north west Iran are the descendants of the ancient Assyrians (see Assyrian continuity).
Pre-history of Assyria
In prehistoric times, the region that was to become known as Assyria (and Subartu) was home to a Neanderthal culture such as has been found at the Shanidar Cave. The earliest Neolithic sites in Assyria were the Jarmo culture c. 7100 BC and Tell Hassuna, the centre of the Hassuna culture, c. 6000 BC.
During the 3rd millennium BC, a very intimate cultural symbiosis developed between the Sumerians and the Semitic Akkadians throughout Mesopotamia, which included widespread bilingualism. The influence of Sumerian (a language isolate, i.e. not related to any other language) on Akkadian (and vice versa) is evident in all areas, from lexical borrowing on a massive scale, to syntactic, morphological, and phonological convergence. This has prompted scholars to refer to Sumerian and Akkadian in the 3rd millennium BC as a sprachbund.
Akkadian gradually replaced Sumerian as the spoken language of Mesopotamia somewhere after the turn of the 3rd and the 2nd millennium BC (the exact dating being a matter of debate), but Sumerian continued to be used as a sacred, ceremonial, literary and scientific language in Mesopotamia until the 1st century AD.
The cities of Assur (also spelled Ashur or Aššur) and Nineveh, together with a number of other towns and cities, existed since at least before the middle of the 3rd millennium BC (c. 2600 BC), although they appear to have been Sumerian-ruled administrative centres at this time, rather than independent states.
According to some Judaeo-Christian writers[who?], the city of Ashur was founded by Ashur the son of Shem, who was deified by later generations as the city's patron god. However, it is not among the cities said to have been founded by him in Genesis 10:11–12, and the far older Assyrian annals make no mention of the later Judeo-Christian figures of Shem and Ashur.
Assyrian tradition lists an early Assyrian king named Ushpia as having dedicated the first temple to the god Ashur in the city in the 21st century BC. It is highly likely that the city was named in honour of its patron Assyrian god with the same name.
George Syncellus in his Chronographia quotes a fragment from Julius Africanus which dates the founding of Assyria to 2284 BC. The Roman historian Velleius Paterculus citing Aemilius Sura states that Assyria was founded 1995 years before Philip V was defeated in 197 BC (at the Battle of Cynoscephalae) by the Romans. The sum therefore 197 + 1995 = 2192 BC for the foundation of Assyria. Diodorus Siculus recorded another tradition from Ctesias, that dates Assyria 1,306 years before 883 BC (the starting date of the reign of Ashurnasirpal II) and so the sum 883 + 1306 = 2189 BC. The Chronicle of Eusebius provides yet another date for the founding of Assyria, with the accession of Ninus, dating to 2057 BC, but the Armenian translation of the Chronicle puts this figure back slightly to 2116 BC. Another classical dating tradition found in the Excerpta Latina Barbari dates the foundation of Assyria, under Belus, to 2206 BC.
Early Assyria, 2600–2335 BC
The city of Ashur, together with a number of other Assyrian cities, seem to have been established by 2600 BC, however it is likely that they were initially Sumerian dominated administrative centres. In c. the late 26th century BC, Eannatum of Lagash, then the dominant Sumerian ruler in Mesopotamia, mentions "smiting Subartu" (Subartu being the Sumerian name for Assyria). Similarly, in c. the early 25th century BC, Lugal-Anne-Mundu the king of the Sumerian state of Adab lists Subartu as paying tribute to him.
Of the early history of the kingdom of Assyria, little is positively known. In the Assyrian King List, the earliest king recorded was Tudiya. In archaeological reports from Ebla, it appeared that Tudiya's activities were confirmed with the discovery of a tablet where he concluded a treaty for the operation of a karum (trading colony) in Eblaite territory, with "king" Ibrium of Ebla (who is now known to have been the vizier of Ebla for king Ishar-Damu). This entire reading is now questionable, as several scholars have more recently argued that the treaty in question was not with king Tudiya of Assyria, but rather with the unnamed king of an uncertain location called "Abarsal".
Tudiya was succeeded on the list by Adamu and then a further thirteen rulers (Yangi, Shuhlamu, Harharu, Mandaru, Imshu, Harshu, Didanu, Hanu, Zuabu, Nuabu, Abazu, Belu and Azarah). Nothing concrete is yet known about these names, although it has been noted that a much later Babylonian tablet listing the ancestral lineage of Hammurabi, the Amorite king of Babylon, seems to include the same names from Tudiya through Nuabu, though in a heavily corrupted form.
The earliest kings, such as Tudiya, who are recorded as kings who lived in tents, may have been independent Akkadian semi-nomadic pastoralist rulers. These kings at some point became fully urbanised and founded the city state of Ashur.
Assyria in the Akkadian Empire and Neo-Sumerian Empires
During the Akkadian Empire (2334–2154 BC) the Assyrians, like all the Akkadian Semites (and also the Sumerians), became subject to the dynasty of the city state of Akkad, centered in central Mesopotamia. The Akkadian Empire founded by Sargon the Great, claimed to encompass the surrounding "four quarters". The region of Assyria, north of the seat of the empire in central Mesopotamia had also been known as Subartu by the Sumerians, and the name Azuhinum in Akkadian records also seems to refer to Assyria proper.
During this period, the Akkadian-speaking Semites of Mesopotamia came to rule an empire encompassing not only Mesopotamia itself but large swathes of Asia Minor, ancient Iran, Elam, the Arabian Peninsula, Canaan and Syria.
Assyria seems to have already been firmly involved in trade in Asia Minor by this time; the earliest known reference to Anatolian karums in Hatti, was found on later cuneiform tablets describing the early period of the Akkadian Empire (c. 2350 BC). On those tablets, Assyrian traders in Burushanda implored the help of their ruler, Sargon the Great, and this appellation continued to exist throughout the Assyrian Empire for about 1,700 years. The name "Hatti" itself even appears in later accounts of his grandson, Naram-Sin, campaigning in Anatolia.
Assyrian and Akkadian traders spread the use of writing in the form of the Mesopotamian cuneiform script to Asia Minor and The Levant.
However, towards the end of the reign of Sargon the Great, the Assyrian faction rebelled against him; "the tribes of Assyria of the upper country—in their turn attacked, but they submitted to his arms, and Sargon settled their habitations, and he smote them grievously".
The Akkadian Empire was destroyed by economic decline and internal civil war, followed by attacks from barbarian Gutian people in 2154 BC.
The rulers of Assyria during the period between c. 2154 BC and 2112 BC once again became fully independent, as the Gutians are only known to have administered southern Mesopotamia. However, the king list is the only information from Assyria for this period.
Most of Assyria briefly became part of the Neo-Sumerian Empire (or 3rd dynasty of Ur) founded in c. 2112 BC. Sumerian domination extended as far as the city of Ashur, but appears not to have reached Nineveh and the far north of Assyria. One local ruler (shakkanakku) named Zāriqum (who does not appear on any Assyrian king list) is listed as paying tribute to Amar-Sin of Ur. Ashur's rulers appear to have remained largely under Sumerian domination until the mid-21st century BC (c. 2050 BC); the king list names Assyrian rulers for this period and several are known from other references to have also borne the title of shakkanakka or vassal governors for the neo-Sumerians.
Old Assyrian Kingdom
The first written inscriptions by 'urbanised' Assyrian kings appear in the mid-21st century BC, after they had shrugged off Sumerian domination. The land of Assyria as a whole then consisted of a number of city states and small Semitic Akkadian kingdoms, some of which were initially independent of Assyria. The foundation of the first major temple in the city of Ashur was traditionally ascribed to king Ushpia who reigned c. 2050 BC, possibly a contemporary of Ishbi-Erra of Isin and Naplanum of Larsa. He was reputedly succeeded by kings named Apiashal, Sulili, Kikkiya and Akiya (died c. 2026 BC), of whom little is known, apart from much later mentions of Kikkiya conducting fortifications on the city walls, and building work on temples in Ashur.
The main rivals, neighbours or trading partners to early Assyrian kings during the 22nd, 21st and 20th centuries BC would have been the Hattians and Hurrians to the north in Asia Minor, the Gutians and Turukku to the east in the Zagros Mountains of northwest Iran, the Elamites to the southeast in what is now south central Iran, the Amorites to the west in what is today Syria, and their fellow Sumero-Akkadian city-states of southern Mesopotamia such as Isin, Kish, Ur and Larsa.
Like many city-states in Mesopotamian history, Ashur was, to a great extent, an oligarchy rather than a monarchy. Authority was considered to lie with "the City", and the polity had three main centres of power—an assembly of elders, a hereditary ruler, and an eponym. The ruler presided over the assembly and carried out its decisions. He was not referred to with the usual Akkadian term for "king", šarrum; that was instead reserved for the city's patron deity Assur, of whom the ruler was the high priest. The ruler himself was only designated as "the steward of Assur" (iššiak Assur), where the term for steward is a borrowing from Sumerian ensi(k). The third centre of power was the eponym (limmum), who gave the year his name, similarly to the later archons and consuls of Classical Antiquity. He was annually elected by lot and was responsible for the economic administration of the city, which included the power to detain people and confiscate property. The institution of the eponym as well as the formula iššiak Assur lingered on as ceremonial vestiges of this early system throughout the history of the Assyrian monarchy.
Dynasty of Puzur-Ashur I, 2025–1809 BC, Old Assyrian Empire
In approximately 2025 BC (long chronology), Puzur-Ashur I (perhaps a contemporary of Shu-ilishu of Larsa and Samium of Isin) is speculated (on the basis of his name being Akkadian rather than Hurrian) to have overthrown Kikkiya and founded a new dynasty which was to survive for 216 years. His descendants left inscriptions mentioning him regarding the building of temples to gods such as Ashur, Adad and Ishtar in Assyria. The length of his reign is unknown.
Shalim-ahum (died c. 2009 BC) succeeded the throne at a currently unknown date. He left inscriptions in archaic Old Assyrian regarding the construction of a temple dedicated to the god Ashur, and the placement of beer vats within it.
Ilushuma (c. 2008–1975 BC) took the throne in c. 2008 BC, and is known from his inscription (extant in several copies) where he claims to have "washed the copper" and "established liberty" for the Akkadians in Sumerian city-states as far as the Persian Gulf. This has been taken by some scholars to imply that he made military campaigns into Southern Mesopotamia to relieve his fellow Mesopotamians from Amorite and Elamite invasions, however some recent scholars have taken the view that the inscription means he supplied these areas with copper from Hatti, and that the word used for "liberty" (adduraru) is usually in the context of his exempting the southern Mesopotamian kings from tariffs.
"The freedom[nb 1] of the Akkadians and their children I established. I purified their copper. I established their freedom from the border of the marshes and Ur and Nippur, Awal, and Kish, Der of the goddess Ishtar, as far as the City of (Ashur)."
Assyria had long held extensive contact with Hattian, Hittite and Hurrian cities on the Anatolian plateau in Asia Minor. The Assyrians who had for centuries traded in the region, and possibly ruled small areas bordering Assyria, now established significant colonies in Cappadocia (e.g., at Kanesh (modern Kültepe) from 2008 BC to 1740 BC). These colonies, called karum, from the Akkadian word for 'port', were attached to Hattian cities in Anatolia, but physically separate, and had special tax status. They must have arisen from a long tradition of trade between Assyria and the Anatolian cities, but no archaeological or written records show this. The trade consisted of metals (copper or tin and perhaps iron; the terminology is not entirely clear) being traded for textiles from Assyria.
Erishum I (c. 1974–1935 BC) vigorously expanded Assyrian colonies in Asia Minor during his long reign, the major ones appearing to be at Kanesh, Ḫattuša (Boğazköy) (the future capital of the Hittite Empire) and Amkuwa (Alisar Höyük), together with a further eighteen smaller colonies. He created some of the earliest examples of Written Law, conducted extensive building work in the form of fortifying the walls of major Assyrian cities and the erection of temples dedicated to Ashur and Ishtar. It is from his reign that the continuous limmum lists are known, however there are references to the eponym-books for his predecessors having been destroyed at some point.
Sargon I (c. 1920–1881 BC) succeeded him in c. 1920 BC, and had an unusually long reign of 39 years. It is likely he was named after his illustrious predecessor Sargon of Akkad. He is known to have refortified the defences of major Assyrian cities, and maintained Assyrian colonies in Asia Minor during his reign. Apart from this, little has yet been unearthed about him. At some point he appears to have withdrawn Assyrian aid to southern Mesopotamia. It was during his reign in Assyria that the initially minor city-state of Babylon was founded in 1894 BC by an Amorite Malka (prince) named Sumuabum.
Puzur-Ashur II (c. 1881–1873 BC) came to the throne as an already older man due to his fathers long reign. Little is known about his rule, but it appears to have been uneventful.
Naram-Suen (c. 1872–1818 BC) ascended to the throne in 1872 BC, and is likely named after his predecessor Naram-Sin of the Akkadian Empire. Assyria continued to be wealthy during his 54 year long reign (one of the longest in the ancient Near East), and he defeated the future usurper king Shamshi-Adad I who attempted to take his throne.
Erishum II (c. 1818–1809 BC) was to be the last king of the dynasty of Puzur-Ashur I, founded c. 2025 BC. After only eight or nine years in power he was overthrown by Shamshi-Adad I, the Amorite usurper who had previously been defeated in an attempt to unseat Naram-Suen, and who claimed legitimacy by asserting descent from the mid 21st century BC Assyrian king, Ushpia.
Amorite Period in Assyria, 1809–1750 BC
The Amorites were successfully repelled by the Assyrian kings of the 20th and 19th centuries BC. However, in 1809 BC the native Akkadian king of Assyria Erishum II was deposed, and the throne of Assyria was usurped by Shamshi-Adad I (c. 1809 – 1776 BC) in the expansion of Semitic Amorite tribes from the Khabur River delta.
Although regarded as an Amorite by later Assyrian tradition, Shamshi-Adad's descent is suggested to be from the same line as the native Akkadian speaking ruler Ushpia in the Assyrian King List. He put his son Ishme-Dagan on the throne of a nearby Assyrian city, Ekallatum, and maintained Assyria's Anatolian colonies. Shamshi-Adad I then went on to conquer the kingdom of Mari (in modern Syria) on the Euphrates putting another of his sons, Yasmah-Adad on the throne there. Shamshi-Adad's Assyria now encompassed the whole of northern Mesopotamia and included territory in central Mesopotamia, Asia Minor and northern Syria. Shamshi-Adad I mentions conducting raids on the Canaanite coasts of the far off Mediterranean, where he erected stelae to commemorate his victories. He himself resided in a new capital city founded in the Khabur valley in northern Mesopotamia, called Shubat-Enlil.
Ishme-Dagan I (1774–1763 BC) inherited Assyria, but Yasmah-Adad was overthrown by a new king called Zimrilim in Mari. The new king of Mari allied himself with the Amorite king Hammurabi of Babylon, who had made the recently created, and originally minor state of Babylon into a major power. It was from the reign of Hammurabi onwards that southern Mesopotamia came to be known as Babylonia.
Assyria now faced the rising power of Babylon in the south. Ishme-Dagan responded by making an alliance with the enemies of Babylon, and the power struggle continued without resolution for decades. Ishme-Dagan, like his father was a great warrior, and in addition to repelling Babylonian attacks, campaigned successfully against the Turukku and Lullubi of the Zagros Mountains (in modern Iran) who had attacked the Assyrian city of Ekallatum, and against Dadusha, king of Eshnunna, and the state of Iamhad (modern Aleppo).
Assyria under Babylonian domination, 1750–1732 BC
Hammurabi, after first conquering Mari, Larsa, and Eshnunna, eventually prevailed over Ishme-Dagan's successor Mut-Ashkur (1750–1740 BC), and subjected him to Babylon c. 1750 BC. With Hammurabi, the various karum colonies in Anatolia ceased trade activity—probably because the goods of Assyria were now being traded with the Babylonians. The Assyrian monarchy survived, however the three Amorite kings succeeding Ishme-Dagan, Mut-Ashkur (who was the son of Ishme-Dagan and married to a Hurrian queen), Rimush (1739–1733 BC) and Asinum (1732 BC), were vassals, dependent on the Babylonians during the reign of Hammurabi, and for a short time, of his successor Samsu-iluna.
Assyrian Adaside dynasty, 1732–1451 BC
The short lived Babylonian Empire quickly began to unravel upon the death of Hammurabi, and Babylonia lost control over Assyria during the reign of Hammurabi's successor Samsu-iluna (1750–1712 BC). A period of civil war ensued after Asinum (a grandson of Shamshi-Adad I and the last Amorite ruler of Assyria) was deposed in approximately 1732 BC by a powerful native Akkadian-Assyrian vice regent named Puzur-Sin, who regarded Asinum as both a foreigner and a former lackey of Babylon.
A native king named Ashur-dugul seized the throne in 1732 BC, probably with the help of Puzur-Sin. However, he was unable to retain control for long, and was soon deposed by a rival claimant, Ashur-apla-idi. Internal instability ensued with four further kings (Nasir-Sin, Sin-namir, Ipqi-Ishtar and Adad-salulu) all reigning in quick succession over a period of approximately six years between 1732 and 1727 BC. Babylonia seems to have been too powerless to intervene or take advantage of this situation.
Finally, a king named Adasi (1726–1701 BC) came to the fore c. 1726 BC and managed to quell the civil unrest and stabilise the situation in Assyria. Adasi completely drove the Babylonians and Amorites from the Assyrian sphere of influence during his reign, and Babylonian power began to quickly wane in Mesopotamia as a whole, also losing the far south of Mesopotamia to the Sealand Dynasty, although the Amorites would retain control over a much reduced and weak Babylonia itself until 1595 BC, when they were overthrown by the Kassites, a people from the Zagros Mountains who spoke a language isolate and were neither Semites nor Indo-Europeans.
Adasi was succeeded by Bel-bani (1700–1691 BC) who is credited in Assyrian annals with inflicting further defeats on the Babylonians and Amorites, and further strengthening and stabilising the kingdom.
Little is currently known of many of the kings that followed such as; Libaya (1690–1674 BC), Sharma-Adad I (1673–1662 BC), Iptar-Sin (1661–1650 BC), Bazaya (1649–1622 BC) (a contemporary of Peshgaldaramesh of the Sealand Dynasty), Lullaya (1621–1618 BC) (who usurperped the throne from Bazaya), Shu-Ninua (1615–1602 BC) and Sharma-Adad II (1601–1599 BC). However, Assyria seems to have been a relatively strong and stable nation, existing undisturbed by its neighbours such as the Hatti, Hittites, Hurrians, Amorites, Babylonians, Elamites or Mitanni during this period.
Assyria appears to have remained strong and secure; when Babylon was sacked by the Hittites and subsequently fell to the Kassites in 1595 BC, both powers were unable to make any inroads into Assyria, and there seems to have been no trouble between the first Kassite ruler of Babylon, Agum II, and Erishum III (1598–1586 BC) of Assyria, and a mutually beneficial treaty was signed between the two rulers.
Shamshi-Adad II (1585–1580 BC), Ishme-Dagan II (1579–1562 BC) and Shamshi-Adad III (1562–1548 BC) seem also to have had peaceful tenures, although few records have thus far been discovered about their reigns. Similarly, Ashur-nirari I (1547–1522 BC) seems not to have been troubled by the newly founded Mitanni Empire in Asia Minor, the Hittite empire, or Babylon during his 25-year reign. He is known to have been an active king, improving the infrastructure, dedicating temples and conducting various building projects throughout the kingdom.
Puzur-Ashur III (1521–1498 BC) proved to be a strong and energetic ruler. He undertook much rebuilding work in Assur, the city was refortified and the southern quarters incorporated into the main city defences. Temples to the moon god Sin (Nanna) and the sun god Shamash were erected during his reign. He signed a treaty with Burna-Buriash I the Kassite king of Babylon, defining the borders of the two nations in the late 16th century BC. He was succeeded by Enlil-nasir I (1497–1483 BC) who appears to have had a peaceful an uneventful reign, as does his successor Nur-ili (1482–1471 BC).
The son of Nur-ili, Ashur-shaduni (1470 BC) was deposed by his uncle Ashur-rabi I (1470–1451 BC) in his first year of rule. Little is known about his nineteen-year reign, but it appears to have been largely uneventful.
Assyria in decline, 1450–1393 BC
The emergence of the Mitanni Empire in the 16th century BC did eventually lead to a short period of sporadic Mitanni-Hurrian domination in the latter half of the 15th century. The Indo-European speaking Mitanni are thought to have conquered and formed the ruling class over the indigenous Hurrians of eastern Anatolia. The Hurrians spoke a language isolate, i.e. neither Semitic nor Indo-European.
Ashur-nadin-ahhe I (1450–1431 BC) was courted by the Egyptians, who were rivals of the Mitanni, and attempting to gain a foothold in the Near East. Amenhotep II sent the Assyrian king a tribute of gold to seal an alliance against the Hurri-Mitanni empire. It is likely that this alliance prompted Saushtatar, the Mitanni emperor, to invade Assyria, and sack the city of Ashur, after which Assyria became a sometime vassal state, with Ashur-nadin-ahhe I being forced to pay tribute to Saushtatar. He was deposed by his own brother Enlil-nasir II (1430–1425 BC) in 1430 BC, possibly with the aid of the Mitanni, who received tribute from the new king. Ashur-nirari II (1424–1418 BC) had an uneventful reign, and appears to have also paid tribute to the Mitanni Empire.
The Assyrian monarchy survived, and the Mitanni influence appears to have been sporadic. They appear not to have been always willing or able to interfere in Assyrian internal and international affairs.
Ashur-bel-nisheshu (1417–1409 BC) seems to have been independent of Mitanni influence, as evidenced by his signing a mutually beneficial treaty with Karaindash, the Kassite king of Babylonia in the late 15th century. He also undertook extensive rebuilding work in Ashur itself, and Assyria appears to have redeveloped its former highly sophisticated financial and economic systems during his reign.
Ashur-rim-nisheshu (1408–1401 BC) also undertook building work, strengthening the city walls of the capital.
Ashur-nadin-ahhe II (1400–1393 BC) also received a tribute of gold and diplomatic overtures from Egypt, probably in an attempt to gain Assyrian military support against Egypt's Mitanni and Hittite rivals in the region. However, the Assyrian king appears not to have been in a strong enough position to challenge the Mitanni.
Eriba-Adad I (1392–1366 BC), a son of Ashur-bel-nisheshu, ascended the throne in 1392 BC and finally broke the ties to the Mitanni Empire.
There are dozens of Mesopotamian cuneiform texts from this period, with precise observations of solar and lunar eclipses, that have been used as 'anchors' in the various attempts to define the chronology of Babylonia and Assyria for the early 2nd millennium BC (i.e., the "high", "middle", and "low" chronologies.)
Middle Assyrian Empire, 1392–1056 BC
|Middle Assyrian Period|
|-||1365–1330 BC||Ashur-uballit I (first)|
|-||967–934 BC||Tiglath-Pileser II (last)|
|-||Independence from Mitanni||1392 BC|
|-||Reign of Ashur-dan II||934 BC|
Scholars variously date the beginning of the "Middle Assyrian period" to either the fall of the Old Assyrian kingdom of Shamshi-Adad I, or to the ascension of Ashur-uballit I to the throne of Assyria.
Assyrian expansion and empire, 1392–1056 BC
By the reign of Eriba-Adad I (1392–1366 BC) Mitanni influence over Assyria was on the wane. Eriba-Adad I became involved in a dynastic battle between Tushratta and his brother Artatama II and after this his son Shuttarna II, who called himself king of the Hurri while seeking support from the Assyrians. A pro-Assyria faction appeared at the royal Mitanni court. Eriba-Adad I had thus finally broken Mitanni influence over Assyria, and in turn had now made Assyria an influence over Mitanni affairs.
Ashur-uballit I (1365–1330 BC) succeeded the throne of Assyria in 1365 BC, and proved to be a fierce, ambitious and powerful ruler. Assyrian pressure from the southeast and Hittite pressure from the north-west, enabled Ashur-uballit I to break Mitanni power. He met and decisively defeated Shuttarna II the Mitanni king in battle, making Assyria once more an imperial power at the expense of not only the Mitanni themselves, but also Kassite Babylonia, the Hurrians and the Hittites; and a time came when the Kassite king in Babylon was glad to marry Muballiṭat-Šērūa, the daughter of Ashur-uballit, whose letters to Akhenaten of Egypt form part of the Amarna letters.
This marriage led to disastrous results for Babylonia, as the Kassite faction at court murdered the half Assyrian Babylonian king and placed a pretender on the throne. Assur-uballit I promptly invaded Babylonia to avenge his son-in-law, entering Babylon, deposing the king and installing Kurigalzu II of the royal line king there.
Ashur-uballit I then attacked and defeated Mattiwaza the Mitanni king despite attempts by the Hittite king Suppiluliumas, now fearful of growing Assyrian power, to help the Mitanni. The lands of the Mitanni and Hurrians were duly appropriated by Assyria, making it a large and powerful empire.
Enlil-nirari (1329–1308 BC) succeeded Ashur-uballit I. He described himself as a "Great-King" (Sharru rabû) in letters to the Hittite kings. He was immediately attacked by Kurigalzu II of Babylon who had been installed by his father, but succeeded in defeating him, repelling Babylonian attempts to invade Assyria, counterattacking and appropriating Babylonian territory in the process, thus further expanding Assyria.
The successor of Enlil-nirari, Arik-den-ili (c. 1307–1296 BC), consolidated Assyrian power, and successfully campaigned in the Zagros Mountains to the east, subjugating the Lullubi and Gutians. In Syria, he defeated Semitic tribes of the so-called Ahlamu group, who were possibly predecessors of the Arameans or an Aramean tribe.
He was followed by Adad-nirari I (1295–1275 BC) who made Kalhu (Biblical Calah/Nimrud) his capital, and continued expansion to the northwest, mainly at the expense of the Hittites and Hurrians, conquering Hittite territories such as Carchemish and beyond. Adad-nirari I made further gains to the south, annexing Babylonian territory and forcing the Kassite rulers of Babylon into accepting a new frontier agreement in Assyria's favour.
Adad-nirari's inscriptions are more detailed than any of his predecessors. He declares that the gods of Mesopotamia called him to war, a statement used by most subsequent Assyrian kings. He referred to himself again as Sharru Rabi (meaning "The Great King" in the Akkadian language) and conducted extensive building projects in Ashur and the provinces.
In 1274 BC Shalmaneser I (1274–1244 BC) ascended the throne. He proved to be a great warrior king. During his reign he conquered the Hurrian kingdom of Urartu that would have encompassed most of Eastern Anatolia and the Caucasus Mountains in the 9th century BC, and the fierce Gutians of the Zagros. He then attacked the Mitanni-Hurrians, defeating both King Shattuara and his Hittite and Aramaean allies, finally completely destroying the Hurri-Mitanni kingdom in the process.
During the campaign against the Hittites, Shattuara cut off the Assyrian army from their supply of food and water, but the Assyrians broke free in a desperate battle, counterattacked, and conquered and annexed what remained of the Mitanni kingdom. Shalmaneser I installed an Assyrian prince, Ilu-ippada as ruler of Mitanni, with Assyrian governors such as Meli-sah, installed to rule individual cities.
The Hittites, having failed to save Mitanni, allied with Babylon in an unsuccessful economic war against Assyria for many years. Assyria was now a large and powerful empire, and a major threat to Egyptian and Hittite interests in the region, and was perhaps the reason that these two powers, fearful of Assyrian might, made peace with one another. Like his father, Shalmaneser was a great builder and he further expanded the city of Kalhu at the juncture of the Tigris and Zab Rivers.
Shalmaneser's son and successor, Tukulti-Ninurta I (1244–1207 BC), won a major victory against the Hittites and their king Tudhaliya IV at the Battle of Nihriya and took thousands of prisoners. He then conquered Babylonia, taking Kashtiliash IV as a captive and ruled there himself as king for seven years, taking on the old title "King of Sumer and Akkad" first used by Sargon of Akkad. Tukulti-Ninurta I thus became the first Akkadian speaking native Mesopotamian to rule the state of Babylonia, its founders having been foreign Amorites, succeeded by equally foreign Kassites. Tukulti-Ninurta petitioned the god Shamash before beginning his counter offensive. Kashtiliash IV was captured, single-handed by Tukulti-Ninurta according to his account, who "trod with my feet upon his lordly neck as though it were a footstool" and deported him ignominiously in chains to Assyria. The victorious Assyrian demolished the walls of Babylon, massacred many of the inhabitants, pillaged and plundered his way across the city to the Esagila temple, where he made off with the statue of Marduk. He then proclaimed himself "king of Karduniash, king of Sumer and Akkad, king of Sippar and Babylon, king of Tilmun and Meluhha." Middle Assyrian texts recovered at ancient Dūr-Katlimmu, include a letter from Tukulti-Ninurta to his sukkal rabi'u, or grand vizier, Ashur-iddin advising him of the approach of his general Shulman-mushabshu escorting the captive Kashtiliash, his wife, and his retinue which incorporated a large number of women, on his way to exile after his defeat. In the process he defeated the Elamites, who had themselves coveted Babylon. He also wrote an epic poem documenting his wars against Babylon and Elam. After a Babylonian revolt, he raided and plundered the temples in Babylon, regarded as an act of sacrilege. As relations with the priesthood in Ashur began deteriorating, Tukulti-Ninurta built a new capital city; Kar-Tukulti-Ninurta.
However, Tukulti-Ninurta's sons rebelled and besieged the ageing king in his capital. He was murdered and then succeeded by Ashur-nadin-apli (1206–1203 BC) who left the running of his empire to Assyrian regional governors such as Adad-bēl-gabbe. Another unstable period for Assyria followed, it was riven by periods of internal strife and the new king only made token and unsuccessful attempts to recapture Babylon, whose Kassite kings had taken advantage of the upheavals in Assyria and freed themselves from Assyrian rule. However, Assyria itself was not threatened by foreign powers during the reigns of Ashur-nirari III (1202–1197 BC), Enlil-kudurri-usur (1196–1193 BC) and Ninurta-apal-Ekur (1192–1180 BC), although Ninurta-apal-Ekur usurped the throne from Enlil-kudurri-usur.
Ashur-Dan I (1179–1133 BC) stabilised the internal unrest in Assyria during his unusually long reign, quelling instability. During the twilight years of the Kassite dynasty in Babylonia, he  records that he seized northern Babylonia, including the cities of Zaban, Irriya and Ugar-sallu during the reigns of Marduk-apla-iddina I and Zababa-shuma-iddin, plundering them and "taking their vast booty to Assyria." However, the conquest of northern Babylonia brought Assyria into direct conflict with Elam which had taken the remainder of Babylonia. The powerful Elamites, under king Shutruk-Nahhunte, fresh from sacking Babylon, entered into a protracted war with Assyria, they briefly took the Assyrian city of Arrapkha, which Ashur-Dan I then retook, eventually defeating the Elamites and forcing a treaty upon them in the process.
Another very brief period of internal upheaval followed the death of Ashur-Dan I when his son and successor Ninurta-tukulti-Ashur (1133 BC) was deposed in his first year of rule by his own brother Mutakkil-Nusku and forced to flee to Babylonia. Mutakkil-Nusku himself died in the same year (1133 BC).
A third brother, Ashur-resh-ishi I (1133–1116 BC) took the throne. This was to lead to a renewed period of Assyrian expansion and empire. As the Hittite empire collapsed from the onslaught of the Indo-European Phrygians (called Mushki in Assyrian annals), Babylon and Assyria began to vie for Aramaean regions (in modern Syria), formerly under firm Hittite control. When their forces encountered one another in this region, the Assyrian king Ashur-resh-ishi I met and defeated Nebuchadnezzar I of Babylon on a number of occasions. Assyria then invaded and annexed Hittite-controlled lands in Asia Minor, Aram (Syria), and Gutians and Kassite regions in the Zagros, marking an upsurge in imperian expansion.
Tiglath-Pileser I (1115–1077 BC), vies with Shamshi-Adad I and Ashur-uballit I among historians as being regarded as the founder of the first Assyrian empire. The son of Ashur-resh-ishi I, he ascended to the throne upon his father's death, and became one of the greatest of Assyrian conquerors during his 38-year reign.
His first campaign in 1112 BC was against the Phrygians who had attempted to occupy certain Assyrian districts in the Upper Euphrates region of Asia Minor; after defeating and driving out the Phrygians he then overran the Luwian kingdoms of Commagene, Cilicia and Cappadocia in western Asia Minor, and drove the Neo-Hittites from the Assyrian province of Subartu, northeast of Malatia.
In a subsequent campaign, the Assyrian forces penetrated Urartu, into the mountains south of Lake Van and then turned westward to receive the submission of Malatia. In his fifth year, Tiglath-Pileser again attacked Commagene, Cilicia and Cappadocia, and placed a record of his victories engraved on copper plates in a fortress he built to secure his Anatolian conquests.
The Aramaeans of northern and central Syria were the next targets of the Assyrian king, who made his way as far as the sources of the Tigris. The control of the high road to the Mediterranean was secured by the possession of the Hittite town of Pitru at the junction between the Euphrates and Sajur; thence he proceeded to conquer the Canaanite/Phoenician city-states of Byblos, Tyre, Sidon, Simyra, Berytus (Beirut), Aradus and finally Arvad where he embarked onto a ship to sail the Mediterranean, on which he killed a nahiru or "sea-horse" (which A. Leo Oppenheim translates as a narwhal) in the sea. He was passionately fond of hunting and was also a great builder. The general view is that the restoration of the temple of the gods Ashur and Hadad at the Assyrian capital of Assur (Ashur) was one of his initiatives. He also invaded and defeated Babylon twice, assuming the old title "King of Sumer and Akkad", forcing tribute from Babylon, although he did not actually depose the actual king in Babylonia, where the old Kassite Dynasty had now succumbed to an Elamite one.
He was succeeded by Asharid-apal-Ekur (1076–1074 BC) who reigned for just two years. His reign marked the elevation of the office of ummânu (royal scribe) in importance.
Ashur-bel-kala (1073–1056 BC) kept the vast empire together, campaigning successfully against Urartu and Phrygia to the north and the Arameans to the west. He maintained friendly relations with Marduk-shapik-zeri of Babylon, however upon the death of that king, he invaded Babylonia and deposed the new ruler Kadašman-Buriaš, appointing Adad-apla-iddina as his vassal in Babylon. He built some of the earliest examples of both Zoological Gardens and Botanical Gardens in Ashur, collecting all manner of animals and plants from his empire, and receiving a collection of exotic animals as tributes from Egypt.
He was also a great hunter, describing his exploits "at the city of Araziqu which is before the land of Hatti and at the foot of Mount Lebanon." These locations show that well into his reign Assyria still controlled a vast empire.
Late in his reign, the Middle Assyrian Empire erupted into civil war, when a rebellion was orchestrated by Tukulti-Mer, a pretender to the throne of Assyria. Ashur-bel-kala eventually crushed Tukulti-Mer and his allies, however the civil war in Assyria had allowed hordes of Arameans to take advantage of the situation, and press in on Assyrian controlled territory from the west. Ashur-bel-kala counterattacked them, and conquered as far as Carchemish and the source of the Khabur river, but by the end of his reign many of the areas of Syria and Phoenicia-Canaan to the west of these regions as far as the Mediterranean, previously under firm Assyrian control, were eventually lost to the Assyrian Empire.
Assyria in the Ancient Dark Ages, 1055–936 BC
The period from 1200 BC to 900 BC was a dark age for the entire Near East, North Africa, Caucasus, Mediterranean and Balkan regions, with great upheavals and mass movements of people.
Assyria and its empire were not unduly affected by these tumultuous events for some 150 years, perhaps the only ancient power that was not. However, upon the death of Ashur-bel-kala in 1056 BC, Assyria went into a comparative decline for the next 100 or so years. The empire shrank significantly, and by 1020 BC Assyria appears to have controlled only areas close to Assyria itself, essential to keeping trade routes open in eastern Syria, south eastern Asia Minor central Mesopotamia and north western Iran.
New West Semitic peoples such as the Arameans, Chaldeans and Suteans moved into areas to the west and south of Assyria, including overrunning much of Babylonia to the south, Indo-European speaking Iranic peoples such as the Medes, Persians and Parthians moved into the lands to the east of Assyria, displacing the native Gutians and pressuring Elam and Mannea (which were all ancient non Indo-European civilisations of Iran), and to the north the Phrygians overran the Hittites, a new Hurrian state named Urartu arose in the Caucasus, and Cimmerians, Colchians (Georgians) and Scythians around the Black Sea and Caucasus. Egypt was divided and in disarray, and Israelites were battling with other fellow Semitic Canaanite peoples such as the Amalekites, Moabites, Edomites and Ammonites and the non-Semitic Peleset/Philistines (who were probably one of the so-called Sea Peoples) for the control of southern Canaan.
Despite the apparent weakness of Assyria in comparison to its former might, at heart it in fact remained a solid, well defended nation whose warriors were the best in the world. Assyria, with its stable monarchy, powerful army and secure borders was in a stronger position during this time than potential rivals such as Egypt, Babylonia, Elam, Phrygia, Urartu, Persia and Media Kings such as Ashur-bel-kala, Eriba-Adad II, Ashur-rabi II, Ashurnasirpal I, Tiglath-Pileser II and Ashur-Dan II successfully defended Assyria's borders and upheld stability during this tumultuous time.
Assyrian kings during this period appear to have adopted a policy of maintaining and defending a compact, secure nation and satellite colonies immediately surrounding it, and interspersed this with sporadic punitive raids and invasions of neighbouring territories when the need arose.
Eriba-Adad II ruled for only two years, and in that time continued to campaign against the Arameans and neo-Hittites before he was deposed by his elderly uncle Shamshi-Adad IV (1053–1050 BC) who appears to have had an uneventful reign. Ashurnasirpal I (1049–1031 BC) succeeded him, and during his reign he continued to campaign endlessly against the Arameans to the west. Assyria was also afflicted by famine during this period. Shalmaneser II (1030–1019 BC) appears to have lost territory in the Levant to the Arameans, who also appear to have also occupied Nairi in southeast Asia Minor, hitherto an Assyrian colony.
Ashur-nirari IV took the throne in 1018 BC, and captured the Babylonian city of Atlila from Simbar-Shipak and continued Assyrian campaigns against the Arameans. He was eventually deposed by his uncle Ashur-rabi II in 1013 BC.
During the reign of Ashur-rabi II (1013–972 BC) Aramaean tribes took the cities of Pitru and Mutkinu (which had been taken and colonized by Tiglath Pileser I.) This event showed how far Assyria could assert itself militarily when the need arose. The Assyrian king attacked the Arameans, forced his way to the far off Mediterranean and constructed a stele in the area of Mount Atalur.
Ashur-resh-ishi II (971–968 BC) in all likelihood a fairly elderly man due to the length of his father's reign, had a largely uneventful period of rule, concerning himself with defending Assyria's borders and conducting various rebuilding projects within Assyria.
Tiglath-Pileser II (967–936 BC) succeeded him, and reigned for 28 years. He maintained the policies of his recent predecessors, but appears to have had an uneventful reign.
Society in the Middle Assyrian period
Assyria had difficulties with keeping the trade routes open. Unlike the situation in the Old Assyrian period, the Anatolian metal trade was effectively dominated by the Hittites and the Hurrians. These people now controlled the Mediterranean ports, while the Kassites controlled the river route south to the Persian Gulf.
The Middle Assyrian kingdom was well organized, and in the firm control of the king, who also functioned as the High Priest of Ashur, the state god. He had certain obligations to fulfill in the cult, and had to provide resources for the temples. The priesthood became a major power in Assyrian society. Conflicts with the priesthood are thought to have been behind the murder of king Tukulti-Ninurta I.
The main Assyrian cities of the middle period were Ashur, Kalhu (Nimrud) and Nineveh, all situated in the Tigris River valley. At the end of the Bronze Age, Nineveh was much smaller than Babylon, but still one of the world's major cities (population c. 33,000). By the end of the Neo-Assyrian period, it had grown to a population of some 120,000, and was possibly the largest city in the world at that time. All free male citizens were obliged to serve in the army for a time, a system which was called the ilku-service. A legal code was produced during the 14th and 13th centuries which, among other things, clearly shows that the social position of women in Assyria was lower than that of neighbouring societies. Men were permitted to divorce their wives with no compensation paid to the latter. If a woman committed adultery, she could be beaten or put to death. It's not certain if these laws were seriously enforced, but they appear to be a backlash against some older documents that granted things like equal compensation to both partners in divorce. The women of the king's harem and their servants were also subject to harsh punishments, such as beatings, mutilation, and death. Assyria, in general, had much harsher laws than most of the region. Executions were not uncommon, nor were whippings followed by forced labour. Some offenses allowed the accused a trial under torture/duress. One tablet that covers property rights has brutal penalties for violators. A creditor could force debtors to work for him, but not sell them.
The Middle Assyrian Period is marked by the long wars fought during this period that helped build Assyria into a warrior society. The king depended on both the citizen class and priests in his capital, and the landed nobility who supplied the horses needed by Assyria's military. Documents and letters illustrate the importance of the latter to Assyrian society. Assyria needed less artificial irrigation than Babylon, and horse-breeding was extensive. Portions of elaborate texts about the care and training of them have been found. Trade was carried out in all directions. The mountain country to the north and west of Assyria was a major source of metal ore, as well as lumber. Economic factors were a common casus belli.
Assyrian architecture, like that of Babylonia, was influenced by Sumero-Akkadian styles (and to some degree Mitanni), but early on developed its own distinctive style. Palaces sported colourful wall decorations, and seal-cutting (an art learned from Mittani) developed apace. Schools for scribes taught both the Babylonian and Assyrian dialects of Akkadian, and Sumerian and Akkadian literary works were often copied with an Assyrian flavour. The Assyrian dialect of Akkadian was used in legal, official, religious, and practical texts such as medicine or instructions on manufacturing items. During the 13th to 10th centuries, picture tales appeared as a new art form: a continuous series of images carved on square stone steles. Somewhat reminiscent of a comic book, these show events such as warfare or hunting, placed in order from the upper left to the lower right corner of the stele with captions written underneath them. These and the excellent cut seals show that Assyrian art was beginning to surpass that of Babylon. Architecture saw the introduction of a new style of ziggurat, with two towers and colorful enameled tiles.
Neo-Assyrian Empire, 911–627 BC
Ashur-Dan II (935–912 BC) oversaw a marked economic and organisational upturn in the fortunes of Assyria, laying the platform for it to once again forge an empire. He is recorded as having made successful punitive raids outside the borders of Assyria to clear Aramean and other tribal peoples from the regions surrounding Assyria in all directions. He concentrated on rebuilding Assyria within its natural borders, from Tur Abdin to Arrapha (Kirkuk), he built government offices in all provinces, and created a major economic boost by providing ploughs throughout the land, which yielded record grain production.
The Neo-Assyrian Empire is usually considered to have begun with the accession of Adad-nirari II, in 911 BC, lasting until the fall of Nineveh at the hands of the Babylonians, Chaldeans, Medes/Persians, Scythians and Cimmerians in 612 BC.
Expansion, 911–627 BC
When the ancient Dark Ages (which for Assyria lasted from 1050 to 936 BC) finally lifted, the world had changed dramatically. Ancient kingdoms such as Assyria, Babylonia, Elam and Egypt still endured, the Hittites did also, in the form of smaller Neo-Hittite states. A number of new states had arisen during the tumultuous time between 1200 and 936 BC, such as; Persia, Media, Parthia, Mannea, Israel, Urartu, Phrygia, Lydia, the Aramean and Phoenician states of the Levant, Doric Greece, Putria (Libya), Colchia, Tabal, Nubia/Kush. In addition, other nations and peoples; such as Chaldea, Judah, Scythia, Cimmeria, Samarra, Ethiopia, Nabatea, Armenia and the Arabs were to emerge in the following centuries.
However, it was the ancient state of Assyria which would once more rise to prominence, and Assyria was to meet and defeat these new peoples, together with old foes, over the coming three centuries.
Beginning with the campaigns of Adad-nirari II (911-892 BC), Assyria once more became a great power, growing to be the greatest empire the world had yet seen. The new king firmly subjugated the areas that were previously only under nominal Assyrian vassalage, conquering and deporting troublesome Aramean, Neo-Hittite and Hurrian populations in the north to far-off places. Adad-nirari II then twice attacked and defeated Shamash-mudammiq of Babylonia, annexing a large area of land north of the Diyala River and the towns of Hīt and Zanqu in mid Mesopotamia. Later in his reign, he made further gains against King Nabu-shuma-ukin I of Babylonia. He then conquered Kadmuh and Nisibin from the Arameans, and secured the Khabur region.
His successor, Tukulti-Ninurta II (891–884 BC) consolidated Assyria's gains and expanded into the Zagros Mountains in modern Iran, subjugating the newly arrived Persians, Parthians and Medes as well as pushing into central Asia Minor.
Ashurnasirpal II (883–859 BC) was a fierce and ruthless ruler who advanced without opposition through Aram and Canaan (modern Syria, Lebannon, Jordan and Israel) and Asia Minor as far as the Mediterranean and conquered and exacted tribute from Aramea, Phrygia and Phoenicia among others. Ashurnasirpal II also repressed revolts among the Medes and Persians in the Zagros Mountains, and moved his capital to the city of Kalhu (Calah/Nimrud). The palaces, temples and other buildings raised by him bear witness to a considerable development of wealth, science, architecture and art. He also built a number of new heavily fortified towns, such as Imgur-Enlil (Balawat), Tushhan, Kar-Ashurnasirpal and Nibarti-Ashur. Ashurnasirpal II also had a keen interest in Botany and Zoology; collecting all manner of plants, seeds and animals to be displayed in Assyria.
Shalmaneser III (858–823 BC) had his authority challenged by a large alliance of a dozen nations, some of which were vassals, including; Babylonia, Egypt, Elam, Israel, Hamath, Phoenicia, the Arabs, Arameans, Suteans and neo Hittites among others, fighting them to a standstill at the Battle of Qarqar.
Subsequent to this, Shalmaneser III attacked and reduced Babylonia to vassalage, including subjugating the Chaldean, Aramean and Sutean tribes settled within it. He then defeated Aramea, Israel, Moab, Edom, Urartu, Phoenicia, the Neo-Hittite states and the desert dwelling Arabs of the Arabian Peninsula, forcing all of these to pay tribute to Assyria.
His armies penetrated to The Caucasus, Lake Van and the Taurus Mountains; the Hittites around Carchemish were compelled to pay tribute, and the kingdoms of Hamath and Aram Damascus were subdued. In 831 BC, he received the submission of the Georgian kingdom of Tabal. He consolidated Assyrian control over the regions conquered by his predecessors and, by the end of his 27-year reign, Assyria was master of Mesopotamia, The Levant, western Iran, Israel, Jordan and much of Asia Minor. Due to old age, in the last 6 years of his reign he passed command of his armies to the "Turtanu" (General) Dayyan-Assur.
However, his successor, Shamshi-Adad V (822-811 BC) (also known as Shamshi-Ramman II), inherited an empire beset by civil war in Assyria itself. The first years of his reign saw a serious struggle for the succession of the aged Shalmaneser III. The revolt, which had broken out by 826 BC, was led by Shamshi-Adad's brother Assur-danin-pal. The rebellious brother, according to Shamshi-Adad's own inscriptions, succeeded in bringing to his side 27 important cities, including Nineveh and Babylon. The rebellion lasted until 820 BC, preventing Assyria expanding its empire further until it was quelled.
Later in his reign, Shamshi-Adad V successfully campaigned against both Babylonia and Elam, and forced a treaty in Assyria's favour on the Babylonian king Marduk-zakir-shumi I. In 814 BCE, he won the battle of Dur-Papsukkal against the new Babylonian king Murduk-balassu-iqbi, and went on to subjugate the immigrant tribes of Chaldeans, Arameans, and Suteans who had recently settled in parts of Babylonia.
He was succeeded by Adad-nirari III (810–782 BC), who was merely a boy. The Empire was thus ruled by his mother, the famed queen Semiramis (Shammuramat), until 806 BC. Semiramis held the empire together, and appears to have campaigned successfully in subjugating the Persians, Parthians and Medes during her regency, leading to the later Iranian myths and legends surrounding her.
In 806 BC, Adad-nirari III took the reins of power from Semiramis. He invaded the Levant and subjugated the Arameans, Phoenicians, Philistines, Israelites, Neo-Hittites, Moabites and Edomites. He entered Damascus and forced tribute upon its Aramean king Ben-Hadad III. He next turned eastward to Iran, and subjugated the Persians, Medes and the pre Iranian Manneans, penetrating as far north east as the Caspian Sea. He then turned south, forcing Babylonia to pay tribute. His next targets were the migrant Aramean, Chaldean and Sutu tribes, who had settled in the far south eastern corner of Mesopotamia, whom he conquered and reduced to vassalage. Then the Arabs in the deserts of the Arabian Peninsula to the south of Mesopotamia were invaded, vanquished and forced to pay tribute also.
It is from this general period that the Cilician Indo-Anatolian term Surai (Syria) first appears in historical record in what is now called the Çineköy inscription, not in reference to the region of Aramea now encompassing modern Syria in The Levant, but specifically and only to Assyria itself.
Adad-nirari III died prematurely in 782 BC, which led to a temporary period of stagnation within the empire. Assyria continued its military dominance, however Shalmaneser IV (782 - 773 BC) himself seems to have wielded little personal authority, and a victory over Argishti I, king of Urartu at Til Barsip is accredited to an Assyrian General ('Turtanu') named Shamshi-ilu, who does not even bother to mention his king. Shamshi-ilu also scored victories over the Arameans and Neo-Hittites, and again, takes personal credit at the expense of his king.
Ashur-dan III ascended the throne in 772 BC. He proved to be a largely ineffectual ruler who was beset by internal rebellions in the cities of Ashur, Arrapkha and Guzana; and his personal authority was checked by powerful generals, such as Shamshi-ilu. He failed to make any further gains in Babylonia, Canaan and Aram. His reign was also marred by Plague and an ominous Solar Eclipse and, as with his predecessor, military victories were credited to Shamshi-ilu.
Ashur-nirari V became king in 754 BC, the early part of his reign seems to have been one of permanent internal revolution, and he apprears to have barely left his palace in Nineveh. However later in his reign he led a number of successful campaigns in Asia Minor and the Levant. He was deposed by Tiglath-pileser III in 745 BC bringing a resurgence to Assyrian expansion.
Tiglath-Pileser III (745–727 BC) initiated a renewed period of Assyrian expansion; Urartu, Persia, Media, Mannea, Babylonia, Arabia, Phoenicia, Israel, Judah, Samaria, Nabatea, Chaldea, Cyprus, Moab, Edom and the Neo-Hittites were subjugated, Tiglath-Pileser III was declared king in Babylon and the Assyrian empire was now stretched from the Caucasus Mountains to Arabia and from the Caspian Sea to Cyprus. Tiglath-Pileser III had reorganised the Assyrian army into the first professional fighting force in history, and greatly improved the civil administration of his empire, setting the template for all future ancient empires Tiglath-Pileser III introduced Mesopotamian Eastern Aramaic as the Lingua Franca of Assyria and its vast empire, whose Akkadian infused descendant dialects survive among the modern Assyrian Christian people to this day.
Shalmaneser V (726–723 BC) consolidated Assyrian power during his short reign, and repressed Egyptian attempts to gain a foothold in the near east, defeating and driving out Pharaoh Piye from the region. He is mentioned in Biblical sources as having conquered the Samaritans, and being responsible for deporting the Ten Lost Tribes of Israel to Assyria.
Sargon II (722–705 BC) maintained the empire, driving the Cimmerians and Scythians from Iran, where they had invaded and attacked the Persians and Medes, who were vassals of Assyria. Deioces, king of the Medes and Persians was then forced to pay tribute. Mannea, Cilicia Cappadocia and Commagene were conquered, Urartu was ravaged, and Babylon, Aram, Phoenicia, Israel, Arabia, Cyprus, and the famed Midas (king of Phrygia) were forced to pay tribute. His stele has been found as far west as Larnaca in Cyprus. Sargon II conquered Gurgum, Milid, the Georgian state of Tabal, and all of the Hittite kingdoms of the Taurus Mountains. Egypt once again attempted to gain ground in the region by supporting Israel's rebellion against the empire but Sargon II crushed the uprising, and Piye was once more routed and driven back over the Sinai. Sargon II was killed in 705 BC while on a punitive raid against the Cimmerians, and was succeeded by Sennacherib.
Sennacherib (705-681 BC), a ruthless ruler, defeated the Greeks who were attempting to gain a foothold in Cilicia, and then defeated and drove the Nubian ruled Egyptians from the Near East where the Nubian Pharaoh Taharqa had fomented revolt against Assyria.
Sennacherib was forced to contend with a major revolt within his empire, which included a large alliance of subject peoples, including Babylonians, Persians, Medes, Chaldeans, Elamites, Parthians, Manneans and Arameans. The prime movers in this rebellion were Mushezib-Marduk of Babylonia, Achaemenes of Persia, Khumban-umena III of Elam, and Deioces of Media. The Battle of Halule was fought in 691 BC between Sennacherib and his enemies, in which this vast alliance failed to overthrow Sennacherib. The Assyrian king was then able to subjugate these nations individually, Babylon was sacked and largely destroyed by Sennacherib.
He sacked Israel, subjugated the Samaritans and laid siege to Judah, forcing tribute upon it. He installed his own son Ashur-nadin-shumi as king in Babylonia. He maintained Assyrian domination over the Medes, Manneans and Persians to the east, Asia Minor and the southern Caucasus to the north and north west, and the Levant, Phonecia and Aram in the west. Sennacherib's palace and garden at Nineveh have been proposed as the archetype of the Hanging Garden of Babylon. Sennacherib was murdered by his own sons (according to the Bible the sons were named Adrammelech, Abimelech and Sharezer) in a palace revolt, apparently in revenge for the destruction of Babylon, a city sacred to all Mesopotamians, including the Assyrians.
Esarhaddon (680–669 BC) expanded Assyria still further, campaigning deep into the Caucasus Mountains in the north, breaking Urartu completely in the process. Tiring of Egyptian interference in the Assyrian Empire, Esarhaddon decided to conquer Egypt. He crossed the Sinai Desert, and invaded and took Egypt with surprising ease and speed, driving its foreign Nubian/Kushite and Ethiopian rulers out and destroying the Kushite Empire in the process. He expanded the empire as far south as Arabia and Dilmun (modern Bahrain or Qatar).
Esarhaddon also completely rebuilt Babylon during his reign, bringing peace to Mesopotamia as a whole. The Babylonians, Egyptians, Elamites, Cimmerians, Scythians, Persians, Medes, Manneans, Arameans, Chaldeans, Israelites, Phoenicians and Urartians were vanquished and regarded as vassals and Assyria's empire was kept secure.
He imposed a so-called Vassal Treaty upon his Persian and Median subjects, forcing Teispes of Persia and Deioces of Media to submit both to himself, and in advance to his chosen successor, Ashurbanipal. Esarhaddon died whilst preparing to leave for Egypt to once more eject the Nubians, who were attempting to encroach on the southern part of the country. This task was successfully completed by his successor, Ashurbanipal.
Under Ashurbanipal (669–627 BC), Assyrian domination spanned from the Caucasus Mountains in the north to Nubia, Egypt and Arabia in the south, and from Cyprus and Antioch in the west to Persia in the east.
He was an unusually educated man for his time, being able to read and write in Akkadian, Aramaic and Sumerian, and having a proficient understanding of Astronomy and Mathematics, as well as military, civil and political aptitude. He built the famed Library of Ashurbanipal which contained a multitude of ancient texts from all over Mesopotamia, and was the first library in history to classify works in order of genre.
Ashurbanipal began his rule by easily crushing the Nubian/Cushite king Taharqa, who had attempted to invade the southern part of Assyrian-controlled Egypt. Memphis was sacked, and Taharqa was chased back into Nubia (modern Sudan) by a pursuing Assyrian army, and was never again to pose a threat. Ashurbanipal then put down a series of rebellions by the native Egyptians themselves, installing Necho I as a puppet Pharaoh. However in 664 BC, the new Nubian-Kushite king Tantamani once more attempted to invade Egypt, however he was savagely crushed, Thebes was sacked and looted, and he fled to Nubia, bringing to an end, once and for all, Nubian designs on Egypt.
Phraortes, the king of the Medes and Persians, also rebelled against Assyria, and attempted to attack Assyria itself in 653 BC, however he met with defeat at the hands of Ashurbanipal, and was killed. The succeeding Median kings, Madius and then Cyaxares the Great, were both in turn subjugated by Ashurbanipal.
In 652 BC, just one year after his victory over Phraortes, his own brother Shamash-shum-ukin, the Assyrian king of Babylon who had spent seventeen years peacefully subject to his sibling, became infused with Babylonian nationalism, declaring that Babylon and not Nineveh should be the seat of empire. Shamash-shum-ukin raised a powerful coalition of peoples resentful of being subject to Assyria, including- Babylonians, Chaldeans, Persians, Arameans, Suteans, Arabs, Elamites, Scythians, Cimmerians, and even some Assyrians. War raged between the two brothers for five years, until in 648 BC, Babylon was sacked, and Shamash-shum-ukin slain. Ashurbanipal then wrought savage revenge, Elam was utterly destroyed, the Aramean, Chaldean, Sutean tribes were brutally punished, Arabia was ravaged by the Assyrian army, and its rebellious shiekhs put to death. Cyrus I of Persia (grandfather of Cyrus the Great) was forced into submission, as a part of this defeated alliance.
Late in his reign, Ashurbanipal was forced to contend with renewed attempts on his empire by the Scythians and Cimmerians. The Scythians were able to once more ravage Assyria's Median and Persian colonies in Ancient Iran before being finally subdued, and the last decade or so of his reign seems to have been peaceful.
He built vast libraries and initiated a surge in the building of temples and palaces. After the crushing of the Babylonian revolt, Ashurbanipal appeared master of all he surveyed. To the east, Elam was devastated and prostrate before Assyria, the Manneans and the Iranian Persians and Medes were vassals. To the south, Babylonia was occupied, the Chaldeans, Arabs, Sutu and Nabateans subjugated, the Nubian empire destroyed, and Egypt paid tribute. To the north, the Scythians and Cimmerians had been vanquished and driven from Assyrian territory, Urartu (Armenia), Phrygia, Corduene and the neo Hittites were in vassalage, and Lydia pleading for Assyrian protection. To the west, Aramea (Syria), the Phoenicians, Israel, Judah, Samarra and Cyprus were subjugated, and the Hellenised inhabitants of Caria, Cilicia, Cappadocia and Commagene paid tribute to Assyria.
Assyria conquered the 25th dynasty Egypt (expelling its Nubian/Kushite dynasty) as well as Babylonia, Chaldea, Elam, Media, Persia, Urartu, Armenia, Phoenicia, Aramea/Syria, Phrygia, the Neo-Hittite States, the Hurrian lands, Arabia, Gutium, Israel, Judah, Samarra, Moab, Edom, Corduene, Cilicia, Mannea and parts of Ancient Greece (such as Cyprus), and defeated and/or exacted tribute from Scythia, Cimmeria, Lydia, Nubia, Ethiopia and others.
At its height, the Empire encompassed the whole of the modern nations of Iraq, Syria, Egypt, Lebanon, Israel, Jordan, Kuwait, Bahrain, Palestine and Cyprus, together with large swathes of Iran, Saudi Arabia, Turkey, Sudan, Libya, Armenia, Georgia and Azerbaijan.
Assyria now appeared stronger than ever. However, the long struggles pacifying the Babylonians, Chaldeans, Arameans and Elamites, the exertions undertaken in keeping the Medes, Scythians, Persians, Urartians and Cimmerians subjugated, and the constant campaigning over three centuries to control and expand its vast empire in all directions, had left Assyria exhausted.
It had been drained of wealth and manpower; the devastated provinces could yield nothing to supply the needs of the imperial exchequer, it was difficult to find sufficient troops to garrison and effectively control the huge empire, and after the death of Ashurbanipal severe civil unrest broke out in Assyria itself, and the empire began to unravel.
Downfall, 626–605 BC
The Assyrian Empire was severely crippled following the death of Ashurbanipal in 627 BC—the nation and its empire descending into a prolonged and brutal series of civil wars involving three rival kings, Ashur-etil-ilani, Sin-shumu-lishir and Sin-shar-ishkun. Egypt's 26th Dynasty, which had been installed by the Assyrians as vassals, quietly detached itself from Assyria, although it was careful to retain friendly relations.
Ashur-etil-ilani came to the throne in 626 BC, and was immediately beset by a series of internal civil wars. He was deposed in 623 BC, after four years of bitter fighting by Sin-shumu-lishir, an Assyrian Turtanu (General) who also occupied and claimed the throne of Babylon in that year. In turn, Sin-shumu-lishir was deposed as ruler of Assyria and Babylonia after a year of warfare by Sin-shar-ishkun (622–612 BC)—who was then himself faced with constant violent rebellion in the Assyrian homeland.
This situation led to wholesale revolution in Babylonia, and during the reign of Sin-shar-ishkun many Assyrian colonies to the west, east and north similarly took advantage and ceased to pay tribute to Assyria, most significantly the Medes, Persians, Scythians, Cimmerians, Babylonians, Chaldeans and Arameans.
The Scythians and Cimmerians took advantage of the bitter fighting among the Assyrians to raid Assyrian colonies, with hordes of horse borne marauders ravaging parts of Asia Minor and the Caucasus, where the vassal kings of Urartu and Lydia begged their Assyrian overlord for help in vain. They also raided the Levant, Israel and Judah (where Ashkalon was sacked by the Scythians) and all the way into Egypt whose coasts were ravaged and looted.
The Iranic peoples (the Medes, Persians and Parthians), aided by the previous Assyrian destruction of the hitherto dominant Elamites of Ancient Iran, also took advantage of the upheavals in Assyria to coalesce into a powerful Median dominated force which destroyed the pre-Iranic Assyrian vassal kingdom of Mannea and absorbed the remnants of the pre-Iranic Elamites of southern Iran, and the equally pre-Iranic Gutians, Manneans and Kassites of the Zagros Mountains and the Caspian Sea.
In Aram (modern Syria), Phoenicia and southern Canaan (modern Israel, Jordan, Sinai and Palestine), the various Aramean, Phoenician and Jewish states quietly reasserted their independence, and in western Asia Minor and eastern Mediterranean, the Lydians, Greeks, Cilicians, Carians, Cappadocian and Luwian states did the same. Armenians, Sarmatians and Colchians (Georgians) also began to establish themselves in parts of the Caucasus.
By 620 BC, Nabopolassar, (a previously unknown Malka of the Chaldean tribes who had settled the far southeast of Mesopotamia circa 900 BC) had claimed the city of Babylon and swathes of Babylonia in the confusion. Sin-shar-ishkun amassed a large army to eject Nabopolassar from Babylon; however, yet another massive revolt broke out in Assyria proper, forcing the bulk of his army to turn back, where they promptly joined the rebels in Nineveh. Similarly, Nabopolassar was unable to gain control over all of Babylonia, and could not make any inroads into Assyria despite its weakened state, being repelled at every attempt. The next four years saw bitter fighting in the heart of Babylonia itself, as the Assyrians tried to wrest back control.
However, Nabopolassar entered into an alliance with the Median king Cyaxares the Great, who had taken advantage of the upheavals in Assyria to free the Iranian peoples from Assyrian vassalage and unite the Iranian Medes, Persians and Parthians, together with the remnants of the pre-Iranian Elamites, Gutians and Manneans, into a powerful Median-dominated force. Previous mass alliances against Assyria during the reigns of Shalmaneser III, Sargon II, Sennacherib and Ashurbanipal had failed, Assyria being at the height of its power. However the nation at this time was in a severely depleted state, ravaged by civil war, disunity, instability and battle fatigue, and the forces ranged against it from all sides proved too much.
The Babylonians, Chaldeans, Medes and Persians, together with the Scythians and Cimmerians to the north, attacked Assyria in 615 BC, sacking the cities of Kalhu (Biblical Calah/Nimrud) and Arrapha (Kirkuk). In 614 BC Assur, Guzana and Arbela (Irbil) fell. However, during 613 Sin-shar-ishkun rallied against the odds, defeating attacks by the Medes, Babylonians and Scythians.
A concerted and combined attack was launched against Assyria the following year, Nineveh itself was finally sacked in mid 612 BC, after a prolonged siege followed by house to house fighting. Sin-shar-ishkun was killed defending his capital.
Despite the loss of almost all of its major cities, and in the face of overwhelming odds, Assyrian resistance continued. Ashur-uballit II (612- 605? BC) took the throne amid the street by street fighting in Nineveh, and refused a request to bow in vassalage to Nabopolassar, Cyaxares and their allies. He managed to break out of Nineveh and successfully fight his way to the northern Assyrian city of Harran, he took the city and founded it as a new capital. Ashur-uballit II somehow managed to keep control of a now greatly reduced Assyria for five years, repelling attacks by his enemies. However, Harran too was eventually besieged and taken by the Medes, Babylonians and Scythians in 608 BC, with Ashur-uballit II once more managing to break free of the siege.
Egypt, itself a former Assyrian colony whose current dynasty had been installed as puppet rulers by the Assyrians, then came to Assyria's aid, possibly in fear that without Assyrian protection they would be next to succumb.
Ashur-uballit II and Necho of Egypt made a failed attempt to recapture Harran in 608 BC. The next three years saw the remnants of the Assyrian army and their Egyptian allies vainly attempting to eject the invaders from Assyria. In 605 BC, the Babylonians and Medes defeated the Assyrians and Egyptians at Carchemish, bringing an end to Assyria as an independent political entity, although it was to launch major rebellions against the Achaemenid Empire in 546 BC and 520 BC, and remained a geo-political region and colonised province until the late 7th century AD.
The fate of Ashur-uballit II remains unknown, his Limmu Lists end after the fall of Harran, and it is possible he was either killed at this time, at the battle of Carshemish in 605 BC, or simply disappeared into obscurity.
Assyria after the empire
Achaemenid Assyria, Athura, Assuristan, Assyria province, Adiabene, Osroene and Hatra
Most of Assyria was ruled by Babylon from 605 BC until 539 BC, the northern reaches being ruled first by the Medes and then from 549 BC by their successors, the Persians. In a twist of fate, Nabonidus the last king of Babylon was himself an Assyrian from Harran; however, apart from plans to dedicate religious temples in that city, Nabonidus showed little interest in rebuilding Assyria. Nineveh and Kalhu remained in ruins, conversely a number of towns and cities such as Arrapkha, Guzana and Harran remained intact, and Assur and Arbela were not completely destroyed, as is attested by their later revival. However, Assyria spent much of this period in a degree of devastation following its fall.
Achaemenid Assyria (549–330 BC)
After this, it was ruled by the Persian Achaemenid Empire (as Athura) from 549 BC to 330 BC (see Achaemenid Assyria). Between 546 and 545 BC, Assyria rebelled against the new Persian Dynasty, which had usurped the previous Median dynasty. The rebellion was eventually quashed by Cyrus the Great.
Assyria seems to have recovered dramatically, and flourished during this period. It became a major agricultural and administrative centre of the Achaemenid Empire, and its soldiers were a mainstay of the Persian Army. In fact, Assyria even became powerful enough to raise another full-scale revolt against the Persian empire in 520–519 BC.
The Persians had spent centuries under Assyrian domination, and Assyrian influence can be seen in Achaemenid art, infrastructure and administration. Early Persian rulers saw themselves as successors to Ashurbanipal, and Mesopotamian Aramaic was retained as the lingua franca of the empire for over two hundred years. Nineveh was never rebuilt however, and 200 years after it was sacked Xenophon reported only small numbers of Assyrians living amongst its ruins.
In 330 BC, Assyria fell to Alexander the Great, the Macedonian Emperor from Greece; it thereafter became part of the Seleucid Empire and was renamed Syria, a Hurrian, Luwian and Greek corruption of Assyria. It is from this period that the later Syria Vs Assyria naming controversy arises, the Seleucids applied the name not only to Assyria itself, but also to the lands to the west (Aram modern Syria), which had been part of the Assyrian empire. When they lost control of Assyria, the name Syria survived and was applied only to the land of Aramea to the west that had once been part of the Assyrian empire. This was to lead to both the Assyrians from Mesopotamia and Arameans and Phoenicians from the Levant being dubbed Syrians in Greco-Roman culture.
During Seleucid rule, Assyrians ceased to hold the senior military and civil positions they had enjoyed under the Achaemenids, being largely replaced by Greeks. The Greek language also replaced Mesopotamian East Aramaic as the lingua franca of the empire, although this did not affect the Assyrian population themselves, who were not Hellenised during the Seleucid era.
By 150 BC, Assyria was largely under the control of the Parthian Empire, once more as Athura (the Mesopotamian East Aramaic word for Assyria). The Parthians seem to have exercised only loose control over Assyria. Temples to the native gods of Assyria were resurrected in many towns and cities. A number of independent Neo-Assyrian states arose, the most notable being Adiabene (69 BC - 117 AD). Adiabene was described by historian Georges Roux as a virtual resurrection of Assyria.
Roman Assyria (116 AD – 118 AD)
However, in 116 AD, under Trajan, Assyria and its independent states were taken over by Rome as the Roman Province of Assyria. Adiabene was destroyed as an independent state during this period. Roman rule lasted only a few years, and the Parthians once more regained control.
Romans and Parthians fought over Assyria and the rest of Mesopotamia for the next century, allowing a number of other Neo-Assyrian states to arise, namely Osroene (132 BC to AD 244) and Hatra (155–241 AD). Osroene became the first Christian state in history, and a major center of Syriac literature and Syriac Christianity.
In addition, the ancient capital city of Ashur again flourished, and appears to have gained independence during the 2nd and 3rd centuries AD. Temples to the Assyrian national gods Ashur, Sin, Hadad, Ishtar and Shamash were once more dedicated throughout Assyria during this period. The noted Assyriologist Simo Parpola has speculated that Assyria may well have once again been fully independent for a while.
Sassanid Assyria (Assuristan (226 AD – circa 650 AD)
In 226 AD, Assyria was largely taken over by the Sassanid Empire. After driving out the Romans and Parthians, the Sassanid rulers set about destroying the independent states within Assyria; Hatra was dissolved in 241 AD, Osroene in 244 AD and Assur was sacked by Shapur I in 256 AD.
It was known as Asuristan (the Sassanid name for Assyria) during this period, and became the birthplace of the Church of the East (now split into the Assyrian Church of the East and Chaldean Catholic Church), with a flourishing Syriac (Assyrian) Christian culture which exists there to this day. Temples were still being dedicated to the national god Ashur in his home city and in Harran during the 4th century, indicating an Assyrian identity was still strong.
During the Sassanid period, much of what had once been Babylonia in southern Mesopotamia was incorporated into Assyria.
Parts of Assyria appear to have been semi independent as late as the latter part of the 4th century AD, with a king named Sennacherib II ruling the northern reaches in 370s AD.
Assyrians after Assyria
Centuries of constant warfare between the Byzantine Empire and Sassanid Empire left both empires exhausted, depleted and battle fatigued, allowing the Muslim Arabs to break from the Arabian peninsula and invade territories hitherto held by these empires. After the Arab Islamic conquest in the 7th century, Assyria was dissolved as an entity. Under Arab rule, Mesopotamia as a whole underwent a gradual process of Arabisation and Islamification, and the region saw a gradual large influx of non indigenous Arabs, Kurds and Turkic peoples. However, the indigenous Assyrian population of northern Mesopotamia (known as Ashuriyun by the Arabs) resisted this process, retaining their language, religion, culture and identity.
The previously basic civilisation of the desert dwelling Arabs was greatly enhanced and enriched by the influence and knowledge of native Mesopotamian scientists, physicians, mathematicians, theologians, astronomers, architects, agriculturalists, artists and astrologers.
However, despite this, indigenous Assyrians became second class citizens in a greater Arab Islamic state, and those who resisted Arabisation and conversion to Islam were subject to religious, ethnic and cultural discrimination, and had certain restrictions imposed upon them. They were excluded from specific duties and occupations reserved for Muslims, did not enjoy the same political rights as Muslims, their word was not equal to that of a Muslim in legal matters, as Christians they were subject to payment of a special tax (jizyah), they were banned from spreading their religion further in Muslim ruled lands, but were also expected to adhere to the same laws of property, contract and obligation as the Muslim Arabs.
Although predominantly Christian, a minority of Assyrians still held onto their ancient Mesopotamian religion until as late as the 10th century AD.
Assyrian people, still retaining the Aramaic language and Church of the East Christianity, remained dominant in the north of Mesopotamia as late as the 14th century AD and the city of Assur was still occupied by Assyrians during the Islamic period until the mid-14th century when the Muslim Turco-Mongol ruler Tamurlane conducted a religiously motivated massacre of indigenous Assyrian Christians. After that, there are no traces of a settlement at Ashur in the archaeological and numismatic record, and from this point the Assyrian population was dramatically reduced in their homeland.
A religious schism among the Assyrians of northern Mesopotamia emerged in the 16th and 17th centuries AD, when a large number of hitherto Assyrian Church of the East Assyrians entered communion with the Roman Catholic Church, and after Rome changed the name of this new church from The Church of Assyria and Mosul (named as such in 1553 AD) to the Chaldean Catholic Church in 1681 AD, this group of Assyrians eventually became known as Chaldean Catholics or Chaldo-Assyrians despite having no ethnic, historical or geographic connections whatsoever to the long extinct Chaldean tribe of south east Mesopotamia.
The Assyrians suffered a number of religiously and ethnically motivated massacres throughout the 17th, 18th and 19th centuries AD, culminating in the large scale Hamidian massacres of unarmed men, women and children by Muslim Turks and Kurds in the late 19th century, further greatly reduced numbers.
The Assyrians suffered a catastrophic series of massacres known as the Assyrian Genocide, at the hands of the Ottomans and their Kurdish and Arab allies from 1915–1918. The genocide accounted for up to 300,000 unarmed Assyrian civilians, and the forced deportations of many more. The sizeable Assyrian presence in south eastern Asia Minor which had endured for over four millennia was reduced to a few thousand. As a consequence, the surviving Assyrians took up arms, and an Assyrian war of independence was fought during World War I, For a time, the Assyrians fought successfully against overwhelming numbers, scoring a number of victories over the Ottomans and Kurds, and also hostile Arab groups; then their Russian allies left the war following the Russian Revolution, and Armenian resistance broke. The Assyrians were left cut off, surrounded, and without supplies, forcing those in Asia Minor and Northwest Iran to fight their way, with civilians in tow, to the safety of British lines and their fellow Assyrians in northern Iraq.
The Assyrian Levies were founded by the British in 1928, with ancient Assyrian military rankings, such as Rab-shakeh, Rab-talia and Tartan, being revived for the first time in millennia for this force. The Assyrians were prized by the British rulers for their fighting qualities, loyalty, bravery and discipline, and were used to help the British put down insurrections among the Arabs and Kurds, guard the borders with Iran and Turkey and protect British military installations.
After Iraq was granted independence by the British in 1933, the Assyrians suffered the Simele Massacre, where thousands of unarmed villagers (men, women and children) were slaughtered by joint Arab-Kurdish forces of the Iraqi Army. These massacres followed a clash between Assyrian tribesmen and the Iraqi army, where the Iraqi forces suffered a defeat after trying to disarm the Assyrians, whom they feared would attempt to secede from Iraq. Armed Assyrian Levies were prevented by the British from going to the aid of these civilians.
During World War II, Eleven Assyrian companies saw action in Palestine and another four served in Cyprus. The Parachute Company was attached to the Royal Marine Commando and was involved in fighting in Albania, Italy and Greece. Assyrians played a major role in the victory at the Battle of Habbaniya in 1941, when the Iraqi government decided to join WW2 on the side of Nazi Germany. The British presence in Iraq lasted until 1954, and Assyrian Levies remained attached to British forces until this time.
The period from the 1940s through to 1963 saw a period of respite for the Assyrians. The regime of President Kassim in particular saw the Assyrians accepted into mainstream society. Many urban Assyrians became successful businessmen, others were well represented in politics and the military, their towns and villages flourished undisturbed, and Assyrians came to excel, and be over represented in sports such as Boxing, Football, Athletics, Wrestling and Swimming.
However in 1963, the Ba'ath Party took power by force in Iraq. The Baathists, though secular, were Arab Nationalists, and set about attempting to Arabize the non Arab peoples, including the Assyrians. This policy included refusing to acknowledge the Assyrians as an ethnic group, banning the publication of written material in Eastern Aramaic, and banning its teaching in schools, banning parents giving Assyrian names to their children, taking control of Assyrian churches,attempting to divide Assyrians on denominational lines (e.g. Assyrian Church of the East vs Chaldean Catholic Church) and forced relocations of Assyrians from their traditional homelands to major cities. These policies have also been mirrored in Turkey, whose government refuses to acknowledge the Assyrians as an ethnic group.
Many persecutions have befallen the Assyrians since, such as the Anfal campaign and Baathist, Arab and Kurdish nationalist and Islamist persecutions. In recent years, the Assyrians in Iraq and Syria have taken up arms, alongside other groups (such as the Kurds) in response to unprovoked attacks by Al Qaeda, ISIS/ISIL and other Islamic Fundamentalist groups. In 2014 Islamic terrorists of ISIS attacked Assyrian towns and villages in the Assyrian Homeland of northern Iraq, together with cities such as Mosul and Kirkuk which have large Assyrian populations. There have been reports atrocities committed by ISIS terrorists since, including; beheadings, crucifixions, child murders, rape, forced conversions, Ethnic Cleansing, robbery, and extortion in the form of illegal taxes levied upon non Muslims.
Thus far, the only people who have been attested with a high level of genetic, historical, linguistic and cultural research to be the descendants of the ancient Mesopotamians are the Assyrian Christians of Iraq and its surrounding areas in north west Iran, north east Syria and south eastern Turkey, although others have made unsubstantiated claims of continuity. Assyria continued to exist as a geopolitical entity until the Arab-Islamic conquest in the mid-7th century, and Assyrian identity, personal, family and tribal names, and both spoken and written evolutions of Mesopotamian Aramaic (which still contain many Akkadian loan words and an Akkadian grammatical structure) have survived among the Assyrian people from ancient times to this day. (see Assyrian people).
The Assyrians, like the rest of the Mesopotamian peoples, followed the Sumero-Akkadian Mesopotamian Religion, with the national god Ashur having pride of place at the head of the pantheon. This religion survived in Assyria from c. 3500 BC through to its gradual decline in the face of Christianity between the 1st and 10th centuries AD.
Native religion was still strongly followed at least until the 4th century AD, and survived in pockets until at least the 10th century AD, although Assyrians had begun to adopt Eastern Rite Christianity (as well as for a time Manicheanism and Gnosticism) which, like Syriac literature, had its birthplace in Assyria between the 1st and 3rd centuries AD. Assyrians today are exclusively Christian, with most following the Assyrian Church of the East, Chaldean Catholic Church, Ancient Church of the East and Syriac Orthodox churches.
During the 3rd millennium BC, a very intimate cultural symbiosis developed between the Sumerians and the Akkadians, which included widespread bilingualism. The influence of Sumerian on Akkadian (and vice versa) is evident in all areas, from lexical borrowing on a massive scale, to syntactic, morphological, and phonological convergence. This has prompted scholars to refer to Sumerian and Akkadian in the 3rd millennium BC as a sprachbund.
Akkadian gradually replaced Sumerian as the spoken language of Mesopotamia somewhere around the turn of the 3rd and the 2nd millennium BC (the exact dating being a matter of debate), but Sumerian continued to be used as a sacred, ceremonial, literary and scientific language in Mesopotamia until the 1st century AD.
In ancient times, Assyrians spoke a dialect of the Akkadian language, an eastern branch of the Semitic languages. The first inscriptions, called Old Assyrian (OA), were made in the Old Assyrian period. In the Neo-Assyrian period the Aramaic language became increasingly common, more so than Akkadian—this was thought to be largely due to the mass deportations undertaken by Assyrian kings, in which large Aramaic-speaking populations, conquered by the Assyrians, were relocated to Assyria and interbred with the Assyrians. The ancient Assyrians also used the Sumerian language in their literature and liturgy, although to a more limited extent in the Middle- and Neo-Assyrian periods, when Akkadian became the main literary language.
The destruction of the Assyrian capitals of Nineveh and Assur by the Babylonians, Medes and their allies, ensured that much of the bilingual elite (but not all) were wiped out. By the 7th century BC, much of the Assyrian population used Akkadian influenced Eastern Aramaic and not Akkadian itself. The last Akkadian inscriptions in Mesopotamia date from the 1st century AD. However, Eastern Aramaic dialects, as well as Akkadian and Mesopotamian Aramaic personal and family names, still survive to this day among Assyrians in the regions of northern Iraq, southeast Turkey, northwest Iran and northeast Syria that constituted old Assyria.
Arts and sciences
Assyrian art preserved to the present day predominantly dates to the Neo-Assyrian period. Art depicting battle scenes, and occasionally the impaling of whole villages in gory detail, was intended to show the power of the emperor, and was generally made for propaganda purposes. These stone reliefs lined the walls in the royal palaces where foreigners were received by the king. Other stone reliefs depict the king with different deities and conducting religious ceremonies. Many stone reliefs were discovered in the royal palaces at Nimrud (Kalhu) and Khorsabad (Dur-Sharrukin). A rare discovery of metal plates belonging to wooden doors was made at Balawat (Imgur-Enlil).
Assyrian sculpture reached a high level of refinement in the Neo-Assyrian period. One prominent example is the winged bull Lamassu, or shedu that guard the entrances to the king's court. These were apotropaic meaning they were intended to ward off evil. C. W. Ceram states in The March of Archaeology that lamassi were typically sculpted with five legs so that four legs were always visible, whether the image were viewed frontally or in profile.
Although works of precious gems and metals usually do not survive the ravages of time, some fine pieces of Assyrian jewelry were found in royal tombs at Nimrud.
There is ongoing discussion among academics over the nature of the Nimrud lens, a piece of quartz unearthed by Austen Henry Layard in 1850, in the Nimrud palace complex in northern Iraq. A small minority believe that it is evidence for the existence of ancient Assyrian telescopes, which could explain the great accuracy of Assyrian astronomy. Other suggestions include its use as a magnifying glass for jewellers, or as a decorative furniture inlay. The Nimrud Lens is held in the British Museum.
The Assyrians were also innovative in military technology, with the use of heavy cavalry, sappers, siege engines etc.
Achaemenid Assyria (539–330 BC) retained a separate identity (Athura), official correspondence being in Imperial Aramaic, and there was even a determined revolt of the two Assyrian provinces of Mada and Athura in 520 BC. Under Seleucid rule (330 BC – approximately 150 BC), however, Aramaic gave way to Greek as the official administrative language. Aramaic was marginalised as an official language, but remained spoken in both Assyria and Babylonia by the general populace. It also remained the spoken tongue of the indigenous Assyrian/Babylonian citizens of all Mesopotamia under Persian, Greek and Roman rule, and indeed well into the Arab period it was still the language of the majority, particularly in the north of Mesopotamia, surviving to this day among the Assyrian Christians.
Between 150 BC and 226 AD, Assyria changed hands between the Parthians Iranians and Romans (Roman Province of Assyria) until coming under the rule of Sassanid Persia in 226–651 AD, where it was known as Asuristan.
Classical historiographers and Biblical writers had only retained a fragmented, very dim and often inaccurate picture of Assyria. It was remembered that there had been an Assyrian empire predating the Persian one, but all particulars were lost. Thus Jerome's Chronicon lists 36 kings of the Assyrians, beginning with Ninus, son of Belus, down to Sardanapalus, the last king of the Assyrians before the empire fell to Arbaces the Median. Almost none of these have been substantiated as historical, with the exception of the Neo-Assyrian and Babylonian rulers listed in Ptolemy's Canon, beginning with Nabonassar.
Mesopotamian empires such as the Akkadian Empire, Babylonian Empire, Middle Assyrian Empire, Neo Assyrian Empire and Neo Babylonian Empire asserted Mesopotamian dominance from the Caucasus Mountains to Arabia and Egypt, and from Cyprus and the east Mediterranean to Persia. Thus the influence exerted by the Babylonian-Assyrian religion was particularly profound on other Semites, including the Hebrews, Chaldeans, Canaanites, Arameans, Phoenicians and Arabs, while their astral theology affected the ancient world in general, including the Persians, Greeks, Armenians and the later Romans. The impetus to the purification of the old Semitic polytheistic religions to which the Hebrews for a long time clung in common with their fellows—the various branches of nomadic Arameans and Arabs—was largely furnished by the remarkable civilization unfolded in the Euphrates valley and in many of the traditions, myths and legends embodied in the Old Testament; traces of direct adaptation from and responses to Babylonia and Assyria may be discerned, while the indirect influences in the domain of the prophetical books, as also in the Psalms and in the so-called "wisdom literature", are even more noteworthy. Stories in the Tanakh, Old Testament and Quran such as; the Genesis creation narrative, Tower of Babel, The Great Flood and the book of Esther, as well as various biblical characters such as Noah, Nimrod, Lilith and Asnapper bear clear influence from Assyria and Babylonia.
Even when we reach the New Testament period, we have not passed entirely beyond the sphere of Babylonian-Assyrian influences. In such a movement as early Christian gnosticism, Assyrio-Babylonian elements—modified, to be sure, and transformed—are largely present, while the growth of an apocalyptic literature is ascribed with apparent justice by many scholars to the recrudescence of views, the ultimate source of which is to be found in the astral-theology of the Babylonian and Assyrian Priests.
The Assyrians began to form and adopt a distinct Eastern Rite Christianity, with its accompanying Syriac literature, between the 1st and 3rd centuries AD, however native religion was still alive and well into the 4th century AD, and pockets survived into the 10th century AD and possibly as late as the 17th century in Mardin. However, the religion is now dead, and the indigenous Assyrian (a.k.a. Chaldo-Assyrian) people, though still retaining Eastern Aramaic dialects as a mother tongue, are now wholly Christian.
The modern discovery of Babylonia and Assyria begins with excavations in Nineveh in 1845, which revealed the Library of Ashurbanipal. Decipherment of cuneiform was a formidable task that took more than a decade; but, by 1857, the Royal Asiatic Society was convinced that reliable reading of cuneiform texts was possible. Assyriology has since pieced together the formerly largely forgotten history of Mesopotamia. In the wake of the archaeological and philological rediscovery of ancient Assyria, Assyrian nationalism became increasingly popular among the surviving remnants of the Assyrian people, and has come to strongly identify with ancient Assyria.
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|Wikimedia Commons has media related to Assyria.|
- Assyrian Information Management (AIM)
- Assyria on Ancient History Encyclopedia
- Assyrian administrative letters
- "Assyrian Legacy", Prototype Productions (video)
- "Assyria", LookLex Encyclopedia
- Theophilus G. Pinches, The Religion of Babylonia and Assyria in "btm" format
- "The Library at Ninevah", In our Time—BBC Radio 4
- "Assyrians in Arzni-Armenia", Website of the Abovyan city
- Morris Jastrow, Jr., The Civilization of Babylonia and Assyria: its remains, language, history, religion, commerce, law, art, and literature, London: Lippincott (1915)—a searchable facsimile at the University of Georgia Libraries; also available in layered PDF format
- "Assyria". Catholic Encyclopedia. New York: Robert Appleton Company. 1913.
- Chisholm, Hugh, ed. (1911). "Babylonia and Assyria". Encyclopædia Britannica (11th ed.). Cambridge University Press.