|Religion||Ancient Mesopotamian religion|
|•||c. 1975 BC||Puzur-Ashur I (first)|
|•||1073–1056 BC||Ashur-bel-kala (last)|
|•||Kikkiya overthrown||2500 BC|
|•||Decline of Assyria||612 BC|
|Today part of|| Syria
Assyria was a major Mesopotamian East Semitic-speaking kingdom and empire of the ancient Near East. It existed as a state from perhaps as early as the 25th century BC in the form of the Assur city-state, until its lapse between 612 BC and 599 BC, spanning the Early to Middle Bronze Age through to the late Iron Age.
From the end of the seventh century BC to the mid-seventh century AD, it survived as a geopolitical entity, for the most part ruled by foreign powers, although a number of Neo-Assyrian states arose at different times during the Parthian and early Sasanian Empires between the mid-second century BC and late third century AD, a period which also saw Assyria become a major centre of Syriac Christianity and the birthplace of the Assyrian Church of the East.
Centered on the Tigris in Upper Mesopotamia (modern northern Iraq, northeastern Syria, southeastern Turkey and the northwestern fringes of Iran), the Assyrians came to rule powerful empires at several times. Making up a substantial part of the greater Mesopotamian "cradle of civilization", which included Sumer, the Akkadian Empire, and 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 Iran, and from what is now Armenia and Azerbaijan in the Caucasus, to the Arabian Peninsula, Egypt and eastern Libya.
Assyria is named after its original capital, the ancient city of Aššur, which dates to c. 2600 BC, originally one of a number of Akkadian city states in Mesopotamia. In the 25th and 24th centuries BC, Assyrian kings were pastoral leaders. From the late 24th century BC, the Assyrians became subject to Sargon of Akkad, who united all the Akkadian- and Sumerian-speaking peoples of Mesopotamia under the Akkadian Empire, which lasted from c. 2334 BC to 2154 BC.
After its fall, the greater remaining part of Assyria was a geopolitical region and province of other empires, although between the mid-2nd century BC and late 3rd century AD a patchwork of small independent Assyrian kingdoms adjacent to it. The region of Assyria fell under the successive control of the Median Empire, the Achaemenid Empire, the Seleucid Empire, the Parthian Empire, the Roman Empire, and the Sasanian Empire. The Arab Islamic Conquest in the mid-seventh century finally dissolved it as a single entity, after which the remnants of the Assyrian people gradually became an ethnic, linguistic, cultural and religious minority in the Assyrian homeland, surviving there to this day as an indigenous people of the region.
- 1 Names
- 2 Pre-history
- 3 History
- 4 Early urbanised kings
- 4.1 Old Assyrian Empire
- 4.2 Assyria in decline, 1450–1393 BC
- 4.3 Middle Assyrian Empire
- 4.4 Neo-Assyrian Empire
- 4.5 Assyria after the empire
- 4.6 Christian period
- 4.7 Modern history
- 5 Culture
- 6 Legacy
- 7 Notes
- 8 See also
- 9 References
- 10 Bibliography
- 11 External links
Assyria was also sometimes known as Subartu and Azuhinum prior to the rise of the city-state of Aššūr, after which it was Aššūrāyu, and after its fall, from 605 BC through to the late seventh century AD variously as Achaemenid Assyria, and also referenced as Atouria, Ator, Athor according to Strabo, Syria (Greek), Assyria (Latin) and Asōristān (Middle Persian). "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 Eastern Aramaic-speaking Christian ethnic minority in northern Iraq, north east Syria, southeast Turkey and northwest Iran are the descendants of the ancient Assyrians (see Assyrian continuity).
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.
The Akkadian-speaking people (the earliest historically-attested Semitic-speaking people) who would eventually found Assyria appear to have entered Mesopotamia at some point during the latter 4th millennium BC (c. 3500–3000 BC), eventually intermingling with the earlier Sumerian-speaking population, with Akkadian names appearing in written record from as early as the 29th century BC.
During the 3rd millennium BC, a very intimate cultural symbiosis developed between the Sumerians and the Akkadians throughout Mesopotamia, which included widespread bilingualism. The influence of Sumerian (a language isolate) 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 third 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), although Sumerian continued to be used as a sacred, ceremonial, literary and scientific language in Mesopotamia until the 1st century AD, as did use of the Akkadian cuneiform.
The cities of Assur 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.
Greco-Roman classical writers such as Julius Africanus, Marcus Velleius Paterculus and Diodorus Siculus dated the founding of Assyria to various dates between 2284 BC and 2057 BC, listing the earliest king as Belus or Ninus.
According to the Biblical generations of Noah, which appears to have been largely compiled between the 7th and 5th centuries BC, the city of Aššur was allegedly founded by a biblical Ashur the son of Shem, who was deified by later generations as the city's patron god. However, the much older attested Assyrian tradition itself lists the first king of Assyria as the 25th century BC Tudiya, and an early urbanised Assyrian king named Ushpia (c. 2050 BC) as having dedicated the first temple to the god Ashur in the city in the mid-21st century BC. It is highly likely that the city was named in honour of its patron Assyrian god with the same name.
|Religion||Ancient Mesopotamian religion|
|•||c. 2450 BC||Tudiya (first)|
|•||c. 2025 BC||Ilu-shuma (last)|
|Historical era||Bronze Age|
|•||Established||c. 2600 BC|
|•||Disestablished||c. 2025 BC|
|Today part of||Iraq|
The city of Aššur, 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 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 known. In the Assyrian King List, the earliest king recorded was Tudiya. According to Georges Roux he would have lived in the mid 25th century BC, i.e. circa 2450 BC. 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).
Tudiya was succeeded on the list by Adamu, the first known reference to the Semitic name Adam and then a further thirteen rulers (Yangi, Shuhlamu, Harharu, Mandaru, Imsu, Harsu, Didanu, Hanu, Zuabu, Nuabu, Abazu, Belus 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 have copied 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, were independent semi-nomadic pastoralist rulers. These kings at some point became fully urbanised and founded the city state of Ashur in the mid 21st century BC.
Akkadian Empire and Neo-Sumerian Empires
During the Akkadian Empire (2334–2154 BC), the Assyrians, like all the Mesopotamian 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.
Assyrian rulers were subject to Sargon and his successors, and the city of Ashur became a regional administrative center of the Empire, implicated by the Nuzi tablets. 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 (modern Syria and Lebanon). 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.
Early urbanised kings
Ushpia (2050-2030 BC) appears to have been the first fully urbanised independent king of Assyria, and is traditionally held to have dedicated temples to the god Ashur in the city of the same name. He was followed by Sulili, Kikkiya and Akiya, of whom little is known aside from Kikkiya conducting various building works in Assur.
Old Assyrian Empire
|Old Assyrian Empire|
|Religion||Ancient Mesopotamian religion|
|•||circa 2025 BC||Erishum I (first)|
|•||circa 1393 BC||Ashur-nadin-ahhe II (last)|
|Historical era||Bronze Age|
|•||Established||circa 2025 BC|
|•||Disestablished||circa 1750 BC|
|Today part of|| Iraq
Puzur-Ashur I (c. 2025 BC) is speculated to have overthrown Kikkia and founded an Assyrian dynasty which was to survive for eight generations (or 216 years) until Erishum II was overthrown by Shamshi-Adad I. Puzur-Ashur I's descendants left inscriptions mentioning him regarding the building of temples to gods such as Ashur, Adad and Ishtar in Assyria. The length of Puzur-Ashur I's reign is unknown. Hildegard Levy, writing in the Cambridge Ancient History, sees Puzur-Ashur I as part of a longer dynasty started by one of his predecessors, Sulili. Inscriptions link Puzur-Ashur I to his immediate successors, who, according to the ]]Assyrian King List]], are related to the following kings down to Erishum II.
Shalim-ahum (died c. 2009 BC), son and successor of Puzur-Ashur I, is the earliest independent ruler to be attested in a contemporary inscription. Carved in curious archaic character mirror-writing in old Assyrian on an alabaster block found during the German excavations at Assur under Walter Andrae, this sole exemplar of his contemporary inscriptions records that the god Ashur “requested of him” the construction of a temple and that he had “beer vats and storage area” built in the “temple area.”:6–7 He ruled during a period when nascent Assyrian merchant colonies were expanding into Anatolia to trade textiles and tin from Assur for silver. Shalim-ahum and his successors bore the title išši’ak aššur, vice regent of Assur, as well as ensí.
Ilu-shuma, inscribed DINGIR-šum-ma[nb 1] (c. 2008 BC — c. 1975 BC), son and successor of Shalim-ahum,:7–8 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 the Sumerian city-states Ur, Nippur, and Der. 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. His construction activities included building the old temple of Ishtar, a city wall, subdivision of the city into house plots and diversion of the flow of two springs to the city gates, “Aushum” and “Wertum”.
Erishum I (c. 1974 BC — c. 1935 BC), son and successor of Ilu-shuma, vigorously expanded Assyrian colonies in Asia Minor during his long reign. It was during his reign that karums were established along trade routes into Anatolia in the cities of Kanesh, Amkuwa, Hattusa, and eighteen other locations yet to be identified, some designated warbatums, satellites of and subordinate to the karums. The colonies traded tin, textiles, lapis lazuli, iron, antimony, copper, bronze, wool, and grain.
Ikunum (c. 1934 BC — c. 1921 BC), son and successor of Ilu-shuma, built a major temple for the god Ningal. He further strengthened the fortifications of the city of Assur and maintained Assyria's colonies in Asia Minor.
Sargon I or Šarru-kīn I (c. 1920 BC — c. 1881 BC), son and successor of Ikunum, reigned as king of the Old Assyrian Empire for an unusually long 39 years. Sargon I might have been named after his predecessor Sargon of Akkad. The name “Sargon” means “the king is legitimate” in Akkadian. Sargon I is known for his work refortifying Assur. Very little is known about this king.
Puzur-Ashur II (c. 1881 BC — c. 1873 BC), son and successor of Sargon I, was king of the Old Assyrian Empire for eight years. Due to his father's long reign he came to the throne at a late age since one of his sons, named Ili-bani, was a witness in a contract (and so already a grown man) eleven years before Puzur-Ashur II became ruler.
Naram-Sin or Narām–Suen, (c. 1872 BC — c. 1818 BC), son and successor of Puzur-Ashur II, was named for the illustrious Naram-Sin of Akkad and, like his grandfather, Sargon I, took the divine determinative in his name. Assyria was wealthy as the hub of the trading network at the height of the Old Assyrian Empire's activity.:46 Naram-Sin came under attack from Shamshi-Adad, in an attempt to usurp the Assyrian throne, however the would be usurper was defeated, and The Assyrian King List records that Shamshi-Adad I, “went away to Babylonia in the time of Narām-Sîn.” Shamshi-Adad I was not to return until taking the Assyrian city of Ekallatum, pausing three years and then overthrowing Erishum II (c. 1817 BC — c. 1809 BC), son and successor of Naram-Sin.
Shamshi-Adad I (c. 1808 BC — c. 1776 BC), conquered Assur, took over the long-abandoned town of Shekhna in north-eastern Syria, converted it into the capital city of his Upper Mesopotamian Empire and renamed it Shubat-Enlil. Shamshi-Adad I placed his sons in key geographical locations and gave them responsibility to look over those areas. While he remained in Šubat-Enlil, his eldest son, Ishme-Dagan I was put on the throne of Ekallatum.
A main target for expansion was the city Mari, which controlled the caravan route between Anatolia and Mesopotamia. The king of Mari, Iakhdunlim, was assassinated by his own servants, possibly on Shamshi-Adad I's orders. Shamshi-Adad I seized the opportunity and occupied Mari c. 1741 BC. Shamshi-Adad I put his second son, Yasmah-Adad on the throne in Mari, and then returned to Shubat-Enlil. With the annexation of Mari, Shamshi-Adad was in control of a large empire, controlling central Mesopotamia, the north eastern Levant and swathes of eastern Asia Minor.
While Ishme-Dagan I probably was a competent ruler, his brother Yasmah-Adad appears to have been a man of weak character; something the disappointed father was not above mentioning. Shamshi-Adad I clearly kept a firm control on the actions of his sons, as shown in his many letters to them. At one point he arranged a political marriage between Yasmah-Adad to Beltum, the princess of his ally in Qatna. Yasmah-Adad already had a leading wife and put Beltum in a secondary position of power. Shamshi-Adad I did not approve and forced his son to keep Beltum in the palace in a leading position.
Dadusha, a king of the neighbouring state Eshnunna, made an alliance with Shamshi-Adad I in order to conquer the area between the two Zab rivers c. 1727 BC. This military campaign of joint forces was commemorated on a victory stele which states that Dadusha gives the lands to Shmshi-Adad I. Shamshi-Adad I later turned against Dadusha by attacking cities including Shaduppum and Nerebtum.
Ishme-Dagan I (c. 1775 BC — c. 1750 BC), son and successor of Shamshi-Adad I, main challenge was in keeping his enemies in check; to his east were the foothills of the Zagros Mountains, inhabited by warlike pastoral peoples such as the Turukku, Kassites and Lullubi, and to the south was the fellow Mesopotamian kingdom of Eshnunna. Although politically astute and a capable soldier, Ishme-Dagan I became embroiled in a struggle for dominance of the Near East with Hammurabi, an Amorite who had turned the hitherto minor town of Babylon into a major city-state and begun a war of conquest, creating the Babylonian Empire. It was from this period that the southern half of Mesopotamia cme to be known as Babylonia.
Mut-Ashkur (c. 1749 BC — c. 1740 BC), son and successor of Ishme-Dagan I, was arranged by his father to marry the daughter of the Hurrian king Zaziya. Hammurabi of the newly created Amorite state of Babylon (c. 1696 BC — c. 1654 BC), after first conquering Mari, Larsa, Eshnunna and defeating Elam, eventually prevailed over Mut-Ashkur. With Hammurabi, the various kārum 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 I (including Mut-Ashkur) were largely vassals and dependent on the Babylonians during the reign of Hammurabi.
Rimush, inscribed mri-mu-u[š] on the only variant king list on which he appears,[nb 2] (c. 1739 BC — c. 1733 BC), a successor to and probably a descendant of Išme-Dagān I, would appear to be named for the second king of the Akkadian Empire Rimush of Akkad (c. 2214 BC — c. 2206 BC). This perhaps reflects the extent to which Shamshi-Adad and his successors identified with the prestigious Dynasty of Akkad, although the earlier Rimush was apparently assassinated by his own courtiers, “with their seals”, according to a liver-omen of the monumental Bārûtu series, a somewhat ignominious end. The events resulting in the demise of the dynasty are witnessed in only one inscription, that of Puzur-Sin, who boasted of overthrowing the son of Asinum, descendant of Shamshi-Adad I, whose name has not been preserved. This may have been Rimush, or if Asinum followed him, perhaps his grandson. The result was apparently turmoil as a rapid succession of seven usurpers took power, each reigning briefly before being overthrown.
Asinum (c. 1732 BC), possibly successor or descendant to either Rimush or Mut-Ashkur, was an Amorite king driven out by the Assyrian vice-regent Puzur-Sin; not included in the standard King List; however, attested in Puzur-Sin's inscription. Asinum is believed to had been a descendant of Shamshi-Adad who had founded the brief, foreign Amorite dynasty apparently greatly resented by the native Assyrians judging by an alabaster slab inscription left by Puzur-Sin. Puzur-Sin is believed to had been an otherwise unattested Assyrian monarch. Puzur-Sin deposed Asinum to allow for the Assyrian king Ashur-dugul to seize the throne. A period of civil war followed this event which ended Babylonian and Amorite influence in Assyria c. 1665 BC.
Ashur-dugul, inscribed maš-šur-du-gul, “Look to (the god) Ashur!”, (c. 1731 BC — c. 1725 BC), apparently, “son of a nobody”, seized the throne from the three unpopular Amorite vassals. The Assyrian King List says of Ashur-dugul that he was a “son of a nobody, without right to the throne” meaning that he was not of royal descent and consequently unqualified to govern according to the patrilineal principle of legitimacy relied upon by later monarchs. During Ashur-dugul's reign six other kings, “sons of nobodies also ruled at the time”. This may suggest a fragmentation in the small Assyrian kingdom, with rival claims to the throne. Ashur-dugul was unable to retain control for long, and was soon deposed by a rival claimant, Ashur-apla-idi, who was in turn followed by Nasir-Sin, Sin-namir, Ipqi-Ishtar and Adad-salulu.
Adasi (c. 1724 BC—c. 1706 BC), “son of a nobody”, was the last of the six kings who ruled during the reign of Ashur-dugul. He managed to quell the civil unrest and stabilize the situation in Assyria. During his reign, he completely drove the Babylonians and Amorites from the Assyrian sphere of influence in the northern half of Mesopotamia. Babylonian-Amorite power began to quickly wane in Mesopotamia as a whole; the Sealand Dynasty of the south of Mesopotamia driving out both the Amorites and Babylonians, leaving the Amorites controlling only a weak and small rump state in and around the city of Babylon itself. The Adaside dynasty of Assyria was named after Adasi.
Bel-bani (c. 1705 BC-c. 1696 BC) succeeded Adasi and continued to campaign successfully against the Babylonians and Amorites, after which Assyria entered a quiet and peaceful period for the next two centuries.
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 Mitannian-Hurrian domination in the latter half of the 15th century. The Indo-European-speaking Mitannians 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 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-Mitannian empire. It is likely that this alliance prompted Saushtatar, the emperor of Mitanni, 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 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 Mitannian influence appears to have been sporadic. They appear not to have been always willing or indeed able to interfere in Assyrian internal and international affairs. Ashur-bel-nisheshu (1417–1409 BC) seems to have been independent of Mitannian 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 Mitannian and Hittite rivals in the region. However, the Assyrian king appears not to have been in a strong enough position to challenge Mitanni or the Hittites. 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, and instead began to exert Assyrian influence on the Mitanni.
Middle Assyrian Empire
|Middle Assyrian Empire|
|Middle Assyrian Empire|
|Religion||Ancient Mesopotamian religion|
|•||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|
The Middle period (1365 BC - 1056 BC) saw reigns of great kings, such as Ashur-uballit I, Arik-den-ili, Tukulti-Ninurta I and Tiglath-Pileser I. During this period, Assyria overthrew the empire of the Hurri-Mitanni and eclipsed the Hittite Empire, Egyptian Empire, Babylonia, Elam, Canaan and Phrygia in the Near East.
Society and law in the Middle Assyrian Period
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 Middle Assyrian Period was marked by the long wars fought 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 Babylonia, 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.
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.
Middle Assyrian 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 III, 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. He then moved into north eastern Asia Minor, conquering Shupria. 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 favor.
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 Assyrians 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 during the Bronze Age Collapse, 1055–936 BC
The Bronze Age Collapse from 1200 BC to 900 BC was a dark age for the entire Near East, North Africa, Asia Minor, 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 Aramea, south eastern Asia Minor, central Mesopotamia and north western Iran.
New West Semitic-speaking 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, Sargatians and Parthians moved into the lands to the east of Assyria, displacing the native Kassites and Gutians and pressuring Elam and Mannea (all of which ancient non Indo-European civilisations of Ancient Iran), and to the north in Asia Minor the Phrygians overran that part of the Hittites not already destroyed by Assyria, and Lydia emerged, 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 West Asian peoples such as the Amalekites, Moabites, Edomites and Ammonites and the non-Semitic-speaking Peleset/Philistines (who have been conjectured to be one of the so-called Sea Peoples) for the control of southern Canaan. Dorian Greeks usurped the earlier Mycenaean Greeks in western Asia Minor, and the Sea Peoples ravaged the Eastern Mediterranean.
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, Lydia 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.
Map of the Neo-Assyrian Empire and its expansions.
|Capital||Aššur 911 BC
Kalhu 879 BC
Dur-Sharrukin 706 BC
Nineveh 705 BC
Harran 612 BC
|Languages||Akkadian, Aramaic, Sumerian|
|Religion||Ancient Mesopotamian religion|
|•||911–891 BC||Adad-nirari II (first)|
|•||612–608 BC||Ashur-uballit II (last)|
|Historical era||Iron Age|
|•||Reign of Adad-nirari II||911 BC|
|•||Battle of Nineveh||612 BC|
|•||Fall of Harran||605 BC|
|Today part of|| Iraq
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
Assyria once more began to expand with the rise of Adad-nirari II in 911 BC. He cleared Aramean and other tribal peoples from Assyria's borders and began to expand in all directions into Anatolia, Ancient Iran, Levant and Babylonia.
Ashurnasirpal II (883–859 BC) continued this expansion apace, subjugating much of the Levant to the west, the newly arrived Persians and Medes to the east, annexed central Mesopotamia from Babylon to the south, and expanded deep into Asia Minor to the north. He moved the capital from Ashur to Kalhu (Calah/Nimrud) and undertook impressive building works throughout Assyria.
Shalmaneser III (859–824 BC) projected Assyrian power even further, conquering to the foothills of the Caucasus, Israel and Aram-Damascus, and subjugating Persia and the Arabs who dwelt to the south of Mesopotamia, as well as driving the Egyptians from Canaan. It was during the reign of Shalmaneser III that the Arabs and Chaldeans first enter the pages of recorded history.
Little further expansion took place under Shamshi-Adad V and his successor, the regent queen Semiramis, however when Adad-nirari III came of age, he took the reins of power from mother and set about a relentless campaign of conquest; subjugated the Arameans, Phoenicians, Philistines, Israelites, Neo-Hittites and Edomites, Persians, Medes and Manneans, penetrating as far as the Caspian Sea. He invaded and subjugated Babylonia, and then the migrant Chaldean and Sutean tribes settled in south eastern Mesopotamia whom he conquered and reduced to vassalage.
Assyria then ceased to expand further for a time, until the reign of Tiglath-Pileser III. He created the worlds first Professional Army, introduced Imperial Aramaic as the lingua franca of Assyria and its vast empire, and reorganised the empire drastically. Tiglath-Pileser III conquered as far as the East Mediterranean, bringing the Greeks of Cyprus, Phoenicia, Judah, Philistia, Samarra and the whole of Aramea under Assyrian control. Not satisfied with merely holding Babylonia in vassalage, Tiglath-Pileser deposed its king and had himself crowned king of Babylon.
Shalmaneser V reigned only briefly, but once more drove the Egyptians from southern Canaan, where they were fomenting revolt against Assyria. Sargon II quickly took Samaria, effectively ending the northern Kingdom of Israel and carrying 27,000 people away into captivity into the Israelite diaspora. He was forced to fight a war to drive out the Scythians and Cimmerians who had attempted to invade Assyria's vassal states of Persia and Media. The Neo-Hittite states of northern Syria were conquered, as well as Cilicia. Lydia and Commagene. King Midas of Phrygia, fearful of Assyrian power, offered his hand in friendship. Elam was defeated and Babylonia and Chaldea reconquered. He made a new capital city named Dur Sharrukin.
He was succeeded by his son Sennacherib who moved the capital to Nineveh and made the deported peoples work on improving Nineveh's system of irrigation canals. His first task was to affirm his control over Cilicia, which was attempting to rebel with Greek help. Sennacherib marched into Cilicia, defeating the rebels and their Greek allies. He also reasserted Assyria's mastery of Corduene in Asia Minor.
The Egyptians had again begun agitating peoples within the Assyrian empire in an attempt to gain a foothold in the region. As a result, in 701 BC, Hezekiah of Judah, Lule king of Sidon, Sidka, king of Ascalon and the king of Ekron formed an alliance with Egypt against Assyria. Sennacherib attacked the rebels, conquering Ascalon, Sidon and Ekron and defeating the Egyptians and driving them from the region. He marched toward Jerusalem, destroying 46 towns and villages (including the heavily defended city of Lachish) in his path. Sennacherib's account says Judah paid him tribute and he left.
Marduk-apla-iddina had returned to Babylonia during the reign of Sennacherib. The Assyrian king attacked him in 703 BC outside Kish and defeated him. Sennacherib plundered Babylonia and pursued Marduk-apla-iddina through the land. At his return to Assyria, Sennacherib installed a puppet ruler, Bel-ibni, as king of Babylon. Bel-ibni, however, committed hostilities, so Sennacherib returned to Babylon in 700 BC and captured him and his officers. Sennacherib instead installed his own son Ashur-nadin-shumi on the throne of Babylon. Sennacherib launched a campaign against Elam in 694 BC and ravaged the land. In retaliation, the king of Elam attacked Babylonia with the help of the Chaldeans. Another native ruler, called Mushezib-Marduk, soon seized the throne of Babylon. He held on to it with help of his Elamite allies for four years until 689 BC, when the Assyrians retook the city.Sennacherib responded swiftly by opening the canals around Babylon and flooding the outside of the city until it became a swamp, resulting in its destruction, and its inhabitants were scattered. In 681 BC, Sennacherib was murdered while praying to the god Nisroch by one or more of his own sons (allegedly named Adremelech, Abimlech, and Sharezer), as retribution for his destruction of Babylon which was sacred to all Mesopotamians, including the Assyrians.
Esarhaddon had Babylon rebuilt, he imposed a vassal treaty upon his Persian, Median and Parthian subjects, and he once more defeated the Scythes and Cimmerians. Tiring of Egyptian interference in the Assyrian Empire, Esarhaddon decided to conquer Egypt. In 671 BC he crossed the Sinai Desert, invaded and took Egypt with surprising ease and speed. He drove its foreign Nubian/Kushite and Ethiopian rulers out, destroying the Kushite Empire in the process. Esarhaddon declared himself "king of Egypt, Libya, and Kush". Esarhaddon stationed a small army in northern Egypt and describes how; "All Ethiopians (read Nubians/Kushites) I deported from Egypt, leaving not one left to do homage to me". He installed native Egyptian princes throughout the land to rule on his behalf.
Under Ashurbanipal (669–627 BC), an unusually well educated king for his time, Assyrian domination spanned from the Caucasus Mountains (modern Armenia, Georgia and Azerbaijan) in the north to Nubia, Egypt, Libya and Arabia in the south, and from the East Mediterranean, Cyprus and Antioch in the west to Persia and the Caspian Sea in the east.
Shamash-shum-ukin, the Assyrian brother of Ashurbanipal, and ruler of Babylon on his behalf, became infused with Babylonian nationalism and attempted to raise a huge rebellion encompassing many vassal peoples against Ashurbanipal; however, this largely failed. This rebellion lasted until 648 BC, when Babylon was sacked, and Shamash-shum-ukin set fire to the palace, killing himself. Ashurbanipal then set about punishing the Elamites, Persians, Chaldeans, Medes, Arameans, Arabs and Canaanites who had supported the Babylonian revolt. He invaded the Arabian Peninsula and routed and subjugated the Arabs, including the powerful Qedar tribe, taking much booty back to Nineveh and killing the Arab kings, Abiate and Uate. The Nabateans who dwelt south of the Dead Sea and in northern Arabia, and the Chaldeans in the far south east of Mesopotamia were also defeated and subjugated. Elam was the next target; it was attacked in 646 and 640 BC, and its capital Susa sacked.
Ultimately, Assyria conquered 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 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, Palestine, 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 materially, economically and physically 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.
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 Ashkelon was sacked by the Scythians) and all the way into Egypt whose coasts were ravaged and looted with impunity.
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.
Cyaxares (technically a vassal of Assyria), in an alliance with the Scythians and Cimmerians, launched a surprise attack on a civil war beleaguered Assyria in 615 BC, sacking Kalhu (the Biblical Calah/Nimrud) and taking Arrapkha (modern Kirkuk) and Gasur. Nabopolassar, still pinned down in southern Mesopotamia by Assyrian forces, was completely uninvolved in this major breakthrough against Assyria.
Despite the sorely depleted state of Assyria, bitter fighting ensued; throughout 614 BC the alliance of powers continued to gradually make hard fought inroads into Assyria itself, however in 613 BC the Assyrians somehow rallied against the odds and scored a number of counterattacking victories over the Medes-Persians, Babylonians-Chaldeans and Scythians-Cimmerians. This led to the coalition of forces ranged against it to unite and launch a massive combined attack in 612 BC, finally besieging and entering Nineveh in late 612 BC, with Sin-shar-ishkun being slain in the bitter street by street fighting. Despite the loss of almost all of its major cities, and in the face of overwhelming odds, Assyrian resistance continued under Ashur-uballit II (612-605 BC), who fought his way out of Nineveh and coalesced Assyrian forces around Harran (in modern south east Turkey), Carchemish (modern Jarablus in north east Syria) and in the vassal kingdom of Urartu (in modern north eastern Turkey). However, the alliance of powers took Harran in 608 BC, and after a failed bid to recapture the city by the Assyrian king the same year, Carchemish too fell in 605 BC.
Sections of the Assyrian army retreated to the western corner of Assyria after the fall of Harran and Carchemish, and a number of Assyrian imperial records survive between 604 BC and 599 BC in and around the Assyrian city of Dur-Katlimmu in what is today north eastern Syria, and so it is possible that remnants of the Assyrian administration and army still continued to hold out in the region for a few years. Certainly by 599 BC at the very latest, Assyria had been destroyed 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, ethnic entity and colonised province until the late 7th century AD, with small Assyrian states emerging in the region between the 2nd century BC and 4th century AD.
Assyria after the empire
Achaemenid Assyria, Osroene, Adiabene, Asōristān, Athura and Hatra
Assyria was initially ruled by the short lived Median Empire (605–549 BC) after its fall. In a twist of fate, Nabonidus the last king of Babylon (together with his son and co-regent Belshazzar) was himself an Assyrian from Harran. He had overthrown the short lived Chaldean dynasty in Babylonia, after which the Chaldeans disappeared from history, being fully absorbed into the native population of Babylonia. However, apart from plans to dedicate religious temples in the city of Harran, Nabonidus showed little interest in rebuilding Assyria. Nineveh and Kalhu remained in ruins with only small numbers of Assyrians living within them, conversely a number of towns and cities such as Arrapkha, Guzana, Nohadra and Harran remained intact, and Assur and Arbela (Irbil) were not completely destroyed, as is attested by their later revival. However, Assyria spent much of this short period in a degree of devastation following its fall.
Achaemenid Assyria (549–330 BC)
After the Medes were overthrown by the Persians as the dominant force in Ancient Iran, Assyria 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 centered around Tyareh 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 (their first ruler Achaemenes and his successors, having been vassals of Assyria), 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, and Greek writers such as Thucydides still referred to it as the Assyrian language. Nineveh was never rebuilt however, and 200 years after it was sacked Xenophon reported only small numbers of Assyrians living amongst its ruins. Conversely the ancient city of Assur once more became a rich and prosperous entity.
It was in 5th century BC Assyria that the Syriac language and Syriac script evolved. Five centuries later these were later to have a global influence as the liturgical language and written script for Syriac Christianity and its accompanying Syriac literature which also emerged in Assyria before spreading throughout the Near East, Asia Minor, The Caucasus, Central Asia, the Indian Subcontinent and China.
Macedonian and Seleucid Assyria
In 332 BC, Assyria fell to Alexander the Great, the Macedonian Emperor from Greece, who called the inhabitants Assyrioi. The Macedonian Empire (332–312) was partitioned in 312 BC. It thereafter became part of the Seleucid Empire (312 BC). It is from this period that the later Syria Vs Assyria naming controversy arises, the Seleucids applied the name 'Syria' which is a 9th-century BC Indo-Anatolian derivation of 'Assyria' (see Etymology of Syria) not only to Assyria itself, but also to the Levantine lands to the west (historically known as Aram and Eber Nari), which had been part of the Assyrian empire but, the north east corner aside, never a part of Assyria proper.
When the Seleucids lost control of Assyria proper, the name Syria survived but was erroneously applied not only to the land of Assyria itself, but also now to Aramea (also known as Eber Nari) to the west that had once been part of the Assyrian empire, but apart from the north eastern corner, had never been a part of Assyria itself, nor inhabited by Assyrians. This was to lead to both the Assyrians from Northern Mesopotamia and the Arameans and Phoenicians from the Levant being collectively dubbed Syrians (and later also Syriacs) in Greco-Roman and later European culture, regardless of ethnicity, history or geography.
During Seleucid rule, Assyrians ceased to hold the senior military, economic 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.
During the Seleucid period in southern Mesopotamia, Babylon was gradually abandoned in favour of a new city named Seleucia on the Tigris, effectively bringing an end to Babylonia as a geo-political entity.
Parthian Assyria (150 BC – 225 AD)
By 150 BC, Assyria was largely under the control of the Parthian Empire. The Parthians seem to have exercised only loose control over Assyria, and between the mid 2nd century BC and 4th century AD a number of Neo-Assyrian states arose; these included the ancient capital of Assur itself, Adiabene with its capital of Arbela (modern Irbil), Beth Nuhadra with its capital of Nohadra (modern Dohuk), Osroene, with its capitals of Edessa and Amid (modern Sanliurfa and Diyarbakir), Hatra, and "ܒܝܬܓܪܡܝ" (Beth Garmai) with its capital at Arrapha (modern Kirkuk).
These freedoms were accompanied by a major Assyrian cultural revival, and temples to the Assyrian national gods Ashur, Sin, Hadad, Ishtar, Ninurta, Tammuz and Shamash were once more dedicated throughout Assyria and Upper Mesopotamia during this period.
In addition, Christianity arrived in Assyria soon after the death of Christ and the Assyrians began to gradually convert to Christianity from the ancient Mesopotamian religion during the period between the early first and third centuries. Assyria became an important centre of Syriac Christianity and Syriac Literature, with the Assyrian Church of the East evolving in Assyria, and the Syriac Orthodox Church partly also, indeed Osroene became the first independent Christian state in history.
Roman Assyria (116–8)
However, in 116, under Trajan, Assyria and its independent states were briefly taken over by Rome as the province of Assyria. The Assyrian kingdom of Adiabene was destroyed as an independent state during this period. Roman rule lasted only a few years, and the Parthians once more regained control with the help of the Assyrians, who were incited to overthrow the Roman garrisons by the Parthian king. However, a number of Assyrians were conscripted into the Roman Army, with many serving in the region of Hadrians Wall in Roman Britain, and inscriptions in Aramaic made by soldiers have been discovered in Northern England dating from the second century.
With loose Parthian rule restored, Assyria and its patchwork of states continued much as they had before the Roman interregnum, although Assyria and Mesopotamia as a whole became a front line between the Roman and Parthian empires. Other new religious movements also emerged in the form of gnostic sects such as Mandeanism, as well as the now extinct Manichean religion.
Sassanid Assyria (226–c.650)
In 226, Assyria was largely taken over by the Sasanian Empire. After driving out the Romans and Parthians, the Sassanid rulers set about annexing the independent states within Assyria during the mid to late 3rd century, the last being Assur itself in the late 250's to early 260's. Christianity continued to spread, and many of the ethnically Assyrian churches that exist today are among the oldest in the world. For example, the Syriac Orthodox Church is purported to have been founded by St Peter himself in 67 AD.
Nevertheless, although predominantly Christian, a minority of Assyrians still held onto their ancient Mesopotamian religion until as late as the 10th or 11th century AD. The Assyrians lived in a province known as Asuristan, and the region was on the frontier of the Byzantine and Sassanian empires.
The land was known as Asōristān (the Sassanid Persian name meaning "Land of the Assyrians") during this period, and became the birthplace of the distinct Church of the East (now split into the Assyrian Church of the East, Ancient Church of the East and Chaldean Catholic Church) and a centre of the Syriac Orthodox Church, with a flourishing Syriac (Assyrian) Christian culture which exists there to this day. Temples were still being dedicated to the national god Ashur (as well as other Mesopotamian gods) in his home city, in Harran and elsewhere during the 4th and 5th centuries AD, indicating the ancient pre-Christian Assyrian identity was still extant to some degree.
During the Sasanian period, much of what had once been Babylonia in southern Mesopotamia was incorporated into Assyria, and in effect the whole of Mesopotamia came to be known as Asōristān. 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 reputedly ruling the northern reaches in 370s AD.
Arab Islamic Conquest (630–780)
Centuries of constant warfare between the Byzantine Empire and Sassanid Empire left both empires exhausted, depleted, and battle-fatigued, which meant that when the Muslim Arabs came to invade the region during the 600s from the Arabian peninsula- The empires could do little to resist it. Therefore, after the early Islamic conquests in the seventh century, Assyria was dissolved as a political entity, although the native population still regarded the region as Assyria. Under Arab rule, Mesopotamia as a whole underwent a gradual process of Arabisation and Islamification, and the region saw a large influx of non indigenous Arabs, Kurds, Iranian, and Turkic peoples.
However, the indigenous Assyrian population of northern Mesopotamia resisted this process, retaining their language, religion, culture and identity.
Under the Arab Islamic empires, the Christian Assyrians were classed as dhimmis, second-class citizens that had certain restrictions imposed upon them. Assyrians were thus excluded from specific duties and occupations reserved for Muslims, did not enjoy the same or equal political rights as Muslims, their word was not equal to that of a Muslim in legal and civil matters without a Muslim witness, they were subject to payment of a special tax (jizyah) and they were banned from spreading their religion further in Muslim ruled lands. However, personal matters such as marriage and divorce were governed by the cultural laws of the Assyrians.
For those reasons, and even during the Sassanian period before Islamic rule, The Assyrian Church of the East formed a church structure that spread Nestorian Christianity to as far away as China, in order to proselytize away from Muslim ruled regions In Iran and their homeland in Mesopotamia, with evidence of their massive church structure being the Nestorian Stele, an artifact found in China which documented over 100 years of Christian history in China from 600-781 AD. Assyrian Christians maintained relations with fellow Christians in Armenia and Georgia throughout the Middle Ages. In the 12th century AD, Assyrian priests interceded on behalf of persecuted Arab Muslims in Georgia. The Assyrian Church structure thrived during the period of 600-1300, and is regarded as a golden age for Assyrians.
Mongol Empire (1200–1300)
The first signs of trouble for the Assyrians started in the 13th century, when the Mongols first invaded the Near East after the fall of Baghdad in 1258 to Hulagu Khan. Assyrians at first did very well under Mongol rule, as the Shamanist Mongols were sympathetic to them, with Assyrian priests having traveled to Mongolia centuries before. The Mongols in fact spent most of their time oppressing Muslims and Jews, outlawing the practice of circumcision and halal butchery, as they found them repulsive and violent. Therefore, as one of the only groups in the region looked at in a good light, Assyrians were given special privileges and powers, with Hülegü even appointing an Assyrian Christian governor to Erbil (Arbela), and allowing the Syriac Orthodox Church to build a church there.
However, the Mongol rulers in the Near East eventually converted to Islam. Sustained persecutions of Christians throughout the entirety of the Ilkhanate began in earnest in 1295 under the rule of Oïrat amir Nauruz, which affected the indigenous Assyrian Christians greatly. During the reign of the Ilkhan Öljeitü, the Assyrian Christian inhabitants of Erbil seized control of the citadel and much of the city in rebellion against the Muslims. In spring 1310, the Mongol Malik (governor) of the region attempted to seize it from them with the help of the Kurds and Arabs, but was defeated. After his defeat he decided to siege the city. The Assyrians held out for three months, but the citadel was at last taken by Ilkhanate troops and Arab, Turkic and Kurdish tribesmen on July 1, 1310. The defenders of the citadel fought to the last man, and many of the Assyrian inhabitants of the lower town were subsequently massacred.
Regardless of these hardships, the Assyrian people remained numerically dominant in the north of Mesopotamia as late as the 14th century AD, and the city of Assur functioned as their religious and cultural capital. However, in the mid-14th century the Muslim Turk ruler Tamurlane conducted a religiously motivated massacre of the indigenous Assyrian Christians, and worked tirelessly to destroy the vast Assyrian Church structure established throughout the Far East, destroying the entire structure of the church with the exception of the St Thomas Christians of the Malabar Coast in India, whom number 10 million or so in modern times. After Timurs campaign, The Assyrian Cultural and religious capital of Assur was completely destroyed, thousands of Assyrians were massacred, the vast church structure of the Assyrian Church of the East was decimated, and the Assyrian population was from that point on reduced to a small minority living within Muslim dominated lands.
Breakup of the Assyrian Church (1500–1780)
Around 100 years after the massacres by Timur, a religious schism known as the Schism of 1552 occurred among the Assyrians of northern Mesopotamia, when a large number of followers of the Assyrian Church of the East in Amid elected a rival Patriarch named Shimun VIII Yohannan Sulaqa after becoming dissatisfied with the leadership of the Assyrian Church, at this point based in Alqosh. Due to a need for an ordination by a metropolitan bishop, Sulaqa went into communion with the Roman Catholic Church after at first failing to gain acceptance within the Syriac Orthodox Church. Rome named this new church The Church of Assyria and Mosul and its first leader Patriarch of the East Assyrians in 1553 AD.
Soon after coming back Sulaqa was assassinated by supporters of the rival patriarch in Alqosh, but was able to form a new church structure and line of succession known as the Shimun Line prior to his death. This group of Assyrians eventually broke off ties with Rome, moved en masse to the Hakkari Mountains, and returned to the Assyrian church they once adhered to prior to the Schism of 1552, while still operating independently from the original Assyrian Church structure based in Alqosh.
A decade or so before the Shimun line broke off ties with Rome, another faction within the Assyrian Church entered into communion with Rome known as the Josephite line, and upon the Shimun line leaving, inherited the now vacant Church of Assyria and Mosul', which was renamed the "Chaldean Catholic Church" by The Vatican in 1683. This is now believed to be due to an error by the Roman Catholic Church which already had a history of labelling eastern Christians (including Cypriots) as Chaldeans, but due to that error, some of their followers became known as Chaldean Catholics or Chaldo-Assyrians, despite having absolutely no ethnic, historical, linguistic, cultural or geographic connections whatsoever to the by now long extinct Chaldean tribe of south east Mesopotamia. However, these appellations appear to have only emerged relatively recently, as in the late 19th century, Hormuzd Rassam, himself a member of the Chaldean Catholic Church, states that church members were using the ethnic term Assyrian and the theological term Nestorian to describe themselves.
Later on in the 1830s the original Assyrian Church of the East structure in Alqosh combined with the Catholic one, creating the modern Chaldean Catholic Church structure, which is ironic considering that the only remaining ethnic Assyrian Church to practice the Assyrian Church of the East denomination was the first one to split from the Assyrian Church of the East back in 1552. There was also another Nestorian Denomination known as the Ancient Church of the East, which split from the Assyrian Church of the East due to reforms passed under the rule of Shimun XXIII Eshai in the 1960s, but with the election of Gewargis III in 2015 the churches had a reconciliation, and reunited.
In addition to the Eastern Rite Churches, The Syriac Orthodox Church also has a large number of ethnically Assyrian Adherents, who are known sometimes as Syriacs, the term 'Syriac' being etymologically derived from 'Assyrian'. The Syriac Orthodox Church has 5 million adherents across the globe, but is based in Damascus. However, since the 11th century it was based in the Saffron Monastery of Tur Abdin, and prior to that it was based in Antioch. Like the Nestorian churches, schisms also occurred within the Syriac Orthodox Church. In 1626 Jesuit and Capuchin missionaries began to proselytize among the Syriac Orthodox faithful at Aleppo, forming a larger pro-catholic movement within the Syriac Orthodox Church. So in 1662, when the Syriac Orthodox Patriarchate had fallen vacant, the Catholic party was able to elect one of its own, Andrew Akijan as Patriarch of the Syriac Church. This provoked a split in the community, and after Akijan’s death in 1677 two opposing patriarchs were elected, with one of those becoming the first Patriarch of the Syriac Catholic Church. This line of succession died out quickly, however, but in 1782 with the election of Michael Jarweh as Patriarch the Ignatius line has been the head of the Syriac Catholic Church since then, and also has its base in Damascus.
Ottoman Empire (1900–1928)
After these splits, the Assyrians suffered a number of religiously and ethnically motivated massacres throughout the 17th, 18th and 19th centuries, culminating in the large scale Hamidian massacres of unarmed men, women and children by Turks and Kurds in the 1890s at the hands of the Ottoman Empire and its associated (largely Kurdish and Arab) militias, which greatly reduced their numbers, particularly in southeastern Turkey.
The Assyrians suffered a further catastrophic series of events during World War I in the form of the religiously and ethnically motivated Assyrian Genocide at the hands of the Ottomans and their Kurdish and Arab allies from 1915 to 1918. Some sources claim that the highest number of Assyrians killed during the period was 750,000, while a 1922 Assyrian assessment set it at 275,000. The Assyrian Genocide ran largely in conjunction with the similarly ethno-religiously motivated Armenian Genocide, Greek Genocide and Great Famine of Mount Lebanon.
In reaction against Ottoman cruelty, the Assyrians took up arms, and an Assyrian war of independence was fought during World War I which took place in what is today south eastern Turkey, northern Iraq, north western Iran and north eastern Syria. For a time, the Assyrians fought successfully against overwhelming numbers, scoring a number of victories against the Ottomans and Kurds, and also hostile Arab and Iranian groups. However, due to the collapse of the Russian Empire—due to the Russian Revolution—and the similar collapse of the Armenian Defense, the Assyrians were left without allies. As a result, The Assyrians were vastly outnumbered, outgunned, surrounded, and without supplies. The only option they had was to flee the region into northwest Iran and fight their way, with around 50,000 civilians in tow, to British train lines going to Mandatory Iraq. The sizable Assyrian presence in south eastern Anatolia which had endured for over four millennia was thus reduced to no more than 15,000 by the end of World War I, and by 1924 many of those who remained were expelled, with many leaving and later founding villages in the Sapna and Nahla valleys in the Dohuk Governorate of Iraq.
In 1920 the Assyrian settlements in Mindan and Baquba were attacked by Iraqi Arabs, but the Assyrian tribesmen displayed their military prowess by successfully defeating and driving off the Arab forces. The Assyrians also sided with the British during the Iraqi revolt against the British.
The Assyrian Levies were founded by the British in 1922, with ancient Assyrian military rankings, such as Rab-shakeh, Rab-talia and Turtanu, 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, Kurds and Turcoman, guard the borders with Iran and Turkey, and protect British military installations. During the 1920s Assyrian levies saw action in effectively defeating Arab and Kurdish forces during anti-British rebellions in Iraq.
Simele Massacre and World War II (1930–1950)
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. The massacres of civilians followed a clash between armed 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, and the British government then whitewashed the massacres at the League of Nations.
Despite these betrayals, the Assyrians were allied with the British during World War II, with eleven Assyrian companies seeing action in Palestine/Israel and another four serving in Greece, Cyprus and Albania. Assyrians played a major role in the victory over Arab-Iraqi forces at the Battle of Habbaniya and elsewhere in 1941, when the Iraqi government decided to join World War II on the side of Nazi Germany. The British presence in Iraq lasted until 1955, and Assyrian Levies remained attached to British forces until this time, after which they were disarmed and disbanded.
A further persecution of Assyrians took place in the Soviet Union in the late 1940s and early 1950s when thousands of Assyrians settled in Georgia, Armenia and southern Russia were forcibly deported from their homes in the dead of night by Stalin without warning or reason to Central Asia, with most being relocated to Kazakhstan, where a small minority still remain.
The period from the 1940s through to 1963 was a period of respite for the Assyrians in northern Iraq and north east Syria. The regime of Iraqi President Kassim in particular saw the Assyrians accepted into mainstream society. Many urban Assyrians became successful businessmen, a number of Assyrians moved south to cities such as Baghdad, Basra and Nasiriyah to enhance their economic prospects, others were well represented in politics, the military, the arts and entertainment, Assyrian towns, villages, farmsteads and Assyrian quarters in major cities 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, and came to power in Syria the same year. The Baathists, though secular, were Arab nationalists, and set about attempting to Arabize the many non-Arab peoples of Iraq and Syria, 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, together with an attempt to Arabize the ancient pre-Arab heritage of Mesopotamian civilisation.
The policies of the Baathists have also long been mirrored in Turkey, whose nationalist governments have refused to acknowledge the Assyrians as an ethnic group since the 1920s, and have attempted to Turkify the Assyrians by calling them "Semitic Turks" and forcing them to adopt Turkish names and language. In Baathist Syria too, the Assyrian (and Syriac-Aramean) Christians faced pressure to identify as "Arab Christians". In Iran, Assyrians continued to enjoy cultural, religious and ethnic rights, but due to the Islamic Revolution of 1979 their community has been diminished.
In the aftermath of the Iraq War of 2003, Assyrians became the targets of Islamist terrorist attacks and intimidation from both Sunni and Shia groups, as well as criminal kidnapping organisations; forcing many in southern and central Iraq to relocate to safer Assyrian regions in the north of the country or north east Syria.
In recent years, Assyrians in northern Iraq and north east Syria have become the target of attacks by Islamist militants like ISIL and Nusra Front. In 2014 ISIL attacked Assyrian towns and villages in the Assyrian homelands of northern Iraq and north east Syria, and Assyrians forced from their homes in cities such as Mosul had their houses and possessions stolen. Assyrian Bronze Age and Iron Age monuments and archaeological sites, as well as numerous Assyrian churches and monasteries, have been systematically vandalised and destroyed by ISIL. These include the ruins of Nineveh, Kalhu (Nimrud, Assur, Dur-Sharrukin and Hatra).
Assyrians in both Iraq and Syria  have responded by forming armed Assyrian militias to defend their territories, and despite being heavily outnumbered and outgunned have had success in driving ISIL from Assyrian towns and villages, and defending others from attack. Armed Assyrian militias have also fought ISIL alongside armed groups of Kurds, Turcoman, Yezidis, Syriac-Aramean Christians, Shabaks, Armenian Christians, Kawilya, Mandeans, Circassians and Shia Muslim Arabs and Iranians.
Assyria continued to exist as a geopolitical entity until the Arab-Islamic conquest in the mid-7th century. Assyrian identity; personal, family and tribal names; and both the spoken and written evolution of Mesopotamian Aramaic (which still contains many Akkadian loan words and an Akkadian grammatical structure) have survived among the Assyrian people from ancient times to this day. An Assyrian calendar has been revived.
Assyrian was a dialect of Akkadian language, a member of the eastern branch of the Semitic family and the oldest historically attested of the Semitic languages, which began to appear in written form in the 29th century BC. The first inscriptions in Assyria proper, called Old Assyrian (OA), were made in the Old Assyrian period.
During the 3rd millennium BC, a very intimate cultural symbiosis developed between the Sumerians and Akkadian-speakers, 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 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, and due to the fact that Tiglath-pileser II made it the lingua franca of Assyria and its empire in the 8th century BC.
The ancient Assyrians also used Sumerian 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 distinct Akkadian influenced Eastern Aramaic varieties and not Akkadian itself. The last Akkadian inscriptions in Mesopotamia date from the 1st century AD. The Syriac language also emerged in Assyria during the 5th century BC, and during the Christian era, Syriac literature and Syriac script were to become hugely influential.
However, the descendant Akkadian influenced Eastern Aramaic dialects from the Neo-Assyrian Empire, as well as Akkadian and Mesopotamian Aramaic personal, tribal, family and place names, still survive to this day among Assyrian people in the regions of northern Iraq, southeast Turkey, northwest Iran and northeast Syria that constituted old Assyria, and are spoken fluently by up to 1,000,000 Assyrians, with a further number having lesser and varying degrees of fluency. These dialects which contain many Akkadian loan words and grammatical features are very different from the now almost extinct Western Aramaic of the Arameans in the Levant and Trans-Jordan, which does not have any Akkadian grammatical structure or loan words.
Ancient Assyrian religion
The Assyrians, like the rest of the Mesopotamian peoples, followed ancient Mesopotamian religion, with their national god Ashur having the most importance to them during the Assyrian Empire. This religion gradually declined with the advent of Syriac Christianity between the first and tenth centuries.
The major deities worshipped in Assyria include;
- Adad (Hadad) - storm and rain god
- Anu or An - god of heaven and the sky, lord of constellations, and father of the gods
- Dagan or Dagon - god of fertility
- Enki or Ea - god of the Abzu, crafts, water, intelligence, mischief and creation and divine ruler of the Earth and its humans
- Ereshkigal - goddess of Irkalla, the Underworld
- Ishtar or Inanna/Astarte - goddess of fertility, love, and war
- Marduk - patron deity of Babylon who eventually became regarded as the head of the Babylonian pantheon
- Nabu - god of wisdom and writing
- Nanshe - goddess of prophecy, fertility and fishing
- Nergal - god of plague, war, and the sun in its destructive capacity; later husband of Ereshkigal
- Ninhursag or Mami, Belet-Ili, Ki, Ninmah, Nintu, or Aruru - earth and mother goddess
- Ninlil - goddess of the air; consort of Enlil
- Ninurta - champion of the gods, the epitome of youthful vigour, and god of agriculture
- Shamash or Utu - god of the sun, arbiter of justice and patron of travellers
- Sin or Nanna - god of the moon
- Tammuz or Dumuzi - god of food and vegetation
The original pagan religion of the Assyrians was widely adhered to until around the 4th century, and survived in pockets until at least the 10th century. However, Assyrians today are exclusively Christian, with most following the Assyrian Church of the East, Chaldean Catholic Church, Ancient Church of the East, Syriac Orthodox Church, Syriac Catholic Church, Assyrian Pentecostal Church and Assyrian Evangelical Church. Assyrians had begun to adopt Christianity (as well as for a time Manicheanism and gnosticism) between the 1st and 3rd centuries AD.
Christian history of the Assyrian people
The Assyrian people originally adhered to one of two Churches- The Assyrian Church of the East, an East Syrian Rite Church, or the Syriac Orthodox Church, a West Syrian Rite Church. However, now there are nearly 20 different Assyrian Christian Churches including the ones followed by ethnically Malayali Converts in India, known as St Thomas Christians. The first new Church formed around 100 years after the massacres by Timur during the 14th century due to the Schism of 1552, which occurred among the Assyrians of northern Mesopotamia when a large number of Nestorian (followers of the Assyrian Church of the East) Assyrians in Amid elected a rival Patriarch named Shimun VIII Yohannan Sulaqa after becoming dissatisfied with the leadership of the Assyrian Church (at this point based in Alqosh). Due to a need for an official ordination, Sulaqa went into communion with the Roman Catholic Church after at first failing to gain acceptance within the Syriac Orthodox Church. Rome named this new church The Church of Assyria and Mosul and its first leader Patriarch of the East Assyrians in 1553 AD.
Soon after coming back Sulaqa was assassinated by supporters of the rival patriarch in Alqosh, but was able to form a new church structure and line of succession known as the Shimun Line prior to his death. This group of Assyrians eventually broke off ties with Rome, moved en masse to the Hakkari Mountains, and returned to the Nestorian faith they once adhered to prior to the Schism of 1552 (although the Shimun line still operated independently from the original Assyrian Church structure based in Alqosh).
A decade or so before the Shimun line broke off ties with Rome, another faction within the Assyrian Church entered into communion with Rome known as the Josephite line, and upon the Shimun line leaving, inherited the now vacant Church of Assyria and Mosul, which was renamed the "Chaldean Catholic Church" in 1683. This is now believed to be due to an error by the Catholic Church, but now due to that error their followers became known as Chaldean Catholics or Chaldo-Assyrians despite having no ethnic, historical, linguistic, cultural or geographic connections whatsoever to the by now long extinct Chaldean tribe of south east Mesopotamia.
Later on in the 1830s the original Assyrian Church of the East structure in Alqosh combined with the Chaldean Catholic Jacobite one, creating the modern Chaldean Catholic Church structure, which is ironic considering that the only remaining ethnic Assyrian Church to practice the Assyrian Church of the East denomination until this day is ruled by the Shimun line- the very first Church to split from the Assyrian Church of the East back in 1552. There was also another Nestorian Denomination known as the Ancient Church of the East, which split from the Assyrian Church of the East due to reforms passed under the rule of Shimun XXIII Eshai in the 1960s, but with the election of Gewargis III in 2015 the churches had a reconciliation, and reunited.
The Syriac Orthodox Church also has a large number of ethnically Assyrian Adherents, who are known as Syriacs. The Syriac Orthodox Church has 5 million adherents across the globe, mostly in India, but is based in Damascus. However, since the 11th century it was based in the Saffron Monastery of Tur Abdin, and prior to that it was based in Antioch. Like the Nestorian churches, schisms also occurred within the Syriac Orthodox Church.
In 1626 Jesuit and Capuchin missionaries began to proselytize among the Syriac Orthodox faithful at Aleppo, forming a larger pro-catholic movement within the Syriac Orthodox Church. So in 1662, when the Syriac Orthodox Patriarchate had fallen vacant, the Catholic party was able to elect one of its own, Andrew Akijan as Patriarch of the Syriac Church. This provoked a split in the community, and after Akijan’s death in 1677 two opposing patriarchs were elected, with one of those becoming the first Patriarch of the Syriac Catholic Church. This line of succession died out quickly, however, but in 1782 with the election of Michael Jarweh as Patriarch the Ignatius line has been the head of the Syriac Catholic Church since then, and also has its base in Damascus.
Therefore, by the end of all the schisms which occurred, the Assyrian people are now followers of the Assyrian Church of the East, Chaldean Catholic Church, Ancient Church of the East, Syriac Orthodox Church, Syriac Catholic Church, Assyrian Pentecostal Church and Assyrian Evangelical Church- in addition to even more sub churches which are located in India that are adherent to the mother sees in the Middle East.
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.
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, 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, 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.
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 the Canon of Kings, beginning with Nabonassar.
The Assyrians began to form and adopt a distinct Eastern Christianity, with its accompanying Syriac literature, between the 1st and 3rd centuries AD; however, ancient Mesopotamian religion was still alive and well into the fourth century and pockets survived into the 10th century and possibly as late as the 17th century in Mardin. However, the religion is now dead, and the 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 the cuneiform script was a formidable task that took more than a decade; but, by 1857, the Royal Asiatic Society of Great Britain and Ireland 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, who have come to strongly identify with ancient Assyria.
- Khorsabad copy of the Assyrian King List i 24, 26.
- Assyrian Kinglist fragment VAT 9812 = KAV 14: 5.
- Achaemenid Assyria
- Ancient Church of the East
- Assyrian Christians
- Assyrian Church of the East
- Assyrian culture
- Assyrian Evangelical Church
- Assyrian Genocide
- Assyrian nationalism
- Assyrian Pentecostal Church
- Assyrian people
- Assyrian struggle for independence
- Chaldean Catholic Church
- Church of the East
- Eastern Aramaic
- List of Assyrians
- Mesopotamian religion
- Name of Syria
- Syriac language
- Syriac Orthodox Church
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- Saggs notes that: "the destruction of the Assyrian empire did not wipe out its population. They were predominantly peasant farmers and, since Assyria contains some of the best wheat land in the Near East, their descendants would, as opportunity permitted, build new villages over the old cities and carry on with agricultural life, remembering traditions of the former cities. After seven or eight centuries and various vicissitudes, these people became Christians" (The Might That Was Assyria, p. 290).
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From about 4000 to 2000 B.C. the civilization of Dilmun dominated 250 miles of the eastern coast of Arabia from present-day Kuwait to Bahrain and extended sixty miles into the interior to the oasis of Hufuf (see fig. 2).
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- "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
- Herbermann, Charles, ed. (1913). "Assyria". Catholic Encyclopedia. New York: Robert Appleton Company.