Assyria (ancient Ashur, Ashshur, or Assur), ancient country of Asia, extending from about the northern border of present-day Iraq south to the mouth of the Little Zab River, in the northern part of Iraq. About the size of the state of Kansas and roughly triangular in shape, Assyria included the valley of the Tigris River. The western part of the country consisted of steppe land suitable only for a nomadic population. The eastern section, however, was fit for agriculture, with wooded hills and fertile valleys watered by good-size streams. To the east of Assyria lay the Zagros Mountains; to the north, terrace upon terrace led up to the Armenian Massif; the Mesopotamian plain stretched to the west. To the south was the country known first as Sumer, then as Sumer and Akkad, and still later as Babylonia. Mesopotamia is the name that the ancient Greeks gave to the general region in which all these countries, including Assyria, flourished. The best-known cities of Assyria, all situated in the territory of present-day Iraq, were Ashur, now Ash Sharqāţ; Nineveh, now the excavated mound Kuyunjik; Calah, now Nimrud; and Dur Sharrukin, now Khorsabad.
From early Paleolithic times people had lived in the land that came to be known as Assyria, a fact confirmed by two adult Neandertal skulls discovered in a cave on the northeastern fringes of the region. Settled agricultural life did not begin there, however, until about 6500 bc. The ethnic composition of the earliest farming communities of Assyria is unknown; the inhabitants may have been a people known in later days as Subarians, who spoke an agglutinative language rather than an inflected one. Later, probably in the 3rd millennium bc, Semitic nomads conquered the region and made their inflected tongue, which was closely related to Babylonian, the prevailing language of the land. The Assyrian script was a slightly modified version of the Babylonian cuneiform.
As early as the 7th millennium bc, the farmers of Assyria cultivated wheat and barley and owned cattle, sheep, goats, and pigs. They built their houses, some of which contained as many as four rooms, of compact clay, used round ovens for baking their ground flour, and stored their grain in large, bitumen-covered clay jars. These farming people wove textiles from thread spun with the help of spindle whorls; made knives of obsidian and chert, a flintlike stone; and used celts, ax-shaped implements made of stone, as adzes and hoes. Their pottery was outstanding; much of it was made of skillfully fired clay and painted in attractive patterns. Obsidian and other hard stones were worked into vases, beads, amulets, and stamp seals. Female figurines, for ritual and religious purposes, were modeled of clay. The dead, often buried in a flexed position, with the knees drawn up to the chin, were interred among the houses, rather than in regular cemeteries.
|III||CULTURE AND CUSTOMS|
Assyrian culture resembled that of Babylonia in most respects. Except for the royal annals, for example, Assyrian literature was practically identical with its Babylonian counterpart, and the more cultured Assyrian kings, notably Ashurbanipal, boasted of stocking their libraries with copies of Babylonian literary documents. Social or family life, marriage customs, and property laws all resembled those of Babylonia. The three Assyrian law collections that have been found thus far all have a marked similarity to Sumerian and Babylonian law; the penalties provided for offenders under Assyrian law, however, were often more brutal and barbaric. Assyrian religious practices and beliefs were almost identical with those of Babylonia, except that the Assyrian national god, Ashur, was substituted for the Babylonian god Marduk. The major cultural contribution of the Assyrians lay in the field of art and architecture.
In the 3rd millennium bc, Assyria, like most of the Middle East, came under the influence of the Sumerian civilization to the south. A temple of this period, excavated in the city of Ashur, contained statues remarkably similar in style and appearance to those found in the temples of Sumer. Beginning about 2300 bc, Assyria formed part of the empire of Sumer and Akkad. Following the collapse of that empire about 2000 bc, the Amorites, a nomadic Semitic people from the Arabian Desert, infiltrated and conquered much of Mesopotamia, including Assyria. By 1850 bc Assyrian merchants had colonized parts of central Anatolia (Asia Minor), where they carried on a thriving trade in copper, silver, gold, tin, and textiles.
|IV||EXPANSION AND DEPENDENCY|
About 1810 bc an Assyrian king, Shamshi-Adad I (reigned 1813?-1780? bc), succeeded in extending the territory of Assyria from the Zagros Mountains to the Mediterranean Sea. Shamshi-Adad may have been the first ruler to establish a centrally organized empire in the ancient Middle East. He divided his kingdom into districts under specially appointed administrators and councils, instituted a system of couriers, and took a census of the population at regular intervals. This first Assyrian Empire did not last long, however; Shamshi-Adad’s son, Ishme-Dagan I, (reigned circa 1780-1760 bc),was defeated about 1760 bc by the Babylonian king Hammurabi, and Assyria became part of the Babylonian Empire.
The Babylonian Empire was also short-lived. The Kassites, a non-Semitic people, invaded Babylonia in the 16th century bc and seized political power. Another non-Semitic mountain people, the Hurrians, infiltrated practically all northern Mesopotamia and even reached Palestine to the west. Close behind the Hurrians, and to some extent intermingling with them, came an Indo-European people whose name is unknown. As a result of these migrations and wanderings, the 16th century bc was one of turmoil in Mesopotamian history.
About 1500 bc Assyria became a dependency of Mitanni, a kingdom of imperial proportions that had extended its sway over all northern Mesopotamia. Assyria remained in subjection until early in the 14th century, when the Mitanni Kingdom suffered a serious defeat at the hands of the rising empire of the Hittites to the north. Taking advantage of the ensuing confusion, the Assyrian king Ashur-uballit I (reigned 1364-1328 bc) freed Assyria from the Mitanni yoke and even annexed some of its territory.
Ashur-uballit I was succeeded by a series of vigorous rulers, notably Adad-nirari I (reigned 1306-1274 bc), Shalmaneser I (reigned 1274-1244 bc), and Tukulti-Ninurta I (reigned 1244-1207 bc). They were successful in extending the Assyrian boundaries and in keeping at bay their powerful neighbors, the Urartians, the Hittites, the Babylonians, and the Lullubi.
|V||EMPIRE BORN IN STRIFE|
Beginning about 1200 bc, a new wave of migrations changed the face of practically all western Asia. From the Balkan Peninsula, in all probability, came a conglomeration of peoples, known as the Sea Peoples, who put an end to the Hittite Empire in Anatolia and infiltrated Syria and Palestine. An Indo-European people called Mushki, who settled in eastern Anatolia, became a constant threat to Assyria on the northwest. To the west of Assyria a Semitic group of nomads, known as Aramaeans, was on the move. Assyria resisted the pressures and attacks of its new neighbors ferociously and, except for brief intervals, successfully. During its bitter struggle for existence, it developed a war machine proverbial for its cruelty and became the scourge and terror of the entire Middle East.
At first the Assyrian campaigns took the form of raids in search of booty and tribute. Tiglath-pileser I (reigned 1115-1076 bc), for example, defended the Assyrian frontiers against the Aramaeans and the Mushki by conducting raiding campaigns that took him as far north as Van Gölü (Lake Van), in Urartu, and as far west as Palmyra. In most cases, the threatened peoples fled at the approach of his armies; those who remained behind were either massacred or carried off to Assyria. Their villages and cities were ransacked and razed, but no attempt was made to annex their territories.
In the course of time this pattern of conquest changed, and the Assyrian rulers began to make Assyria the center of a new empire by incorporating the conquered lands into their domain, although probably not according to a conscious plan. Toward the end of the 10th century bc, for example, Adad-nirari II annexed the Aramaean state centering on Nisibis, east of the Habur River. His son, Tukulti-Ninurta II, annexed several Aramaean states around the city of Harran and the central Euphrates Valley, as well as the region between the Great and Little Zab rivers.
|VI||EXTENSION OF ASSYRIAN RULE|
Ashurnasirpal II, the son of Tukulti-Ninurta II, ruled from 884 to 859 bc and extended Assyrian rule to the north and east. In campaign after campaign he devastated with fierce and deliberate cruelty the lands on the borders of his empire but was prudent enough not to attack his more powerful neighbors, Urartu to the north, Babylonia to the south, and Aram to the west. In one of his campaigns he even reached the Mediterranean Sea. On his return he felled the cedars on the slopes of the Nur Mountains (Amanos Mountains) to provide wood for the restoration of the city of Calah, which he made his capital, instead of Ashur, the old capital. Numerous inscribed monuments of Ashurnasirpal have been unearthed in the ruins of Calah, making him one of the best-known rulers of the ancient Middle East.
Shalmaneser III (reigned 859-824 bc), the son of Ashurnasirpal, conducted 32 campaigns in the 35 years of his reign. Many of the campaigns were directed against the lands west of the Euphrates, particularly against the powerful kingdom of Aram. Although he had some success and even received considerable tribute from the allies of Aram, including Israel, he failed to conquer Aram itself. Two of his monuments, now in the British Museum, are particularly noteworthy: the Black Obelisk on which Jehu, king of Israel, is depicted kissing Shalmaneser’s feet, and the plaques of hammered bronze known as the Gates of Balawat.
Toward the end of Shalmaneser’s rule a revolt broke out in the Assyrian court, and several years of civil war ensued. As a result, Assyrian power underwent an eclipse for some three-quarters of a century. In 745 bc, however, the throne was occupied by Tiglath-pileser III, a ruler who consciously and deliberately decided to build Assyria into a world empire. He began by reasserting the authority of the throne and reducing the power of the troublesome court nobles. He established a permanent army, consisting largely of foreign contingents, and planned his campaigns with the objective of annexing enemy territory. The peoples he conquered were deported and resettled within the Assyrian domains in order to break their national consciousness and cohesion. He relieved Assyria from the pressure of the Aramaean tribes that were menacing the valley of the central Tigris, expelled the Urartians from Syria, annexed the Aramaean states of Arpad and Damascus, subjugated the cities of Palestine, and made himself the ruler of Babylonia.
Sargon II (ruled 722-705 bc), who followed Tiglath-pileser’s successor, Shalmaneser V (ruled 727-722 bc), to the throne, extended Assyrian domination in all directions, from southern Anatolia to the Persian Gulf. At the beginning of his reign he deported the population of Israel, which Shalmaneser V had conquered shortly before his death. In the course of his 17-year reign, Sargon led campaigns against Urartu and the Medes, annexed numerous states in Syria and southern Anatolia, and defeated the Aramaeans in the central Tigris Valley and the Chaldeans in the lower Euphrates Valley. In order to ensure effective control of this vast empire, extending from the border of Egypt to the Zagros Mountains and from the Taurus Mountains to the Persian Gulf, Sargon divided it into some 70 provinces, each headed by a governor who was responsible directly to the king. In his capital, Calah, he created a central administrative organization and delegated some of his own power to his son Sennacherib (r. 705-681 bc). Toward the end of his reign Sargon built a new city, Dur Sharrukin, erected his palace astride its city wall, and adorned it with impressive bas-reliefs. He established a library in Nineveh. Trade and agriculture were encouraged throughout the empire.
Under Sargon II the Assyrian Empire was more powerful and extensive than ever before. The peoples were closely knit in language, religion, and culture. On the surface there seemed every reason to believe that it would endure for centuries. Sargon’s successors, however, set as their main goals the conquest of Egypt and Elam and the final subjugation of Babylonia. To ensure victory over these outlying lands, they weakened their armies in the northern and northeastern frontier regions. In these northern regions, the Medes and the newly arrived migrants, the Cimmerians and the Scythians, were permitted to grow in strength.
Sennacherib retained the lands conquered by his father and even threatened the Egyptian frontier. Like Sargon, he also moved his capital, this time from Dur Sharrukin to Nineveh, where he built his palace. He was the first Assyrian ruler to use a navy, with which in 694 bc he pursued Chaldean rebels and defeated them. In 689 bc, when Babylonia was again seething with unrest, Sennacherib razed the entire city and, despite its traditional status as a holy city, flooded the site. Sennacherib’s son Esarhaddon (reigned 681-669 bc) was more favorably disposed toward Babylonia and helped to rebuild it. His major military success consisted of crossing the frontier of Egypt and capturing Memphis, its capital. His son Ashurbanipal (ruled 669-627 bc), continued the Egyptian campaign, penetrating as far south as Thebes. He also sacked Sūsa (present-day Shūsh, Iran), the capital of the Elamites. Apart from his fame as a conqueror, Ashurbanipal is noted for the vast library he collected in his palace at Nineveh.
|IX||END OF THE EMPIRE|
The death of Ashurbanipal in 627 bc was followed by a revolt in the court, and little is known about what took place in Assyria after that date. The Medes took the city of Ashur in 614 bc, and, aided by the Babylonians, they captured Nineveh in 612. The Assyrian army, led by the last Assyrian king, Ashur-uballit II (reigned 612-609 bc), retreated to Harran, considerably to the west and north of the Assyrian capital. This defeat marked the end of the Assyrian Empire.
The power of Assyria depended, throughout its history, almost entirely on the success of its army. The main force of the army was the infantry, both heavy and light. Both were equipped with pikes, bows, and short swords, but only the heavy infantry was protected by armor. Cavalrymen, who rode without saddles, were similarly equipped. Heavy chariots were driven by three-man crews, and siege towers and battering rams were used for attacking and breaking down walls and fortifications.
The king was the commander in chief of the army and usually conducted his own campaigns. Theoretically, he was an absolute monarch. In reality the nobles and courtiers with whom he was surrounded, as well as the governors whom he appointed to administer the conquered lands, often made decisions for him. Their ambitions and intrigues were a constant menace to the life of the Assyrian ruler. Palace revolts and revolutions were not uncommon, especially toward the end of the reign of a king, when the selection of a successor became a crucial issue. This central weakness in the organization and administration of the Assyrian Empire was responsible to no small extent for its disintegration and collapse.
See also Ashur; Babylonia; Hittites; Kassites; Mesopotamia; Nineveh; Sumer.