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For the modern-day peoples in northern Iraq and neighboring areas, see Assyrian.
Ancient Mesopotamia
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Sumer: UrukUrEridu
Akkadian Empire: Agade
Assyria: AssurNineveh
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Kings of Assyria
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Assyria in earliest historical times referred to a region on the Upper Tigris river, named for its original capital, the city of Asshur (or Ashshur). Later, as a nation and Empire, it also came to include roughly the northern half of Mesopotamia (the southern half being 'Babylonia').

Assyria proper was located in a mountainous region, extending along the Tigris as far as the high Gordiaean or Carduchian mountain range of Armenia, sometimes called the "Mountains of Asshur".


Early history

Of the early history of the kingdom of Assyria, little is positively known. According to some traditions, the city Ashshur was founded by Asshur the son of Shem, who was deified by later generations as the city's patron god.

Besides Asshur, the other three royal Assyrian cities were Calah and Nineveh, also near the Tigris, and Arbela.

This region seems to have been ruled from Akkad (northern Babylonia) in its earliest stages, being part of Sargon and Naram-Sin's empire. Destroyed by barbarians in the Gutian period, it was rebuilt, and ended up being governed as part of the Empire of the 3rd dynasty of Ur. Assyria as an independent kingdom was perhaps founded ca. 1900 BC by Bel-kap-kapu.

Old-Assyrian City-State

The city-state of Asshur had extensive contact with cities in the Anatolian plateau. The Assyrians established "merchant colonies" in Cappadocia, e.g., at Kanesh (modern Kültepe) circa 1920 BC1840 BC and 1798 BC1740 BC. These colonies, called karum, the Akkadian word for 'port', were attached to Anatolian cities, but physically separate, and had special tax status. They must have arisen from a long tradition of trade between Assur and the Anatolian cities; but no archaeological or written records show this. The trade consisted in metal (perhaps lead or tin; the terminology here is not entirely clear) and textiles from Assyria, that were traded for precious metals in Anatolia.

The city of Ashshur was conquered by Shamshi-Adad I(1813-1791 BC) in the expansion of Amorite tribes from the Khabur delta. He put his son Ishme-Dagan on the throne of nearby Ekallatum, and allowed trade to continue. Only after the death of Shamshi-Adad and the fall of his sons, did Hammurabi of Babylon conquer Ashshur. With Hammurabi, the various karum in Anatolia ceased trade activity, probably because the goods of Assyria were now being traded with the Babylonians' partners.

In the 15th century, Saushtatar, king of "Hanilgalbat" (Hurrians of Mitanni), sacked Ashshur and made Assyria a vassal. Assyria paid tribute to Hanilgalbat until Mitanni power collapsed from Hittite pressure, enabling Ashur-uballit I (1365-1330 BC), to again make Assyria an independent and conquering power. Hanilgalbat was finally conquered under Adad-nirari I, who described himself as a "Great-King" (Sharru rabű) in letters to the Hittite rulers.

Adad-nirari I's successor, Shalmaneser I, followed up on expansion to the northwest, mainly at the expense of the Hittites, reaching as far as Carchemish. His son and successor, Tukulti-Ninurta, deposed Kadashman-Buriash of Babylon and ruled there himself as king for seven years. Following this, Babylon revolted against Tukulti-Ninurta, and later even made Assyria tributary during the reigns of the Babylonian kings Melishipak II and Marduk-apal-iddin I, another weak period for Assyria.

Assyrian Empire

Assyrian empire-buidling

As the Hittite empire collapsed from onslaught of the Phrygians (called Mushki in Assyrian annals), Babylon and Assyria began to vie for Amorite regions formerly under firm Hittite control. The Assyrian king Ashur-resh-ishi defeated Nebuchadnezzar I of Babylon in a battle when their forces encountered one another in this region.

In 1120 BC, Ashur-resh-ishi's son, Tiglath-Pileser I crossed the Euphrates, capturing Carchemish, defeated the Mushki and the remnants of the Hittites -- even claiming to reach the Black Sea -- and advanced to the Mediterranean, subjecting Phoenicia. He also marched into Babylon twice, assuming the old title 'King of Sumer and Akkad', although he was unable to depose the actual Babylonian king on these occasions. He may be regarded as the founder of the first Assyrian empire.

After Tiglath-Pileser I, the Assyrians were in decline for nearly two centuries, a time of weak and ineffective rulers, wars with neighboring Urartu, and encroachments by Aramaean nomads. This long period of weakness ended with the accession in 911 BC of Adad-nirari II. He brought the areas still nominally under Assyrian vassalage firmly under subjection, deporting populations in the north to far off places. Apart from pushing the boundary with Babylonia slightly southward, he did not engage in actual expansion, and the borders of the empire he consolidated reached only as far west as the Khabur. He was succeeded by Tukulti-Ninurta II, who made some gains in the north during his short reign.

The next king, Ashurnasirpal II (883-858 BC), embarked on a vast program of merciless expansion, first terrorizing the peoples to the north as far as Nairi, then subjecting the Aramaeans between the Khabur and the Euphrates. His harshness prompted a revolt that was crushed decisively in a pitched, two-day battle. Following this victory, he advanced without opposition as far as the Mediterranean and exacted tribute from Phoenicia. Unlike any before, the Assyrians began boasting in their ruthlessness around this time. Ashurnasirpal II also moved his capital to the city of Kalhu (Nimrud).

[There is ongoing discussion among academics over the nature of the Nimrud lens, a piece of rock crystal unearthed by John 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.]

Ashurnasirpal's son, Shalmaneser III (858-823 BC), fought against Urartu, and in the reign of Ahab, king of Israel, he marched an army against the Syrian states, whose allied army he encountered and vanquished at Karkar (854). This led to Ahab's casting off the yoke of Damascus and allying himself with Judah. Shalmaneser retook Carchemish in 849, and in 841, marched an army against Hazael, king of Damascus, besieging and taking that city. He also brought under tribute Jehu of Israel, Tyre and Sidon. His black obelisk, discovered at Caleh, records many military exploits of his reign [[1] (].

In the following century, Assyria again experienced a relative decline, owing to weaker rulers (including the Queen Semiramis) and a resurgence in expansion by Urartu. The notable exception was Adad-nirari III (810-782), who brought Syria under tribute as far south as Edom and advanced against the Medes, perhaps even penetrating to the Caspian Sea.

In (745 BC) the crown was seized by a military adventurer called Pul, who assumed the name of Tiglath-Pileser III. After subjecting Babylon to tribute and severely punishing Urartu, he directed his armies into Syria, that had regained its independence; took (740 BC) Arpad near Aleppo after a siege of three years, and reduced Hamath. Azariah (Uzziah) had been an ally of the king of Hamath, and thus was compelled by Tiglath-Pileser to do him homage and pay yearly tribute.

In 738 BC, in the reign of Menahem, king of Israel, Tiglath-Pileser III occupied Philistia and invaded Israel, imposing on it a heavy tribute (2 Kings 15:19). Ahaz, king of Judah, engaged in a war against Israel and Syria, appealed for help to this Assyrian king by means of a present of gold and silver (2 Kings 16:8); he accordingly "marched against Damascus, defeated and put Rezin to death, and besieged the city itself." Leaving part of his army to continue the siege, he advanced ravaging with fire and sword the province east of the Jordan, Philistia, and Samaria; and in 732 took Damascus, deporting its inhabitants to Assyria. In 729 he had himself crowned as "King Pul of Babylon".

Tiglath-Pileser III died in 727 BC, and was succeeded by Shalmaneser V. He reorganized the Empire into provinces, replacing the troublesome vassal kings with Assyrian governors. However, King Hoshea of Israel suspended paying tribute and allied himself with Egypt against Assyria in 725. This led Shalmaneser to invade Syria (2 Kings 17:5) and besiege Samaria (capital city of Israel) for 3 years.

Sargonidae (dynasty)

Shalmaneser V was deposed in 722 BC in favour of Sargon the Tartan, or commander-in-chief of the army, who then quickly took Samaria, carrying 27,000 people away into captivity and effectively ending the Kingdom of Israel. (2 Kings 17:1–6, 24; 18:7, 9). He also overran Judah, and took Jerusalem (Isa. 10:6, 12, 22, 24, 34). In 721, Babylon threw off the rule of the Assyrians, under the powerful Chaldean prince Merodach-baladan (2 Kings 20:12), and Sargon, unable to contain the revolt, turned his attention again to Syria, Urartu, and the Medes, penetrating the Iranian Plateau as far as Mt. Bikni and building several fortresses, before returning in 710 and retaking Babylon. Sargon also built a new capital at Dur Sharrukin ("Sargon's City") near Nineveh, with all the tribute Assyria had collected from various nations.

In 705 BC, Sargon was slain while fighting the Cimmerians and was succeeded by his son Sennacherib (2 Kings 18:13; 19:37; Isa. 7:17, 18), who made the deported peoples work on improving Nineveh's system of irrigation canals. In 701 BC, Hezekiah of Judah formed an alliance with Egypt against Assyria, so Sennacherib accordingly marched toward Jerusalem, destroying 46 villages in his path. This is graphically described in Isaiah 10; exactly what happened next is unclear (the Bible says an Angel of the Lord smote the Assyrian army); however what is certain, is that the besieging army was somehow decimated, and Sennacherib failed to capture Jerusalem. In 689 BC, Babylonia again revolted, but 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, Sennacherib was murdered, most likely by one of his sons.

He was succeeded by his son Esarhaddon (Asshur-aha-iddina) , who had been governor of Babylonia under his father. As king, he immediately had Babylon rebuilt and made it his capital. Defeating the Cimmerians and Medes (again penetrating to Mt. Bikni), but unable to maintain order in these areas, he turned his attention westward to Phoenicia - now allying itself with Egypt against him - and sacked Sidon in 677. He also captured Manasseh of Judah and kept him prisoner for some time in Babylon (2 Kings 19:37; Isa. 37:38). Having had enough of Egyptian meddling, he next invaded that country (674 BC), conquering it all by 670 BC. Assyria was also at war with Urartu and Dilmun (probably modern Qatar) at this time. This was Assyria's greatest extent. However, the Assyrian governors Esarhaddon appointed over Egypt were obliged to flee the restive populace, and while leading another army to pacify them, Esarhaddon died suddenly in 669 BC.

Assur-bani-pal or Ashurbanipal (Ashurbanapli, Asnappar), the son of Esarhaddon, succeeded him. He continued to campaign in Egypt, when not distracted by pressures from the Medes to the east, and Cimmerians to the north of Assyria. Unable to contain Egypt, he installed Psammetichus as a vassal king in 663; but by 652, this vassal king was strong enough to declare outright independence from Assyria with impunity, especially as Ashurbanipal's brother, Shamash-shum-ukin, governor of Babylon, began a civil war in that year that lasted until 648, when Babylon was sacked and the brother set fire to the palace, killing himself. Elam was completely devastated in 646 and 640.

Assyrian government

The anachronistic (Persian-Greek) term satrap has been used to describe Assyrian governors.

Downfall and Heritage

Ashurbanipal had promoted art and culture and had a vast library of cuneiform tablets at Nineveh, but upon his death in 625, the Assyrian Empire began to disintegrate rapidly. Babylonia became independent; their king Nabopolassar, along with Cyaxares of Media, destroyed Nineveh in 612 BC, and Assyria fell. A general called Ashur-uballit II, with military support from the Egyptian Pharaoh Necho II, held out as a remnant of Assyrian power at Harran until 609, after which Assyria ceased to exist as an independent nation.

However, Assyrians have managed to keep their identity, and still exist as a distinct ethnic group, mainly in northern Iraq, where they are distinguished from their Arab, Kurdish, and Turkmen neighbors by their traditions, politics, Christian religion, and Aramaic dialect.

See also


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