Assyria in earliest historical times referred to a region on the Upper
Tigris river, named for its original capital, the ancient city of Assur.
Later, as a nation and Empire, it also came to include roughly the
northern half of Mesopotamia (the southern half being Babylonia). The
capital is Nineveh.
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 Ashur".
The Assyrian kings controlled a large kingdom at three different times in
history. These are called the Old, Middle, and Neo-Assyrian kingdoms, or
periods. The most powerful and best-known nation of these periods is the
Neo-Assyrian kingdom, 911-612 BC.
The most important prehistoric (Neolithic) site in Assyria is at Tell
Hassuna, the center of the Hassuna culture.
Of the early history of the kingdom of Assyria, little is positively
known. According to some Judeo-Christian traditions, the city of Ashur
(also spelled Assur or Aššur) was founded by Ashur the son of Shem, who
was deified by later generations as the city's patron god.
The upper Tigris river valley seems to have been ruled from Sumer, Akkad,
and northern Babylonia in its earliest stages, being part of Sargon the
Great'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.
Early Assyrian city-states and kingdoms
The first inscriptions of Assyrian rulers appear after 2000 BC. Assyria
then consisted of a number of city states and small Semitic kingdoms. The
foundation of the Assyrian monarchy was traditionally ascribed to Zulilu,
who is said to have lived after Bel-kap-kapu (Bel-kapkapi or Belkabi, ca.
1900 BC), the ancestor of Shalmaneser I.
City state of Ashur
The city-state of Ashur had extensive contact with cities on the Anatolian
plateau. The Assyrians established "merchant colonies" in Cappadocia,
e.g., at Kanesh (modern Kültepe) circa 1920 BC–1840 BC and 1798 BC–1740
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 Ashur
and the Anatolian cities, but no archaeological or written records show
this. The trade consisted of metal (perhaps lead or tin; the terminology
here is not entirely clear) and textiles from Assyria, that were traded
for precious metals in Anatolia.
Kingdom of Shamshi-Adad I
The city of Ashur was conquered by Shamshi-Adad I (1813 BC–1791 BC) in the
expansion of Amorite tribes from the Khabur river delta. He put his son
Ishme-Dagan on the throne of nearby city Ekallatum, and allowed the former
Anatolian trade to continue. Shamshi-Adad I also conquered the kingdom of
Mari on the Euphrates and put another of his sons, Yasmah-Adad on the
throne there. Shamshi-Adad's kingdom now encompassed the whole of northern
Mesopotamia. He himself resided in a new capital city founded in the
Khabur valley, called Shubat-Enlil. Ishme-Dagan inherited the kingdom, but
Yasmah-Adad was overthrown and Mari was lost. The new king of Mari allied
himself with Hammurabi of Babylon. Assyria now faced the rising power of
Babylon in the south. Ishme-Dagan responded by making an alliance with the
enemies of Babylon, and the power struggle continued for decades.
Assyria reduced to vassal states
Hammurabi eventually prevailed over Ishme-Dagan, and conquered Ashur for
Babylon. With Hammurabi, the various karum in Anatolia ceased trade
activity — probably because the goods of Assyria were now being traded
with the Babylonians' partners.
Assyria was ruled by vassal kings dependent on the Babylonians for a
century. After Babylon fell to the Kassites, the Hurrians dominated the
northern region, including Ashur.
Middle Assyrian period
(Scholars variously date the beginning of the "Middle Assyrian period" to
either the fall of the Old Assyrian kingdom of Shamshi-Adad I, or to when
Ashur-uballit I ascended to the throne of Assyria.)
In the 15th century BC, Saushtatar, king of "Hanilgalbat" (Hurrians of
Mitanni), sacked Ashur and made Assyria a vassal. Assyria paid tribute to
Hanilgalbat until Mitanni power collapsed from Hittite pressure, enabling
Ashur-uballit I (1365 BC–1330 BC), to again make Assyria an independent
and conquering power at the expense of Babylonia; and a time came when the
Kassite king in Babylon was glad to marry the daughter of Ashur-uballit,
whose letters to Akhenaten of Egypt form part of the Amarna letters. This
marriage led to disastrous results, as the Kassite faction at court
murdered the Babylonian king and placed a pretender on the throne.
Assur-uballit promptly marched into Babylonia and avenged his son-in-law,
making Kurigalzu of the royal line king there.
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 (c. 1300 BC), threw off the
pretense of Babylonian suzerainty, made Calah his capital, and followed up
on expansion to the northwest, mainly at the expense of the Hittites,
reaching as far as Carchemish and beyond.
Shalmaneser's son and successor, Tukulti-Ninurta I, deposed
Kadashman-Buriash of Babylon and ruled there himself as king for seven
years, taking on the old title "king of Sumer and Akkad". 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.
Tiglath-Pileser I reaches the Mediterranean Sea
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 I defeated Nebuchadnezzar I of Babylon in a battle, when
their forces encountered one another in this region.
Ashur-resh-ishi's son, Tiglath-Pileser I, may be regarded as the founder
of the first Assyrian empire. In 1120 BC, he 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, subjugating Phoenicia, where he hunted wild bulls. He also
marched into Babylon twice, assuming the old title "King of Sumer and
Akkad", although he was unable to depose the actual king in Babylonia,
where the old Kassite dynasty had now succumbed to an Elamite one.
Society in the Middle Assyrian period
Assyria had difficulties with keeping the trade routes open. Unlike the
situation in the Old Assyrian period, the Anatolian metal trade was
effectively dominated by the Hittites and the Hurrians. They also
controlled the Mediterranean ports while the Kassites controlled the river
route south to the Persian Gulf.
The Middle Assyrian kingdom was well organized and in the firm control of
the king. The king 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 were probably behind the murder of
king Tukulti-Ninurta I.
The population of Assyria was rather small, and the main cities were Ashur,
Kalhu and Nineveh, all situated in the Tigris river valley. All free male
citizens were obliged to serve in the army for a time; this system was
called the ilku-service. The Assyrian law code was compiled during this
period. They are notable for a repressive attitude towards women in their
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 firmly subjugated
the areas previously under nominal Assyrian vassalage, 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 BC–858 BC), embarked on a vast
program of merciless expansion, first terrorizing the peoples to the north
as far as Nairi, then conquering 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). The palaces, temples and other buildings raised by him
bear witness to a considerable development of wealth and art.
Relief from Assyrian capital of Dur Sharrukin, showing transport of
Lebanese cedar (8th c. BC)Ashurnasirpal's son, Shalmaneser III (858 BC–823
BC), had a long reign of 34 years, when the Assyrian capital was converted
into an armed camp. Each year the Assyrian armies marched out of it to
plunder and destroy. Babylon was occupied, and Babylonia reduced to
vassalage. He fought against Urartu, and marched an army against an
alliance of Syrian states headed by Benhadad of Damascus, and including
Ahab, king of Israel, at the Battle of Qarqar in (854 BC). Despite
Shalmaneser's description of 'vanquishing the opposition', it seems that
the battle ended in a deadlock, as the Assyrian forces were withdrawn soon
Shalmaneser retook Carchemish in 849 BC, and in 841 BC 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 Kalhu, records many military exploits of his reign.  The
last few years of his life were disturbed by the rebellion of his eldest
son that nearly proved fatal. Assur, Arbela and other places joined the
pretender, and the revolt was quashed with difficulty by Shamshi-Adad V,
Shalmaneser's second son, who soon afterwards succeeded him (824 BC).
In the following century, Assyria again experienced a relative decline,
owing to weaker rulers (including Queen Semiramis) and a resurgence in
expansion by Urartu. The notable exception was Adad-nirari III (810 BC–782
BC), who captured Damascus in 804, bringing Syria under tribute as far
south as Samaria and Edom, and who advanced against the Medes, perhaps
even penetrating to the Caspian Sea.
Second Assyrian Empire
When Nabonassar began the neo-Babylonian dynasty in 747 BC Assyria was in
the throes of a revolution. Civil war and pestilence were devastating the
country, and its northern provinces had been wrested from it by Urartu. In
746 BC Kalhu joined the rebels, and on the 13th of Iyyar in the following
year, a general named Pulu, who took the name of Tiglath-pileser III,
seized the crown, and made sweeping changes to the Assyrian government,
considerably improving its efficiency and security.
The conquered provinces were organized under an elaborate bureaucracy,
with the king at the head — each district paying a fixed tribute and
providing a military contingent. The Assyrian forces at this time became a
standing army, that by successive improvements became an irresistible
fighting machine; and Assyrian policy was henceforth directed toward
reducing the whole civilized world into a single empire, throwing its
trade and wealth into Assyrian hands. These changes are often identified
as the beginning of the "Second Assyrian Empire".
When Tiglath-Pileser III had ascended the throne of Assyria, he went down
to Babylonia and abducted the gods of Šapazza; the Assyrian-Babylonian
Chronicle informs us (ABC 1 Col.1:5). After subjecting Babylon to tribute,
severely punishing Urartu, and defeating the Medes and Hittites,
Tiglath-Pileser III directed his armies into Syria, which had regained its
independence, and the commercially successful Mediterranean seaports of
Phoenicia. He took Arpad near Aleppo in 740 BC 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 BC took Damascus, deporting its inhabitants to Assyria. In 729 BC,
Tiglath-Pileser III, went to Babylonian and captured Nabu-mukin-zeri, the
king of Babylon (ABC 1 Col.1:21). He had himself crowned as "King Pul of
Tiglath-Pileser III died in 727 BC, and was succeeded by Shalmaneser V,
who reorganized the Empire into provinces, replacing troublesome vassal
kings with Assyrian governors. However, King Hoshea of Israel suspended
paying tribute, and allied himself with Egypt against Assyria in 725 BC.
This led Shalmaneser to invade Syria (2 Kings 17:5) and besiege Samaria
(capital city of Israel) for three years. Shalmaneser ravaged Samaria, the
capital of Israel (ABC 1 Col.1:27).
Deportation of Jews from Judah by the Assyrian EmpireShalmaneser V died
suddenly in 722 BC while laying siege to Samaria, and the throne was
seized by Sargon, the Tartan (commander-in-chief of the army), who then
quickly took Samaria, effectively ending the northern Kingdom of Israel
and carrying 27,000 people away into captivity into the Israelite
Diaspora. (2 Kings 17:1–6, 24; 18:7, 9). He also overran Judah, and
besieged Jerusalem (Isa. 10:6, 12, 22, 24, 34), but did not capture it.
Sargon II waged war in his second year against the king of Elam,
Humban-Nikaš, who allied himself with Marduk-apla-iddina of Babylon, but
was defeated as told in ABC 1 Col.1:31-37. In 721 BC, 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 Urartu and Syria, taking Carchemish
in 717, as well as the Medes, penetrating the Iranian Plateau as far as
Mt. Bikni and building several fortresses. Assyria was belligerent towards
Babylonia for ten years while Marduk-apla-iddina ruled Babylon (ABC 1
Col.1:41-42). In 710 BC, Sargon attacked Babylonia and defeated
Marduk-apla-iddina, who fled to his allies in Elam (ABC 1 Col.2:1-3).
Sargon also built a new capital at Dur Sharrukin ("Sargon's City") near
Nineveh, with all the tribute Assyria had collected from various nations.
Assyrian warship, a bireme with pointed bow. 700 BCIn 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 moved the capital
to Nineveh and 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 at Jerusalem;
Sennacherib's account says Judah paid him tribute and he left); however
what is certain is that Sennacherib failed to capture Jerusalem.
Marduk-apla-iddina had returned to Babylonia during the reign of
Sennacherib. The Assyrian king made battle with 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 Bel-ibni as king of Babylon (ABC 1 Col.2:12-23). Bel-ibni
however committed hostilities, so Sennacherib returned to Babylon in 700
BC and captured him and his officers. Sennacherib instead installed his
son Aššur-nadin-šumi on the throne of Babylon (ABC 1 Col.2:26-31).
Sennacherib launched a campaign against Elam in 694 BC and ravaged the
land. In retaliation the king of Elam ordered to attack Babylonia.
Aššur-nadin-šumi was captured and brought back to Elam and a new king
called Nergal-ušezib was installed as ruler of Babylon (ABC 1
Col.2:36-45). The Assyrians returned the next year to Babylonia and
plundered the gods of Uruk. Nergal-ušezib did battle against the army of
Assyria, but was taken prisoner and transported to Assyria (ABC 1
Col.2:46- Col.3:6). Another native ruler, called Mušezib-Marduk, soon
seized the throne of Babylon. He held it with help of his Elamite allies
for four years until 689 BC, when the Assyrians retook the city (ABC 1
Col.3:13-24). 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, most likely by one of his sons (according to
2 Kings 19:37, while praying to the god Nisroch, he was killed by two of
his sons, Adramalech and Sharezer, and both of these sons subsequently
fled to Armenia; repeated in Isaiah 37:38 and alluded to in 2 Chronicles
Sennacherib was succeeded by his son Esarhaddon (Ashur-aha-iddina), who
had been governor of Babylonia, and was campaigning in Urartu at the time
of his father's murder, where he won a victory at Malatia (Milid). During
the first year of Esarhaddon, a rebellion broke out in the south of
Babylonia. Nabu-zer-kitti-lišir, a governor of the mat Tamti, laid siege
to Ur. This governor did not capture the city, but fled to his kinsmen in
Elam (Hal-Tamti); however, "the king of Elam took him prisoner and put him
to the sword" (ABC 1 Col.3:39-42); also in (ABC 14 vs.1-4).
As king of Assyria, Esarhaddon 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 BC. He also captured Manasseh of Judah and
kept him prisoner for some time in Babylon (2 Chronicles 33:11). Having
had enough of Egyptian meddling, Esarhaddon attempted to conquer Egypt in
673 BC, but was defeated (ABC 1 Col.4:16). Two years later he made a new
attempt and was successful. The Babylonian Chronicle retells how Egypt
"was sacked and its gods were abducted" (ABC 1 Col.4:25); also in ABC 14
vs.28-29. The pharaoh Tirhakah fled Egypt, and a stele commemorating the
victory, and representing Tirhakah with black African features, was set up
at Sinjirli (north of the Gulf of Antioch), and is now in the Berlin
Assyria was also at war with Urartu and Dilmun (probably modern Qatar) at
this time. This was Assyria's greatest territorial extent. However, the
Assyrian governors Esarhaddon had appointed over Egypt were obliged to
flee the restive populace, so a new campaign was launched by Esarhaddon in
669 BC. He became ill on the way and died. His son Šamaš-šuma-ukin became
king of Babylon and his son Aššur-bani-pal became king of Assyria; see ABC
1 Col.4:30-33 and ABC 14 vs.31-32, 37. Bel and the gods of Babylonia
returned from their exile in Assur to Babylon in the first year of
Šamaš-šuma-ukin, and the akitu festival could be celebrated for the first
time in twenty years; ABC 1 14 vs.34-39 and ABC 1 Col.4:34-36.
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 BC. However, after Gyges of Lydia's appeal for Assyrian
help against the Cimmerians was rejected, Lydian mercenaries were sent to
Psammetichus. By 652 BC, this vassal king was strong enough to declare
outright independence from Assyria with impunity, especially as
Ashurbanipal's older brother, Shamash-shum-ukin, governor of Babylon,
began a civil war in that year. This rebellion lasted until 648 BC, when
Babylon was sacked, and Shamash-shum-ukin set fire to the palace, killing
himself. Elam was completely devastated in 646 BC and 640 BC, and its
capital Susa completely leveled.
Downfall and heritage
Ashurbanipal had promoted art and culture, and had a vast library of
cuneiform tablets at Nineveh. However, his long struggle with Babylonia
and Elam left Assyria maimed and exhausted. It had been drained of wealth
and fighting population; the devastated provinces could yield nothing to
supply the needs of the imperial exchequer, and it was difficult to find
sufficient troops to garrison the conquered populations. Assyria,
therefore, was ill-prepared to face the hordes of Scythians and Medes who
now began to harass the frontiers to the east; Asia Minor too was infested
by the Cimmerians.
Upon Ashurbanipal's death in 627 BC, the empire began to disintegrate
rapidly. The Scythians, Cimmerians and Medes immediately penetrated the
borders, marauding as far as Egypt, while Babylonia again became
independent; Ashurbanipal's successor, Ashur-etil-ilani, seems to have
exercised little real power. The Babylonian king Nabopolassar, along with
Cyaxares the Mede, finally 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 BC, after which Assyria ceased to exist as an independent nation.
The ancient people of Assyria spoke an Assyrian dialect of the Akkadian
language, a branch of the Semitic languages. The first inscriptions,
called Old Assyrian (OA), were made in the Old Assyrian period. In the
Neo-Assyrian period the everyday language of Assyria was strongly
influenced by the Aramaic language. The ancient Assyrians also used the
Sumerian language in their literature.
An Assyrian winged bull.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. A lot of 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 Lamassi, or shedu that
guard the entrances to the king's court. These were apotrophaic 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
Since works of precious gems and metals usually do not survive the ravages
of time, we are lucky to have some fine pieces of Assyrian jewelry. These
were found in royal tombs at Nimrud.
There is ongoing discussion among academics over the nature of the Nimrud
lens, a piece of rock crystal 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.