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
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 society.
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 afterwards.
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 Babylon".
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
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
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 32:21).
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
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 Museum.
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
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
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 in profile.
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.