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The Assyrians

There are different periods of the Assyrian empire. The first was called the

Old Assyrian period which lasted from 2000-1550 BC. Then there was the Middle

Assyrian period which lasted from 1550-1200 BC. The last was the Neo-Assyrian

period which lasted from 1200-600 BC. The final phase of the Neo-Assyrian

period is called the Assyrian Empire.

The Old and Middle Assyrian periods ( 2000 – 1200 BC )

The name Ashur was used by the Assyrians to designate not only their country,

but also their most ancient city and their national god. The cities of Ashur

(near modern al-Sharqat), Nineveh, and Irbil formed a triangle that defined the

original territory of Assyria. Assyria’s early history was marked by frequent

episodes of foreign rule. Assyria finally gained its independence around 2000

BC. About this time the Assyrians established a number of trading colonies in

Cappadocia (central Anatolia), protected by treaties with local Hattic rulers.

The most important of these was at Kultepe (Kanesh), north of present-day

Kayseri, Turkey. Political developments Brought this enterprise to an end in

1750 BC. Assyria lost its independence to a dynasty of Amorite. Then Hammurabi

of Babylon took over and established himself ruler of Assyria. The collapse of

Hammurabi’s Old Babylonian dynasty gave Assyria only temporary relief. It soon

fell under the control of the Mitanni, until that state was destroyed by the

Hittites c.1350 BC.

The Early Neo-Assyrian Period (c.1200-600 BC)

After the collapse of Mittanni, Assyria regained its independence and was able

to hold it thanks to the weakness of its neighbors. The most important event in

Assyrian history during the 13 century BC, was the capture of Babylon by King

Tukulti-Ninurta (r.1244-1208 BC). Although the conquest was short-lived the

memory of it remained strong. In the following centuries the chief adversaries

of the Assyrians were the Aramaeans, who settled in Syria and along the upper

Tigris and the Euphrates rivers, where they founded a number of states. In the

9th century BC, under Ashurnasirpal II (r.883-859 BC) and Shalmaneser III (859-

824 BC), the Assyrians finally managed to conquer Bit-Adini (Beth-Eden), the

most powerful Aramaen state on the upper Euphrates. Shalmaneser then tried to

invade the Syrian heartland, where he met with serious resistance from a

coalition of kings that included Ahab of Israel. They successfully opposed him

at the battle karkar in 853 BC. Internal disagreements marked the end of

Shalmaneser’s reign, and many of his conquests were lost.

Assyrian power began with Tiglath-Peleser III (r. 745-727 BC) taking over the

throne. He began on administrative reforms aimed at strengthening royal

authority over the provinces. Districts were reduced in size and placed under

governors directly responsible to the king. Outside Assyria, slave states were

taken over and made into Assyrian provinces. In Syria, Tiglath-Pileser fought

and defeated a number of anti-Assyrian alliances. In 732 BC he ruined Damascus,

deporting its population and that of northern Israel to Assyria. In 729 he

captured Babylon to guard against a Chaldean-led rebellion there and was

proclaimed king of Babylon under the name Pulu (Biblical Pul). His

administrative reforms and military victories laid the foundation of the

Assyrian Empire. Tiglath-Peleser’s son, Shalmaneser V, is remembered for his

siege of Samaria, the capital of Israel (recorded in 2 Kings: 17-18). H died

during the siege and was succeeded by Sargon II, who took credit for the

destruction of Samaria and theexile of its people in 722 BC.

The end of the Assyrian Empire

The Assyrian Empire was faced with many challenges, Babylon successfully

resisted Assyrian attempts to remove a Chaldean tribal chief who allied with

Elam for over 10 years, a crusade against the northern state of Urartu, which

resulted in their defeat and battling with rebellious coastal cities. The war

against his Elamite ally continued for several years with indecisive results.

Finally, after another revolt in Babylon, Sennacherib conquered the city and

destroyed in 689 BC. He was assassinated by members of his own family in 681 BC.

Esarhaddon (r.608-669 BC), son of Sennacherib, rebuilt Babylon and tried to

appease the Babylonian’s. During his reign, incursions by the Cimmerians and

Scythians posed serious threats to Assyrian possessions in Anatolia and Media

(northwest Iran), the latter of which was a major source of horses for the

Assyrian army. Esarhaddon’s principle accomplishment was the conquest of Egypt,

begun by him in 675 BC, but completed by his son Ashurbanipal (r.668-627 BC).

Ashurbanipal, was the last great king of Assyria and had to deal with many

revolts. He led an expedition against Elam and captured Susa, its capital city.

After his death, however, the empire gradually disintegrated. In 626 BC,

Nabopalassar, a Chaldean nobleman, proclaimed Babylonian independence and,

allied with the Medes, set out to challenge Assyria. In the years 614-609,

Ashur and Nieveh were captured by the Medes, and the Assyrian king fled to

Harran on the northwest frontier. In 605 BC, Nabopolassar’s son, Nebuchadnezzar,

defeated an Egyptian army that had come to the aid of the Assyrians, thus

completing the destruction of the Assyrian state.

Assyrian Society and Culture

Before the development of modern archaeology, the Bible was the chief source of

information about Assyria. The image of Assyria by the biblical accounts is one

of irresistible military might. It was seen as an instrument of God’s wrath

against a sinful people. Archaeological excavations, have unearthed the

monuments and written records of the Assyrians kings, confirming this picture

of military prowess and terrible brutality. They maimed, burned, speared and

denounced harshly their captives. They wanted to instill terror and discourage

rebellion. They also deported to cities and farmlands the enemy populations.

Assyria dominated Babylonia politically, however, culturally was dependent on

the south. The first major collection of cuneiform tablets discovered by 19th-

century excavators–the library of Ashurbanipal at Nineveh–consists of myths,

epics, rituals, lexical texts, wisdom literature, and prophetic and magical

texts, providing a representative sample of Babylonian scholastic literature.

Assyrian art is usually associated with the colossal winged bulls and lions

that guarded the entrances of their palaces, but even finer are the bas-reliefs

on the palace walls and the carved ivories used to decorate their furniture.

The bas-reliefs portray the Assyrian kings hunting, kneeling before their gods,

or conquering foreign cities.


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