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Assyria was a civilization centered on the Upper Tigrismarker river, in Mesopotamia (Iraqmarker), that came to rule regional empires a number of times in history. It was named for its original capital, the ancient city of Assurmarker (Akkadian: ; Arabic: ; Hebrew: , Aramaic: , ). The term Assyria can also refer to the geographic region or heartland where these empires were centered.

During the Old Assyrian period (20th to 15th c. BCE, Assur controlled much of Upper Mesopotamia. In the Middle Assyrian period (15th to 10th c. BCE), its influence waned and was subsequently regained in a series of conquests. The Neo-Assyrian Empire of the Early Iron Age (911 – 612 BCE) expanded further, and under Ashurbanipal (r. 668 – 627 BCE) for a few decades controlled all of the Fertile Crescent, as well as Egypt, before succumbing to Neo-Babylonian and Median expansion, which were in turn conquered by the Persian Empire.

Early history

The earliest neolithic site in Assyria is at Tell Hassuna, the center of the Hassunamarker culture in Iraq. Of the early history of the kingdom of Assyria, little is positively known. According to some Judaeo-Christian traditions, the city of Ashur (also spelled Assurmarker or Aššur) was founded by Ashur the son of Shem, who was deified by later generations as the city's patron god. The upper Tigrismarker River valley seems to have been ruled by Sumer, Akkadmarker, and northern Babylonia in its earliest stages. The Akkadian Empiremarker of Sargon the Great claimed to encompass the surrounding "four quarters"; the regions north of the Akkadian homeland had been known as Subartu. It was destroyed by barbarian Gutian people in the Gutian period, then rebuilt, and ended up being governed as part of the Empire of the 3rd dynasty of Ur.

Old 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 Anatolianmarker plateau. The Assyrians established "merchant colonies" in Cappadociamarker, e.g., at Kanesh (modern Kültepemarker) 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.

Like many commercial city-states in history, Assur was to a great extent an oligarchy rather than a monarchy. Authority was considered to lie with "the City", and the polity had three main centres of power — an assembly of elders, a hereditary ruler, and an eponym. The ruler presided over the assembly and carried out its decisions. He was not referred to with the usual Akkadianmarker term for "king", šarrum; that was instead reserved for the city's patron deity Assur, of whom the ruler was the high priest. The ruler himself was only designated as "the steward of Assur" (iššiak Assur), where the term for steward is a borrowing from Sumerian ensi. The third centre of power was the eponym (limmum), who gave the year his name, similarly to the archons and consuls of Classical Antiquity. He was annually elected by lot and was responsible for the economic administration of the city, which included the power to detain people and confiscate property. The institution of the eponym as well as the formula iššiak Assur lingered on as ceremonial vestiges of this early system throughout the history of the Assyrian monarchy.

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 a nearby city, Ekallatum, and allowed the former Anatolian trade to continue. Shamshi-Adad I also conquered the kingdom of Marimarker on the Euphrates putting 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-Enlilmarker.

Ishme-Dagan inherited the kingdom, but Yasmah-Adad was overthrown, and Mari was lost. The new king of Mari allied himself with Hammurabi of Babylonmarker. 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 Assurmarker.

There are dozens of Mesopotamian cuneiform texts from this period, with precise observations of solar and lunar eclipses, that have been used as 'anchors' in the various attempts to define the chronology of Babylonia and Assyria for the early second millennium, i.e., the "high", "middle", and "low" chronologies.

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 the ascension of Ashur-uballit I to the throne of Assyria.)

Ashur-uballit I

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 from the north-west and Assyrian pressure from the east, 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 Egyptmarker 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.

Assyrian expansion

Hanilgalbat was finally conquered under Adad-nirari I, who described himself as a "Great-King" (Sharru rabû) in letters to the Hittite rulers. The successor of Adad-nirari I, Shalmaneser I (c. 1300 BC), threw off the pretense of Babylonian suzerainty, made Kalhumarker his capital, and continued expansion to the northwest, mainly at the expense of the Hittites, reaching Carchemishmarker 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". Another weak period for Assyria followed when 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.

The correct chronology of these Assyrian kings is still is much debated. There are four crucial solar eclipse records. For example, the Assyrian eclipsemarker associated with June 15 763 BC is widely accepted by the defenders of a middle chronology, but three ignored solar eclipses from the reign of Esarhaddon would affect the calculation drastically.

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. When their forces encountered one another in this region, the Assyrian king Ashur-resh-ishi I met and defeated Nebuchadnezzar I of Babylon.

The son of Ashur-resh-ishi's, Tiglath-Pileser I, may be regarded as the founder of the first Assyrian empire. In 1120 BC, he crossed the Euphrates, capturing Carchemish, and defeated the Mushki and the remnants of the Hittites — even claiming to reach the Black Seamarker. He advanced to the Mediterraneanmarker, subjugating Phoeniciamarker, 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. These peoples now controlled the Mediterranean ports, while the Kassites controlled the river route south to the Persian Gulfmarker.

The Middle Assyrian kingdom was well organized, and in the firm control of the king, who 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 are thought to have been behind the murder of king Tukulti-Ninurta I.

The main Assyrian cities of the middle period were Ashurmarker, Kalhu (Nimrudmarker) and Ninevehmarker, all situated in the Tigrismarker River valley. At the end of the Bronze Age, Nineveh was much smaller than Babylon, but still one of the world's major cities (population ca. 33,000). By the end of the Neo-Assyrian period, it had grown to a population of some 120,000, and was possibly the largest city of that time. All free male citizens were obliged to serve in the army for a time, a system which was called the ilku-service. The Assyrian law code, notable for its repressive attitude towards women in their society, was compiled during this period.

Neo-Assyrian Empire

Map of the Neo-Assyrian Empire and its expansions.

The Neo-Assyrian Empire is usually considered to have begun with the accession of Adad-nirari II, in 911 BC, lasting until the fall of Nineveh at the hands of the Babylonians in 612 BC.

In the Middle Assyrian period, Assyria had been a minor kingdom of northern Mesopotamia, competing for dominance with Babylonia to the south. Beginning with the campaigns of Adad-nirari II, Assyria became a great regional power, growing to be a serious threat to 25th dynasty Egypt. It began reaching the peak of its power with the reforms of Tiglath-Pileser III (ruled 745 – 727 BC). This period, which included the Sargonic dynasty, is well-referenced in several sources, including the Assyro-Babylonian Chronicles and the Hebrew Bible. Assyria finally succumbed to the rise of the neo-Babylonian Chaldean dynasty with the sack of Ninevehmarker in 612 BC.


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 Aramaic language became increasingly common, more so than Akkadian — this was thought to be largely due to the mass deportations undertaken by Assyrian kings, in which large Aramaic-speaking populations, conquered by the Assyrians, were relocated to other parts of the empire. The ancient Assyrians also used the Sumerian language in their literature and liturgy, although to a more limited extent in the Middle- and Neo-Assyrian periods, when Akkadian became the main literary language.

The utter and complete destruction of the Assyrian capitals of Nineveh and Assur by the Babylonians and Medes ensured that the bilingual elite, perhaps the few remaining still competent in Akkadian, were wiped out. By the 6th century B.C., much of the Assyrian population that survived used Aramaic and not the cuneiform Akkadian. In time, Akkadian would no longer be used by the Assyrians, although many aspects of the culture associated, such as naming with Assur, continued, and do so today.

Arts and sciences

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. Many stone reliefs were discovered in the royal palaces at Nimrudmarker (Kalhu) and Khorsabadmarker (Dur-Sharrukin). A rare discovery of metal plates belonging to wooden doors was made at Balawatmarker (Imgur-Enlil).

Assyrian sculpture reached a high level of refinement in the Neo-Assyrian period. One prominent example is the winged bull Lamassu, or shedu that guard the entrances to the king's court. These were apotropaic 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 Quartz unearthed by Austen Henry Layard in 1850, in the Nimrud palace complex in northern Iraqmarker. A small minority believe that it is evidence for the existence of ancient Assyrian telescopes, which could explain the great accuracy of Assyrian astronomy. Other suggestions include its use as a magnifying glass for jewellers, or as a decorative furniture inlay. The Nimrud Lens is held in the British Museum.

Legacy and rediscovery

Achaemenid Assyria retained a separate identity for some time, official correspondence being in Imperial Aramaic, and there was even an attempted revolt of the two provinces of Mada and Athura in 520 BC. Under Seleucid rule, however, Aramaic gave way to Greek as the official language. Aramaic was marginalised, but remained spoken in Judeamarker (Biblical Aramaic), the Syrian Desert (Nabataeans) and Khuzestanmarker (Mandaic).

Classical historiographers had only retained a very dim picture of Assyria. It was remembered that there had been an Assyrian empire predating the Persian one, but all particulars were lost. Thus Jerome's Chronicon lists 36 kings of the Assyrians, beginning with Ninus, son of Belus, down to Sardanapalus, the last king of the Assyrians before the empire fell to Arbaces the Median. Almost none of these have been substantiated as historical, with the exception of the Neo-Assyrian and Babylonian rulers listed in Ptolemy's Canon, beginning with Nabonassar.

With the rise of Syriac Christianity, Aramaic enjoyed a renaissance as a classical language in the 2nd to 8th centuries AD, and the modern Assyrian people continue to speak Neo-Aramaic dialects.

The modern discovery of Babylonia and Assyria begins with excavations in Ninevehmarker in 1845, which revealed the Library of Ashurbanipal. Decipherment of cuneiform was a formidable task that took more than a decade, but by 1857, the Royal Asiatic Society was convinced that reliable reading of cuneiform texts was possible. Assyriology has since pieced together the formerly forgotten history of Mesopotamia.In the wake of the archaeological and philological rediscovery of ancient Assyria, Assyrian nationalism has come to strongly identify with ancient Assyria.

Notes and references


  • Ascalone, Enrico. Mesopotamia: Assyrians, Sumerians, Babylonians (Dictionaries of Civilizations; 1). Berkeley: University of California Press, 2007 (paperback, ISBN 0520252667).
  • Grayson, Albert Kirk: Assyrian and Babylonian Chronicles (ABC), Locust Valley, N.Y.; Augustin (1975), Winona Lake, In.; Eisenbrauns (2000).
  • Leick, Gwendolyn. Mesopotamia.
  • Lloyd, Seton. The Archaeology of Mesopotamia: From the Old Stone Age to the Persian Conquest.
  • Nardo, Don. The Assyrian Empire.
  • Nemet-Nejat, Karen Rhea. Daily Life in Ancient Mesopotamia.
  • Oppenheim, A. Leo. Ancient Mesopotamia: Portrait of a Dead Civilization.
  • Roux, Georges. Ancient Iraq. Third edition. Penguin Books, 1992 (paperback, ISBN 014012523X).
  • Saggs, H. W. F., The Might That Was Assyria, ISBN 0283989610
  • Spence, Lewis. Myths and Legends of Babylonia and Assyria.

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