With its humble beginnings as a small Mesopotamian city-state, Assyria eventually became one of the first great empires of the Middle East.

During the empire’s height of power, the Assyrian military was the Middle East’s most tremendous military force, and scientists, artists, and writers flourished throughout Assyria’s cities.

Read on to learn about Assyria and its rise to power in the Middle East.

Where Was Assyria?

Located in northern Mesopotamia, Assyria consisted mainly of modern-day Iraq and Southeastern Turkey throughout much of the empire’s lifetime. However, at its height of power, it stretched from Egypt to western Iran.

The empire’s roots lay in the ancient city of Ashur, located on the western bank of the Tigris River. It is believed that the city dated back to the 26th century B.C. The Sumerians controlled it for many centuries but eventually gained its independence as a city-state shortly before the second millennium B.C.

Old Assyrian Empire

The Old Assyrian Period (2025-1750 B.C.) saw Assyria become the dominating power of northern Mesopotamia, as it expanded its territory into Anatolia, the Levant, and northwest Iran.

At the beginning of the 2nd millennium B.C., the city of Ashur was not a formidable military power. Still, it was a central commercial hub in the region due to its prime location on the bank of the Tigris River. The city traded extensively with merchants from Anatolia, Elam, and Babylonia and gradually became very wealthy.

King Shamsi-Adad, an Amorite, came to power as ruler of the region and made the city of Ashur his base of operations. He expanded his territory throughout northern Iraq and the Levant, which has made him seen by many as the founder of the Assyrian Empire. However, soon after his death, his territory became part of the Babylonian Empire under King Hammurabi.

Middle Assyrian Empire

The Middle Assyrian Period (1365-1020 B.C.) saw the Assyrians become the most dominant military force worldwide, as it extended its territory significantly and defeated many of its regional rivals.

By the Middle Assyrian Period, the Mittani Kingdom ruled over Assyria, which acted as a vassal city for the kingdom. The Hittites destroyed the Mittani Kingdom in 1365 B.C., which created a massive power vacuum.

The fall of Mittani rule allowed Assyria to become a dominant power in the region. The Assyrians acted quickly by launching an offensive that successfully captured former Mittani territory.

Tukulti-Ninurta I rose to power in 1244 B.C. and delivered a fatal blow to the Hittites at the Battle of Nihriya, which started a rapid decline of Hittite influence in the region.

When Babylonia began to launch offensives into Assyrian land, Tukulti-Ninurta responded by sacking the city of Babylon and destroying many of its most sacred sites and monuments. This response would prove a grave mistake for the king, as the Assyrian public was outraged by the destruction of Babylon’s holy sites.

Tukulti-Ninurta was assassinated soon after the destruction of Babylon, most likely by members of his own family. Following the assassination, Assyria went into stagnation, not losing or gaining any more territory.

Tiglath Pileser I came to power as king in 1114 B.C. and brought significant expansion and wealth to the empire. He immediately embarked on military conquest upon taking control and expanded the kingdom to the Levant’s Mediterranean coast. This territorial expansion gave the empire immense amounts of riches and wealth that were brought back to the royal palace.

Tiglath made great improvements to the city of Ashur, building everything from grand palaces to public parks for the city’s population to visit. He established a library in the city that collected tablets and texts from throughout the region.

Following Tiglath’s death, the empire went into a rapid decline as the Arameans began taking Assyria’s Levant territory and the cities of Babylon and Mari attempted to gain independence from the kingdom.

Constant attacks from neighboring rivals, internal rebellions, and weak leadership immensely weakened the empire. By the first millennium B.C., the empire only consisted of a small area on the Tigris River.

Neo-Assyrian Empire

The Neo-Assyrian Period (911-605 B.C.) saw Assyria become the world’s largest empire.

Ashur-dan II came to power in 934 B.C. and immediately expanded Assyria’s territory to the northwest and east. This action opened back up many vital trade networks for the empire and revitalized the Assyrian economy.

Ashur-dan focused much of his administration on maximizing the efficiency of his territory. He resettled farmers to make agricultural production throughout the empire more efficient, rebuilt damaged or decaying infrastructure, and greatly improved the military.

Ashur-dan II’s son, Adad-nirari II, came to power in 911 B.C. and used the greatly improved Assyrian military to continue the fight against the Aramean and Babylonians. Adid-nirari conquered the city of Babylon, but instead of destroying it, he forged an alliance with the city, which would last for 80 years.

By the 9th century B.C., the Assyrian military had become one of the most formidable armies in the Middle East. The Assyrian army was the first military force in the region to use iron weapons, as opposed to the bronze weapons used by most of their adversaries.

The most powerful component of the Assyrian military was the use of archers, which were used strategically to provide cover for infantry attacks.

The Assyrians were especially adept at besieging cities and had specialized units of engineers that would destroy walls, build ramps for the infantry, and use ladders to overrun defenses. They also used chariots, which were used to drive gaps in the enemy lines.

Adad-nirari II’s grandson, Ashurnasirpal II, came to power in 883 B.C. In 870 B.C., he led the Assyrian army to the west and took the city of Carchemish. He then led his army to the Mediterranean coast, bringing many of the coastal Phoenician cities under Assyrian control.

This campaign gave the empire great wealth, which Ashurnasirpal used to create a new capital city for the empire called Kalhu. The small town was transformed into a great city with numerous temples, a largely residential area, and an intricate sewer system.

Ashurnasirpal’s son, Shalmaneser II, came to power in 858 B.C. and immediately led his army to the mountainous region of northern Assyria. He first destroyed the city of Eridu, collected tribute from the neighboring settlements, and then moved on to the kingdom of Nairi.

Instead of submitting to the invaders, the people of Nairi decided to burn their cities to the ground. Afterward, they fled to the mountains. The fleeing Nairi were chased and slaughtered by the Assyrians.

In 853 B.C., many rulers from throughout the Mediterranean region rose against the Assyrian rule but were defeated. By the end of Shalmaneser’s reign, the empire’s territory stretched from the Mediterranean coast to the city of Uruk in modern-day Iraq.

This colossal amount of territory made it necessary for a change in the Assyrian government’s structure, which gradually began to decentralize. The king’s power began to weaken, and regional rulers of the empire ascended the power structure.

A civil war broke out between Shalmaneser’s sons, Ashu-da’in-aplu and Shamshi-Ramman, for control of the throne. Shamshi-Ramman defeated his brother’s forces and became the king of the empire, renaming himself Shamshi-Adad V.

After many years of stagnation, Tiglath-Pileser III became king in 745 B.C. and reinvigorated the empire. Tiglath-Pileser enacted massive reform throughout the Assyrian government. He revived much of the king’s absolute power and created a system where each empire’s province would give a certain quota of troops for the Assyrian military.

During his military conquests, he focused on consolidating Assyrian territory on the Mediterranean coast and deported many Aramean civilian populations, replacing them with Assyrians.

These deported peoples were sent throughout the empire to work as laborers wherever it was needed. He hoped that this would weaken Aramean society and prevent any future military resistance in the conquered regions.

Despite strengthening his absolute power, Tiglath-Pileser would generally allow regional vassal kings relative autonomy as long as they followed his orders and paid their dues to the empire.

Sargon II took the throne in 721 B.C. with goals to further expand the empire by defeating the kingdoms that surrounded the empire’s territory. He defeated the Urartu army in 714 B.C. and retook Babylon, which had recently become independent. He built the capital city of Dur-Sharrukin, though his successor would abandon the city.

Sargon II was killed in battle at Tabal, Anatolia, in 705 B.C. Sargon’s son, Sennacherib, took power in 704 B.C. and made the city Nineveh the capital of Assyria, turning it into one of the empire’s greatest cities. He constructed a great palace with thousands of statues, many large gardens, and 71 rooms.

When violence broke throughout Babylonia in the south, Sennacherib put down the rebellion and created a puppet government in Babylon. In 701 B.C. Assyrian forces besieged Jerusalem but were forced to retreat to put down another rebellion in Babylonia.

In 694 B.C. Sennacherib attacked southern Elam by crossing the Persian Gulf with naval forces. His troops were defeated, and a coalition of Elamite fighters responded by taking the city of Babylon. In response, Sennacherib sacked Babylon, razing the city to the ground and taking thousands of the city’s inhabitants as prisoners.

Just like Tukulti-Ninurta, Sennacherib was assassinated by fellow Assyrians because of his orders to destroy the sacred sites of Babylon. Sennacherib’s son, Esarhaddon, marched into Nineveh and defeated the assassins’ forces.

Esarhaddon became king in 680 B.C. and rebuilt Babylon, declaring that the city was destroyed because of its wickedness and that the gods chose him to restore its glory. Esarhaddon greatly expanded the territory of the empire, eventually capturing Egypt and its capital city of Memphis. Esarhaddon died on the route to Egypt to quell a rebellion in 669 B.C.

Esarhaddon’s eldest son, Ashurbanipal, became King of Assyria and Esarhaddon’s younger son, Shamash-shum-ukin, became King of Babylon. Ashurbanipal was the most literary-minded ruler of Assyria and made special orders for literature to be brought back to his library in Nineveh.

Elamite and Babylonian met invading Assyrian forces in Elam and were decisively defeated at the Battle of Ulai River in 653 B.C. That same year Shamash-shum-ukin enlisted Elamite forces to fight against his brother.

In 648 B.C. Ashurbanipal led his forces into Babylon and killed his brother, putting an end to their power struggle. The following year Ashurbanipal led his army into Elam and destroyed the city of Susa.

Fall of the Empire

Upon Ashurbanipal’s death in 630 B.C., the Assyrian empire was at its height of power. However, it rapidly began to decay and fracture. The empire was by this point greatly overstretched, and its borders and outposts could not be adequately defended. Also, many of the empire’s conquered subjects increasingly saw the Assyrians as harsh rulers that imposed excessive taxes.

A large civil war broke out between Ashur-etil-ilani, Sin-shumu-lishir, and Sin-shar-ishkun over control of the Assyrian throne.

Egypt, which was considered a vassal state, took advantage of the political unrest in the Assyrian heartland by declaring independence, though it would maintain its friendly diplomatic relations.

Nabopolassar became the King of Babylon and steadily began to push Assyria out of Babylonia from 625-620 B.C., though he was immediately pushed back when he tried to invade Assyria.

The Scythians and Cimmerians began to conduct raids on colonies throughout the empire’s periphery, especially in the Caucasus. They also successfully sacked cities throughout the Levant, Israel, and Egypt.

The Iranian Median King Cyaxares formed an alliance with Nabopolassar to deliver a decisive blow to Assyria. In 612 B.C., these forces destroyed the great Assyrian cities of Ashur and Nineveh. While some Assyrian resistance would continue into the 6th century B.C., the Assyrians would never again be a strong independent force in the region.

Modern Assyria

Assyrian people today are predominantly Syriac Christians who identify their descendancy from the ancient Assyrian and Babylonian people.

Much of the region’s Assyrians have migrated to other countries throughout the world due to persecution and targeted ethnic violence. It is estimated that five million Assyrians are living around the world today.

Throughout the 19th and early 20th centuries, the Ottoman Empire heavily persecuted the Assyrian community, culminating in the 1915 Assyrian Genocide.

Throughout 1915 Ottoman troops returning from Iran conducted many massacres against Christian communities, including Syriac Assyrians. Experts believe that up to 250,000 Assyrians died during the genocide.

After establishing the Republic of Turkey in 1923, the majority of the Assyrians living in Turkey fled to Syria and Iraq.

When Iraq was entered into the League of Nations as an independent nation in 1932, the Assyrians living in the country declined to join the newly established country. The Iraqi Assyrians instead proposed an independent Assyrian nation within northern Iraq, but this was denied.

The newly founded Iraqi government carried out a massacre against the Assyrians in the city of Simele in 1933. An estimated 3,000 Assyrian civilians died at the hands of the Iraqi military. Many Assyrian refugees of the massacre created villages along the Khabur River.

An all-Assyrian unit was created by the British occupational force during the mandate period and was especially known for its bravery and loyalty. This unit was often used to put down Arab rebellions throughout Iraq and Syria.

Assyrians also fought in British units throughout World War 2 and played an important role in putting down a pro-Axis Iraqi coup in 1941.

Following World War 2, the Assyrians became an important part of Iraqi society. Assyrians held many positions throughout the Iraqi and Syrian military and political system, and their towns dispersed throughout northern Iraq flourished.

However, when the Ba’ath party came to power in both countries in 1963, the Assyrians became a heavily persecuted minority. Iraqi Assyrians joined with the Kurds of northern Iraq to fight a guerilla war against the Ba’athist government during the late 1980s.

Saddam Hussein’s government responded with the 1986-1989 Anfal campaign when 2,000 Assyrians were killed, and many of their towns and churches were burned to the ground.

The 2003 U.S. invasion of Iraq and the Syrian Civil War have caused a massive exodus of Assyrians out of the region throughout the 21st century, as Islamic extremists have frequently targeted them.

Many Assyrians were systematically executed in 2014 by ISIL in northern Iraq throughout the Assyrian heartland. This conflict has caused many Assyrians to join armed groups to fight against ISIL influence in the region.

Conclusion

We have covered many aspects of Assyria. Let’s review the main ideas:

  • Assyria began as the small city-state of Ashur in northern Mesopotamia.
  • The Assyrians gradually began to expand their empire due to their unmatched military superiority in the region.
  • At its height, the Assyrian empire stretched from Egypt to western Iran.
  • The Assyrian Empire fell due to internal rebellion and its inability to properly defend its enormous volume of territory.

Though the flourishing cities of the Assyrian empire laid in ruins by the 6th century B.C., influences of the groundbreaking Assyrian military tactics, along with the empire’s vibrant culture, would live on throughout the Middle East.

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