Assyrian people were an ancient society who lived in the northern part of Mesopotamia, now modern-day Iraq, and parts of Iran, Syria, and Kuwait.

Assyrians controlled a vast territory spanning from southern Iraq to the Meditteranean coast. Assyrians are named after the city of Ashur, the ruins of which lie in Northern Iraq today. The Assyrian empire existed for 19 centuries, from 2500 B.C. to 605 B.C.

During its fall from 605 B.C. to the late seventh century, the area was called Achaemenid Assyria, Ator, Author, and sometimes Syria.

Who Were The Assyrians?

Assyrians, also known as Syriacs, were Semitic-speaking people who lived near the Tigris river in Upper Mesopotamia. Today this region is found in Northern Iraq, Syria, and Southeast Turkey. They worship the god named Ashur, who has a shrine on the Tigris.

The kingdom of Assyria was once a regional power. Assyrians had control over a powerful empire that lasted several periods. Ancient scripts have described Assyria’s size and power during its time. It became one of the great powers of the Bronze Middle East along with Babylon, Hittite, and Egy

Assyrians were culturally and genetically distinct from other people in the Middle East, such as the Arabs, Persians, Jews, and Armenians. They spoke and wrote Akkadian before it transformed to Aramaic language. Assyrians lived in Greater Mesopotamia, which historians often refer to as the “Cradle of Civilization.”

Who are the modern-day Assyrians?

After the Assyrian empire’s fall in the sixth and seventh century shortly after the Arabic invasion, Assyrians were reduced to a small Assyrian country living amongst the middle eastern nation. Assyrians were one of the first people to embrace Christianity which made them targets of hate killings over the following centuries.

Modern Assyrians claim they descended from ancient Assyrian people. Scholars have studied this to be accurate based on their dialect, which has developed from ancient Aramaic. Present-day Assyrians call themselves “Surayi,” which translates to “Assyrian” or “Syrian.”

Today, the only people who have the highest level of genetic, historical, linguistic, and cultural connection to Assyrians are the Assyrian Christians of Iraq. You can also find them in northwest Iran, northeast Syria, and southeastern Turkey. They are Christian people known for being followers of the Assyrian Church of the East, Chaldean Catholic Church, and the Assyrian Evangelical Church.

Many modern Assyrians have also remained in their ancestral Assyrian homeland, which can be found in modern-day northern Iran, Iraq, Syria, and Turkey. Those who have lived continuously in the same region have also kept their Christian faith and the Neo-Aramaic Assyrian language. Based on recent data, there are around 3.3 million Assyrians globally, with most of them living in Iraq, Syria, and a few can be found in the United States.

History of Assyria

Before the region was called Assyria, the area was home to a Neanderthal culture whose remains were found at the Shanidar Cave. Assur and Nineveh during the 26th century B.C. were Sumerian-ruled regions rather than independent states.

Assyria was also once dependent on Babylonia and the Mitanni kingdom. It only emerged as an independent state during the 14th century and the subsequent period when it became a major power in Mesopotamia. Scholars often divide Assyria’s history into three periods: the Old Assyrian Empire, The Middle Assyrian Empire, and the Neo-Assyrian Empire.

Old Assyrian Empire

This era is considered the earliest period in which the culture was founded. It is distinct from its neighbors from southern Mesopotamia. They also found that its capital is in Ashur, on the Tigris River. The ruins of the city of Ashur were dated around 1900 B.C., which is now considered the date the city was founded.

Early writings revealed that the first kings of the Empire lived in tents suggesting that they had pastoral rather than urban communities. Ancient Assyrians were mainly Akkadian-speaking farmers who lived by farming and herding. They were also good traders who got rich by imposing a tax on merchants who passed through their territories.

During the Old Assyrian period, Assur was the greatest city that controlled Upper Mesopotamia. It became an important center of commerce during the old Assyrian Empire. But due to the lack of records, its precise form and structure are a mystery.

Similar to other city-states during its time, Assur was an oligarchy rather than a monarchy. The power was vested on three central authorities: the hereditary ruler, the assembly of elders, and the eponym. The ruler presides over the assembly and makes most of the decisions. The eponym was annually elected, and he is responsible for the economic administration of the city. He had the power to detain people and confiscate illegal properties.

The most lucrative center for trade was Karum Kanes or the port of Kanesh. It was considered the most critical place in the city where merchants traveled for business. The wealth generated from the port provided the people of Ashur stability and security. Eventually, it expanded the city, which led to the rise of its empire.

One of their most famous leader during this time was King Shamshi-Adad. He controlled the north and made the Assyrians affluent. After he died in 1781 B.C., the empire grew weak and fell under the Babylonian Empire’s control.

Middle Assyrian Period

From 1360 B.C. to 1074 B.C., Assyria once again rose to power because of their military prowess. They are often remembered for their ruthless armies. This is when Assyria conquered all of Mesopotamia and expanded their empire, controlling Babylonia, Egypt, Israel, and Cypress.

The Middle Assyrian Period was marked by several long wars which turned Assyria into a warrior society. During this time, almost all male citizens were obliged to serve in the army. Assyria also dominated Mesopotamia during the first half of the millennium and was known for its terrifying and aggressive warriors.

The first Assyrian armies were peasant spearmen. Their army became better armed throughout the years, making it one of the deadliest armies during its time. Assyrians were the first empire to develop iron weapons superior to bronze weapons their enemies were using. Their skill at working with iron allowed them to create better weapons and shields that made their soldiers more deadly than any other empire. Iron weapons were superior to bronze, and they could be mass-produced, which allowed Assyrians to build large armies.

Assyrians were also the first to develop engineering units that set up ladders and ramps to get into walled cities. They created chariots which gave them a significant advantage on the battlefield. They were also the first ones to adopt light missile troops, camelry, and cavalries. Assyrian warriors were brutal. They tortured, raped, beheaded, and flayed their enemies. They also torched houses, cut down orchards, and salted fields.

Another war tactic Assyrians became famous for is stealing status and religious symbols from their enemy temples. This was done to lower the morale of their enemy and prevent their god from hearing their prayers.

Because of their rampage and loot from war, Assyrian kings became very wealthy. They constructed several gigantic palaces across the region. They would often hold banquets for more than 70,00 people. For hundreds of years, the Assyrian Empire maintained its power. It wasn’t until 600 B.C., when the empire became too large to maintain, and it eventually fell apart.

Neo-Assyrian Empire

During the Neo-Assyrian Empire, Assyria’s control reached from Mesopotamia to Asia Minor and Egypt. It was the largest empire the world had yet seen. Many historians also refer to it as the first true empire in the world.

This period also marked Assyrian’s development in engineering. Assyrian cities were located along the Tigris river, and they were solid and massive. Their palaces were huge and made of stone. They were able to create massive walls that could withstand sieges.

This was when Assyria had a series of powerful rulers such as Tiglath-Pileser III, Sargon II, Sennacherib, and Ashurbanipal. With the help of these leaders, Assyria conquered most of the Middle East and Egypt. They controlled major trade routes and dominated states in Babylon, Anatolia, and the Levant. The city of Ashur became the state’s religious capital. Assyrian kings also expanded and erected impressive buildings in other cities.

The Assyrian king Tiglath Pileser was mentioned many times throughout the bible as one of the Israelites’ mortal enemies. He was often depicted as an aggressive, murderously vindictive ruler. He led successful wars that terrorized his neighbors. Tiglath Pileser III was also the king to have made extensive reforms in the Assyrian army, allowing them to reconquer the Meditteranean seaboard and Babylon.

The last great Assyrian king Ashurbanipal constructed a great library in the city of Nineveh. Here he stored clay tablets found all over Mesopotamia, including the stories of Gilgamesh, Code of Hammurabi, and the Enuma Elish. For 42 years, Ashurbanipal ruled over the empire efficiently until it grew too large and difficult to defend.

During its power height, the Assyrian Empire found it challenging to control Babylon and soon developed a conflict. By the end of the seventh century, the empire collapsed under the assault of Babylonians from southern Mesopotamia and Medes. They destroyed Nimrud twice, including the library of Ashurbanipal. During 612 BC, they took Ashur and Nineveh.

Assyrian Culture

Despite their fearsome reputation, the Assyrians were an organized civilization. They had documents written using cuneiform, and their cities had painted stoneworks and sculptures.

Assyrians primarily built their infrastructure with mud bricks and stones. Their palaces are often adorned with painted stones and beautiful gardens with artificial streams. One of their favorite decors, the lamassu, depicts a winged half-man, half-bull statue that often stood on either side of gateways like Egypt’s Sphinx.

They had regions controlled by their kings. The king is considered the head of the government and the palace the seat of administration. The king had advisors whom he consulted with before he made important decisions. The king also is the city’s High Priest of Ashur, the state god.

Early rulers in Assyria called themselves “vicegerent” of the god Ashur, which scholars believed to be another word for governor. However, during ruler Shamshi-Adad, he gave himself the title, which translates as “king of the universe.”

Rich people in Assyria enjoyed hunting with their chariots. Most people in the cities were required to pay taxes and tribute in the form of food, goods, and gold. They also have an extensive network of roads that helped them move their armies into different locations.

Assyrians also invented the world’s first written language, the 360-degree circle, and Hammurabi’s code of law.┬áThe Code of Hammurabi was carved on an 8-foot stone called steles and was placed in the cities of the empire. The famous quote “An eye for an eye, a tooth for a tooth” is based on the Hammurabi code.

Geography also played an essential role in the culture of the Assyrians. Assyrians are initially located in the north Tigris Highlands, north Babylon, and south of Armenia. They lived between Persians, Turks, Kurds, and Arabs.

During the rise of Islam in the Middle East, Sunni and Shiite Muslims targeted Assyrians. They forced Assyrians to take refuge in the rocky Hakkari mountains, where they created natural fortresses. The climate in Assyria is cooler than in southern Mesopotamia. They also received more rain which meant they didn’t need to install irrigation for farming.

Patriarchy

Although women in ancient Assyria have better status than in other middle eastern cultures, the society was still largely patriarchal. In Assyrian culture, men were allowed to divorce their wives. If a woman commits adultery, she is beaten or put to death. Women in the king’s harem and their servants frequently experience harsh punishments such as beating, mutilation, and death.

Despite this, women in Assyria had better public involvement than the Sumerians and Akkadian women. Assyrian women also played important public roles. They could act as witnesses in legal and financial matters. They could also own property and have jobs in food production and textile weaving.

Sometimes, women were also allowed in male employment, and men were allowed in women’s jobs. Schools are only allowed for the sons of the noble and wealthy. Women were not allowed to attend a school or hold positions of authority.

Trading

Assyrians were masters of trading. They also controlled various trade routes, which made them rich. Assyrians frequently traded with other distant regions and soon created a network between Mesopotamia and the Indus Valley. Assyrians often sold luxury goods and technology. They exchanged their chariots and ironwork with other empires.

Assyrian Religion

Their Mesopotamian predecessors from Sumeria heavily influenced the Assyrian religion. It also remained a vital identification for the modern Assyrians. Assyrians were believed to have been Christianized from the first to the third century in Roman Syria.

In the fifth century, they became a religious minority amongst the Muslims in Mesopotamia. After the collapse of the Ottoman Empire, Assyrians suffered genocides and a series of massacres at the hands of Arabs and Kurds. This experience forced most of them to live in the diaspora. After they were displaced and driven out from Turkey, many Assyrians resettled in southeast Turkey.

Assyrians have a chief god whom they call Ashur from whom their capital and culture got its name. They also had ziggurats built with mud bricks like the Sumerians and their neighbors to the south. Ashur is found in the book of Genesis. According to the book, Ashur was the son of Shem, who was the son of Noah. After the Great Flood, it was said that Noah founded Assyrian cities, and it’s most likely that the name was named after his grandson Ashur.

Summary

  • Assyrians, also known as Syriacs, were ancient Semitic-speaking people who lived near the Tigris river in Upper Mesopotamia.
  • The ancient city of Ashur was an important center of commerce during the old Assyrian Empire. The most lucrative center for trade was Karum Kanes or the port of Kanesh.
  • During its peak, the Assyrian empire stretched from Cyprus to Armenia, Arabian Peninsula, and Egypt.
  • The Middle Assyrian Period was marked by several long wars which turned Assyria into a warrior society.
  • Assyria is often known as the civilization with the most military victories and the best technological advancements in warfare.
  • The Assyrian king Ashurbanipal constructed a great library in the city of Nineveh.
  • After the Assyrian empire’s fall, the Assyrians were reduced to a small nation now living amongst the middle eastern.

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