Assyrian Empire Research Paper

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The Assyrian Empire was the first to bring together the various cultures of the Near East into a single political entity. Governing the area presently known as the Middle East, the Assyrian Empire was at its peak for about three hundred years (from the ninth to sixth centuries BCE), and its impact still presents itself in modern life through mediums such as art and biblical references.

During its heyday, between about 900 and 600 BCE, the Assyrian Empire was arguably the largest and most complex political formation the world had yet seen. After its initial stage of expansion during the ninth century BCE, Assyria came to dominate the entire region that we today call the Middle East: from the Zagros Mountains in modern Iran to the eastern coast of the Mediterranean, and from the Taurus mountains in southern Turkey to the Persian Gulf. Through their imperial policies, the Assyrians became a driving force in shaping the political, cultural, and demographic makeup of the ancient Near East, setting the stage upon which much of the drama of the Old Testament was played out, and helping to preserve and transmit much of the tradition of Mesopotamian civilization to the Persian and Mediterranean worlds. In so doing, the Assyrians left an indelible mark on the development of civilization within and beyond the Middle East.

Origins and Background

The origin of Assyria is closely related to the fortunes and misfortunes of the city of Ashur (modern Qalat Sharqat in Iraq), whence Assyria gets its name. For much of the latter half of the third millennium BCE, Ashur had been home to a northern outpost of the Sumero-Akkadian civilization emanating from the alluvial plains of southern Iraq. However, during the upheaval that that marked the end of the third millennium, the site was abandoned. Assyrian historiography recorded in the Assyrian King List, which describes the earliest Assyrian kings as kings “who lived in tents,” has led many scholars to the conclusion that at the beginning of the second millennium, nomadic Assyrians used the abandoned mound of Ashur as a seasonal camp, regularly performing religious rituals there. The site eventually became home to a permanent temple to Assyria’s chief god (also called Ashur) leading to the settlement of what had been several dispersed nomadic groups on the already ancient mound surrounding the temple. The early political development of the Assyrian state was influenced by two factors: the structure of the Sumerian and Akkadian city-states of alluvial southern Iraq, and the tribal traditions of the early Assyrian nomads.

The position of Ashur, on the Tigris River some one hundred kilometers south of Mosul in northern Iraq, has distinct advantages and disadvantages. The fact that the site lies almost directly on the line below which rain-fed agriculture was not feasible in most years meant, first, that the city never had a reliable agricultural hinterland, and, second, that the Assyrian capital was located far from the important metal and lumber source areas of western Iran and southeastern Turkey. Thus, from the very beginning, the Assyrians were forced to look beyond their local environs for the resources and manpower necessary for state building. The advantage of the location of Ashur lies in the fact that it was at the intersection of several important east-west and north-south trade routes linking highland Iran and the Persian Gulf with eastern Anatolia and the Mediterranean.

The circumstances imposed by the location and environmental setting of the city of Ashur also influenced the development of the Assyrian state. The first segment of Assyrian history that comes into focus in the textual record is that of a commercial empire established by Assyrian merchants during the Old Assyrian period (c. 1900–1750 BCE). Although the Assyrians did not control territories beyond the general vicinity of the city of Ashur at this time, they established a vast trading network with outposts as far away as central Anatolia. Assyria first emerged as a territorial state under the Amorite king Shamshi- Adad I (reigned c. 1830–1776 BCE). Shamshi-Adad and his sons progressively extended Assyrian control until they could claim dominion over most of upper Mesopotamia (what is today Syria and northern Iraq). However, the Old Assyrian state was short-lived. Soon after the death of Shamshi-Adad, most of Assyria’s former holdings were overrun by Hammurabi of Babylon (reigned c. 1792–1750 BCE). Through much of the succeeding period Assyria lived in the shadow of Kassite Babylonia and the Hurrian Empire of Mitanni. Assyria did not play a significant role on the international stage again until the reign of Ashuruballit I (c. 1366–1330 BCE), and over the next 150 years the Middle Assyrian state again came to dominate the political scene in upper Mesopotamia.

The beginnings of an imperial political structure first appeared in Assyria during this middle period. The Middle Assyrian state combined the traditions of monarchy established by Shamshi-Adad during the Old Assyrian period with the administrative structures of the Babylonians and Mitanni to create a complex political and administrative apparatus capable of maintaining a new level of political authority over vast areas of the ancient Near East. But the balance of power among the great kings of the Late Bronze Age (c. 1500–1100 BCE) began to crumble at the end of the thirteenth century BCE, leading to a period of collapse and mass migration that profoundly changed the political and demographic makeup of the region. From the rubble of the Late Bronze Age rose the Neo- Assyrian Empire.

The Neo-Assyrian Empire

Neo-Assyrian imperialism built upon and surpassed the achievements of the Middle Assyrian state. The political centralization, imperial ideology, and militaristic tendencies of the Middle Assyrian state were all carried over, in one form or another, to the Neo- Assyrian system, but the scale and efficiency of the Neo-Assyrian Empire was, in its time, unprecedented in world history. Assyria’s new rise to prominence was the result of a complex and interrelated set of political, economic, and social factors that are difficult to sort out. The turbulent history of the region, as well as the reemergence of Babylonian and Hurrian states and the constant threat posed by the Arameans, made increased militarism a prerequisite for Assyrian survival. Inefficient farming techniques and the shortage of labor were constant problems in the Assyrian heartland. These factors, combined with the disruption of the trade routes established in the Old Assyrian period and the political instability of resource areas, undoubtedly made imperial expansion and political control an attractive solution to declining revenues.

Whatever the factors that caused Assyria to make the transition from state to empire, the final outcome was impressive, for Assyria was the first state to unite the diverse cultures of the ancient Near East into a single political unit.

Ashur-dan II (r. 934–912 BCE) was the first Neo- Assyrian king to conduct regular military campaigns after the turn of the millennium, and his reign is therefore considered by many to mark the beginning of the Neo-Assyrian Empire. This king spent most of his energy attempting to reassert Assyrian sovereignty over territories formerly controlled by the Middle Assyrian monarchs, and in so doing he laid the foundation for the ambitious campaigns of his best-known successors, Ashurnasirpal II (r. 883–859 BCE) and Shalmaneser III (r. 858–824 BCE).

During the reign of Ashurnasirpal, Assyrian expansionism began to take on a truly imperial character. Assyrian royal ideology required Assyrian monarchs to show their strength by setting out on regular military campaigns. However, prior to the reign of Ashurnasirpal, most Assyrian military campaigns had been little more than organized raids on neighboring lands. Ashurnasirpal II altered this tradition through the consolidation of military gains in the newly established provinces. This consolidation included the construction of provincial capitals and outposts, the establishment of a system of vassal state alliances, and the deportation and resettlement of vanquished peoples in newly conquered lands. Ashurnasirpal was also the first of a series of Neo-Assyrian kings either to relocate the imperial capital (from Ashur to Kalhu, then to Dur-Sharruken, and finally to Nineveh) or to construct a new royal palace in the existing capital to act as a new military and administrative center of the empire.

The strict organization of the Assyrian provincial system was probably undertaken during the reign of Tiglath-pileser III (r. 744–727 BCE). Tiglath-pileser, who himself had been a provincial governor and was a usurper to the throne, knew full well the dangers of allowing provincial administrators too much independence. As part of his effort to tighten the reigns on Assyria’s vast holdings, Tiglath-pileser III probably reorganized governmental hierarchies and established a system in which officials responsible directly to the king monitored the activities of provincial governments. Assyria’s system of deportation and resettlement also reached its peak during the reign of Tiglath-pileser III, when ancient documents record tens of thousands of people being moved to and from nearly all the imperial frontiers.

The crown jewel of Assyrian military expansion came when Esarhaddon (r. 680–669 BCE) conquered the Nile Delta and Egypt’s original capital, Memphis. Egypt proved to be a difficult prize, however, that the Assyrians could not hold. Esarhaddon died during his second attempt to conquer Egypt, and it was up to his son Ashurbanipal (r. 668–635 BCE) to finish the job. By this point, however, considerable wrinkles had formed in Assyria’s imperial plans. To begin with, premodern transportation technology made governing the far-flung provinces extremely costly, while considerable effort was spent in the attempt to subjugate Egypt. In addition to this, a civil war broke out between Ashurbanipal and his half-Babylonian brother, who had been installed as king of Babylon by Esarhaddon.

Very few details of the last years of the Assyrian Empire are preserved in the historical record. Although fall of the empire has often been referred to as a “collapse,” the momentous events marking the end of the empire were not the work of an external rival group: it was the Babylonians, along with their Median and other allies, who eventually destroyed the cities of the Assyrian heartland, including the capital at Nineveh, which fell in 612 BCE. Thus the empire was destroyed from the inside, with one of the most important groups in the ethnic mix of the empire, the Babylonians, inheriting Assyria’s holdings largely intact.

Assyria’s Legacy

The Assyrian empire is well known from references in the Bible. Perhaps the most famous of these is to the Assyrian king Sennacherib (r. 704–681 BCE), who attacked Judah and besieged Jerusalem during the reign of Hezekiah in 701 BCE. Indeed, the Assyrian threat to the relatively insignificant state in Judah was the context in which several chapters of the Old Testament are set (Kings and Isaiah, for example); the Assyrians had a significant impact both on the world of the Old Testament and on later views of that time.

The image of Assyria as a great imperial power also reaches the modern world through art. Excavations that took place in northern Iraq during the mid-to-late nineteenth century not only awakened the general public to the archaeological reality behind the Biblical stories, but filled the museums of Europe with countless Assyrian treasures. Perhaps the most famous of these Assyrian artifacts are the carved stone wall panels that once adorned the Assyrian palaces. Several studies that have attempted to reassemble the now-dispersed stone panels argue that Assyrian art and architecture served as an integrated system for the transmission of Assyrian ideology and culture. However, the historical significance of the Neo- Assyrian Empire lies neither in modern perceptions of the empire, nor in the influence the Assyrians imposed on the creation of the early Judeo-Christian world. Rather, Assyria’s importance lies in the fact that the Assyrian state that emerged during the Mesopotamian Iron Age represented an entirely new level of political development. The Assyrians were the first true empire builders, and it was upon their legacy that later empires, such the Persian, Greek, and Roman, were modeled.


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