- One of the largest and most powerful of the many imperial realms that rose in and around the Mesopotamian plains in ancient times. Actually, Assyrian territory and influence expanded and diminished more than once over the course of more than a thousand years, so one can, in a sense, speak of multiple Assyrian empires. They were centered on Assyria, the region dominated by two major tributaries of the Tigris River, the Upper and Lower Zab. The leading cities in the area were Ashur, whose patron god, also called Ashur, became the chief Assyrian deity; Kalhu (Nimrud), Mosul, Arbil, and Ninua (later Nineveh).Early Assyria The history of the Assyrian Empire can be conveniently divided into three phases. The first phase, in which the Assyrians began to develop a national identity, began in the two centuries after Sumer and Akkad declined at the end of the third millennium b.c. A series of energetic Assyrian rulers erected temples and other public buildings and marched small armies into neighboring regions. These forays are probably better termed raiding parties than full-scale conquests.But they gained the Assyrians control of considerable amounts of new territory, even if only temporarily. The most successful of these early kings was Shamshi-Adad I (reigned ca. 1813-1781 b.c.). He captured the small kingdom of Mari, located about 140 miles (225 km) southwest of Ashur, and marched all the way to what is now Lebanon, on the Mediterranean coast.Not long after Shamshi-Adad died, Assyria experienced its first reversal of fortune. In about 1759 b.c. Hammurabi, king of Babylon, launched his own campaign of expansion. He, too, capturedMari, completely destroying it in the process, then overran Ashur and the other Assyrian cities. The Assyrians, who were always open to foreign cultural ideas, now became conflicted about their relationship with Babylonia. Cultural ideas had traditionally flowed into Assyria from Sumer, located in southeastern Mesopotamia; and now that the Babylonians had absorbed the Sumerian lands, some Assyrians felt comfortable giving allegiance to the Babylonian monarchs. In contrast, other Assyrians were strongly anti-Babylonian and kept alive native traditions and feelings of patriotism and nationalism. In the meantime, for roughly three centuries the Assyrians remained vassals or subjects of larger, more powerful states, not only Babylonia but also Mitanni, lying west of Assyria. Other imperialistic states also began to intrude into the general region in this period. The Hittites marched southward from Anatolia and occupied Syria, and in the southwest the Egyptians took control of Palestine.Assyria's Second Phase of Expansion It was a sudden power imbalance among these competing major powers that allowed the Assyrians to launch the second phase of their own imperial expansion. In the fourteenth century B.C. a combination of increasing pressure by the Hittites in the north and civil war among Mitanni's own rulers brought Mitanni to the brink of collapse. And Assyrian leaders took advantage of the situation. Beginning with Ashur-uballit I (ca. 1365-1330 b.c.), a series of strong Assyrian kings seized large sections of former Mitannian territory and set their sights on further conquests.From this time on, the foreign and military policy of Assyria's rulers operated on three major fronts. The first consisted of the broad arc of foothills stretching eastward from the borders of Anatolia through Armenia to the Zagros Mountains. The Assyrians conducted frequent small-scale raids into these northern hills, taking human captives, horses, and other booty. They also built fortresses and roads with which to defend this frontier against periodic incursions by various aggressive peoples. Assyria's second major front was the ever-changing border with Babylonia in the southeast. Numerous confrontations between the two powers culminated in the capture of Babylon by the vigorous Assyrian monarch Tukulti-Ninurta I (ca. 12441208 b.c.) sometime early in his reign. Assyria's third major military front was the western corridor to Syria and the Mediterranean Sea. Here, the Assyrian monarchs launched relentless offensives, gaining, losing, and then regaining territory in cycles. King Adad-nirari I (ca. 1305-1274 b.c.) reached Carchemish in northern Syria, as did his immediate successor, Shalmaneser I (ca. 1274-1245). These and later Assyrian conquests posed an almost constant threat to the stability of the many small kingdoms in the region, including the early Jewish states of Israel and Judah.The complicated balance of power in Mesopotamia and the greater Near East underwent another sudden shock circa 1200 b.c., when the leading towns of Anatolia, Syria, and other parts of the eastern Mediterranean sphere were sacked and burned, most never to be rebuilt. The exact causes of this widespread catastrophe are still uncertain. Much of the destruction seems to have been caused by groups of invaders who are today collectively called the Sea Peoples, who originated in southeastern Europe. The Assyrian cities escaped destruction; however, the confusion and dislocations caused by the disaster led to the sudden rise in power and influence of several formerly insignificant local peoples. Among these were the Aramaeans, tribal inhabitants of the Syrian deserts, who now presented a partial barrier to Assyrian expansion. Still, the Assyrian kings continued their relentless military expeditions, occasionally enjoying success. The most outstanding gains in this period were those of Tiglathpileser I (ca. 1115-1077 b.c.), who expanded the realm on all three of its major fronts. After he was assassinated, his immediate successors turned out to be far less capable men. In the course of only a few decades the realm shrank, shedding its conquered territories one by one until all that remained was the traditional Assyrian heartland centered around Ashur and Nineveh. This period is sometimes referred to as Assyria's dark age.The Rise of the Neo-Assyrian Realm However dark these lean years may have been for the Assyrians, their leaders kept alive the dream of reviving the glories of their ancestors. And this national pride was the seed from which the third and greatest phase of Assyrian expansion would grow. Beginning with Ashur-dan II (ca. 934-912 b.c.) and Adad-nirari II (ca. 911-891 b.c.), a series of strong kings transformed Assyria into the largest, most feared empire the world had yet seen. Each of the military campaigns of these rulers was partly self-defense, partly piracy, and partly a religious crusade undertaken in the name of the supreme god, Ashur. Because of the religious dimension, Assyrian leaders deemed it justifiable to employ any means, no matter how harsh or brutal, to achieve their goals. And this is the basis for the Assyrians' famous reputation for cruelty. Exemplifying the aggressive, pitiless attitude of many of these rulers is this statement by Adad-nirari II:Powerful in battle, who overthrows cities, who burns the mountains of the lands, am I, strong hero, who consumes his enemies, who burns up the wicked and the evil, am I. ... Like the onset of a storm, I press on. Like an evil downpour, I rage. . . . Like a net, I entangle. . . . At the mention of my mighty name, the princes of the four regions (of the world) trembled.As these vigorous kings brought more and more towns and territory into the empire, it became increasingly more difficult to collect tribute from and suppress rebellions in distant areas. For expediency, therefore, the royal government made many of these areas official provinces, each ruled by an Assyrian governor appointed by the king in Ashur. Thus, a true empire with complex administrative machinery gradually grew. The economic aspects of this administration were self-centered and severe. Precious metals, foodstuffs, livestock, and other valuable commodities regularly flowed into the empire's heartland from outlying areas. But very little, if anything, flowed out to compensate the subject peoples for their losses. This naturally inspired these peoples to hate the Assyrian monarchs even more.The Sargonid Dynasty Thefirsttruly great rulers among these monarchs were Ashur-nasirpal II (ca. 883-859 b.c.) and his son, Shalmaneser III (ca. 858-824 b.c.). The latter devoted fully thirty-one of his reign's nearly thirty-five years to expensive, violent military campaigns launched on all three of the nation's traditional fronts. But even these efforts paled in comparison to those of his successors. Tiglathpileser III (ca. 744-727 b.c.) further increased the powers of the central authority over the provinces and subject peoples. This helped pave the way for the conquests of Sargon II (ca. 721-705 b.c.) and his immediate successors - Sennacherib, Esarhaddon, and Ashurbanipal - collectively referred to as the Sargonids. The best documented of all the Assyrian rulers - indeed of all the Mes-opotamian rulers - they expanded the realm until it encompassed the entire courses of the Tigris and Euphrates rivers, parts of the Zagros Mountains in the east, Armenia (Urartu) in the north, eastern Anatolia in the northwest, and Babylonia in the southeast.Because this great empire was composed of diverse lands and peoples, each with their own customs and ambitions, it was difficult to control. And rebellions occurred frequently. Indeed, Sargon's reign was wracked by insurrections, yet he and his son, Sennacherib (ca. 704-681 b.c.), managed to keep the realm in one piece. Sennacherib also found time for domestic and cultural projects, including enlarging and beautifying the city of Nineveh and erecting the magnificent Palace Without Rival there. Esarhaddon (ca. 680-669 b.c.), also a noteworthy builder, refurbished Babylon. But he was no less a ruthless conqueror than his immediate predecessors, as his bold invasion of Egypt demonstrated. In reference to the Egyptian pharaoh, Esarhaddon states:Without cessation I slew multitudes of his men and him I smote five times with the point of my javelin. . . . Memphis, his royal city, in half a day, with mines, tunnels, assaults, I besieged, I captured . . . I burned with fire. His queen, his harem, his ... sons and daughters, his property and his goods, his horses, his cattle, his sheep, in countless numbers, I carried off to Assyria.Esarhaddon's son, Ashurbanipal (ca. 668627), also invaded Egypt, and in 639 b.c. he destroyed the kingdom of Elam, lying along Mesopotamia's southeastern fringe.However, Ashurbanipal's reign was also marred by rebellions and civil strife. As time went on, Assyria's vassals and subject peoples grew more daring and either resisted the central authority or severed ties with it. As the crisis worsened, the Babylonians, led by a Chaldean named Nabopolassar, invaded the Assyrian heartland. Soon the Medes, commanded by Cyaxares II, joined forces with the Babylonians and the two armies swept across central Mesopotamia, burning and pillaging one Assyrian stronghold after another. Assyria's heartland was devastated, and within the space of only a few years all that remained of the once-mighty Assyrian Empire was the memory of the cruelty of its rulers.
Ancient Mesopotamia dictioary. Don Nardo Robert B. Kebric. 2015.
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