The Assyrians are a people who have lived in the Middle East since ancient times, and today they can be found all over the world. They are well known for their vast ancient empire with cities such as Nimrud and Nineveh, but also for their ferocious invasions, including the Kingdom of Judah and Egypt.
In ancient times, the Assyrian civilization was often centered in the city of Assur, named after the supreme god of Assyria, and the ruins of the city are located in what is now northern Iraq. The territory controlled by the Assyrians was vast, stretching from southern Iraq to the Mediterranean coast at the height of the civilization in the 7th century BC, indicates Live Science.
Before the city of Assur gained its independence some 4,000 years ago, it was controlled by a people known as the Sumerians, whose civilization declined due to a mixture of political, military and environmental problems.
Old Assyrian period
The Old Assyrian period generally refers to the period after Assyria first gained independence around 2000 BC. In the first two centuries after independence, Assur was a city focused on trade, according to Klaas Veenhof, professor emeritus of Assyriology at Leiden University.
The city was no more than 40 hectares and had a population of between 5,000-8,000 people, which likely limited its military power, Veenhof noted.
Its early rulers did not refer to themselves as “kings” in their inscriptions. Instead, they called themselves “vice-regents” or “governors” of the god Ashur, says Amélie Kuhrt, emeritus professor of ancient Near Eastern history at University College London.
Part of an inscription found on the staircase of an Assyrian temple reads: “Erishum, vice-regent of the god Ashur, son of Ilushuma, vice-regent of the god Ashur, built the entire temple area of the temple of the god Ashur.” Why the early rulers of Assyria used such modest titles (governor as opposed to king) is a mystery that scholars are still trying to understand.
The Assyrian people had their own language
The city’s people spoke Assyrian, which is a “distinct language, though closely related to Babylonian, that was used in the regions south of Assur,” notes Karen Radner, Alexander von Humboldt Chair in Ancient Near and Middle Eastern History. at Ludwig Maximilian University in Munich.
Around 1800 BC, a ruler named Shamshi-Adad I (sometimes spelled Samsi-Adad) took control of the city of Assur. He incorporated the city into a considerable amount of territory he already controlled in what is now Iraq and Syria. Unlike previous Assur rulers, Shamshi-Adad made no pretense of modesty, instead giving himself a title that scholars sometimes translate as “king of the universe,” wrote Albert Grayson, professor emeritus of Assyriology at the University of from Toronto.
Shamshi-Adad’s empire did not last long. After his death, the empire collapsed, and the kingdoms of Ekallatum, Ehnunna, and Babylon all controlled Assur at some point in the period between about 1775 BC. and until 1720 BC,” wrote Shigeo Yamada, professor of history at the University of Tsukuba.
Middle Assyrian period
In the 14th century BC, the Mitanni kingdom began to fade, and the rulers of Assur began to assert the city’s independence. Modern scholars often call this period of new Assyrian independence the Middle Assyrian period. At the beginning of this period, Assur-uballit I (who ruled from about 1363 BC to 1328 BC) rose to power and claimed independence from the Mitanni, wrote Stefan Jacob, a researcher at the University of Heidelberg from Germany.
In a letter to the pharaoh of Egypt, Assur-uballit I (also called Ashur-uballit I) referred to himself as a “brother” of the pharaoh claiming “equal status with him,” Jacob wrote. Assur-uballit I also tried to use military conquest to expand the territory he controlled. His successors further expanded Assyrian territory. Adad-nirari I (who ruled from about 1305 BC to 1274 BC) conquered Mitanni, taking over a kingdom that had ruled Assyria a century earlier.
In ancient texts, Adad-nirari I claimed to have “sowed salt over” the Mittani capital Taidu and imposed labor obligations on the city’s survivors. He built a palace over Taidu saying he built it “from top to bottom” and created an inscription carved into the stone to mark his control of the city. Adad-nirari I was also called “king of the universe”, a title that future Assyrian kings would also use.
Testimonies of ancient records
Ancient records say that Adad-nirari I’s successors continued to expand Assyria. The Assyrians conquered Babylon during the reign of Tukulti-Ninurta I (1243 BC – 1207 BC) and reached the Mediterranean coast during the reign of Tiglath-Palasar I (1114 BC – 1076 BC) .). Tiglath-Palasar marked the achievement by bringing back cedar wood for building projects, ancient texts say.
The skill and martial prowess of the Assyrian kings continued to be emphasized in ancient inscriptions. Tiglath-Palasar spoke in one inscription of having “conquered a total of 42 countries and their rulers” in the Middle East, adding that he was a “valiant man” with an “unmatched bow” who was an experienced hunter.
However, inscriptions from the time of Tiglath-Pileser and his successors indicate the problems facing Assyria. The cities and civilizations of the Middle East were collapsing as a group of people from the Aegean, sometimes called the “people of the sea,” arrived in the region, displacing local populations and collapsing trade networks. Assyrian records indicate that Tiglath-Palasar and his successors frequently fought against the Arameans. In the two centuries following Tiglath-Palasar’s conquests, Assyria’s territory contracted, but the kingdom retained control of Assur and nearby areas. Assyria did not expand again until the 10th century BC.
The time period from the late 10th century BC, when the Assyrians began to expand again, to the destruction of the Assyrian Empire around 600 BC. it is often called the Neo-Assyrian period. During this time, the territory controlled by Assyria reached its largest geographical size.
At the beginning of this time period, Assyria had lost a considerable amount of territory. “Yet, step by step, a number of ruthless Assyrian kings in the late 10th and 9th centuries succeed in recapturing the lost lands and restoring Assyrian power,” wrote Eckart Frahm, professor of Assyriology at Yale University, in a work which was also published in A Companion to Assyria.
Under Ashurbanipal II (reigned 883 BC to 859 BC), the Assyrians reconquered much of the territory they had once controlled, once again reaching the Mediterranean coast. Ashurbanipal II also built a new palace in the city of Nimrud (also known as Kalhu) and used this city as a capital of Assyria, Frahm wrote. This policy of the king keeping some distance from Assur would be continued by the future Assyrian kings. Sargon II (reigned 721 BC to 705 BC) founded a new city called Khorsabad, making it the capital, while Sennacherib (reigned 704 BC to 681 BC .Hr.) built a new palace in Nineveh, moving the capital of Assyria there.
The biblical battle
During the 7th century BC, Assyrian rulers put down a series of rebellions in Babylon. Meanwhile, a group called “Medes” (Medes), located in what is now Iran, also launched attacks on the Assyrian forces.
Under the attack of two groups, while trying to maintain their possessions in the West, the Assyrian army came under more pressure. The Babylonians became fully independent during the reign of the Babylonian king Nabopolassar (reign ca. 625 BC to 605 BC).
In 612 BCE, the Median king Cyaxares (reigned c. 625 BCE to 585 BCE) launched a major attack on Nineveh, which the Assyrian king Sinsharishkun (reigned c. 622 BCE to 612 BCE) tried to stop him. A Babylonian inscription said that the battle for Nineveh lasted several months. “Three battles were fought” during that time, after which the city was stormed. The city fell and was destroyed by the invading army who turned the city “into ruined hills and heaps of rubble”.
Battles of the Assyrians
The Assyrians fought on, but their army was gradually depleted and their territory destroyed or taken over. It is not clear whether Sinsharishkun died in Nineveh or sometime later in a future battle. By 600 BC, the Assyrian kingdom had been completely destroyed.
Although many Assyrian cities were destroyed or badly damaged, some Assyrians survived the fall. The survivors and descendants lived through a long line of rulers. In the period after the time of Jesus Christ, the Assyrians converted to Christianity, a religion that many Assyrians have kept to this day.
Today, the Assyrian homeland is still in northern Iraq; however, the destruction wrought by the Islamic State (also known as ISIS, ISIL or Daesh) has left many Assyrians dead or forced to flee. The terrorist group also destroyed, looted or heavily destroyed many Assyrian sites, including Nimrud. The Assyrian people still live today and can be found all over the world.