The ancient land of Assyria (Map 6: H3–4), located in what is now northeastern Iraq, drew its name from the small settlement of Assur (or Ashur) built on a sandstone cliff on the west bank of the Tigris about 35 km (24 mi) north of its confluence with the lower Zab River. Situated at a major river crossing but outside the zone for reliable annual rainfall, Assur early attracted settlements by pastoralists, since it was easily defensible and had ready access to water. Early levels of a small shrine there dating to ca. 2800–2200 BCE show affinities with Sumerian culture to the south in furnishings and statuary.
The earliest independent ruler of the city‐state of Assur attested in a contemporary inscription is Shalim‐ahum, who reigned about 1900 BCE. At this time, firms of merchants in Assur established branches in several Anatolian cities and traded textiles and tin from Assur for silver.
About 1813 BCE, Shamshi‐Adad I, an Amorite prince from the middle Euphrates, took possession of Assur and subsequently founded an empire with its capital at Shubat‐Enlil (modern Tell Leilan in northeast Syria), with two sons reigning as subkings in Mari and in Ekallate (just north of Assur). Under Shamshi‐Adad's son Ishme‐Dagan I, the empire was quickly lost; and the dynasty of Shamshi‐Adad was replaced within a few decades by native Assyrians, who ruled—in relative obscurity—during the next four centuries, at times as vassals of Mitanni.
Under the dynamic Ashur‐uballit I (1364–1328 BCE), Assyria reemerged as a major power, and in the next century conquered and gradually annexed much of the old heartland of Mitanni to the west, setting up an extensive provincial system and then briefly taking over much of Babylonia to the south. Its imperialist ethic was embodied in the Middle Assyrian coronation ritual, in which the officiating priest solemnly charged the king: “Expand your land!” After 1200 BCE, amid widespread upheavals and population movements in Western Asia, the Middle Assyrian empire declined both politically and territorially. An extensive if short‐lived revival in the time of Tiglath‐pileser I (1115–1076 BCE) dissipated under the pressure of invading Arameans, who confined Assyrian political power to a narrow strip along the Tigris until the late tenth century.
After 935 BCE, Assyrians kings reclaimed lost sections of the Assyrian heartland from the Arameans and began to expand militarily, especially to the west. Over the next three centuries, these monarchs created an extensive Neo‐Assyrian empire, which at its height (ca. 660 BCE) embraced a substantial part of the ancient Near East from southern Egypt, Cyprus, and western Anatolia through Palestine‐Syria and Mesopotamia to Elam and the Iranian plateau (see Map 6). The foundations of Assyrian imperial power were effectively laid by Ashurnasirpal II (884–859 BCE), who built a splendid new capital at Calah (Nimrud), restructured the Assyrian army into a fighting force without peer in southwestern Asia, reorganized the Assyrian provincial system, and earned a reputation for ruthless treatment of rebels and prisoners. His massive deportations from conquered lands, continued by his successors, brought large numbers of western Arameans into the heartland of Assyria, swelling the ranks of the court and army, influencing artistic and architectural styles, and, by the early seventh century, replacing the Assyrian language with Aramaic as the vernacular. Ashurnasirpal's campaigns consolidated Assyrian territorial gains as far west as the Upper Euphrates and extracted tribute from these areas; his trading ventures, with military escort, succeeded in reaching the Mediterranean. His son, Shalmaneser II (859–824 BCE), began to extend Assyrian control into northern Syria; but his advance was checked temporarily at the battle of Qarqar (853 BCE) by a broad coalition of states led by Damascus and Hamath and including Arab tribes and Israel (under Ahab). Shalmaneser's subsequent campaigns, which reached into Cilicia, secured north Syria and brought the Phoenician cities Tyre and Sidon into the Assyrian orbit. Despite a revolt of the major cities in Assyria (827–821 BCE) and an ensuing weakness in monarchic power, Assyria continued to be active in the west until about 785 BCE.
Meanwhile, in the late ninth and early eighth centuries in the mountains to the north of Assyria, the rival power of Urartu had risen to prominence. As the fortunes of Assyria declined after 783 BCE under weak kings and strong provincial governors, the Urartians pushed south into Iran and west across the Euphrates into northern Syria. By 745 BCE, Urartu had conquered or concluded alliances with most of the important states in south‐central Anatolia and northern Syria and had assumed hegemony over the region. A revolt in Calah brought to the Assyrian throne Tiglath‐pileser III (745–727 BCE), a vigorous monarch who checked encroaching Aramean and Chaldean tribesmen in Babylonia, restricted Urartu to its homeland, and marched across Syria and Palestine (once in response to a request from Ahaz of Judah for intervention [2 Kings 16:7–9]) as far as Gaza. His son, Shalmaneser V (727–722 BCE), besieged Tyre and captured Samaria, bringing the kingdom of Israel to an end. Sargon II (722–705 BCE), a usurper, deported the population of Israel to various parts of the empire, campaigned as far as the border of Egypt, brought Babylonia under his control, and built a magnificent capital at Dur‐Sharrukin (Khorsabad) in the north of the country. His son, Sennacherib (705–681 BCE), expanded further into Anatolia. Faced with perennial unrest in Babylonia (fomented for the most part by Merodach‐baladan and his fellow Chaldeans) and smarting from the murder of his crown prince, Ashur‐nadin‐shumi, who had been king there from 700 to 694 BCE, Sennacherib eventually sacked and depopulated Babylon. In Palestine, he received the submission of Hezekiah, who had rebelled in collusion with Merodach‐baladan, and, after a siege, extracted tribute from Jerusalem (2 Kings 18:13–16). Assassinated by one of his sons, Sennacherib was succeeded by another son, Esarhaddon (681–669 BCE), who invaded the Iranian plateau and Egypt, but died prematurely of illness while on campaign. His empire was inherited principally by his son Ashurbanipal (669–627 BCE), who reigned in Assyria; but another son, Shamash‐shum‐ukin (668–648 BCE), was installed as king in Babylon. Ashurbanipal campaigned extensively in Egypt, reaching as far as Thebes, and brought the empire to its territorial apogee in about 660 BCE. In 652 BCE, Shamash‐shum‐ukin launched a massive revolt, which won support from Elamites, Arabs, and other disaffected Assyrian subjects. Ashurbanipal spent more than ten years defeating and wreaking reprisals on the dissidents, exhausting the empire in the process.
After Ashurbanipal's death in 627 BCE, civil war broke out in Assyria between three contenders for the throne; it took several years before Sin‐shar‐ishkun (623?–612 BCE) emerged as the victor. Within a decade he was faced with a coalition of Medes and Babylonians, who invaded and destroyed the central provinces of Assyria. A final king, Ashur‐uballit II (612–609 BCE), ruled briefly in the western provincial capital of Haran with the support of Egyptian armies; but he was driven out by the Babylonians. The fledgling empires of Babylon and Media divided the territories of the Assyrian empire, which disappeared with barely a trace even in its former heartland.
Assyria in the first millennium BCE, though renowned primarily as a massive military power that overwhelmed and intimidated much of southwestern Asia, had a vigorous cultural and economic life. In the decorative arts, its craftsmen displayed creative sensitivity in such diverse media as ivories, seals, and palace wall reliefs; the latter depict an astonishing variety of subjects, including formal protective deities, scenes of battlefield and siege, daily life at court, and the botanical zoological parks created in and around the Assyrian capitals. Literature also flourished, its most notable monument being the large library amassed by Ashurbanipal (669–627 BCE) at Nineveh, whose excavation in the mid‐nineteenth century led to the rediscovery of Mesopotamian literature. On the economic side, trade prospered throughout the empire as new markets were opened to entrepreneurs even from the conquered territories. Booty, tribute, and trade goods poured into the Assyrian heartland, financing the erection and renovation of resplendent urban capitals as well as the maintenance of the military machine that made the empire possible.
John A. Brinkman