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Early history of Assyria
Strictly speaking, the use of the name "Assyria"
for the period before the latter half of the 2nd millennium BC is
anachronistic; Assyria [as against the city-state
of Ashur] did not become an independent state
until about 1400 BC. For convenience, however, the term
is used throughout this section. In contrast to southern
Mesopotamia or the mid-Euphrates region (Mari),
written sources in Assyria do not begin until very late,
shortly before Ur III. By Assyria (
a region that does not lend itself to precise geographic
delineation) is understood the territory on the Tigris
north of the river's passage through the mountains of the Jabal
Hamrin to a point north of Nineveh, as well as
the area between Little and Great Zab (a
tributary of the Tigris in northeast Iraq)
and to the north of the latter. In the north, Assyria was
later bordered by the mountain state of Urartu; to the
east and southeast its neighbor was the region around ancient
Nuzi (near modern Kirkuk, "Arrapchitis"
[Arrapkha] of the Greeks). In the early 2nd millennium
the main cities of this region were Ashur (160 miles
north-northwest of modern Baghdad), the capital
(synonymous with the city god and national divinity); Nineveh,
lying opposite modern Mosul; and Urbilum,
later Arbela (modern Irbil, some 200
miles north of Baghdad).
In Assyria, inscriptions were composed
in Akkadian from the beginning. Under Ur III,
Ashur was a provincial capital. Assyria
as a whole, however, is not likely to have been a permanently secured part
of the empire, since two date formulas of Shulgi
and Amar-Su'ena mention the destruction of
Urbilum. Ideas of the population of Assyria in
the 3rd millennium are necessarily very imprecise. It is not known how
long Semitic tribes had been settled there. The
inhabitants of southern Mesopotamia called
Assyria Shubir in
Sumerian and Subartu
in Akkadian; these names may point to a Subarean
population that was related to the Hurrians.
Gasur, the later Nuzi, belonged to the
Akkadian language region about the year 2200 but was lost to the
Hurrians in the first quarter of the 2nd millennium. The
Assyrian dialect of Akkadian found in
the beginning of the 2nd millennium differs strongly from the dialect of
Babylonia. These two versions of the Akkadian
language continue into the 1st millennium.
In contrast to the kings of southern
Mesopotamia, the rulers of Ashur styled
themselves not king but partly issiakum, the
Akkadian equivalent of the Sumerian word
ensi, partly ruba'um, or "great one."
Unfortunately, the rulers cannot be synchronized precisely with the kings
of southern Mesopotamia before Shamshi-Adad I
(c. 1813-c. 1781 BC). For instance, it has not yet been
established just when Ilushuma's excursion toward the
southeast, recorded in an inscription, actually took place.
Ilushuma boasts of having freed of taxes the "Akkadians
and their children." While he mentions the cities of
Nippur and Ur, the other localities listed were
situated in the region east of the Tigris. The event
itself may have taken place in the reign of Ishme-Dagan
of Isin (c. 1953-c. 1935 BC), although how far
Ilushuma's words correspond to the truth cannot be checked. In
the Babylonian texts, at any rate, no reference is made
to Assyrian intervention. The whole problem of dating is
aggravated by the fact that the Assyrians did not, unlike
the Babylonians, use date formulas that often contain
interesting historical details; instead, every year was designated by the
name of a high official (eponymic
dating). The conscious cultivation of an old
tradition is mirrored in the fact that two rulers of 19th-century
Assyria called themselves Sargon and
Naram-Sin after famous models in the Akkadian dynasty.
Aside from the generally scarce reports on projected
construction, there is at present no information about the city of
Ashur and its surroundings. There exists, however, unexpectedly
rewarding source material from the trading colonies of Ashur
in Anatolia. The texts come mainly from Kanesh
(modern Kültepe, near Kayseri, in
Turkey) and from Hattusa (modern
Bogazköy, Turkey.), the later Hittite
capital. In the 19th century BC three generations of Assyrian
merchants engaged in a lively commodity trade (especially
in textiles and metal) between the
homeland and Anatolia, also taking part profitably in
internal Anatolian trade. Like their contemporaries in
southern Mesopotamia, they did business privately
and at their own risk, living peacefully and occasionally intermarrying
with the "Anatolians." As long as they paid taxes to the
local rulers, the Assyrians were given a free hand.
Clearly these forays by Assyrian
merchants led to some transplanting of Mesopotamian culture
into Anatolia. Thus the Anatolians
adopted cuneiform writing and used the Assyrian
language. While this influence doubtless already affected the
first Hittites arriving in Anatolia, a
direct line from the period of these trading colonies to
the Hittite empire cannot yet be traced.
From about 1813 to about 1781 Assyria
was ruled by Shamshi-Adad I, a contemporary of
Hammurabi and a personality in no way inferior to him.
Shamshi-Adad's father [an Amorite, to judge by
the name] had ruled near Mari. The son, not being of
Assyrian origin, ascended the throne of Assyria
as a foreigner and on a detour, as it were, after having spent some time
as an exile in Babylonia. He had his two sons rule as
viceroys, in Ekallatum on the Tigris and
in Mari, respectively, until the older of the two,
Ishme-Dagan, succeeded his father on the throne. Through
the archive of correspondence in the palace at Mari,
scholars are particularly well informed about Shamshi-Adad's
reign and many aspects of his personality. Shamshi-Adad's
state had a common border for some time with the Babylonia
of Hammurabi. Soon after Shamshi-Adad's
death, Mari broke away, regaining its independence under
an Amorite dynasty that had been living there for
generations; in the end, Hammurabi conquered and
destroyed Mari. After Ishme-Dagan's
death, Assyrian history is lost sight of for more than
The rise of Assyria
Very little can be said about northern Assyria
during the 2nd millennium BC. Information on the old capital,
Ashur, located in the south of the country, is somewhat more
plentiful. The old lists of kings suggest that the same
dynasty ruled continuously over Ashur from about 1600.
All the names of the kings are given, but little else is known about
Ashur before 1420. Almost all the princes had
Akkadian names, and it can be assumed that their sphere of
influence was rather small. Although Assyria belonged to
the kingdom of the Mitanni for a long time, it seems that
Ashur retained a certain autonomy.
Located close to the boundary with Babylonia, it played
that empire off against Mitanni whenever possible.
Puzur-Ashur III concluded a border treaty with
Babylonia about 1480, as did Ashur-bel-nisheshu
about 1405. Ashur-nadin-ahhe II (c. 1392-c. 1383) was
even able to obtain support from Egypt, which sent him a
consignment of gold.
(c. 1354-c. 1318) was
at first subject to King Tushratta of Mitanni.
After 1340, however, he attacked Tushratta, presumably
together with Suppiluliumas I of the Hittites.
Taking away from Mitanni parts of northeastern
Mesopotamia, Ashur-uballit now called himself "Great
King" and socialized with the king of Egypt on
equal terms, arousing the indignation of the king of Babylonia.
Ashur-uballit was the first to name Assyria
the Land of Ashur, because
the old name, Subartu, was often used in a derogatory
sense in Babylonia. He ordered his short inscriptions to
be partly written in the Babylonian dialect rather than
the Assyrian, since this was considered refined. Marrying
his daughter to a Babylonian, he intervened there
energetically when Kassite nobles murdered his grandson.
Future generations came to consider him rightfully as the real founder of
the Assyrian empire. His son Enlil-nirari
(c. 1326-c. 1318) also fought against Babylonia.
Arik-den-ili (c. 1308-c. 1297) turned westward, where he
encountered Semitic tribes of the so-called
Still greater successes were achieved by
Adad-nirari I (c. 1295-c. 1264). Defeating the Kassite
king Nazimaruttash, he forced him to retreat. After that
he defeated the kings of Mitanni, first Shattuara
I, then Wasashatta. This enabled him for a time
to incorporate all Mesopotamia into his empire as a
province, although in later struggles he lost large parts to the
Hittites. In the east, he was satisfied with the defense of his
lands against the mountain tribes.
Adad-nirari's inscriptions were more
elaborate than those of his predecessors and were written in the
Babylonian dialect. In them he declares that he feels called to
these wars by the gods, a statement that was to be repeated by other kings
after him. Assuming the old title of great king, he
called himself "King of All." He enlarged the
temple and the palace in Ashur
and also developed the fortifications there, particularly at the banks of
the Tigris River. He worked on large building projects in
His son Shalmaneser I (Shulmanu-asharidu;
c. 1263-c. 1234) attacked Uruatru (later called Urartu)
in southern Armenia, which had allegedly broken away.
Shattuara II of Hanigalbat, however, put
him into a difficult situation, cutting his forces off from their water
supplies. With courage born of despair, the Assyrians
fought themselves free. They then set about reducing what was left of the
Mitanni kingdom into an Assyrian province.
The king claimed to have blinded 14,400 enemies in one eye [psychological
warfare of a similar kind was used more and more as time went by].
The Hittites tried in vain to save Hanigalbat.
Together with the Babylonians they fought a
commercial war against Ashur for many years.
Like his father, Shalmaneser was a great builder. At the
juncture of the Tigris and Great Zab
rivers, he founded a strategically situated second capital, Kalakh
(biblical Calah; modern Nimrud).
His son was Tukulti-Ninurta (c.
1233-c. 1197), the Ninus of Greek legends.
Gifted but extravagant, he made his nation a great power. He carried off
thousands of Hittites from eastern Anatolia.
He fought particularly hard against Babylonia, deporting
Kashtiliash IV to Assyria. When the
Babylonians rebelled again, he plundered the
temples in Babylon, an act regarded as a
sacrilege, even in Assyria. The relationship between the
king and his capital deteriorated steadily. For this reason the king began
to build a new city, Kar-Tukulti-Ninurta, on the other
side of the Tigris River. Ultimately, even his sons
rebelled against him and laid siege to him in his city; in the end he was
murdered. His victorious wars against Babylonia were
glorified in an epic poem, but his empire broke up soon
after his death. Assyrian power declined for a time,
while that of Babylonia rose.
Assyria had suffered under the
oppression of both the Hurrians and the Mitanni
kingdom. Its struggle for liberation and the bitter wars that
followed had much to do with its development into a military power.
In his capital of Ashur, the king depended on the
citizen class and the priesthood, as well as on
the landed nobility that furnished him with the
Documents and letters show the important role that
agriculture played in the development of the state.
Assyria was less dependent on artificial
irrigation than was Babylonia. The breeding of
horses was carried on intensively; remnants of elaborate
directions for their training are extant. Trade and commerce also were of
notable significance: metals were imported
from Anatolia or Armenia, tin
from northwestern Iran, and lumber from
the west. The opening up of new trade routes was often a cause and the
purpose of war.
Assyrian architecture, derived from a
combination of Mitannian and Babylonian
influences, developed early quite an individual style. The palaces
often had colorful wall decorations. The art of seal cutting,
taken largely from Mitanni, continued creatively on its
own. The schools for scribes, where all the civil
servants were trained, taught both the Babylonian
and the Assyrian dialects of the Akkadian
language. Babylonian works of literature
were assimilated into Assyrian, often reworked into a
different form. The Hurrian tradition remained strong in
the military and political sphere while at the same time influencing the
vocabulary of language.
Assyria between 1200 and 1000 BC
After a period of decline following
Tukulti-Ninurta I, Assyria was consolidated and
stabilized under Ashur-dan I (c. 1179-c. 1134) and
Ashur-resh-ishi I (c. 1133-c. 1116). Several times forced
to fight against Babylonia, the latter was even able to
defend himself against an attack by Nebuchadrezzar I.
According to the inscriptions, most of his building efforts were in
Nineveh, rather than in the old capital of Ashur.
His son Tiglath-pileser I (Tukulti-apil-Esharra;
c. 1115-c. 1077) raised the power of Assyria to new
heights. First he turned against a large army of the Mushki
that had entered into southern Armenia from
Anatolia, defeating them decisively. After this, he forced the
small Hurrian states of southern Armenia
to pay him tribute. Trained in mountain warfare themselves and helped by
capable pioneers, the Assyrians were now able to advance
far into the mountain regions. Their main enemies were the
Aramaeans, the Semitic Bedouin nomads whose many
small states often combined against the Assyrians.
Tiglath-pileser I also went to Syria and
even reached the Mediterranean, where he took a sea
voyage. After 1100 these campaigns led to conflicts with Babylonia.
Tiglath-pileser conquered northern Babylonia
and plundered Babylon, without decisively defeating
Marduk-nadin-ahhe. In his own country the king paid
particular attention to agriculture and fruit
growing, improved the administrative system, and
developed more thorough methods of training scribes.
Three of his sons reigned after Tiglath-pileser,
including Ashur-bel-kala (c. 1074-c. 1057). Like his
father, he fought in southern Armenia and against the
Aramaeans with Babylonia as his ally.
Disintegration of the empire could not be delayed, however. The grandson
of Tiglath-pileser, Ashurnasirpal I (c.
1050-c. 1032), was sickly and unable to do more than defend
Assyria proper against his enemies. Fragments of three of his
prayers to Ishtar are preserved; among them is a
penitential prayer in which he wonders about the cause of so much
adversity. Referring to his many good deeds but admitting his guilt at the
same time, he asks for forgiveness and health. According to the king, part
of his guilt lay in neglecting to teach his subjects the fear of
god. After him, little is known for 100 years.
State and society
during the time of Tiglath-pileser were not essentially
different from those of the 13th century. Collections of laws, drafts, and
edicts of the court exist that go back as far as the 14th century BC.
Presumably, most of these remained in effect. One tablet defining the
marriage laws shows that the social position
of women in Assyria was lower than in Babylonia
or among the Hittites. A man was allowed to send away his
wife at his own pleasure with or without divorce money.
In the case of adultery, he was permitted to kill or maim
her. Outside her house the woman was forced to observe many restrictions,
such as the wearing of a veil. It is not clear whether
these regulations carried the weight of law, but they
seem to have represented a reaction against practices that were more
favorable to women. Two somewhat older marriage contracts,
for example, granted equal rights to both
partners, even in divorce. The women of the
king's harem were subject to severe punishment, including beating,
maiming, and death, along with those who guarded and looked after them.
The penal laws of the time were generally more severe in Assyria
than in other countries of the East. The death penalty
was not uncommon. In less serious cases the penalty was forced
labor after flogging. In certain cases there
was trial by ordeal. One tablet treats the subject of landed property
rights. Offenses against the established boundary lines called for
extremely severe punishment. A creditor was allowed to force his debtor to
work for him, but he could not sell him.
The greater part of Assyrian literature
was either taken over from Babylonia or written by the
Assyrians in the Babylonian dialect, who
modeled their works on Babylonian originals. The
Assyrian dialect was used in legal documents,
court and temple rituals, and
collections of recipes--as, for example, in directions
for making perfumes. A new art form was
the picture tale: a continuing series of pictures
carved on square stela of stone. The pictures, showing war or hunting
scenes, begin at the top of the stela and run down around it, with
inscriptions under the pictures explaining them. These and the finely
cut seals show that the fine arts of Assyria
were beginning to surpass those of Babylonia.
Architecture and other forms of the monumental arts also began a
further development, such as the double temple with its
two towers (ziggurat). Colorful enameled tiles were used
to decorate the facades.
Assyria and Babylonia from c. 1000 to c. 750 BC
Assyria and Babylonia
until Ashurnasirpal II
The most important factor in the history of
Mesopotamia in the 10th century was the continuing threat from
the Aramaean seminomads. Again and again, the kings of
both Babylonia and Assyria were forced
to repel their invasions. Even though the Aramaeans were
not able to gain a foothold in the main cities, there are evidences of
them in many rural areas. Ashur-dan II (934-912)
succeeded in suppressing the Aramaeans and the
mountain people, in this way stabilizing the Assyrian
boundaries. He reintroduced the use of the Assyrian dialect
in his written records.
Adad-nirari II (c. 911-891) left
detailed accounts of his wars and his efforts to improve
agriculture. He led six campaigns against Aramaean
intruders from northern Arabia. In two campaigns against
Babylonia he forced Shamash-mudammiq (c.
930-904) to surrender extensive territories. Shamash-mudammiq
was murdered, and a treaty with his successor, Nabu-shum-ukin
(c. 904-888), secured peace for many years.
Tukulti-Ninurta II (c. 890-884), the son of Adad-nirari
II, preferred Nineveh to Ashur.
He fought campaigns in southern Armenia. He was portrayed
on stela in blue and yellow enamel in the late Hittite style,
showing him under a winged sun. His son
Ashurnasirpal II (883-859) continued the policy of
conquest and expansion. He left a detailed
account of his campaigns, which were impressive in their cruelty. Defeated
enemies were impaled, flayed, or
beheaded in great numbers. Mass deportations,
however, were found to serve the interests of the growing empire
better than terror. Through the systematic exchange of native
populations, conquered regions were denationalized. The
result was a submissive, mixed population in which the
Aramaean element became the majority. This provided the
labor force for the various public works in the metropolitan centres of
the Assyrian empire. Ashurnasirpal II
rebuilt Kalakh, founded by Shalmaneser I,
and made it his capital. Ashur remained the centre of the
worship of the god Ashur--in whose name all the wars of
conquest were fought. A third capital was Nineveh.
Ashurnasirpal II was the first to use
cavalry units to any large extent in addition to
infantry and war-chariot troops. He also was the
first to employ heavy, mobile battering rams
and wall breakers in his sieges. Following after the
conquering troops came officials from all branches of the civil
service, because the king wanted to lose no time in incorporating
the new lands into his empire. The supremacy of
Assyria over its neighboring states owed much to the proficiency
of the government service under the leadership of the minister
Gabbilani-eresh. The campaigns of Ashurnasirpal II
led him mainly to southern Armenia and
Mesopotamia. After a series of heavy wars, he incorporated
Mesopotamia as far as the Euphrates
River. A campaign to Syria encountered little resistance.
There was no great war against Babylonia.
Ashurnasirpal, like other Assyrian kings, may
have been moved by religion not to destroy
Babylonia, which had almost the same gods as
Assyria. Both empires must have profited from
mutual trade and cultural exchange. The
Babylonians, under the energetic Nabu-apla-iddina
(c. 887-855) attacked the Aramaeans in southern
Mesopotamia and occupied the valley of the Euphrates
River to about the mouth of the Khabur River.
Ashurnasirpal, so brutal in his wars,
was able to inspire architects, structural
engineers, and artists and sculptors
to heights never before achieved. He built and enlarged temples
and palaces in several cities. His most impressive
monument was his own palace in Kalakh,
covering a space of 269,000 square feet (25,000 square meters). Hundreds
of large limestone slabs were used in murals in the staterooms and living
quarters. Most of the scenes were done in relief, but painted murals also
have been found. Most of them depict mythological themes
and symbolic fertility rites, with the king
participating. Brutal war pictures were aimed to discourage
enemies. The chief god of Kalakh was
Ninurta, god of war and the hunt. The tower of the temple
dedicated to Ninurta also served as an
astronomical observatory. Kalakh soon became the
cultural centre of the empire. Ashurnasirpal
claimed to have entertained 69,574 guests at the opening ceremonies of his
Shalmaneser III and Shamshi-Adad V of Assyria
The son and successor of Ashurnasirpal
was Shalmaneser III (858-824). His father's equal in both
brutality and energy, he was less realistic in his undertakings. His
inscriptions, in a peculiar blend of Assyrian and
Babylonian, record his considerable achievements but are not
always able to conceal his failures. His campaigns were directed mostly
against Syria. While he was able to conquer
northern Syria and make it a province, in the
south he could only weaken the strong state of Damascus
and was unable, even after several wars, to eliminate it. In 841 he laid
unsuccessful siege to Damascus. Also in 841 King
Jehu of Israel was forced to pay tribute. In his
invasion of Cilicia, Shalmaneser had
only partial success. The same was true of the kingdom of Urartu
in Armenia, from which, however, the troops returned with
immense quantities of lumber and building stone.
The king and, in later years, the general Dayyan-Ashur
went several times to western Iran, where they found such
states as Mannai in northwestern Iran
and, farther away in the southeast, the Persians. They
also encountered the Medes during these wars.
Horse tribute was collected.
Marduk-zakir-shumi I ascended the throne about the year 855. His
brother Marduk-bel-usati rebelled against him, and in 851
the king was forced to ask Shalmaneser for help.
Shalmaneser was only too happy to oblige; when the usurper had
been finally eliminated (850), Shalmaneser went to
southern Babylonia, which at that time was almost
completely dominated by Aramaeans. There he encountered,
among others, the Chaldeans, mentioned for the first time
in 878 BC, who were to play a leading role in the history
of later times; Shalmaneser made them tributaries.
During his long reign he built temples,
palaces, and fortifications in
Assyria as well as in the other capitals of his provinces. His
artists created many statues and stela.
Among the best known is the Black Obelisk, which includes
a picture of Jehu of Israel paying
tribute. The bronze doors from the town of Imgur-Enlil (Balawat)
in Assyria portray the course of his campaigns and other
undertakings in rows of pictures, often very lifelike. Hundreds of
delicately carved ivories were carried away from
Phoenicia, and many of the artists along with them; these later
made Kalakh a centre for the art of ivory
In the last four years of the reign of
Shalmaneser, the crown prince Ashur-da'in-apla
led a rebellion. The old king appointed his younger son
Shamshi-Adad as the new crown prince. Forced to flee to
Babylonia, Shamshi-Adad V (823-811) finally
managed to regain the kingship with the help of Marduk-zakir-shumi
I under humiliating conditions. As king he campaigned with
varying success in southern Armenia and
Azerbaijan, later turning against Babylonia. He
won several battles against the Babylonian kings
Marduk-balassu-iqbi and Baba-aha-iddina (about
818-12) and pushed through to Chaldea. Babylonia
remained independent, however.
Adad-nirari III and his successors
Shamshi-Adad V died while
Adad-nirari III (810-783) was still a minor. His
Babylonian mother, Sammu-ramat, took over the
regency, governing with great energy until 806. The
Greeks, who called her Semiramis,
credited her with legendary accomplishments, but historically little is
known about her. Adad-nirari later led several campaigns
against the Medes and also against Syria
and Palestine. In 804 he reached Gaza,
but Damascus proved invincible. He also fought in
Babylonia, helping to restore order in the north.
Shalmaneser IV (c. 783-773) fought
against Urartu, then at the height of its power under
King Argishti (c. 780-755). He successfully defended
eastern Mesopotamia against attacks from Armenia.
On the other hand, he lost most of Syria after a campaign
against Damascus in 773. The reign of Ashur-dan
III (772-755) was shadowed by rebellions and by epidemics of
plague. Of Ashur-nirari V (754-746)
little is known.
In Assyria the feudal
structure of society remained largely unchanged. Many of the conquered
lands were combined to form large provinces. The governors of these
provinces sometimes acquired considerable independence, particularly under
the weaker monarchs after Adad-nirari III. Some of them
even composed their own inscriptions. The influx of displaced peoples into
the cities of Assyria created large metropolitan
centers. The spoils of war, together with an expanding
trade, favored the development of a well-to-do
commercial class. The dense population of the cities gave rise to
social tensions that only the strong kings were able to contain. A number
of the former capitals of the conquered lands remained important as
capitals of provinces. There was much new building. A standing
occupational force was needed in the provinces, and these troops grew
steadily in proportion to the total military forces. There are no records
on the training of officers or on military logistics. The civil
service also expanded, the largest administrative
body being the royal court, with thousands of
functionaries and craftsmen in the several residential cities.
The cultural decline about the year
1000 was overcome during the reigns of
Ashurnasirpal II and Shalmaneser III. The
arts in particular experienced a tremendous resurgence.
Literary works continued to be written in
Assyrian and were seldom of great importance. The literature that
had been taken over from Babylonia was further developed
with new writings, although one can rarely distinguish between works
written in Assyria and works written in Babylonia.
In religion, the official cults of Ashur and
Ninurta continued, while the religion of the
common people went its separate way.
In Babylonia not much was left of the
feudal structure; the large landed estates almost
everywhere fell prey to the inroads of the Aramaeans, who
were at first half nomadic. The leaders of their tribes
and clans slowly replaced the former landlords. Agriculture
on a large scale was no longer possible except on the outskirts of
metropolitan areas. The predominance of the Babylonian
schools for scribes may have prevented the
emergence of an Aramaean literature. In any case, the
Aramaeans seem to have been absorbed
into the Babylonian culture. The religious cults
in the cities remained essentially the same. The Babylonian empire
was slowly reduced to poverty, except perhaps in some of the cities.
In 764, after an epidemic, the
Erra epic, the myth of Erra (the god of war and
pestilence), was written by Kabti-ilani-Marduk. He
invented an original plot, which diverged considerably from the old myths;
long discourses of the gods involved in the action form the most important
part of the epic. There is a passage in the epic claiming that the text
was divinely revealed to the poet during a dream.
The Neo-Assyrian Empire (746-609)
For no other period of Assyrian
history is there an abundance of sources comparable to those available for
the interval from roughly 745 to 640. Aside from the large number of
royal inscriptions, about 2,400 letters, most of them
more or less fragmentary, have been published. Usually the senders and
recipients of these letters are the king and high government officials.
Among them are reports from royal agents about
foreign affairs and letters about cultic matters.
Treaties, oracles, queries
to the sun god about political matters, and
prayers of or for kings contain a great deal of additional
information. Last but certainly not least are paintings
and wall relief's, which are often very informative.
and Shalmaneser V
The decline of Assyrian power after
780 was notable; Syria and considerable lands in the
north were lost. A military coup deposed King
Ashur-nirari V and raised a general to the
throne. Under the name of Tiglath-pileser III (745-727),
he brought the empire to its greatest expanse. He reduced
the size of the provinces in order to break the partial independence of
the governors. He also invalidated the tax privileges of
cities such as Ashur and Harran in order
to distribute the tax load more evenly over the entire realm.
Military equipment was improved substantially. In 746 he went to
Babylonia to aid Nabu-nasir (747-734) in
his fight against Aramaean tribes.
Tiglath-pileser defeated the Aramaeans and then
made visits to the large cities of Babylonia. There he
tried to secure the support of the priesthood by
patronizing their building projects. Babylonia retained
His next undertaking was to check Urartu.
His campaigns in Azerbaijan were designed to drive a
wedge between Urartu and the Medes. In
743 he went to Syria, defeating there an army of
Urartu. The Syrian city of Arpad,
which had formed an alliance with Urartu, did not
surrender so easily. It took Tiglath-pileser three years
of siege to conquer Arpad, whereupon he massacred the
inhabitants and destroyed the city. In 738 a new coalition formed against
Assyria under the leadership of Sam'al
(modern Zincirli) in northern Syria. It
was defeated, and all the princes from Damascus to
eastern Anatolia were forced to pay tribute. Another
campaign in 735, this time directed against Urartu
itself, was only partly successful. In 734 Tiglath-pileser
invaded southern Syria and the Philistine
territories in Palestine, going as far as the
Egyptian border. Damascus and Israel
tried to organize resistance against him, seeking to bring Judah
into their alliance. Ahaz of Judah, however, asked
Tiglath-pileser for help. In 733 Tiglath-pileser
devastated Israel and forced it to surrender large
territories. In 732 he advanced upon Damascus, first
devastating the gardens outside the city and then conquering the capital
and killing the king, whom he replaced with a governor. The queen of
southern Arabia, Samsil, was now obliged
to pay tribute, being permitted in return to use the harbor of the city
of Gaza, which was in Assyrian hands.
The death of King Nabonassar of
Babylonia caused a chaotic situation to develop there,
and the Aramaean Ukin-zer crowned
himself king. In 731 Tiglath-pileser fought and beat him
and his allies, but he did not capture Ukin-zer until
729. This time he did not appoint a new king for Babylonia
but assumed the crown himself under the name Pulu (Pul in
the Old Testament). In his old age he abstained from further campaigning,
devoting himself to the improvement of his capital, Kalakh.
He rebuilt the palace of Shalmaneser III, filled it with
treasures from his wars, and decorated the walls with bas-reliefs. The
latter were almost all of warlike character, as if designed to intimidate
the onlooker with their presentation of gruesome executions. These
pictorial narratives on slabs, sometimes painted, have also been found in
Syria, at the sites of several provincial capitals of
Tiglath-pileser was succeeded by his
son Shalmaneser V (726-722), who continued the policy of
his father. As king of Babylonia, he called himself
Ululai. Almost nothing is known about his enterprises,
since his successor destroyed all his inscriptions. The Old
Testament relates that he marched against Hoshea
of Israel in 724 after Hoshea had
rebelled. He was probably assassinated during the long siege of
Samaria. His successor maintained that the god Ashur
had withdrawn his support of Shalmaneser V for acts of
Sargon II (721-705) and Marduk-apal-iddina of Babylonia
It was probably a younger brother of
Shalmaneser who ascended the throne of Assyria
in 721. Assuming the old name of Sharru-kin (Sargon in
the Bible), meaning "Legitimate King," he assured himself
of the support of the priesthood and the merchant
class by restoring privileges they had lost, particularly the tax
exemptions of the great temples. The change of sovereign
in Assyria triggered another crisis in Babylonia.
An Aramaean prince from the south,
Marduk-apal-iddina II (the biblical Merodach-Baladan),
seized power in Babylon in 721 and was able to retain it
until 710 with the help of Humbanigash I of Elam.
A first attempt by Sargon to recover Babylonia
miscarried when Elam defeated him in 721. During the same
year the protracted siege of Samaria was brought to a
close. The Samarian upper class was deported, and
Israel became an Assyrian province.
Samaria was repopulated with Syrians and
Babylonians. Judah remained independent by
paying tribute. In 720 Sargon squelched
a rebellion in Syria that had been supported by
Egypt. Then he defeated both Hanunu of
Gaza and an Egyptian army near the
Egyptian border. In 717 and 716 he campaigned in northern
Syria, making the hitherto independent state of
Carchemish one of his provinces. He also went to Cilicia
in an effort to prevent further encroachments of the Phrygians
under King Midas (Assyrian: Mita).
In order to protect his ally, the state of
Mannai, in Azerbaijan, Sargon
embarked on a campaign in Iran in 719 and incorporated
parts of Media as provinces of his empire; however, in
716 another war became necessary. At the same time, he was busy preparing
a major attack against Urartu. Under the leadership of
the crown prince Sennacherib, armies of agents
infiltrated Urartu, which was also threatened from the
north by the Cimmerians. Many of their messages and
reports have been preserved. The longest inscription ever composed by the
Assyrians about a year's enterprise (430 very long lines)
is dedicated to this Urartu campaign of 714. Phrased in
the style of a first report to the god Ashur, it is
interspersed with stirring descriptions of natural scenery. The strong
points of Urartu must have been well fortified.
Sargon tried to avoid them by going through the province of
Mannai and attacking the Median
principalities on the eastern side of Lake Urmia. In the
meantime, hoping to surprise the Assyrian troops,
Rusa of Urartu had closed the narrow pass lying
between Lake Urmia and Sahand Mount.
Sargon, anticipating this, led a small band of
cavalry in a surprise charge that developed into a great victory
for the Assyrians. Rusa fled and died.
The Assyrians pushed forward, destroying all the cities,
fortifications, and even irrigation works of Urartu. They
did not conquer Tushpa (the capital) but took possession
of the mountain city of Musasir. The spoils were immense.
The following years saw only small campaigns in Media and
eastern Anatolia and against Ashdod, in
Palestine. King Midas of Phrygia
and some cities on Cyprus were quite ready to pay
Sargon was now free to settle accounts
with Marduk-apal-iddina of Babylonia.
Abandoned by his ally Shutruk-Nahhunte II of Elam,
Marduk-apal-iddina found it best to flee, first to his
native land on the Persian Gulf and later to Elam.
Because the Aramaean prince had made himself very
unpopular with his subjects, Sargon was hailed as the
liberator of Babylonia. He complied with the wishes of
the priesthood and at the same time put down the
Aramaean nobility. He was satisfied with the modest title of
governor of Babylonia.
At first Sargon resided in
Kalakh, but he then decided to found an entirely new capital
north of Nineveh. He called the city
Dur-Sharrukin--"Sargonsburg" (modern Khorsabad).
He erected his palace on a high terrace in the
northeastern part of the city. The temples of the main
gods, smaller in size, were built within the palatial rectangle, which was
surrounded by a special wall. This arrangement enabled Sargon
to supervise the priests better than had been possible in
the old, large temple complexes. One consequence of this
design was that the figure of the king pushed the gods somewhat into the
background, thereby gaining in importance. Desiring that his palace match
the vastness of his empire, Sargon planned it in
monumental dimensions. Stone relief's of two winged bulls
with human heads flanked the entrance ; they were much larger than
anything comparable built before. The walls were decorated with long rows
of bas-reliefs showing scenes of war and festive processions. A comparison
with a well-executed stela of the Babylonian king
Marduk-apal-iddina shows that the fine arts of
Assyria had far surpassed those of Babylonia.
Sargon never completed his capital, though from 713 to
705 BC tens of thousands of laborers and hundreds of artisans worked on
the great city. Yet, with the exception of some magnificent buildings for
public officials, only a few durable edifices were completed in the
residential section. In 705, in a campaign in northwestern Iran,
Sargon was ambushed and killed. His corpse remained
unburied, to be devoured by birds of prey. Sargon's son
Sennacherib, who had quarreled with his father, was
inclined to believe with the priests that his death was a
punishment from the neglected gods of the ancient
Sennacherib (Assyrian: Sin-ahhe-eriba;
704-681) was well prepared for his position as sovereign. With him
Assyria acquired an exceptionally clever and gifted, though often
extravagant, ruler. His father, interestingly enough, is not mentioned in
any of his many inscriptions. He left the new city of
Dur-Sharrukin at once and resided in Ashur for a
few years, until in 701 he made Nineveh his capital.
Sennacherib had considerable
difficulties with Babylonia. In 703
Marduk-apal-iddina again crowned himself king with the aid of
Elam, proceeding at once to ally himself with other
enemies of Assyria. After nine months he was forced to
withdraw when Sennacherib defeated a coalition army
consisting of Babylonians, Aramaeans,
and Elamites. The new puppet king of Babylonia
was Bel-ibni (702-700), who had been raised in
In 702 Sennacherib launched a raid
into western Iran. In 701 there followed his most famous
campaign, against Syria and Palestine,
with the purpose of gaining control over the main road from Syria
to Egypt in preparation for later campaigns against
Egypt itself. When Sennacherib's army
approached, Sidon immediately expelled its ruler,
Luli, who was hostile to Assyria. The other
allies either surrendered or were defeated. An Egyptian
army was defeated at Eltekeh in Judah.
Sennacherib laid siege to Jerusalem, and
the king of Judah, Hezekiah, was called
upon to surrender, but he did not comply. An Assyrian
officer tried to incite the people of Jerusalem against
Hezekiah, but his efforts failed. In view of the
difficulty of surrounding a mountain stronghold such as Jerusalem,
and of the minor importance of this town for the main purpose of the
campaign, Sennacherib cut short the attack and left
Palestine with his army, which according to the
Old Testament (2 Kings 19:35) had been decimated by an
epidemic. The number of Assyrian dead is
reported to have risen to 185,000. Nevertheless, Hezekiah
is reported to have paid tribute to Sennacherib on at
least one occasion.
seceded from the union with Assyria in 700.
Sennacherib moved quickly, defeating Bel-ibni
and replacing him with Sennacherib's oldest son,
Ashur-nadin-shumi. The next few years were relatively peaceful.
Sennacherib used this time to prepare a decisive attack
against Elam, which time and again had supported
Babylonian rebellions. The overland route to Elam
had been cut off and fortified by the Elamites.
Sennacherib had ships built in Syria and at
Nineveh. The ships from Syria were moved
on rollers from the Euphrates to the Tigris.
The fleet sailed downstream and was quite successful in
the lagoons of the Persian Gulf and along the southern
coastline of Elam. The Elamites launched
a counteroffensive by land, occupying Babylonia and
putting a man of their choice on the throne. Not until 693 were the
Assyrians again able to fight their way through to the
north. Finally, in 689, Sennacherib had his revenge.
Babylon was conquered and completely destroyed, the
temples plundered and leveled. The waters of the
Arakhtu Canal were diverted over the ruins, and the inner city
remained almost totally uninhabited for eight years. Even many
Assyrians were indignant at this, believing that the
Babylonian god Marduk must be grievously
offended at the destruction of his temple and the carrying off of his
image. Marduk was also an Assyrian deity,
to whom many Assyrians turned in time of need. A
political-theological propaganda campaign was launched to
explain to the people that what had taken place was in accord with the
wish of most of the gods. A story was written in which Marduk,
because of a transgression, was captured and brought before a tribunal.
Only a part of the commentary to this botched piece of literature is
extant. Even the great poem of the creation of the world,
the Enuma elish, was altered: the god Marduk
was replaced by the god Ashur. Sennacherib's
boundless energies brought no gain to his empire, however, and probably
weakened it. The tenacity of this king can be seen in his building
projects; for example, when Nineveh needed water for
irrigation, Sennacherib had his engineers divert the
waters of a tributary of the Great Zab River. The canal
had to cross a valley at Jerwan. An aqueduct
was constructed, consisting of about two million blocks
of limestone, with five huge, pointed archways over the brook in the
valley. The bed of the canal on the aqueduct was sealed with cement
containing magnesium. Parts of this aqueduct are still standing today.
Sennacherib wrote of these and other technological
accomplishments in minute detail, with illustrations.
Sennacherib built a huge palace in
Nineveh, adorned with relieves, some of them depicting the
transport of colossal bull statues by water and by land. Many of the rooms
were decorated with pictorial narratives in bas-relief telling of war and
of building activities. Considerable advances can be noted in artistic
execution, particularly in the portrayal of landscapes and animals.
Outstanding are the depictions of the battles in the lagoons, the life in
the military camps, and the deportations.
In 681 BC there was a rebellion. Sennacherib
was assassinated by one or two of his sons in the temple of the god
Ninurta at Kalakh. This god, along with
the god Marduk, had been badly treated by
Sennacherib, and the event was widely regarded as punishment of
Ignoring the claims of his older brothers, an
imperial council appointed Esarhaddon (Ashur-aha-iddina;
680-669) as Sennacherib's successor. The choice is all
the more difficult to explain in that Esarhaddon, unlike
his father, was friendly toward the Babylonians. It can
be assumed that his energetic and designing mother, Zakutu
(Naqia), who came from Syria or Judah,
used all her influence on his behalf to override the national
party of Assyria. The theory that he was a
partner in plotting the murder of his father is rather improbable; at any
rate, he was able to procure the loyalty of his father's army. His
brothers had to flee to Urartu. In his inscriptions,
Esarhaddon always mentions both his father and
Defining the destruction of Babylon
explicitly as punishment by the god Marduk, the new king
soon ordered the reconstruction of the city. He referred to himself only
as governor of Babylonia and through his policies
obtained the support of the cities of Babylonia. At the
beginning of his reign the Aramaean tribes were still
allied with Elam against him, but Urtaku
of Elam (675-664) signed a peace treaty
and freed him for campaigning elsewhere. In 679 he stationed a garrison at
the Egyptian border, because Egypt,
under the Ethiopian king Taharqa, was
planning to intervene in Syria. He put down with great
severity a rebellion of the combined forces of Sidon,
Tyre, and other Syrian cities. The time
was ripe to attack Egypt, which was suffering under the
rule of the Ethiopians and was by no means a united
country. Esarhaddon's first attempt in 674-673
miscarried. In 671 BC, however, his forces took Memphis,
the Egyptian capital. Assyrian
consultants were assigned to assist the princes of the 22 provinces, their
main duty being the collection of tribute.
Occasional threats came from the mountainous border
regions of eastern Anatolia and Iran.
Pushed forward by the Scythians, the Cimmerians
in northern Iran and Transcaucasia tried
to gain a foothold in Syria and western Iran.
Esarhaddon allied himself with the Scythian
king Partatua by giving him one of his daughters in
marriage. In so doing he checked the movement of the Cimmerians.
Nevertheless, the apprehensions of Esarhaddon can be seen
in his many offerings, supplications, and requests to the sun god. These
were concerned less with his own enterprises than with the plans of
enemies and vassals and the reliability of civil servants. The priestesses
of Ishtar had to reassure Esarhaddon
constantly by calling out to him, "Do not be afraid."
Previous kings, as far as is known, had never needed this kind of
At home Esarhaddon was faced with
serious difficulties from factions in the court. His oldest son had died
early. The national party suspected his second son,
Shamash-shum-ukin, of being too friendly with the
Babylonians; he may also have been considered unequal to the task
of kingship. His third son, Ashurbanipal, was given the
succession in 672, Shamash-shum-ukin remaining crown
prince of Babylonia. This arrangement caused much
dissension, and some farsighted civil servants warned of disastrous
effects. Nevertheless, the Assyrian nobles, priests, and
city leaders were sworn to just such an adjustment of the royal line; even
the vassal princes had to take very detailed oaths of allegiance
to Ashurbanipal, with many curses against perjurers.
Another matter of deep concern for Esarhaddon
was his failing health. He regarded eclipses of the moon
as particularly alarming omens, and, in order to prevent a fatal illness
from striking him at these times, he had substitute kings
chosen who ruled during the three eclipses that occurred during his
12-year reign. The replacement kings died or were
put to death after their brief term of office. During his
off-terms Esarhaddon called himself "Mister
Peasant." This practice implied that the gods could not
distinguish between the real king and a false one [quite contrary to
the usual assumptions of the religion].
Esarhaddon enlarged and improved the
temples in both Assyria and
Babylonia. He also constructed a palace in
Kalakh, using many of the picture slabs of
Tiglath-pileser III. The works that remain are not on the level
of those of either his predecessors or of Ashurbanipal.
He died while on an expedition to put down a revolt in Egypt.
and Shamash-shum-ukin (668-648)
Although the death of his father occurred far from
home, Ashurbanipal assumed the kingship as planned. He
may have owed his fortunes to the intercession of his grandmother
Zakutu, who had recognized his superior capacities. He tells of
his diversified education by the priests and his training
in armour-making as well as in other military
arts. He may have been the only king in Assyria
with a scholarly background. As crown prince he also had
studied the administration of the vast empire. The record
notes that the gods granted him a record harvest during the first year of
his reign. There were also good crops in subsequent years. During these
first years he also was successful in foreign policy, and
his relationship with his brother in Babylonia was good.
In 668 he put down a rebellion in Egypt
and drove out King Taharqa, but in 664 the nephew of
Taharqa, Tanutamon, gathered forces for
a new rebellion. Ashurbanipal went to Egypt,
pursuing the Ethiopian prince far into the south. His
decisive victory moved Tyre and other parts of the empire
to resume regular payments of tribute. Ashurbanipal
installed Psamtik (Greek: Psammetichos) as prince
over the Egyptian region of Sais. In 656
Psamtik dislodged the Assyrian garrisons
with the aid of Carian and Ionian
mercenaries, making Egypt again independent.
Ashurbanipal did not attempt to reconqure it. A former
ally of Assyria, Gyges of Lydia,
had aided Psamtik in his rebellion. In return,
Assyria did not help Gyges when he was attacked
by the Cimmerians. Gyges lost his throne
and his life. His son Ardys decided that the payment of
tribute to Assyria was a lesser evil than conquest by the
Graver difficulties loomed in southern
Babylonia, which was attacked by Elam in 664.
Another attack came in 653, whereupon Ashurbanipal sent a
large army that decisively defeated the Elamites. Their
king was killed, and some of the Elamite states were
encouraged to secede. Elam was no longer strong enough to
assume an active part on the international scene. This victory had serious
consequences for Babylonia. Shamash-shum-ukin
had grown weary of being patronized by his domineering brother. He formed
a secret alliance in 656 with the Iranians,
Elamites, Aramaeans, Arabs, and
Egyptians, directed against Ashurbanipal.
The withdrawal of defeated Elam from this alliance was
probably the reason for a premature attack by Shamash-shum-ukin
at the end of the year 652, without waiting for the promised assistance
from Egypt. Ashurbanipal, taken by
surprise, soon pulled his troops together. The Babylonian
army was defeated, and Shamash-shum-ukin was surrounded
in his fortified city of Babylon. His allies were not
able to hold their own against the Assyrians.
Reinforcements of Arabian camel troops also were
defeated. The city of Babylon was under siege for three
years. It fell in 648 amid scenes of horrible carnage, Shamash-shum-ukin
dying in his burning palace.
After 648 the Assyrians made a few
punitive attacks on the Arabs, breaking the forward
thrust of the Arab tribes for a long time to come. The
main objective of the Assyrians, however, was a final
settlement of their relations with Elam. The refusal of
Elam in 647 to extradite an Aramaean
prince was used as pretext for a new attack that drove deep into its
territory. The assault on the solidly fortified capital of Susa
followed, probably in 646. The Assyrians destroyed the
city, including its temples and palaces.
Vast spoils were taken. As usual, the upper classes of the land were
exiled to Assyria and other parts of the empire, and
Elam became an Assyrian province.
Assyria had now extended its domain to southwestern
Iran. Cyrus I of Persia
sent tribute and hostages to Nineveh, hoping perhaps to
secure protection for his borders with Media. Little is
known about the last years of Ashurbanipal's reign.
Ashurbanipal left more inscriptions
than any of his predecessors. His campaigns were not always recorded in
chronological order but clustered in groups according to their purpose.
The accounts were highly subjective. One of his most
remarkable accomplishments was the founding of the great palace
library in Nineveh (modern Kuyunjik),
which is today one of the most important sources for the study of ancient
Mesopotamia. The king himself supervised its
construction. Important works were kept in more than one copy, some
intended for the king's personal use. The work of arranging and cataloging
drew upon the experience of centuries in the management of collections in
huge temple archives such as the one in Ashur.
In his inscriptions Ashurbanipal tells of becoming an
enthusiastic hunter of big game, acquiring a taste for it during a fight
with marauding lions. In his palace at Nineveh the long
rows of hunting scenes show what a masterful artist can accomplish in
bas-relief; with these relieves Assyrian art reached its
peak. In the series depicting his wars, particularly the wars fought in
Elam, the scenes are overloaded with human figures. Those
portraying the battles with the Arabian camel troops are
magnificent in execution.
One reason for the durability of the Assyrian
empire was the practice of deporting large numbers of people from
conquered areas and resettling others in their place. This kept many of
the conquered nationalities from regaining their power. Equally important
was the installation in conquered areas of a highly developed
civil service under the leadership of trained officers.
The highest ranking civil servant carried the title of tartan,
a Hurrian word. The tartans also
represented the king during his absence. In descending rank were the
palace overseer, the main cupbearer, the
palace administrator, and the governor of Assyria.
The generals often held high official positions,
particularly in the provinces. The civil service
numbered about 100,000, many of them former inhabitants
of subjugated provinces. Prisoners became slaves but were
later often freed.
No laws are known for the
empire, although documents point to the existence of
rules and standards for justice. Those who broke
contracts were subject to severe penalties, even in cases
of minor importance: the sacrifice of a son or the
eating of a pound of wool and drinking of a great
deal of water afterward, which led to a painful death.
The position of women was inferior, except for the
queen and some priestesses.
As yet there are no detailed studies of the
economic situation during this period. The landed
nobility still played an important role, in conjunction with the
merchants in the cities. The large increase in the supply
of precious metals--received as tribute or taken as spoils--did not
disrupt economic stability in many regions. Stimulated by the patronage of
the kings and the great temples, the arts and
crafts flourished during this period. The policy of resettling
Aramaeans and other conquered peoples in Assyria
brought many talented artists and artisans into
Assyrian cities, where they introduced new styles and techniques.
High-ranking provincial civil servants, who were often
very powerful, saw to it that the provincial capitals also benefited from
this economic and cultural growth.
Harran became the most important city
in the western part of the empire; in
the neighboring settlement of Huzirina (modern
Sultantepe, in northern Syria), the remains of
an important library have been discovered. Very few
Aramaic texts from this period have been found; the
climate of Mesopotamia is not conducive
to the preservation of the papyrus and parchment
on which these texts were written. There is no evidence that a
literary tradition existed in any of the other languages
spoken within the borders of the Assyrian empire at this
time, except in peripheral areas of Syria and
Culturally and economically,
Babylonia lagged behind Assyria in this
period. The wars with Assyria [particularly the
catastrophic defeats of 689 and 648] together with many smaller
tribal wars disrupted trade and
agricultural production. The great Babylonian temples
fared best during this period, since they continued to enjoy the patronage
of the Assyrian monarchs. Only a few documents from the
temples have been preserved, however. There is evidence
that the scribal schools continued to operate, and "Sumerian"
inscriptions were even composed for Shamash-shum-ukin. In
comparison with the Assyrian developments, the
pictorial arts were neglected, and Babylonian artists
may have found work in Assyria.
During this period people began to use the names of
ancestors as a kind of family name; this
increase in family consciousness is probably an indication that the number
of old families was growing smaller. By this time the process of "Aramaicization"
had reached even the oldest cities of Babylonia and
Apparently this era was not very fruitful for
literature either in Babylonia or in
Assyria. In Assyria numerous royal inscriptions,
some as long as 1,300 lines, were among the most important texts; some of
them were diverse in content and well composed. Most of the hymns
and prayers were written in the traditional style.
Many oracles, often of unusual content, were proclaimed
in the Assyrian dialect, most often by the
priestesses of the goddess Ishtar of
Arbela. In Assyria as in Babylonia,
the beginnings of a real historical literature are
observed; most of the authors have remained anonymous up
to the present.
The many gods of the tradition were worshiped in
Babylonia and Assyria in large and small
temples, as in earlier times. Very detailed
rituals regulated the sacrifices, and the
interpretations of the ritual performances in the cultic commentaries were
rather different and sometimes very strange.
On some of the temple towers (ziggurats),
astronomical observatories were installed. The earliest
of these may have been the observatory of the Ninurta temple
at Kalakh in Assyria, which dates back
to the 9th century BC; it was destroyed with the city in 612. The most
important observatory in Babylonia from about 580 was
situated on the ziggurat Etemenanki, a temple of
Marduk in Babylon. In Assyria
the observation of the Sun, Moon, and
stars had already reached a rather high level; the
periodic recurrence of eclipses was established. After
600, astronomical observation and calculations
developed steadily, and they reached their high point after 500, when
Babylonian and Greek astronomers began
their fruitful collaboration. Incomplete astronomical diaries, beginning
in 652 and covering some 600 years, have been preserved.
Decline of the Assyrian empire
Few historical sources remain for the last 30 years of
the Assyrian empire. There are no extant inscriptions of
Ashurbanipal after 640 BC, and the few surviving
inscriptions of his successors contain only vague allusions to political
matters. In Babylonia the silence is almost total until
625 BC, when the chronicles resume. The rapid downfall of
the Assyrian empire was formerly attributed to
military defeat, although it was never clear how the
Medes and the Babylonians alone could have
accomplished this. More recent work has established that after 635 a
civil war occurred, weakening the empire so that it could
no longer stand up against a foreign enemy. Ashurbanipal
had twin sons. Ashur-etel-ilani was appointed successor
to the throne, but his twin brother Sin-shar-ishkun did
not recognize him. The fight between them and their supporters forced the
old king to withdraw to Harran, in 632 at the latest,
perhaps ruling from there over the western part of the
empire until his death in 627. Ashur-etel-ilani governed
in Assyria from about 633, but a general, Sin-shum-lisher,
soon rebelled against him and proclaimed himself counter-king. Some years
later (629?) Sin-shar-ishkun finally succeeded in
obtaining the kingship. In Babylonian documents dates can
be found for all three kings. To add to the confusion, until 626 there are
also dates of Ashurbanipal and a king named
Kandalanu. In 626 the Chaldean Nabopolassar (Nabu-apal-usur)
revolted from Uruk and occupied Babylon.
There were several changes in government. King Ashur-etel-ilani
was forced to withdraw to the west, where he died sometime after 625.
About the year 626 the Scythians laid
waste to Syria and Palestine. In 625 the
Medes became united under Cyaxares and
began to conquer the Iranian provinces of Assyria.
One chronicle relates of wars between Sin-shar-ishkun and
Nabopolassar in Babylonia in 625-623. It
was not long until the Assyrians were driven out of
Babylonia. In 616 the Medes struck
against Nineveh, but, according to the Greek
historian Herodotus, were driven back by the
Scythians. In 615, however, the Medes conquered
Arrapkha (Kirkuk), and in 614 they took
the old capital of Ashur, looting and destroying the
city. Now Cyaxares and Nabopolassar made
an alliance for the purpose of dividing Assyria. In 612
Kalakh and Nineveh succumbed to the
superior strength of the allies. The revenge taken on the
Assyrians was terrible: 200 years later Xenophon
found the country still sparsely populated.
Sin-shar-ishkun, king of
Assyria, found death in his burning palace. The commander of the
Assyrian army in the west crowned himself king in the
city of Harran, assuming the name of the founder of the
empire, Ashur-uballit II (611-609 BC).
Ashur-uballit had to face both the Babylonians
and the Medes. They conquered Harran in
610, without, however, destroying the city completely. In 609 the
remaining Assyrian troops had to capitulate. With this
event Assyria disappeared from history. The great empires
that succeeded it learned a great deal from the Assyrians,
both in the arts and in the organization
of their states.
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