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Assyrian Empire: Bringing Civilization to the Near East
By Emil on Monday 5 May 2008

This essay was written for the Mesopotamian Archaeology 123B course taught by Professor David Stronach at the University of California, Berkeley in 2000.

The impetus to change from a nomadic to an agricultural lifestyle forever changed the economic, political, and cultural landscape of the Near East. No longer would people migrate to other plenteous lands and no longer would people feel insecure in these new possibly hostile surroundings. The agricultural-based economy that began to flourish in Mesopotamia guided the society towards greater collaboration. The fruits of this cooperation brought about advances in the sciences, the arts, and business and government administration. At approximately 4750 BC, Assyria came into a single consciousness and realized the potential of her native figure and of her imperial destiny. Throughout the duration of their empire, the Assyrians contributed to mathematics, the military, city planning, governmental administration, architecture, and other notable achievements. But in modern times they are known for their ferocious cruelty and insatiate desire for bloodlust. More so than ever before, one has to take a balanced view of Assyrian political and military policies and realize the importance of their contributions to the vast libraries of knowledge.

Preceding the emergence of the Old Assyrian Empire, the Assyrians lived in economic prosperity and relative peace. Trade among the Near Eastern states was developing well before 5000 BC. Anatolia, for instance, provided silver, tin, and obsidian while present-day Afghanistan provided lapis lazuli, and trade networks came into existence for the commerce of these materials. It was The "location of Assyria [that] encouraged participation in these exchanges, and Assyrians developed far-flung interests." I

By 2000 BC, The Old Assyrian Empire emerged as a commercial empire looking to expand its influence throughout the Near East. Assyria's geographic location encouraged its tribal and religious center of Assur to control trade throughout the region. Archaeologists have uncovered evidence that a comprehensive trade network had developed between the Assyrians and the Hatti, Hurrians, and Hittites at this time.

Excavations in the karum, the merchant suburb outside the wall of the city of Kanesh, revealed evidence for trade with Assur over a period of three generations (about sixty years), from Erishum to Puzur-Assur II (c. 1880-1820 BC), and then contemporaneously with Shamshi-Adad and Samsu-iluna (c. 1800-1740 BC). II

Caravans from Assur traveled along imperial highways carrying among other goods, woolen textiles, carved figurines, tin, and clothing. Correspondence among trade companies in Assur to their representatives in Kanesh occurred frequently (and interestingly) between mother and son. Communication among trading companies in Assur and their representatives in Kanesh demonstrated a more human side to the Assyrians. To date more than 10000 cuneiform tablets have been found in the rubble of Kanesh to corroborate such statements.

The contents of the letters usually refer to the commercial process, but there are also letter about incidental problems (illness, the current political situation enroute, correspondence with agents). Legal documents are about commercial contracts, loans for goods on credit, contracts with the carriers on the inward and outward journey, legal proceedings? III

Many of the tablets comprise of business transactions, personal letters, and many more consist of legal documents. Assyrian presence in Anatolia effected the region significantly because the introduction of cuneiform text. Four hundred years later, this advancement led to the ascension of the Hittite Empire to power.

Many would attest to the fact that "the growth of the Assyrian Empire, as of its commercial interests, had much to do with its geographical location." IV The Assyrians under their successive rulers Adad-nirari (1305-1274 BC), Shalmaneser I (1273-1244 BC), and Tikulti-Ninurta I (1243-1207 BC) proved to be an invincible force. To protect its ever increasing interests in the Near East, the Assyrian Empire went on the military offensive. The kings directed their campaigns against neighboring states from the comforts of Assur, the home of the chief god of the Assyrians. Assyria became periodically locked into the role of the aggressor, and ambitious kings saw no limit to their dominion. In a relief, Tikulti-Ninurta narrates his defeat of the Kassite king Kashtilash IV.

I brought about defeat of his armies, his warriors I overthrew. In the midst of that battle my hand captured Kashtilash, the Kassite king. I trod on his royal neck with my feet like a footstool. I brought him stripped and bound before Assur my lord. Sumer and Akkad to its farthest borders I brought under my sway. On the lower sea of the rising sun I established the frontier of the land. V

The ferocity and cunning of the Assyrians was unmatched in battle until the appearance of the Romans in modern-day Italy. The Assyrian juggernaut was not be stopped and conquests from Shalmaneser I occurred prior to Tikulti-Ninurta's reign. This great king fought against the Ahlamu (or the Aramaeans) during his rule. The Aramaeans occupied what is now Syria and part of the Levant. Shalmaneser I campaigned there and defeated the kingdom of Uruadri (later known as Urartu) and occupied the area until the end of the Neo-Assyrian period. Under the control of Shalmaneser I's father, Adad-nirari I, the Assyrian Empire captured the Mittanian capital Washukanni, making Shattuara I a vassal of Assyria. Treatment of the conquered peoples depended wholly upon the goodwill of the Assyrian Empire and especially that of the king. Those surrendering to the Assyrians were treated fairly and allowed to stay in their city(ies) and were allowed to choose their own leaders. However, those that did not surrender were impaled on stakes, their cities burned to the ground, and their people relocated to different parts of the Empire.

In contrast to Assyrian military supremacy, Assyrian artistic talent and religious conviction went unmatched. German excavators W. Andrae and R. Koldewey began digging at Assur and other Assyrian cities during the early twentieth century. Much of the unearthed artifacts pointed to the religious fervor of these people and their devotion to the sanctity of the religion (Assurism). The ziggurat at Assur erected by Shamshi-Adad I was consecrated to the god Enlil. Monuments constructed by either Shamshi-Adad, Shalmaneser I, and Adad-nirari were far and few in between. With Tikulti-Ninurta I taking the reigns of the Empire, the King began an extensive building program at Assur. Tikulti-Ninurta built a moat round the city, rebuilt the Ishtar temple and began a new palace at the northwest corner of the city (partially built). In the end there were a total of three ziggurats: one for Assur, one for Anu, and one for Adad; there were also three temples: one dedicated to Ishtar, another to Sin, and yet another to Shamash.

In addition to the erecting of monuments, Assyrian kings had their talented artisans carve scenes of religious ceremonies and most of these detailed carvings existed in orthostats, wall paintings, and stone reliefs. In one relief, Tikulti-Ninurta I is shown kneeling before the alter of the god Nushu (the god of fire) while holding a small mace. VI The most interesting aspect of this relief is that the King is pointing to the god in a manner of praise and humbleness; no such scene has ever been depicted in Mesopotamia prior to this period. Moreover, another relief depicts the vegetation god being eaten by what seems to be two sheep. VII

Besides architectural and artistic works, the Assyrians contributed heavily to the sciences. The second half of the second millennium was a time of great prosperity and progress. The manufacture of glass was a technological breakthrough. The first examples of glass vessels are found in Northern Mesopotamia and date back to the fifteenth century BC. Glazed bricks have also been found in the palaces of Middle Assyrian kings.

What seemed to set apart the Near East from the Nile River Valley, the Hindu-Kush region, and even Anatolia was that Mesopotamia developed the first system of writing, the cuneiform script. Writing allowed scribes to record business transactions, legal documents, query of items, and others article/items. Writing also allowed for the creation of libraries and gave civilizations to write down their histories for the sake of posterity for future generations. The system of writing that developed in the Near East was taken up by other cultures and today all alphabets in use in the world are derivations from that alphabet.

Historically where the Middle Assyrian Empire marched towards imperialism, the Neo-Assyrian Empire sprinted and dominated the Near East (including Egypt). At this point in time the Assyrians were not subject to raids and invasions and no longer wanted nor needed to be in a defensive posture. Kirk Grayson, in his article Assyria Rule of Conquered Territory in Ancient Western Asia states that "the motive for the initial conquests [were] defensive, fight or be conquered, [and except that] greed soon took hold and remained a compelling force." VIII

The Assyrian Empire had become mired in military tradition such that every facet of the government, civilian and military, began to fit the desired mold. Assyrian political structure was militaristic such that every official held not only an army rank but also performed civilian duty. However, we can see that the Assyrians were becoming agitated and restless and looked forward to expand their ever-dynamic Empire. Under the leadership of many powerful kings, the Assyrian military numbered in the hundreds of thousands and reached it zenith under Tiglat-Pileser III. Unlike the Middle Assyrian Empire, the commanders of the Neo-Assyrian Empire carefully refined the structure of the military for particular campaigns.

Assyrian strategy for the subjugation of foreign territories incorporated diplomacy (psychological warfare), siege tactics, and open battles. Counter to biased thought, the Assyrians employed psychological warfare whenever possible and at times preferred it exclusively. Such strategy not only saved the countless lives of the Assyrian soldiers but was also economical and highly effective. An informative illustration of such rhetoric appears in the Bible (KJV) in the Book of Isaiah (36:1-37:7)

1 Now it came to pass in the fourteenth year of king Hezekiah, that
Sennacherib king of Assyria came up against all the defenced cities of Judah,
and took them.
2 And the king of Assyria sent Rabshakeh from Lachish to Jerusalem unto king
Hezekiah with a great army. And he stood by the conduit of the upper pool in
the highway of the fuller's field.


13 Then Rabshakeh stood, and cried with a loud voice in the Jews' language,
and said, Hear ye the words of the great king, the king of Assyria.
14 Thus saith the king, Let not Hezekiah deceive you: for he shall not be
able to deliver you.
15 Neither let Hezekiah make you trust in the LORD, saying, The LORD will
surely deliver us: this city shall not be delivered into the hand of the king
of Assyria.
16 Hearken not to Hezekiah: for thus saith the king of Assyria, Make an
agreement with me by a present, and come out to me: and eat ye every one of his
vine, and every one of his fig tree, and drink ye every one the waters of his
own cistern;


The above mentioned incident occurred when Sennacherib busy elsewhere, dispatched a message to Jerusalem. The message delivered to the people challenged their reliance on the support of Egypt and went on to ridicule Egypt and emphasize Assyria's importance. Archaeological evidence and the Bible state that the city refused to surrender and during the first day of the siege a plague hit the Assyrians and the military was forced to retreat.

However, if Assyrian conditions of surrender were rejected or if the Assyrians were confronted with armed forces then the total and unrelenting fury of the Assyrians would be unleashed. In the moments following Assyrian victory extreme acts of cruelty and violence were directed towards the populace. "The houses were looted and set afire, the people were subjected to murder, mutilation, slavery, and rape." IX The annals of Assurnasirpal II give a verbal account of such punishment:

In strife and conflict I besieged (and) conquered the city. I fell 3,000 of their fighting men with the sword. I carried off their prisoners, possessions, oxen, (and) cattle from them. I burnt many captives from them. I captured many troops alive: I cut off some of their arms (and) hands ... I razed, destroyed, burnt, (and) consumed the city. X

With such graphic examples depicted on wall reliefs, orthostats, and paintings many foreign peoples were overwhelmed with fear such that they surrendered forthwith. Such was the value of psychological warfare and as such the Assyrians valued it greatly.

In addition to psychological warfare, the Assyrians also utilized siege machines, the infantry, and the cavalry to their advantage. The Assyrian army had at its core close order spearmen, the elite troops heavy infantry (the "shock troops"), supported by the innovative light and heavy two horse chariots, the light infantry, and most importantly the archers. The field army, when arrayed for battle, occupied an area of one and a half miles. In full battle gear, the Assyrians would be an impressive sight to behold and a very potent one indeed. As Lord Byron states in the first stanza of The Destruction of Sennacherib:

The Assyrian came down like the wolf on the fold,
And his cohorts were gleaming in purple and gold;
And the sheen of their spears was like stars on the sea,
When the blue wave rolls nightly on deep Galilee.

When it came to warfare, the Assyrians were inventive and innovative. The chariot and the cavalry were one of many advancements that the Assyrians pursued. The establishment of a chariot as an offensive force was first utilized in battles to scare and intimidate opposing forces; however, by the Neo-Assyrian period, the chariot had been transformed into an integral member of the army. In addition to the chariot, the Assyrians were the first to invent the world's first large cavalry squadron. The cavalry at times constituted as many as 3000-5000 horses. Accompanied with saddled archers, the combination of speed and accuracy became a lethal combination. More importantly for the Assyrians was the innovation of iron. Iron established Assyria as the most technologically advanced power in the Near East and thus allowed it to dispatch its enemies with relative ease because of their use of bronze. Archaeologists have recently discovered 200 tons of of weaponry at Dur-Sharrukin made of Iron. These advancements cemented Assyrian rule in the Near East for almost two millennia.

Assyrian architectural (and artistic), scientific, and military achievements reached their apex during the Neo-Assyrian Empire. Besides contributing heavily to ancient knowledge, the Assyrians have impacted the world with their technology and innovations. Archaeologists have excavated numerous Assyrian cities in Mesopotamia and have been apt to show the influence they had upon the region.

From 1949-1961, Dr. Mallow excavations at Kalhu yielding Assurnasirpal II's Northwest Palace. The palace contained a ten meter wide by thirty to forty meter long throne room with an actually throne inside. Furthermore, stone orthostats and painted figurines were also found inlaid into walls. The orthostats often portrayed battle scenes, foreign diplomats, and hunting scenes. Some of the most important slabs depict foreign tributaries bringing gifts to Shalmaneser III from Phoenicia and the Levant and others show the king hunting lions, bulls, or elephants. Also at Kalhu, the Balawat Gates were found and measured to be eighty meters in height and plated with bronze sheeting. The bronze sheets had into them etched the many campaigns the Assyrians had undertaken. Shalmaneser III created a three sided figurine, the obelisk. The obelisk, aptly named Shalmaneser's Obelisk, shows elephants and monkeys being brought into the presence of the king possibly by Phoenicians.

Sennacherib ruled his Empire from his capitol at Nineveh. The king saw Nineveh as becoming becoming a gem of elegance. Sennacherib created the first irrigation system in the world to redirect mountain spring water and the Khosser river to Nineveh. Furthermore, he also paved a road from his capitol to Tarbisu; thus, allowing fast access to and from his palace to that of the Crown-Prince's. But Nineveh itself was a splendor to behold not only because it was the largest city ever constructed in the world at that time but because its walls stretched around the city for twelve kilometers. The city had fifteen gates through which individuals could enter the city and each gate was appropriately named for the region or city it was facing; for example, the Assur gate faced towards Assur and the Desert gate was in the direction of the Jebel Sinjar. Even more magnificent than the city was Sennacherib's palace. The Lachish room contained therein had been found covered with orthostats of the siege of Lachish and the eventual victory for the Assyrians. It also lent a new point of view to the methods the Assyrians utilized in preparing for a siege.

Like Sennacherib, Assurbanipal embraced and extended the archetypal Assyrian style. Assurbanipal took great care to preserve the old traditions, but strove forth to create and modify new motifs. Bas-reliefs and orthostats in the form ritual lion hunting scenes, banquet scenes, and garden scenes abounded during his reign. "The style shows a remarkable development over that of his predecessors, and many bas-reliefs have an epic quality unparalleled the ancient world, which may well be because of the influence of this active and vigorous personality."XI Assurbanipal was a scholarly individual who gained the mastery of Sumerian and Akkadian and could compute complex mathematical equations. Due to his academic interests, Assurbanipal assembled in Nineveh the first systematically collected and cataloged library in the ancient Middle East. The library housed 22,000 clay tablets and fragments of which have been preserved in the British Museum. The library texts embraced collections of omen text, observation of events, the behavior and features of men, animals, and plants, and also the motions of the sun, moon, planets, and the stars. Due to Assurbanipal's diligence and thirst for knowledge, the traditional Mesopotamian epics such as the story of Creation, the Flood, Gilgamesh and other have survived the onslaught of time.

Like many kingdoms of that time, the Assyrians frequently partook in meting out punishment to those that acted antagonisticly towards the rule of the Empire. Brutal scenes of war and destruction are commonly found on Assyrian orthostats and reliefs. Moreover, the Assyrians, for the sake of posterity, recorded these deeds onto clay tablets. It seems that the word Assyrian is synonymous with cruelty and sinfulness. People are reminded know and again that the Assyrian were a savage, warrior race waging war against peaceful and civilized people for the sake of loot and goods. The Old Testament, a significant portion of the Jewish Torah, lambaste the Assyrians for their cruelty. For example, the prophet Jonah did not want to travel to Nineveh to preach God's message to the Ninevites. He did not wish for Nineveh's salvation because its inhabitants were the enemies of the kingdom of Israel. As such, he welcomed God's anger and wrath upon them. In comparison to biblical biases, Delacroix's Death of Sardanapalus (Assurbanipal) is an appalling and tortured rendition of an Assyrian king gone mad. Ü´Sources indicate it was an act of incredible cruelty: on part of Assurbanipal. The king decided that the entire court had to die alongside him. Therefore, he ordered his slaves to kill the women, pages, and horses, while the palace burned together with him. This "work of art" attributes more to Delacroix's sorrowful character than it does to the Assyrians. In Civilization Before Greece and Rome, H.W.F. Saggs states that:

Some of the manifestations of ancient (as of modern) warfare were distinctly nasty. The Assyrians have gained a particularly bad name for atrocities in warfare, from a combination of biblical notoriety and their own striking war reliefs in the British Museum. But in fact they were in no way worse than their contemporaries. XII

The Assyrians were open with their cruelty (as seen in their reliefs) in order to quell and deter rioting and opposition to their rule. The Assyrians were more prone to use psychological warfare and tactics rather than avoid direct confrontation. The Assyrians of that by-gone age should not be faulted for their actions. Their actions are often compared to the Ottoman Young Turks, the German Nazi's, and Stalinist Russia and incorrectly so. It is time that individuals throughout the world are awakened to the contributions the Assyrians made to society, to the arts, and to the sciences. Assyrian knowledge of the planets of our solar system led to accurate predictions of solar and lunar eclipses. The siege machines that were used to attack fortified cities included the blending of mathematics and engineering skills. Furthermore, the Assyrians were foremost authorities of government efficiency and military command; the use of governates and governors was used by the Assyrians to control their far-flung empire. The military was a perfectly oiled machine that had evolved for two thousand years on the plains of Nineveh - it created the cavalry as well as siege machines, implemented iron into weapons, and introduced the use of psychological warfare to the Near East. The Assyrians were not without fault, but it must be understood that civilization spread throughout the Near East by their hands alone and it is that achievement that must remembered.

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I Curtis, J.E. and Reade, J.E., eds. Art and Empire: Treasures From Assyria In The British Museum. New York: Harry N. Abrams, 1995. p.18
II Roaf, Michael. Cultural Atlas of Mesopotamia and the Ancient Near East. Oxfordshire: Andromeda, 1996 p113
III Heise, John. Akkadian Page. 16 Feb 1996 http://saturn.sron.nl/~jheise/akkadian/bronze_age.html#kultepe
IV Art and Empire: Treasures From Assyria In The British Museum. p20
V Cultural Atlas of Mesopotamia and the Ancient Near East. p148
VI Malraux, Andre and Salles, Georges Eds. The Arts of Mankind: Nineveh and Babylon 5-8. Assur. Altar of Tikulti-Ninurta I (13 Century BC) - Berlin museum
VII The Arts of Mankind: Nineveh and Babylon 7-9. Assur. Vegetation god (second half, 2nd millenium) - Berlin museum
VIII Grayson, Kirk "Assyria Rule of Conquered Territory in Ancient Western Asia" Assyria 1995 Eds. Edited by S. Parpola and R. M. Whiting. Helsinki: Helsinki Univ Press. 959.
IX "Assyria Rule of Conquered Territory in Ancient Western Asia" Assyria 1995. 961.
X Grayson, Kirk The Royal Inscriptions of Mesopotamia, vol. 2, p. 201
XI Cherry, Assur. Assurbanipal Page. http://members.xoom.com/_XMCM/ashurbanipal/AssyA8.htm
XII Saggs, HWF. Civilization before Greece and Rome. Yale Univ. Press, 1991.