Assyrian Imperial Growth: 1800-627 BC


The oldest known Assyrian cities were Nineveh, Assur, and Arbel: Ninevevh has been dated to 5000 BC and its sisters by c2500 BC. Little of the early history of the kingdom of Assyria, is positively known as the first inscriptions of Assyrian rulers appear after 2000 BC. However, Assur was a trading centre and records indicate trade in copper. Assyria first gained power on the Upper Tigris river, and was named for its early capital, the city of Assur (from the goddess Aššur, or Ashur).[1] The area is fed by the Zagros mountain rains and supported a rich farming and animal-herding economy. The food surpluses supported the complex cities and the social specialisations required to administer and defend them. Still standing are large city fortifications and walls, underling the need for defense and warfare.

King Shamshi-Adad I established his kingdom in 1813 BC by first uniting the three Assyrian cities with Arrapkha and Nimrud. The Assyrians then based their culture and society on Akkad, using the Akkadian language and taking Akkadian names. However, with new Assyrian unity trade was expanded in Cappadochia (Turkey) and royal administration was improved. Shamshi-Adad's son became a vassal of the Babylonian King Hammurabi. By 1800 BC, the Assyrians were driven out of Anatolia by the Hittites. The Semitic Assyrian nation and empire eventually controlled the Fertile Crescent, Egypt and much of Anatolia as seen in the map.[2] Assyrian wealth grew to include mining and lumber. Assyria Proper refers to the northern half of Mesopotamia, to distinguish it from the southern Babylonia. Nineveh was its imperial capital. The Assyrian kingdom grew in three separate historical periods.

The city-state of Ashur had extensive trading contacts with Anatolian cities. The Assyrians established "merchant colonies" in Cappadochia in c1920 BC–1740 BC. These colonies were attached to the Anatolian cities, but were physically separate, and had a special tax status. The Assyrian colonies indicate a considerable trade between Ashur and Anatolia, as Assyrian textiles were traded for Anatolian precious metals. Although Ashur was conquered in 1813–1791 BC by Amorite tribes the Anatolian trade continued. Then the king of Mari allied himself with Hammurabi of Babylon who confronted Assyria and after a long struggle, finally conquered Ashur for Babylon. So began a long period of subordination as Assyria was ruled by vassal kings dependent on the Babylonians for a century. When Babylon fell to the Kassites, the Hurrians dominated northern Mesopotamia, including Assur. In c1472 BC, Saushtatar, king of Hanilgalbat (of the Hurrian tribe of the kingdom of Mitanni), sacked Ashur and again made Assyria a vassal-state. Assyria paid tribute to Hanilgalbat until Mitanni power collapsed when they were attacked by both the Hittites and the Assyrians. The Assyrians managed to gain their independence from the Mitanni in c1365 BC.


Middle East: c820 BC

King Ashur-Uballet I threw off Mittani's control and ruled Assyria in 1353 BC-1318 BC, calling the state the 'land of Ashur'. Assyria was able to create wealth by its agriculture, which unlike Babylon's was naturally watered by mountain rains. The Ashur upper classes helped transform the country into a warrior state, and bred horses and developed chariot manoeuver tactics. Ashur-Uballet finally re-established Assyria as an independent state at the expense of Babylonia. An Assyrian opportunity came when a Kassite king in Babylon married Ashur-Uballet's daughter. The Kassite court faction murdered the Babylonian king and replaced him with a Kassite pretender. Then the Assyrian Assur-uballit marched into Babylonia, avenged his son-in-law, and obviously gained favour with the next Babylonian. Several generations of Assur-uballit's direct descendants then followed each other through the kingship.

King Adad-nirari ruled Assyria c1295-1264 and established the first Assyrian empire, which lasted until c1248 BC. During this time outside threats from tribes in the northern Zagros mountains had to be resisted and fought off. Evidently, military challenges were useful in motivating the Assyrians and in forcing them to build their armies. Adad-nirari defeated the Kassites and forced a Kassite retreat to extend Assyrian control to Babylon. He then defeated the Mitanni kings in battle and further expanded his territory. At this he had incorporated all Mesopotamia into his empire as a province, although he later lost large parts to the Hittites. In the east, Adad-nirari had neutralised the mountain tribes and improved Assyrian defenses. In fact the Adad-nirari called himself a "Great-King", and his son Šalmaneser I c1263-1234 BC, denied Babylonian suzerainty, and expanded northwest, reaching Hittite Carchemish and beyond.

Adad-nirari enlarged the temple and the palace in Ashur and also developed the fortifications there, particularly at the banks of the Tigris River. To establish his imperial status, he built large building projects in the provinces. Moreover, Adad-nirari's historical inscriptions were more elaborate than those of his predecessors and were written in Babylonian. His inscriptions declare that his wars wars were justified by the gods. Clearly, Adad-nirari had been thinking about establishing an empire. Šalmaneser followed this up by creating a second capital at Kalakh (modern Nimrud), he continued his father's expansion and defeated Urartu in Armenia. Šalmaneser led the Assyrians in conquering what was left of the Mitanni kingdom, which was turned into an Assyrian province.

Šalmaneser's son and successor, Tukulti-Ninurta, first ruled Babylon as king for seven years, taking the old title "King of Sumer and Akkad". Tukulti-Ninurta then ruled Assyria for a further 37 years and turned Assyria into a great power, setting out to conquer Babylonia and dominate Mesopotamia. As the Hittite empire collapsed from attacks by the Phrygians, Babylon and Assyria fought over the Amorite regions, formerly Hittite-controlled.

Tukulti-Ninurta dominated the Hittites and apparently expelled thousands from eastern Anatolia. He fought hard against Babylon and also expelled its king. However, Babylon revolted again and Tukulti-Ninurta plundered the Babylonian temples, which eventually lost him Assyrian public support. Ashur-dan I ruled for 46 years and must have provided stability as he created government offices in each province and concentrated on rebuilding Assyria into a strong empire. The Assyrian king Ashur-resh-ishi defeated the Babylonian King Nebuchadnezzar I, signalling the growth of Assyrian military strength. In 1120 BC, Ashur-resh-ishi's son, Tiglath-Pileser I crossed the Euphrates, captured Carchemish, defeated the Hittite remnants, and conquered Phoenicia.

King Tiglath-Pileser marched into Babylon and resumed the earlier title "King of Sumer and Akkad", and founded the next Assyrian empire. The Assyrian power then declined for nearly two centuries, due to a series of weak kings, wars with neighbours, and encroachments by Aramaeans. However, Adad-nirari II created a temporary solution for the Aramean problem in c921 BC. He defeated the Aramean chief at Nisibin (Iraq) and then forced formal submissions from a series of Aramean-controlled cities.

Neo-Assyrian Empire

Assyrian Empire: 746-609 BC


The Neo-Assyrian Empire is usually considered to have begun with the accession of Adad-nirari II, in 911 BC, lasting until Nineveh fell to the Babylonians in 612 BC. Adad-nirari II brought the Assyrian vassal-states firmly back under subjection and consolidated the Assyrian empire. He was succeeded by Tukulti-Ninurta II, who expanded the empire to the north. Beginning with the campaigns of Adad-nirari II, Assyria became a great regional power, growing to be a serious threat to 25th dynasty Egypt. It began reaching the peak of its power with the reforms of Tiglath-Pileser III, who ruled in the period of 745–727 BC.

In 883­858 BC, Ashur-nasir-pal II began a merciless expansion, terrorizing people in the north and then subjecting the Aramaeans between the Khabur and the Euphrates rivers. A revolt was crushed decisively in a pitched, two-day battle.He then marched his army to the Mediterranean and demanded tribute from Phoenicia. Ashur-nasir-pal II also moved his capital to Nimrud and built a number of palaces, temples, and other public buildings. Between 883 and 824, under Ashur-nasir-pal and Shalmaneser III the Assyrians conquered all of Syria, Armenia, Palestine, Babylon, and southern Mesopotamia. To help control these conquered people, the Assyrians forced them into exile, including the Hebrews who were exiled to Babylon. (Eventually the Babylonians repaid this hurt and destroyed the Assyrian Empire and burned Ninevah.

Ashur-nasir-pal's son, Shalmaneser III was king until 823 BC, and in the reign of Ahab, king of Israel, he marched an army against an alliance of the Syrian states.[3] Shalmaneser fought the allied army at the Battle of Karkar in 854 BC. It seems that the battle ended in a draw, as the Assyrian forces were soon withdrawn. Shalmaneser retook Carchemish in 849 BC, and in 841 BC captured Damascus. He also gained tribute from Jehu of Israel, Tyre, and Sidon. However, for another century, Assyria was again led by weaker rulers and declined. The notable exception was Adad-nirari III in 810­782 BC, who brought Syria under tribute as far south as Edom and advanced against the Medes, perhaps even penetrating to the Caspian Sea.

After 800 B.C. the Semitic-speaking Assyrians from northern Mesopotamia embarked on a policy of expansion. Having learned from the Hittites, the Assyrians were the first to outfit armies entirely with iron weapons. The Assyrians organised highly effective armies to expand their conquests. The empire was created by war, and conquest and the upper classes were military commanders, rich from wartime booty. The Assyrian army was the largest standing army in the Middle East or Mediterranean. War and successful technological innovation created new iron swords, lances, metal armor, and battering rams. Assyrian engineers pioneered undermining target-city walls, and formed an army corps to bridge rivers with pontoons or provide soldiers with inflatable animal skins to help their soldiers swim across rivers. Evidently Assyrians were inventive, as they also paved their roads, locked their houses, divided time into hours of 60 minutes - each with 60 seconds. Their houses even had plumbing with flush toilets!

Nabonassar created a new kingdom in Babylon, and initiated the Neo-Babylonian dynasty in 747 BC. Assyria was in revolution, and the civil war and accompanying disease were devastating the country. In 745 BC, Assyria was seized in a coup by General Pul, who assumed the name of Tiglath-Pileser III. Tiglath-Pileser made sweeping changes to Assyria's government, improving both its efficiency and security. Conquered provinces were re-organized and controlled by an elaborate bureaucracy under the king's direct control. Each district was ordered to pay a fixed tribute and provide a military quota. The Assyrian army was made permanent and improved professionally by better training and equipment. Assyrian foreign policy was focused on encorporating the entire civilized world into the Assyrian empire, and ceding its trade and wealth to Assyria. These changes are often identified as the beginning of the "Second Assyrian Empire".

After forcing tribute from Babylon, Tiglath-Pileser punished the neighbouring state of Urartu, and defeated the Medes, he then led the Assyrian armies into Syria, which had regained independence. He soon captured Arpad near Aleppo in 740 BC after a siege of three years, and reduced the city of Hamath (modern Hama). Tiglath-Pileser coerced Hamath's allies into submissive tributaries. In 738 BC, Tiglath-Pileser occupied Philistia (Palestine), invaded Israel, and imposed heavy tributes. The Assyrians then marched against Damascus and besieged that city. In 732 BC, Tiglath-Pileser finally conquered Damascus and deported its people to Assyria. In 729 BC, he was crowned "King Pul of Babylon". Tiglath-Pileser died in 727 BC, and was succeeded by Shalmaneser V, who reorganized the Empire into provinces, replacing troublesome kings with Assyrian governors. However, King Hoshea of Israel rebelled, suspended his tribute, and allied himself with Egypt against Assyria in 725 BC. This led Shalmaneser to invade Syria, and besiege Samaria, (then capital of Israel), for three years.

Shalmaneser died in 722 BC while laying siege to Samaria, and the throne was seized by General Sargon II. Sargon conquered Samaria, destroyed Israel, and carried 27,000 Jews into captivity. In 721 BC, Sargon waged an unsuccessful war against the king of Elam and his ally Marduk-apal-iddina II of Babylon, who had rebelled. Temporising, Sargon, captured Carchemish in 717, and built several fortresses to secure the Iranian Plateau. In 710 BC, Sargon finally attacked Babylonia and defeated Marduk-apal-iddina. Sargon built a new capital at Dur Sharrukin near Nineveh, with the plunder collected from her empire.

Assyria and Babylon


Sargon II's winged Assyrian bulls


In 705 BC, Sargon was killed fighting the Cimmerians, and was succeeded by his son Sennacherib. Sennacherib moved the Assyrian capital to Nineveh: he improved Nineveh's canals using his defeated captive peoples' as slave labour. In 701 BC, Judah and Egypt again rebelled together against Assyria. Sennacherib marched to Jerusalem and destroyed 46 villages, but failed to capture Jerusalem. Meanwhile, Marduk-apal-iddina had returned to lead Babylonia into rebellion again. War was inevitable and 703 BC Sennacherib defeated the Babylonians in battle near the city of Kish. The Assyrians then plundered Babylonia and chased King Marduk-apal-iddina out of the country and installed Bel-Ibni as a king of Babylon. However, Bel-Ibni however also rebelled, so Sennacherib returned to Babylon in 700 BC and installed his son Assur-Nadin-Shum on the throne of Babylon.

Sennacherib launched a vicious campaign against Elam in 694 BC and in retaliation the king of Elam ordered an attack on Babylonia. Assur-Nadin-Shum was captured and brought to Elam and replaced the ruler of Babylon. The Assyrian army returned the next year to Babylonia and plundered the gods of Uruk, defeated their army and captured their king. Yet another native ruler seized Babylon until 689 BC, when the Assyrians again retook the city. Sennacherib punished the Babylonians by opening the canals and flooding and destroying the city. In 681 BC, Sennacherib was murdered, most likely by one of his sons.

Sennacherib was succeeded by his son Esarhaddon (Ashur-aha-iddina), who had been governor of Babylonia, and just defeated Urartu at the time of his father's murder. In 682 BC, a rebellion broke out in the south of Babylonia, and a royal governor unsuccessfully laid siege to Ur. Esarhaddon had Babylon rebuilt, and made it his own capital. He defeated the Cimmerians and Medes and turned west to Phoenicia, who had allied with Egypt, and so Esarhaddon sacked Sidon in 677 BC.

Esarhaddon also captured King Manasseh of Judah, but although defeated in his first attempt to conquer Egypt in 673 BC, he was successful two years later. The Babylonian Chronicle tells how Egypt "was sacked and its gods were abducted". The Nubian pharaoh Tirhakah fled Egypt, and a stele representing Tirhakah with black African features, was set up at Sinjirli (north of the Gulf of Antioch), and is now in the Pergamon Museum, Berlin. Assyrian armies were also at war with Urartu and Dilmun at this time and this was Assyrian empire's greatest territorial extent. However, Egypt rebelled, and while leading a new campaign against Egypt in 669 BC Esarhaddon became ill and died. His eldest son Shamash-shuma-ukin became king of Babylon and his youngest son Assurbanipal became king of Assyria.

Assurbanipal II continued to campaign in Egypt, but also faced the Medes to the east, and Cimmerians to the north. In 652 BC, Egypt declared independence from Assyria with impunity. That was the same year that Assurbanipal's older brother, Shamash-shuma-ukin, king of Babylon, began his (unsuccessful) civil war to break away from Assyria. The Babylonian rebellion lasted until 648 BC, when Babylon was sacked, and Shamash-shuma-ukin killed himself. Elam was devastated in 646 BC and 640 BC; and its capital at Susa was leveled. Assurbanipal had promoted art and culture, and had created a library of cuneiform tablets at Nineveh. However, his long struggle with Babylonia and Elam left Assyria exhausted, drained of wealth and over-extended. The devastated provinces could not help, and it became impossible to adequately garrison the conquered populations. Assyria, was also faced the hordes of Scythians, Cimmerians, and Medes who pushed at the frontiers.

With Assurbanipal's death in 627 BC, the empire began to disintegrate rapidly. The Scythians, Cimmerians and Medes crossed the borders, marauding as far as Egypt, while Babylonia again became independent. The Babylonian king Nabopolassar, along with Cyaxares, King of Media, finally destroyed Nineveh in 612 BC, and Assyria fell. With military support from the Egyptian Pharaoh Nekau II Wahibre, the Assyrian army held out as a remnant at Harran until 608 BC. Egyptian aid continued to the Assyrians, who attempted to curb the increasing power of the Babylonians. In 605 BC at the Battle of Megiddo, an Egyptian force defeated a Judean force and managed to reach the last of the Assyrian army. In a final battle the Babylonians crushed the Assyrian-Egyptian alliance, after which Assyria ceased to exist as an independent nation.


1          Adapted from Grahame Clark, World Prehistory, In New Perspective, pp. 83-88; Assyria at,; Architectural Marvels of Ancient Mesopotamia at,; Neo-Assyrian Empire at,; The Neo-Assyrian Text Corpus Project, (State Archives of Assyria) at the Institute for Asian & African Studies at University of Helsinki at,; Crystalinks, Assyria at,; at; Richard Hooker at WSU, Mesopotamia, The Assyrians 1170-612 BC The Assyrian Period at,; Jona Lendering at Livius, Assyria (general introduction) at,; NS Gill,, Assyria and the Assyrians, Assyria - An Introduction to the Ancient Empire of the Assyrians at,; Peter BetBasoo, Brief History of Assyrians at,; Nineveh at,; Chris Croft-Crossland, ASSYRIANS,; Ur at,; The Assyrian Empire at,; Dilmun,; and Persian Empire at,; Assyrian King List at,

2          The maps are from Crystalinks, Assyria at,; and Israel Science and Technology Homepage, the University of Oregon Historical Atlas Resource at,

3          See the Bible, old Testament, 2 Kings 17:5. Assyrian wars with Israel are generally quite well documented in the Bible.

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