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The Rise of the Assyrians 1600 B. C. – 539 B. C.

During the century after the Hittites had raided Babylon and rose to power in Turkey and Syria, Mesopotamia was a divided unproductive land. In the south, Babylonia fell under the rule of foreigners, first the Kassites from the northeast and then the Elamites from the southeast. Neither of these people seemed able to make any advances in civilization. Northern Mesopotamia came under the Mitanni kingdom, which at least introduced trained horses and chariots to the Near East. By the time the native Babylonians regained control and the Mitanni kingdom fell, another people was disturbing the land – the Assyrians.

The Assyrians who wrote and spoke Akkadian, were close relatives of the Babylonians and had played a minor part in Mesopotamian affairs for some time. They made their home in the upper reaches of the Tigris River, where once had been some of the earliest farming communities in the world. The region later came under the influence of various early Sumerian and Babylonian kingdoms to the south. By about 2000 B. C., the Assyrians themselves became independent enough to carry on a thriving trade with people in Turkey. But around 1800 B. C. the Hittites put an end to that and then the Mitanni kingdom set itself over Assyria.

The Warrior Kings

Centuries passed and the Assyrians overthrew a weakened Mitanni kingdom, but even before this they were struggling with Babylonia for control of Mesopotamia. Year after year, lands, cities, trading routes and outposts changed hands, until the Assyrians gradually won out. By 1100 B. C., under their king Tiglath-Pileser I, the Assyrians were strong enough to begin expanding. Fighting off enemies on all sides, Assyria began to dominate the metal trade with the north and the commercial centres of the Syrian coast. Loot and tribute made Ashur, the capital of Assyria, a prosperous city. The Assyrians had started on their road of conquests.


During the next five centuries, Assyria became the terror of western Asia. Generation after generation, Assyria produced its warrior kings – Adad-nirari, Ashur-nasir-pal, Shalmaneser, Sennacherib, Esarhaddon, Ashurbanipal. Year after year these bod men led the Assyrian forces out on campaign. Sometimes they attacked with thousands of foot soldiers, sometimes with groups of charioteers. There were units of horse cavalry, archers, camel troops. Wherever they fought, the Assyrian forces brought death and destruction. They ambushed nomadic tribes, raided outposts and charged massed armies. All warfare of that time was cruel and bloody, but the Assyrians became known as especially savage fighters. They cut limbs off the dead to steal rings and bracelets and one Assyrian king claimed the right “to tear out the eyes of the conquered king.”

The Assyrians were expert at besieging cities. When a city was captured, it was looted by the troops. Often its citizens were resettled in distant territories or cities. All the cities under Assyrian control paid heave taxes and tribute. Sometimes the conquered people rebelled, but the Assyrian armies always returned. Punishment for the rebel leaders was especially hard. It was not unusual for the Assyrians to strip off a man’s skin and hang it on the palace walls.

As the Assyrians expanded their empire, they had to fight off all the neighbouring peoples. The Aramaeans from the western deserts, the Urartu tribesmen in the northeast and the Elamites in the southeast were all a constant threat. Later, tribesmen from the mountains and steppes to the northeast – Cimmerians, Scythians and Medes —  made raid on Assyrian cities and trade routes. It was impossible for the Assyrians to guard all their borders. At their height, the Assyrians had an empire from the Persian Gulf to the borders of Egypt, up the Mediterranean coast, into Turkey and down the Zagros Mountains, with Mesopotamia at its centre. At times they even controlled much of Egypt and part of Armenia.

The Wonders of Babylon

Although they could be savage fighters, the Assyrians ran their empire well. It was divided into provinces, which were administered by men sent out from the capital. Subject peoples had some self-rule if they paid their taxes and did not rebel, but the Assyrians kept firm control of all their affairs. A network of roads linked the main cities and messengers on horseback carried the official communications. Troops were stationed everywhere to keep order and to guard the trade routes.

From their vast empire, the Assyrians  ran their empire, the Assyrians drew in loot and slaves, tribute and taxes. Trade brought in the products of foreign lands – iron from the Turkish hill country, cedar from Lebanon. The Assyrians recruited skilled craftsmen from all nations to work for them. with such wealth and resources at their disposal, the Assyrians built new cities and enlarged old ones. Irrigation systems, grain stores, harbours, temples, palaces, city walls – all were constructed on a scale unknown before.

The average Assyrian shared in such wealth only indirectly; he lived in a simple house and had few possessions. His life was one of hard work, organized around his religion with its many duties and festivals. Every Assyrian could take pleasure in the great cities and their palaces. Ashur and then Kalhu had been fine capitals, but about 710 B. C., Sargon II, tried to establish a new one at Khorsabad. He built great brick walls and gateways, with mammoth figures carved in stone. The palace walls were covered in carvings depicting battles, hunting scenes and ceremonies.


When Sargon’s son, Sennacherib, came to the throne, he built still another capital, at Nineveh. Streets, squares and flood walls were laid out. The palace was ornamented with rare stones, metals and woods, the walls decorated with glazed bricks and tapestries. Winged lions and bulls in bronze stood on guard. Around the palace were parks and gardens, with plants and animals imported from distant lands. Miles of canals and an aqueduct 300 yards long brought water into the city.

Sennacherib boasted of this luxurious city: “I had a canal cut into the meadow-lands of Nineveh. I caused a bridge of limestone blocks to span deep ravines and let those waters pass over it.” Yet this same Sennacherib also boasted of destroying Babylon after it had revolted: “The city and its houses, from its foundation to its top, I destroyed, I devastated, I burned with fire. Through the midst of that city I dug canals, I flooded its site with water.”

Sennacherib had a library at Nineveh, but it was his grandson Ashurbanipal who set about to make an even more magnificent collection of texts. A staff of scribes was kept busy copying all known texts into clay tablets —  centuries-old Sumerian, Akkadian and Babylonian texts, as well as more recent Assyrian ones. The library included thousands of tablets, with histories of the various kings and their conquests, collections of hymns and prayers, descriptions of rituals and ceremonies, records of magic, medicine and old tales, such as the story of Gilgamesh.

Yet, Ashurbanipal thought nothing of riding forth to battle and capturing and plundering a great city like Thebes, in Egypt. After taking Susa, the Elamites’ capital, he said: “The graves of the earlier and later kings I destroyed, I devastated and I exposed to the sun. Their bones I carried off to Assyria. I laid restlessness upon their spirits. I deprived them of food offerings and libations of water.” Ashurbanipal had captive princes drag his chariot as he went up into the temple to thank his gods and once he kept a captive on a leash in a kennel.

Most of the people in Ashurbanipal’s empire could hardly know or care about his great library. Many of them were only concerned about whether they might be uprooted from their homes and taken to distant parts. Once, some of his subjects had to eat human flesh to keep from starving. A typical prayer of the time was: “The god, known or unknown, has oppressed me. The goddess, known or unknown, has placed suffering on me. Although I am constantly looking for help, no one takes me by the hand. When I weep, they do not come to my side.” The people of Mesopotamia could never forget that floods or wars might sweep away all of man’s works, even great cities and palaces.

Indeed the Assyrian empire itself was now threatened, not by foreign invaders, but by people already within the borders. For some centuries, Babylonia had been falling under the influence of the Chaldaeans, who had originally migrated there from the lands to the west. Again and again the Assyrians sent armies to put down the rebellious Chaldaeans, but the Chaldaeans continued to make trouble. Finally the people of Babylonia themselves rose up in revolt and in 612 B. C., they captured the burnt Nineveh.

The Babylonians now controlled the empire and when king Nebuchadnezzar came to the throne he made them a power to be feared and respected. At times he acted like a statesman, but he could be as ruthless as any Assyrian tyrant. He destroyed the city of Jerusalem and took the Jews captive to Babylon.

After the reign of Hammurabi, about 1750 B. C., Babylon had ceased to be a political or commercial centre. It continued to be a religious centre and its patron god, Marduk, was worshipped throughout Mesopotamia. Under Nebuchadnezzar, Babylon became famous for luxury and sinful living. There were continual festivals and celebrations. Caravans brought rare and exotic products to be sold in its shops. The streets were crowded with soldiers in chariots, pickpockets, fortunetellers, moneylenders, wine merchants and strolling musicians.


Visitors came from everywhere to see Babylon’s beauty and splendour. The great fortified walls were wide enough for two chariots to pass along the top causeway. Great gates and avenues led into the city, with its palaces and temples. The gate and processional way dedicated to the goddess Ishtar had walls lined with animals formed from glazed bricks.

Foreigners were especially impressed with the gardens built on high terraces and watered by an elaborate system of canals. To anyone approaching the city, the gardens appeared to be hanging in mid-air. Visitors also marvelled at the great ziggurat, the platform that rose stage by stage with a temple at the top; it seemed as if it reached into the heavens. To the Jews held captive there, however, this “tower of Babel” was only a reminder of the foreign ways that surrounded them.

As a centre of wealth and trade, Babylon attracted men who had special skills or learning. Among them were craftsmen who knew the secrets of tanning leather, making soaps, dyeing cloth, working metals and making glass. They were also doctors, who had inherited the age-old medical traditions of Mesopotamia. They had medicines and drugs and could even perform operations. Since everyone, including the craftsmen and doctors, believed that the gods were responsible for everything, each process had to be accompanied by the proper prayers and ceremonies.

The Medes and the Persians

The most respected men of Babylonia were those who understood the workings of the heavens. For thousands of years, the peoples of Mesopotamia had looked to the skies for signs of what was to happen. Flashing meteors, eclipses, the changing moon, the rising and setting of the planets – all were part of the gods’ plans and affected men’s lives. Priests and wisemen and astrologers believed they could read these signs and foresee famines, floods and wars, or choose the proper day for any activity. Long ago, too, they had worked out a calendar based on the moon. It had twelve months, with an extra month added every few years.

All this had been passed on through the centuries by traditions and writings but by the time of Nebuchadnezzar, the sky-watchers had recorded so many observations that they could begin to predict the movements of the heavenly bodies. Later they began to make maps of the sky that showed the positions of the planets and the phases of the moon. This knowledge was only a servant of religion, but later it would provide a basis for the science of astronomy.

However, all the learning and wealth of Babylon failed to save it. Nebuchadnezzar built temples throughout his kingdom to honour the gods and also had himself worshipped as a god. Even so, he became troubled in his mind and finally went mad. It was that he ended his days eating grass like an animal.

Shortly after Nebuchadnezzar died, the gods seemed to desert Babylonia. Cities rebelled, crops failed, prices rose, trade slowed. Then, from the mountains to the northeast, came the old enemies of Mesopotamia, the Medes. Now the Medes were united with other tribesmen, the Persians. In 539 B. C., Babylon was captured by the combined forces of Medes and Persians. For many years, Babylon remained a fine city and the Babylonians were respected for their learning and skills, but Mesopotamia was now ruled by new peoples who worshipped new gods.

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