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Thursday, February 2, 2012

Assyria--The Scourge of the Ancient World

I need not fear my enemies because the most they can do is attack me. I need not fear my friends because the most they can do is betray me. But I have much to fear from people who are indifferent. Assyrian Proverb 

The Assyrian civilization is  one of the most brutal and fearsome civilizations of the ancient world , but little is known about their early history. According to some traditions, however, the city of Ashur (also spelled Assur), one of the capitals of ancient Assyria, was founded by Ashur the son of Shem, the son of Noah. Yes, that Noah.   
No, not this Noah. I mean the ark guy.

Named for its ancient capital city Ashur, Assyria was originally a region on the Upper Tigris River. At its height, the Assyrian Empire controlled areas in what are now modern Turkey, Syria, Lebanon, Palestine, Israel, western Iran, Kuwait, and Egypt. Nineveh was its capital. The Kings of Assyria controlled large kingdoms at three different times in history: the Old (20th to 15th BC), Middle (15th to 10th BC) and Neo-Assyrian (911 to 612 BC) kingdoms. The last is the best-documented and therefore best known.   

During the 1840’s, Austen Henry Layard, a British diplomat, and a Frenchman, Paul-Emile Botta, led a team that excavated the ruins of what remained of the Assyrian Empire. Cities and palaces were unearthed, revealing their stories to the world.
The Assyrians were the first to outfit armies entirely with iron weapons. Horses were ridden by warriors, and not just used to pull chariots. They developed tactics in besieging cities. They devised equipment like moveable towers and battering rams to knock down gates. 

The Assyrians were the most feared people in the region, earning a reputation as one of the most warlike peoples in history. They deliberately employed cruelty and violence to strike terror in their enemies’ hearts. Rebellions were ruthlessly suppressed, and rebellious populations were deported. Thirty-thousand of Israel’s inhabitants, the so-called Ten Lost Tribes, were carried off into the empire’s interior; where they eventually ended up is the subject of much speculation.
Assyrian rulers, despite their fearsome reputation, encouraged a well-ordered society within their kingdom. They were also the first rulers to develop extensive laws regulating life within the royal household. Riches from trade and loot paid for the empire’s magnificent palaces and well-planned cities. 
The empire was divided into provinces; each province was administered by a governor. Governors were responsible to the all-powerful king, who always led the Assyrian armies during military campaigns. These administrators paid taxes to the king, as well as provided men for the army. As the empire expanded through military conquests, local rulers were allowed to continue their rule over the old regions, as long as they fulfilled their duties to the Assyrian king. 
The empire was divided into 70 provinces under Sargon II. Roads were also built to move troops quickly to any part of the empire. At Nineveh (founded by King Sennacherib, and made into a capital city of the empire), King Ashurbanipal founded one of the world’s first libraries. Cuneiform tablets from all over Mesopotamia were collected by scribes on the king’s orders. As a result, those tablets provided modern scholars a wealth of information about ancient Middle East. 
The Gilgamesh Tablet from the Library of Ashurbanipal (image from

Like other civilizations in this region, economy was dependent on agriculture. As the empire expanded, more lands brought other economies, like forestry and mining. 
Life at this time was mostly confined to small villages. Large cities were few, which served as trade and craft centers. Assyrian society also had slaves, but these played only a small part in the Assyrian economy. Organization and warfare were the fields the Assyrians excelled.
The Assyrians, having been under the control of Babylonians for a long time, had absorbed much of the Babylonian culture. Like the Babylonians, they too were Semites and spoke a language that was almost identical with the language spoken by the Babylonians. From the Hittites, they learned the use of iron, and developed weapons and tactics for besieging cities. The Assyrians were efficient, fearless, and brutal warriors. The walls of their numerous palaces showed the cruelties of the Assyrian warriors toward their defeated enemies.
"Are you better than Thebes, situated on the Nile, with water around her? The river was her defense, the waters her wall. Kush and Egypt were her boundless strength... Yet she was taken captive and went into exile. Her infants were dashed to pieces at the head of every street. Lots were cast for her nobles, and all her great men were put in chains." (Nahum 3: 8-10)

One of the finest cultural achievements of Assyria was in the field of literature. Their literature dealt with subjects like medicine, legal issues, and history, as well as the epics and legends of the old Mesopotamian civilizations. Houses, usually made of mud bricks and stone, never exceeded one storey. Palaces and temples, however, could cover large areas; one palace even had a thousand rooms.
Assyrian artisans also showed a high degree of skill, as shown in the wall carvings and sculptures found in the excavated palaces.
Winged Assyrian Bull (Palace of Sargon)
The social position of women in Assyria during this period was lower than the social position of women in Babylonia or even among the Hittites. Women were confined in secluded quarters and had to wear a veil when appearing in public.
Penalties for law-breakers were severe, and the death penalty was common. Penalties for less serious offenses were usually forced labor and flogging. 
The religious practices and beliefs of the Assyrians were very similar to the Babylonians’; both believed that a spirit possessed every object of nature. The Assyrian national god, Asshur, replaced the Babylonian god, Marduk. All other gods whom they worshiped were related to nature, like Anu, god of the heavens; Bel, god of the region inhabited by humans, beasts, and birds; Ea, god of the waters, Sin, the moon-god; Shamash, the sun-god; and Ramman, god of the storms. Many cities had their own patron gods. 
Collapse of the empire came about after the death of Ashurbanipal, one of the empire’s most powerful kings. Nabopolassar of Babylonia allied with other kingdoms in the region and built up a massive force that crushed the army of the dreaded Assyrian Empire. The allied forces eager for revenge against the Assyrians destroyed Nineveh, the great capital of the empire.

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