Ancient Assyrians: History, Civilization & Culture

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Ancient Assyria was one of the first great international empires. Located in the Mesopotamia, it dominated the entire Middle East for several hundred years. Here we can see an overview of Assyria, and specifically understand how different cultures viewed Assyrian expansion.

We also recommend watching Ancient Egyptian Art: History and Style and Ancient Egyptian Architecture: History, Characteristics & Influences

The kingdom of Assyria was located in northern Mesopotamia, in modern-day Iraq, which existed from the second millennium BCE to 609 BCE. This area was one of the places where civilization originated, specifically where people began practices such as writing, agriculture, and city-building. The Assyrians rose from this area to become a massive international empire, which, through its literature, culture, and military conquests, had a profound effect on civilization throughout the millennia.

History of Assyria

Assyria was founded in late second millennium BCE, as one of a number of Mesopotamian kingdoms. It contained several large and important cities, such as Asshur (which gave its name to the country as a whole), Arbel, and Nineveh. Assyria expanded within Mesopotamia and also established trading posts throughout the Middle East, dealing in textiles and raw materials such as tin.

The period from 934-609 BCE, beginning with the reign of the king Ashur-Dan II, is known as the Neo-Assyrian Empire. This period saw unprecedented expansion of the Assyrian state. During this period, Assyria became one of the first large, international empires. At its height, the Neo-Assyrian Empire stretched from the Persian gulf in the east to Cappadocia (in modern-day Turkey) in the north. It included the island of Cyprus in the Mediterranean Sea and Egypt to the West. In 612 BCE, this massive empire was effectively destroyed when its capital, Nineveh, was conquered by forces led by another Mesopotamian kingdom, Babylon. the Babylonian Empire ruled the former Assyrian territories for a relatively brief period, approximately 70 years, before themselves falling to the expanding Persian Empire.

The neo-Assyrian empire at its height.

The expansion of the Neo-Assyrian Empire brought it into contact with another culture which recorded its experiences of the conflict: biblical Israel. At this time, Israel was split into two occasionally hostile kingdoms: Israel to the north, and Judah to the south, with its capital at Jerusalem. The Judean perspective is well preserved, especially in the books of 2 Kings and Isaiah.

The contest between the Assyrian king Sennacherib and the Judean king Hezekiah is a valuable historical event because we have records from both sides of the conflict. The biblical text records the Judean perspective, while the Assyrian view is found on a hexagonal clay tablet, written in cuneiform (the Assyrian writing system), known as Sennacherib's prism or the Taylor prism.

The Taylor prism, containing the Assyrian account of the siege of Jerusalem.

Neither account presents an objective viewpoint, and a brief comparison of the two is very instructive. In the bible, 2 Kings provides an account of the attack, but does not dwell on the devastation wreaked on Judah by the Assyrians, focusing instead on the successful defense of Jerusalem: 'So says the Lord regarding the king of Assyria. He shall not come unto this city, nor shoot an arrow there…nor cast a mound against it….he shall not come unto this city, says the Lord. I will defend this city to save it, for My sake and for My servant David's sake (2 Kings 19: 32-34).'

The account continues with this theological interpretation, describing the end of the Assyrian siege, apparently due to an outbreak of disease, in verses 35-36; 'That night, the angel of the Lord went out and struck 185,000 in the Assyrians' camp; when men arose early in the morning, they were all dead corpses. So Sennacherib King of Assyria departed, and went and returned and dwelt at Nineveh.' The theological tone is typical of the biblical narrative, but also shows the unexpected, one might say miraculous nature of this Judean victory; even those who carefully prepared Jerusalem for the siege cannot believe that they won the day.

The Assyrian account emphasizes Assyrian successes, and you have to read between the lines to realize that Sennacherib never actually says he conquered Jerusalem or captured Hezekiah; 'As for Hezekiah the Judahite, who did not submit to my yoke; forty-six of his strong, walled cities…I besieged and took them. Hezekiah himself, like a caged bird I shut up in Jerusalem, his royal city. I threw up earthworks against him…the terrifying splendor of my majesty overcame him, and the Arabs and his mercenary troops which he had brought in to strengthen Jerusalem, his royal city, deserted him…' This language gives an idea of the might of the Assyrians, and the grandeur and power that they wished to project.

Despite their failure to capture Jerusalem (something that the Babylonians would accomplish a little over a century later), the Assyrians did, for the first time, unify the Middle East, putting the entire area, or virtually the entire area, under one rule, spreading one language and culture throughout the region.

Assyrian Culture & Civilization

The Assyrians spoke a Semitic language known as Akkadian. By the Neo-Assyrian period, they had added another language, Aramaic. While cuneiform did not spread with the Assyrians, the Aramaic language did, and it became the international language of the region for a thousand years before it was replaced with Arabic during the Muslim conquests. The Assyrians developed a complicated and rich literature, consisting of religious texts as well as heroic epic poetry. Perhaps the best-known piece of Assyrian literature is the Epic of Gilgamesh. This epic poem tells the story of the hero Gilgamesh, a Mesopotamian king, and his many adventures, including encounters with various gods and monsters. This story interpolates many other myths, including some, like the story of a worldwide flood with a lone family surviving in a boat, that have parallels in the Hebrew bible.

The Assyrians were polytheists, believing in a pantheon of gods who controlled the natural world, yet who depended on humans for worship and sacrifice. Various sites and temples in Assyria were specifically devoted to certain gods who were believed to be tied to or favorable to those locations. Rulers sometimes also claimed a particular god as their patron, such as Sennacherib, whose name includes that of his particular deity, the moon god Sin.

Much of the surviving Assyrian art consists of colossal statues of divine beings, especially winged bulls, often with human faces, that lined city or palace gates. In addition, Assyrian artists used bas-relief to depict not only scenes from their mythology, but also historical tableaus, especially of Assyrian conquests. Assyrian sieges of cities are commonly depicted, allowing us to know more about what the soldiers on both sides looked like and the military technology employed, especially the Assyrian tactic of building up a ramp of earth and stones to help them capture walled cities. Assyrian art provides an invaluable visual representation of the cities and peoples of this period.

Summary

The study of the Assyrian civilization allows us to see an important era in the history of human civilization. From its infancy in Mesopotamia to the first of the great international Middle Eastern empires, we can see the impact of ancient Assyrian culture on those of the surrounding areas and witness how various cultures, both the conquerors and the conquered, understood this unprecedented international expansion.

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