The Assyrian Empire

Nineveh, as re-imagined for  the Victorian book Nineveh And Its Remains, by AH Layard.

Nineveh, as re-imagined for the Victorian book Nineveh And Its Remains, by AH Layard.

Once, there was a city named Nineveh. One of the oldest human settlements, for over five thousand years it stood on the banks of the river Tigris as a dusty little provincial town. Its great claim to fame was the temple of Ishtar, and it was conquered several times in those millennia. Finally, however, it became a great city. The capital of the mighty Assyrian Empire, Nineveh flourished, and became the largest city on the planet at the time. But this greatness was to be its undoing. In 612BC, Nineveh was razed to the ground. Not a stone was left standing, all of its inhabitants fled or were massacred, and the city was no more. Two hundred years later, the Greek historian and soldier Xenophon would travel across the site with his comrades in their epic retreat from a failed mercenary expedition, but not even a trace of the city remained. Why did the people hate the city so, that they would destroy it so utterly?

The guardian statues of human-headed bulls, known as Lammasu, are the most iconic features of Assyrian ruins.

The guardian statues of human-headed bulls, known as Lammasu, are the most iconic features of Assyrian ruins.

The answer is the empire of which it was capital. Assyria began as one of the city-states of the Akkadian empire, around 2600BC, named for its capital Ashur. The city, which shared a name with the residents’ patron deity, gained its independence with the fall of the Akkadians in the 22nd century BC. It expanded beyond the surrounds of the city, becoming a fully fledged kingdom and even briefly flirting with empire, before running up against the Babylonians. The great king Hammurabi, who became immortalised as the author of the first legal code, took advantage of the death of the Assyrian king Shamshi-Adad, and the struggle over the succession following his death, to seize the empire the Assyrians had begun to build and to turn it into the foundation of the Babylonian empire. Assyria became a subject nation, and though it did break free of Babylonian influence when their empire fell, it became a nation, rather than an empire.

Sargon II, who named himself for the ancient Akkadian ruler, speaking to a dignitary.

Sargon II, who named himself for the ancient Akkadian ruler, speaking to a dignitary.

The emergence of the Mitanni empire at first seemed to bode ill for Assyria, and the Mitanni soon began to exert a considerable degree of influence over them. However the Mitanni were divided by civil war, and this allowed Assyria to turn the tables on them, first ruling it indirectly through influence, and then directly after they weakened under pressure from the Hittites on their other border, leaving them open to Assyrian conquest. The new Assyrian empire expanded further when the king of Babylon, who had married an Assyrian princess, was assassinated by his court. Assyria invaded to avenge the insult, and installed a puppet ruler. The ruler eventually rebelled, but this simply gave Assyria the opportunity to seize Babylonian territory, and become more powerful. Over the next few centuries, a chain of warrior kings led Assyria to victory after victory, eventually rising to pre-eminence over all the kingdoms of the Middle East.

A relief of an Assyrian horse archer, possibly Assurbanipal.

A relief of an Assyrian horse archer, possibly Assurbanipal.

The “Greek Dark Ages” is a little-understood period of history, and worthy of an article in itself. In essence, between 1200BC and 800BC, a domino effect of famine, social upheaval, mass migration and war led to the collapse of most of the kingdoms of the eastern Mediterranean area. This period also marks the transition from the Bronze Age to the Iron age, as weapons of the material entered general use. Assyria weathered the changes, and it was during this period that the capital moved to the ill-fated city of Nineveh. As the situation stabilised, Assyria once again began to expand outwards. Once again, it became a mighty empire, and it was during this period that it encountered a small kingdom that would help it to gain the immortality that the Akkadian empire failed to attain. The kingdom was Israel, and it would ensure that Assyria would be remembered, at least, as one of the major players in shaping the history of that nation. Nineveh, for example, would be remembered as the city where God sent Jonah to speak prophesy, only to punish him when he failed to do so. The Assyrians, said Jonah, deserved no chance to repent and avoid their fate.

Israelite rebels are tortured, following the Siege of Lachish (as documented in the biblical books of Kings and Chronicles).

Israelite rebels are tortured, following the Siege of Lachish (as documented in the books of Kings and Chronicles).

The Bible says that Nineveh repented, and was delivered from destruction. If so, however, it was only a reprieve. Jonah’s attitude towards the Assyrians was hardly unique, and it was their deliberate cruelty that excited such hatred. Their reputation for savagery was long-standing and unmatched. Shalmaneser I, for example, was considered exceeding merciful for simply gouging out one of the eyes of each of the 14,000 prisoners he captured (and then enslaving them), rather than simply killing them all. Few other kings showed such mercy, and indeed most seemed to compete as to who could most creatively slay their defeated enemies. Victory reliefs show piles of collected heads, along with enemy soldiers having their tongues or limbs removed. This was by no means confined to the enemy soldiers – Ashurnasirpal II proclaimed, in one victory monument:

“Their men young and old I took prisoners. Of some I cut off their feet and hands; of others I cut off the ears noses and lips; of the young men’s ears I made a heap; of the old men’s heads I made a minaret. I exposed their heads as a trophy in front of their city. The male children and the female children I burned in flames.”

Ashurnasirpal would also boast:

“I have made a pillar facing the city gate, and have flayed all the rebel leaders; I have clad the pillar in the flayed skins.”

A detail from the bronze bands that adorned the "Balawat Gates", dating to the reign of Shalmaneser III

A detail from the bronze bands that adorned the “Balawat Gates”, dating to the reign of Shalmaneser III

Small wonder, then, that the Assyrians were hated as much as they were feared. There was a deliberation to their cruelty, and the greatest massacres and atrocities were reserved for rebels against Assyrian rule. By this, they hoped to hold on to power, and this worked – for a while. Then, in 626BC their grip slipped. Their emperor Ashurbanipal was a great general, and his conquests had made the empire vast, but this meant that their army was stretched thin policing it. Worse, when Ashurbanipal died he left no clear successor, and civil war broke out. This was soon taken advantage of by the Babylonians, who broke loose from the empire, along with the rising peoples of Persia, Chaldea and Medea. The allied army laid siege to Nineveh for three months, before finally capturing the city and destroying it. The Assyrians were scattered, and though the imperial army fought on for several years, they were eventually defeated. Their cities were levelled, and Assyria would never again be an independent nation.

The Fall of Nineveh, by John Martin, 1828. (clicking for full size highly recommended)

The Fall of Nineveh, by John Martin, 1828. One of several paintings he did on the subject.
(clicking for full size highly recommended)

The name of Nineveh lived on, however, preserved in the biblical texts, though the city itself was lost until 1842. In that year the French consul in the city of Mosul, Paul-Émile Botta, decided to explored the oddly-shaped hills on the opposite side of the river. Botta has read the works of Claudius Rich, an early British archaeologist, and believed that Nineveh lay somewhere in the area. In fact, his brief as consul was entirely to explore the area for sites of historical interest. He had little hope of finding such in those mounds, but he was soon to be surprised. He soon realised that this was the ruins of a great palace – the palace, as it turned out once the cuneiform characters could be deciphered, of Sargon II, one of the last of the Assyrian kings who had named himself for the (even at the time) ancient Akkadian ruler. More excavations followed, and the destruction of Nineveh turned out to be a boon for archaeologists. The site had lain abandoned for two thousand years, and the wealth of archaeology left behind meant that more is known of the Assyrians than of almost any other peoples of the time. Their enemies had hated them so much that they had sought to ensure that they would be forever forgotten – but in the end, the sudden death they delivered left the city waiting, beneath the ground, to one day be re-discovered, and to be no longer forgotten. Nineveh was no more, but the memory of Nineveh finally lives on.

1 thought on “The Assyrian Empire

  1. Pingback: Yesterday’s and Today’s Scribbling: The Assyrian Empire, and onto the next | Daily Scribbling

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