The Assyrian Empire was one of the most powerful civilizations of the ancient world. At its height, it ruled an area of the Middle East stretching from modern-day Iraq and Iran to Egypt. The empire was renowned for its military capabilities and the often cruel methods it used to keep its subjects in line. The earliest Assyrian kingdom is believed to date back to the second millennium BC. The empire reached the peak of its power from about 900 to 700 BC, before it fell victim to internal rebellions and foreign invaders.
The first human civilizations developed in a region of the Middle East known as Mesopotamia, an area between the Tigris and Euphrates Rivers in what is today Iran, Iraq, and Turkey. A people called the Sumerians built the first cities in the region. These eventually grew to become large population centers known as city-states. Around the year 2300 BC, a ruler named Sargon from the kingdom of Akkad conquered Mesopotamia and established the world’s first empire—the Akkadian Empire. The Akkadian Empire lasted until about 2080 BC.
The Birth of Assyria
Around 1900 BC, the trade city of Ashur was founded in what is now northern Iraq. The city was believed to have been named after the Mesopotamian god Ashur, and is the origin of the name Assyria. The city of Ashur grew in power until approximately 1800 BC, when it was able to establish itself as an independent kingdom. For periods during the next four or five centuries, Assyria fell under the control of several conquering empires. Then, around 1400 to 1250 BC, it regained its independence and began to expand its kingdom by capturing some neighboring territory.
Because the empire was surrounded by enemies on all sides, Assyrian rulers began to form a strong military to defend their homeland. They started using iron weapons and adopted the use of the chariot, a horse-drawn vehicle that allowed for faster movement during battle. The Assyrians briefly took control of the powerful Babylonian kingdom to the south around 1235 BC.
A Military Force
The Assyrian Empire entered a period of revitalization under the rule of Tiglath Pileser I, who reigned from 1115 to 1076 BC. The king made significant improvements to the military and conquered Phoenicia on the coast of the Mediterranean Sea. He improved the economy, promoted the arts and literacy, and began a practice of preserving stone tablets that contained the written works of the era.
The improvements brought about by Tiglath Pileser I continued for a brief time after his death, but the empire soon fell into a period of civil war and lost much of its territory. Despite its losses, the Assyrian military remained a powerful force. Under the rules of kings Adad Nirari II (reigned 912–891 BC) and his son Tukulti Ninurta II (reigned 891–884 BC), the empire once again started conquering surrounding kingdoms. They moved from city to city, using advanced battle tactics to regain their lost territory and greatly expand the empire.
Their primary tactic was siege warfare, in which Assyrian forces would surround a city and cut the inhabitants off from receiving supplies. The inhabitants were given a choice to surrender and submit to Assyrian rule, or risk being slaughtered. If the city resisted, the Assyrians used battering rams to damage city gates, and ladders and multistoried towers to scale the walls. The Assyrians were renowned for brutally suppressing revolts and showing no mercy to those who defied them. The methods of punishment they used were often cruel and designed to strike fear in their enemies.
Under the leadership of Ashurnasirpal II (reigned 884–859 BC), the capital of the empire was moved from Ashur to Nimrud, a city in present-day northern Iraq. Ashurnasirpal II continued to expand the empire’s power, but he also focused on scientific pursuits and building great works of architecture. For almost a century after Ashurnasirpal’s rule, the growth of the empire stalled. Assyria was plagued by civil war and faced threats from neighboring kingdoms.
The Empire Reached Its Peak
In the eighth century BC, Tiglath Pileser III (reigned 745–727 BC) began to exert his power over the empire. He built the military into an even stronger and more efficient fighting force. Under his reign, the Assyrian Empire conquered Babylon and extended its territory along the Mediterranean coast. He also began a policy of forcing conquered people to move from their towns and cities, and relocating them to distant lands.
The kings who followed Tiglath Pileser III continued to expand the Assyrian Empire until it became the largest empire in the world at the time. The Assyrians conquered modern-day Israel, Syria, Egypt, and Greek provinces in modern-day Turkey. By the beginning of the seventh century BC, the Assyrians controlled much of the Middle East, from the Persian Gulf to the Mediterranean coast and the area along the Nile River into southern Egypt.
Under the leadership of Sennacherib (reigned 705–681 BC), Assyria’s capital was moved to the city of Nineveh. Sennacherib built himself a large palace in Nineveh and surrounded it with great gardens and orchards. Some historians believe the palace at Nineveh was the real inspiration for the Hanging Gardens of Babylon, one of the Seven Wonders of the Ancient World.
The Fall of the Empire
As the military might of the Assyrians continued to grow, its power began to concern many of its neighbors. The empire had grown too large to successfully defend against all its enemies. Many of its subjects believed the empire treated them too harshly. As a result, rebellions within the empire were common, and the Assyrian kings were forced to deal with the unrest.
After the death of the last great Assyrian king, Ashurbanipal (reigned 668–627 BC), the empire began to crumble. His successors could not stop the rebellions and several territories broke away. In 612 BC, a combined army of Babylonians, Persians, Scythians, and other groups attacked the heart of the empire and completely destroyed Nineveh, Ashur, and other large Assyrian cities. The empire’s former lands were then divided up among its enemies. The defeat was absolute and marked the end of the Assyrian Empire.