Meanwhile, three hundred miles north of Babylon, another civilization grew strong. The new state grew around four cities fed by the waters or tributaries of the Tigris: Ashur, Arbela, Nimrud (or Calah/Kalakh) and Nineveh.
The god Ashur gave his name to the city Ashur, and then to the whole of Assyria. There, the earliest of the nation's kings had their residence, until its exposure to the heat of the desert and the attack of the neighboring Babylonians led Ashur's rulers to build a secondary capital in cooler Nineveh, named after Nina, the Ishtar of Assyria.
Here, in the heyday of Ashurbanipal, 300,000 peope lived. The population was a mixture of Semites from the south and non-Semitic tribes from the west (Hittites). They took their common language and their arts from Sumeria, but modified them later into an almost undistinguishable similarity to the language and arts of Babylonia.
However, unlike Babylon, from beginning to end they were a race of warriors, almost like the Klingons in their devotion to it, though crueler and more brutal to the point of sadism. Their history is one of kings and slaves, wars and conquests, bloody victories and sudden defeat.
The early kings took advantage of the Kassite domination of Babylon to establish their independence. Soon enough, one of them decked himself with the title "king of the universe". While Babylonia was still under in the darkness of Kassite rule, Shalmaneser I brought the little city states of the north under one rule and made Kalakh (Nimrud) the capital.
The first great name in Assyrian historyis Tiglath-Pileser I (1276 BC). Although it is unwise to believe politicians, we must depend upon his own words, since we have no others. He said that he had been a great hunter, having killed one hundred twenty lions on foot and eight hundred from his chariot. He was not just a hunter of animals, though, but also of nations.
In my fierce valor I marched against the people of Qummuh, conquered their cities, carried off their booty, their goods, and their property without reckoning, and burned their cities with fire -- destroyed and devastated them... The people of Adansh left their mountain and embraced my feet. I imposed tribute on them...
In every direction he led his armies, conquering the Hittites, the Armenians, and forty other nations, capturing at last Babylon and frightening Egypt into sending him anxious gifts. He was particularly molified by the crocodile they had sent him.
With the proceeds of his conquests, he then built great temples to the Assyrian pantheon of gods and godesses.
Then, Babylon revolted, defeated his armies, pillaged his temples, and carried his gods away to Babylon. Tiglath-Pileser I died in shame, but his reign serves as a symbol and summary of all Assyrian history: death and taxes -- first for Assyria's neighbors, and then for herself.
Ashurnasirpal II conquered a dozen petty states, brought much booty home from the wars, with his own hands he cut out they eyeballs of princely captives, and he enoyed his harem. He passed away respectably.
Shalmaneser III carried his conquests as far as Damascus (see the discussion on the Arameans), fought costly battles, killed 16,000 Syrians in one engagement, built temples, levied tribute, and was finally deposed by his son in a violent revolt. He is the Shalmaneser mentioned in 2 Kings 17:3ff.
Tiglath-Pileser III gathered new armies, reconquered Armenia, overran Syria and Babylonia, made vassle cities of Damascus, Samaria, and Babylon, extended the rule of Assyria from the Caucasus to Egypt, tired of war, became an excellent administrator, built many temples and palaces, held his empire together with an iron hand, and died peacefully in bed.
Sargon II, an officer in the army, made himself king in a coup d'etat; he led his troops in person and took in every engagement in the most dangerous post.
He defeated Elam and Egypt, reconquered Babylonia, and received the homage of the Jews, Philistines, and Cypriot Greeks.
He ruled his empire well, encouraged arts and letters, handicrafts and trade, and died in a victorious battle which preserved Assyria for invasion by the wild Cimmerian hordes.
His son Sennacherib put down revolts in the distant provinces adjoining the Persian Gulf, and attacked Egypt and Jerusalem without success (cf. 2 Kings 18:17-37).
All in all, he was something of an incompetent, in addition to being a barbarian.
Irritated by the Babylonian penchant for freedom, he beseiged it, took it, and burned it to the ground. Nearly all the inhabitants, young and old, male and female, were put to death, so that mountains of corpses blocked the streets.
The temples and palaces were pillaged to the last sheckel, and the once omnipotent gods of Babylon were hacked to pieces or were carried off to bondage.
Sennacherib's sons finally assassinated him, though, while he was praying to his gods.
Another of Sennacherib's sons, Esarhaddon, took the throne from his murderous brothers and then invaded Egypt to punish it for supporting the Syrian revolts. He turned it into an Assyrian province.
He then delighted the Babylonians by freeing and honoring their captive gods and by rebuilding the city. He conciliated Elam by feeding its famine stricken people in an act of international beneficence almost without parallel in the ancient world.
He died on his way to suppress a revolt in Egypt after giving his empire what many consider to be the most just and enlightened rule in its half-barbarous history.
His successor was Ashurbanipal, who reaped the fruits of Esarhaddon's sowing.
During his long reign, Assyria reached the climax of its wealth and prestige. After him, Assyria, ruined by forty years of intermittant war, fell into exaustion and decay and ended its career ten years after his death.
A scribe has preserved for us a yearly record of his reign. It is a dull and bloody mess of war after war, seige after seige, starved cities and flayed captives. He destroyed Elam. The severed head of the Elamite king was brought to Ashurbanipal as he feasted with his queen in the palace garden. He had the head raised on a pole in the midst of his guests, and the royal party continued uninterrupted. Later, he had the head stuck over the gate of Nineveh, where it slowly rotted away.
The Elamite general, Dananu, was flayed alive; then he was bled like a sheep. His brother had his throat cut, and his body was divided into pieces, which were then distributed over the country as souvenirs.
It never occured to Ashurbanipal that he or his army were unusually brutal. They viewed their behavior as necessary and proper, and a useful technique too keep rebellions at bay and to establish discipline among the heterogenous peoples that made up the Assyrian Empire: Ethiopia, Armenia, Syria, Media, and so on.
Still, Ashurbanipal was not all blood and guts. He sent out sculptors and architects to design and adorn new temples and palaces throughout the empire; he comissioned scribes to secure and copy the classics of Sumerian and Babylonian literature which he then gathered into his library at Nineveh. As this library was unearthed nearly intact, much of what we today know of the ancient literatures of Babylonia and Sumeria are thanks to him.
The End of Ashurbanipal and Assyria
Ashurbanipal died in 626 BC. Fourteen years later an army of Babylonians under the leadership of Nabopollassar united with an army of Medes lead by Cyaxares and a hoard of Scythians from the Caucasus and defeated the Assyrian Empire. Nineveh was laid waste as ruthlessly and completely as Susa and Babylon had been by the Assyrians. Nineveh was put to the torch, the population was slaughtered, survivors were enslaved, the palace was sacked and destroyed. Thus, the Assyrians disappeared from the world stage.
The last tablet, written by Ashurbanipal just before he died records the following (in typical Near Eastern government style):
I did well to god and man, to dead and living. Why have sickness and misery befallen me? I cannot do away with the strife in my country and the dissensions in my family; disturbing scandles oppress me always. Illness of mind and flesh bow me down; with cries of woe I bring my days to an end. On the day of the city god, the day of the festival, I am wretched. Death is seizing hold upon me, and wears me down. With lamentation and mourning I wail day and night, and groan, "O god! Grant to one who is impious that he may see thy light!"
Some biblical passages on Assyria: Jonah, Isaiah 10:5-19, Nahum.
Copyright © Quartz Hill School of Theology. All Rights Reserved.