Assyria, in its original geographical and historical sense, was a small triangular-shaped land lying between the Tigris and the Zab Rivers and the Median Mountains. When the Assyrians gained in power and numbers, they soon extended their dominion beyond these very narrow boundaries so that even in early times the name Assyria was carried westward to the Euphrates and southward as far as Hit.
At the Zenith of its rule, Assyria could lay claim to an empire that stretched from Egypt in the west to the borders of Iran in the east that encompassed the whole of the Fertile Crescent in the realm of a single imperial domain.
The beginning of the Assyrian Empire can be traced to a small town called Ashur from where the name Assyria has been derived. The merchants of the city of Ashur became wealthier which in turn influenced the growth and prosperity of the town.
The Rise and fall of Assyrian Empire
The Assyrian Empire is considered to be the greatest among the Mesopotamian Empires owing to its development of bureaucracy and military strategies that gave momentum to its growth. The rise and fall of the Assyrian Empire can be classified to three periods:
- The Old Kingdom: the existence of the city of Ashur can be traced to this period as an independent city state. The city had close ties with the Sumerians and the Akkadians of the South. Ashur became an important trade centre. Meanwhile, the rising power of Amorites in Babylon posed a danger and finally under Hammurabi, the city of Ashur was conquered. Babylon rose to complete power and took over the trade with Assyria. After the death of Hammurabi, Assyria was able to recover itself.
- The Middle Empire: Assyria fell under the control of the kingdom of Mittani. However, the invasion by the Hittites led to the decline of the Mittani power. The Assyrians during this period used the opportunity to assert their own power and began to expand their territory beyond the city of Ashur. Around 12th century, the Hittites were overthrown and the Assyrians were successful in consolidating their conquest to a certain extent.
- The Neo-Assyrian Empire: During the end of 10th century, Assyria could retain most of its fortunes. The empire reached almost the same size as before. A new Assyrian capital was founded in Nineveh. Even though Assyrian encountered external raids, it continued to exercise its great political influence.
A system of provinces, governors and inspectors, a network of roads and garrisons ensured survival of the Assyrian Empire. The Babylonians, Persians and Seleucids used the same strategy to rule the Ancient Near East.
Assyrian Social Structure
Assyria was made up of a combination of city states. Many people lived in cities owing to its secured nature. Cities were protected with high walls to keep invaders away as it was a period of constant invasion from other empires.
Each neighbourhood in the city was associated to a temple. Smaller cities had one temple while larger cities had a number of temples. Priests were treated like head of families and ensured that its people had food and saw to the needs of the community. The king on the other hand was the absolute authority for the city. Assyrian kings ensured that his subjects are safe and well protected. It was also the king’s duty to take care of the temples.
Assyrian Society followed a very strict social order. At the top was the king, followed by princes, then nobles, priests and military leaders. A variety of workers including craftsmen, farmers, herdsmen and merchants formed the middle class. The upper and the middle class were free citizen. The lowest class included the slaves.
In the Assyrian Empire, women were dependent on male relatives. Women were home makers and had no role in the decision making process of the family.
Military powers of Assyria
Assyria was popular for its love for war. Assyrians are considered to be one of the world’s first military powers. The army was powerful and aggressive and the kings were impressed with brutal victories. The soldiers were known to kill everyone they met in the battlefields.
Assyrian military developed sophisticated tools. There were instances of use of iron spears, swords, shields and armour. They used siege towers which were movable to get over castle or fortress walls. They also used chariots drawn by two horses that carried a driver and an archer. The Assyrian army consisted of infantry, archers and accurate slingslots. Assyrians used their military skills to take over other empires and capture the citizen as slaves. Many of the Assyrian murals depict scenes from war portraying themselves and the kings as war heroes.
Religion and the temples of God
Assyrian culture worshipped many gods where each function of life had a god responsible for it. There were both major and minor gods. Assyrian people approached their gods to help them solve their problems. The size of temples varied according to the level of importance of the God residing in it. The representations of God were mostly in Human form, clothed in a variety of ritualistic garments. Gods in temples were offered three meals a day. On days of festival, ceremonial processions were taken out of the God to visit one another in different temples.
The cities of Assyria were not as ancient as those of Babylonia, and their general character was commercial rather than religious, military rather than peaceful and culture-loving. Their temples were indeed large and imposing, for the Assyrians had amassed great wealth in war, and they believed, no less than the Babylonians, that the gods had led them to victory.
The first city of Assyria in age was Ashur. It was originally a colony and dependency of Babylonia, but its kings spread their power over the adjoining country, which they named Ashur, after their city. It was the home of the great god Asshur, whose temple E-kharsag-kurkurra was erected by the earliest rulers of whom we know anything, and frequently restored by later monarchs.
In most cities, the citadel palaces were placed on existing mounds. The great city walls were the pride for Assyrian Kings. Cities had large open spaces along with multiple small open spaces. Outside the citadel were vast landscape spaces and network of canals.
The rise and fall of Assyrian Empire
One of Assyrian greatest rulers Tiglaphpileser I was responsible for expanding the Assyrian territory in Mesopotamia. He was also a good administrator and rebuild Assyria’s farmed based economy. He built a strong and skilled army. After, Tiglaphpilesar I, many kings continued to rule the Assyrian Empire and most of them were known for their brutality.
A new Assyrian dynasty began with Sargon II who re-modelled the Assyrian Empire based on Sargon I of Akkad. He divided the Empire into provinces and the governors or viceroy were responsible for keeping peace, collecting taxes and providing soldiers for the king’s army. Under Sargon II, the Assyrians spread their power towards South.
After many rulers of the same lineage, Assyria’s power weakened and the size of the Empire slowly decreased after the death of Ashurbanipal. Constant invasion and raids on Assyrian cities led to its decline while on the other hand a new empire, the Babylonian was on the rise.