(Әsĭr'ēӘ), ancient empire of W Asia. It developed around the city of Ashur, or Assur, on the upper Tigris River and south of the later capital, Nineveh.
The nucleus of a Semitic state was forming by the beginning of the 3d millennium B.C., but it was overshadowed by the greatness of Sumer and Akkad. Ashur was Assyria's chief god, but the gods of the Babylonians and Hittites were also honored. In the 17th cent. B.C., Assyria expanded briefly, but it soon relapsed into weakness. The 13th cent. B.C. saw Assyria threatening the surrounding states, and under Tiglathpileser I Assyrian soldiers entered the kingdom centered about Urartu (Ararat; see Armenia), took Babylonia, and crossed N Syria to reach the Mediterranean. This empire was, however, only ephemeral.
Assyrian greatness was to wait until the 9th cent., when Ashurnasirpal II came into power. He was not only a vigorous and barbarously cruel conqueror who pushed his conquests N to Urartu and W to Lebanon and the Mediterranean, but he was also a shrewd administrator. Instead of merely making conquered kings pay tribute, he installed Assyrian governors so that he could have more control over the empire.
Shalmaneser III (see under Shalmaneser I) attempted to continue this policy, but, although he exacted heavy tribute from Jehu of Israel and claimed many victories, he failed to establish hegemony over the Hebrews and their Aramaic-speaking allies. The basalt obelisk, called the Black Obelisk (British Mus.), describes the expeditions and conquests of Shalmaneser III. Raids from Urartu were resumed and grew more destructive after the death of Shalmaneser. Calah, the capital of Assyria during the reigns of Ashurnasirpal II and Shalmaneser III, has been excavated.
In the 8th cent. B.C. conquest was pursued by Tiglathpileser III. He subdued Babylonia, defeated the king of Urartu, attacked the Medes, and established control over Syria. As an ally of Ahaz of Judah (who became his vassal), he defeated his Aramaic-speaking enemies centering at Damascus. His successor, Shalmaneser V, besieged Samaria, the capital of Israel, in 722–721 B.C., but it was Sargon, his son, who completed the task of capturing Israel. Sargon's victory at Raphia (720 B.C.) and his invasions of Armenia, Arabia, and other lands made Assyria indisputably one of the greatest of ancient empires.
Sargon's son Sennacherib devoted himself to retaining the gains his father had made. He is particularly remembered for his warfare against his rebellious vassal, Hezekiah of Judah. Sennacherib's successor, Esar-Haddon, defeated the Chaldaeans, who threatened Assyria and carried his conquests (673–670) to Egypt, where he deposed Taharka and established Necho in power. Under Assurbanipal, Assyria reached its zenith and approached its fall. When Assurbanipal was fighting against the Chaldaeans and Elamites, an Egyptian revolt under Psamtik I was successful.
Assurbanipal's reign saw the Assyrian capital of Nineveh reach the height of its splendor. The library of cuneiform tablets he collected ultimately proved to be one of the most important historical sources of antiquity. The magnificent Assyrian bas-reliefs reached their peak. The royal court was luxurious. Assyrian culture owed much to earlier Babylonian civilization, and in religion Assyria seems to have taken much from its southern neighbor and subject (see Middle Eastern religions).
Despite the magnificence of Assurbanipal's court, Assyria began a rapid decline during his reign. The military aspect of the empire was its most prominent feature, for Assyria was prepared for conflict from beginning to end. Because of the ever-present need for men to fight the incessant battles, agriculture suffered, and ultimately the Assyrians had to import food. The division of society into a fairly rigid three-class system was not unlike that of other early western Asian peoples (e.g., Babylonia), but it did not supply a solid base for the overgrown Assyrian state.
The lavish expenditures of Assurbanipal on warfare and building drained the resources of the empire and contributed to its weakness. The king of the Medes, Cyaxares, and the Babylonian ruler Nabopolassar, joined forces and took Nineveh in 612 B.C. Under the son of Nabopolassar, Nebuchadnezzar, Babylonia was renewed in power, and the great-grandson of Cyaxares, Cyrus the Great, was to establish the Persian Empire, which owed much to the earlier Assyrian state.
- See A. T. E. Olmstead, History of Assyria (1923, repr. 1960).
- D. D. Luckenbill, Ancient Records of Assyria and Babylonia (2 vol., 1926–7, repr. 1968).
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