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The Assyrian Empire

Ancient history, from the beginning of historical information to the downfall of the Western Roman Empire (? B.C. - 476 A.D.). The Great Empires: Eastern Nations.
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The Assyrians, or "people of Asshur," of Semitic race, migrated at an early period from their homes in Accad, and about 1500 b.c. formed an independent power in northern Mesopotamia, in a region bounded on the north by the highlands of Armenia, on the east by Media, on the south by Babylonia and Susiana, and on the west by the Euphrates. The territory, in its greatest extent, was 350 miles in length, and from 170 to 300 miles broad, being somewhat larger than modern Prussia. The wonderful fertility of the country was well suited for the support of a great population, and the new empire soon became one formidable to neighbouring nations. The earliest brick-inscriptions found at Asshur, the ancient capital, give the rulers the Acadian title of Patesi, or "high-priest." With a perception of the Divine Unity, the Assyrians placed above all gods Asshur the supreme head, of the same name as their first great city and the whole land, while they adopted, in a large degree, the creed and religious ceremonies of the Babylonia whence they sprang. The Sun-god was a great object of reverence, and the morning and evening hymns in his honour are among the finest specimens of Assyrian sacred literature. Marduk or Merodach, the "mediator between gods and men," "the protector of mankind," "the raiser of the dead," was an important deity, and to Nebo, the god of learning, all the libraries were dedicated, as "the wise god," "the enlarger of the mind." Nergal, the god of war and of death, "the great devourer," is represented by the famous winged lions, with stately turbaned and bearded human head, placed at the temple or palace gates, the huge figures to be seen in the British Museum. The literature and civilisation were almost identical with those of Babylonia, and need no further description. We may mention the discovery, in 1872, by the late George Smith of the British Museum, of a tablet containing an account of the Deluge closely resembling that in the book of Genesis, and the finding of cosmogonic legends almost identical in substance with the Hebrew story of the creation.

Among the earliest facts of Assyrian history we find, about 1450 b.c., the conclusion of a boundary treaty between Assyria and Babylonia. Shortly before 1300, Shalmaneser I. founded the great Assyrian city Kalah as one of the capitals; this place was uncovered in modern days by Layard at Nimrud. The two older capitals, Asshur and Nineveh, were only a few miles away, to south and north, on or near to the same river Tigris. The rising nation seems to have first drawn the sword against the powerful Hittites, the people whom we have seen in conflict with the Egyptians, and one whose extent of power and empire has only lately been revealed by the ingenuity, industry, and zeal of Professor Sayce in deciphering their monuments. Their territory, at its greatest extent, reached from the frontiers of Egypt to the shores of the Bosphorus, and their empire, before it perished about 700 b.c., had endured for nearly 3,000 years. About 1280 an Assyrian king took Babylon, and had a signet-ring engraved with his name, Tukutti-nineb, and title, with an inscription noting the victory. He seems, however, to have been soon forced to relinquish his conquest, leaving behind him the ring, which the Babylonians kept in the royal treasury, whence it was carried off 600 years later, by a more effectual invader, Sennacherib, who recorded the fact and the ring's history in his annals. The old Assyrian empire reached its height of glory under Tiglath-pileser I., who reigned from 1120 to 1100. The cylinder recording some of his warlike exploits tells of conquests among the highlands around the upper Tigris and Euphrates, of vast slaughter, crowds of captives, and cities burned. The empire was, in fact, extended over all western Asia, to the shores of the Mediterranean, and from the Armenian mountains to the Persian Gulf. Chaldea was made a tributary state. The Hittites were defeated, with the capture of their stronghold Karkhernish, on the Euphrates, and the cities of northern Phoenicia paid homage to the great Assyrian monarch. This energetic ruler also zealously promoted works of peace in restoring ruined castles, rebuilding temples, assisting tillage, storing the royal granaries with corn, adorning the chief cities, and planting trees and vines. He was a "mighty hunter before the Lord," slaying lions and wild bulls with his own hand, as boastfully recorded on his cylinder. Then for nearly 200 years the history becomes, from lack of records, almost a blank, and it seems that Assyria sank into comparative weakness, even paying tribute to certain Armenian kings, at the time when the Hebrew kingdom was in its full-splendour under David and Solomon.

About 930 b.c. the veil is lifted, and we find a line of great warrior-kings beginning a career of fresh conquest. Asshurnazirpal, reigning from 884 to 860, records his brutal cruelty to conquered foes in campaigns to the north, south, and west, by which the old territory was recovered. It was in this period that the capital was removed from Asshur to Kalah, the modern Nimrud, about 20 miles below Nineveh, but on the other (western) bank of the Tigris. His son Shalmaneser II. (860-824), whose annals are recorded on the famous Black Obelisk in the British Museum and on the slabs and bulls from his palace at Assyrian city Kalah, warred yearly for above 30 years against allied Syrian kings and Ahab of Israel; he received tribute from Tyre and Sidon, and from Jehu, king of Israel. The last years of his life were spent in building, repairing, and religious services. One of his architectural works was the completion of the great Ziggurat of the temple of Nineb (Nineveh), a stone pyramid 100 feet in width and 200 in height. The word "Ziggurat" means "mountain peak," and is descriptive of the peculiar construction so called, made of several platforms piled one on the other, each square in shape and somewhat smaller than the one below The topmost supported a small temple, and the pile was used as an observatory by the Chaldean sages. In the 8th century we have accounts of revolt at home and abroad, and then in 745 b.c. the throne was usurped by a Babylonian who took the Assyrian title of Tiglath-pileser II., and was both a reviver of the empire in establishing a new form of administration and a great conqueror. He built up a great political system of rule, in becoming an organiser as well as a subduer, and in consolidating conquests to which his predecessors had given a merely tributary character. This was a new phase in the history of western Asia. Campaigns were no longer mere raids on a large scale, for plunder in the shape of captured men, women, children, animals, and other property in various forms, but they were undertaken and carried out with a definite political aim, and what was acquired in territory was firmly held. Annexation and annual revenue were now the objects, instead of the glory of victory in battle and the consequent spoil. A strong centralised form of government arose. Conquered peoples became now the inhabitants of subject provinces, governed by Assyrian satraps or viceroys, and compelled to pay a fixed yearly revenue to the home-government. Turbulent leaders of the people in subjugated territory were deported to a safe place of detention, and bodies of colonists were planted in the new provinces. Commercial objects were kept well in view under this new system. The monarch aimed at gathering up into the hands of the Assyrians the control of commerce in western Asia, and the capture of Karkhemish, Arpad, Hamath, Damascus, Tyre, Sidon, and Samaria secured the trade-route through Syria and brought in large regular sums to the national treasury. This energetic and enlightened monarch seems to have aimed at effecting a general fusion of races in his dominions by carrying away large numbers of women from conquered territory into the middle of Assyria, for the purpose of there marrying and settling them, with a view to a new generation of mixed origin which could be patriotically attached to Assyria alone. The sculptures show processions of these deported people, with flocks, herds, and household goods, escorted by Assyrian soldiers. The places of the expatriated were taken, in the new territory, by colonists of Assyrian birth, or people of kindred race to the conquerors and loyal to the Assyrian crown. After making himself master of the west, Tiglath-pileser received the submission of Babylonia, and in 729 proclaimed himself "King of Shumir and Accad."

His successor, Shalmaneser IV., had to deal with revolts, and, dying during a long siege of Tyre, was succeeded by an usurper in the person of Sargon, the "Tartan" or commander-in-chief of the army. This was the king (722-705) who captured Samaria and put an end to the kingdom of Israel, and was constantly employed in wars of repression of revolted provinces. Merodach-baladan III., of Chaldea, was the chief foe of Assyria at this time, causing revolts by his intrigues in Syria and adjacent countries. After successful campaigns in the west and north and east, against Syrians, Hittites, Medians and Armenians, Sargon turned fiercely against the dangerous plotter, Merodach of Babylon. That prince fled to his capital by the sea, Dur Yakin, but he was followed thither by his foe, and Sargon's soldiers took the place at the first assault. Merodach's palace was despoiled, and he made a humble submission. The city was "made a heap of," in the language of the inscriptions, and Sargon was proclaimed king of Babylon in 710 b.c. The splendid palace built for himself at his new capital city, Dur-Sharrukin ("city of Sargon" ), about 15 miles north of Nineveh, but away from the Tigris, at the foot of the hills, is the one entombed in the mound of Khorsabad, excavated by M. Botta for the French Government in 1842. Some of the fine sculptures are now in the Louvre, at Paris. The structure, which is the best preserved of all the Assyrian ruins, was of the finest workmanship in every detail, and the extent, variety, and richness of the sculptures are almost beyond belief. Every scene of the royal builder's life is illustrated, every feature of the countries which he visited as a conqueror is portrayed. On the outer walls were 24 pairs of colossal bulls in high-relief, and the inner walls of the vast rooms display about two miles length of sculptured slabs. The whole vast undertaking was completed within five years, a fact which proves the number of skilled hands which were at the command of this mighty Oriental monarch. Shortly after taking possession of this magnificent abode, Sargon was murdered there in 705 b.c., during a military revolt, and was succeeded by the Sennacherib who is so well known to us from the Biblical narrative. His reign (705-681) began with revolts in Babylon and Philistia, which he suppressed, and the king then warred with mountain-tribes in the Zagros range. His failure against Hezekiah, king of Judah, calls for no description, and we need only state that lack of detail in the inscriptions seems to confirm the Scripture account of a catastrophe, probably a pestilence, which swept away his forces. A great battle a complete victory for the Assyrians, was fought in the south against the united forces of Elam and Babylon, and Sennacherib, s vengeance on his hereditary foe was marked by the sacking of the city of Babylon, the carrying away of the signet-ring and of other trophies formerly taken from Assyrian kings, the demolition of the temples and statues of the gods, and the general destruction of the place by the spade and pickaxe and by devouring fire. The end of this monarch was slaughter by his two elder sons as he was at prayer in a temple, the motive for this horrible parricide being jealousy of the favour shown to their younger brother Esarhaddon.

This favourite son took possession of power, overcame his brothers and their supporter the king of Armenia, and then went to Nineveh, which had been rebuilt with the utmost splendour by Sennacherib, with a new palace of the greatest magnificence, covering eight acres of ground, and adorned with the most lavish and realistic illustrations of the royal builder's life at home and abroad, in peace and war. Esarhaddon showed political wisdom in dividing his time and place of abode between Babylon, in the low country, as a winter residence, and Nineveh, near the mountains, as a summer domicile. The city of Babylon and its desecrated temples were restored. His expeditions for frontier warfare were varied by an invasion of Arabia, in which eight chieftains were slain, two of them women, with the capture and carrying off of their wealth and gods. In 673 the Assyrian king made his great march into Egypt, and ended the war there which had been in hand, with various issues, for three years. The reign of this monarch, who is described by modern historians as being " the noblest and most gracious figure " among Assyrian rulers, ended in 668 with the rare event of abdication. His successor was his son Asshurbanipal V., the Greek " Sardanapalus" (668-626), under whom the storm began to arise which was to sweep away for ever the imposing fabric of Assyrian power. The Aryan peoples were coming to the front in the persons of the Medes, called " Madai " in Genesis and on the Assyrian monuments. Coming from the plateau of eastern Eran or Iran, they had, about the middle of the gth century b.c., reached and occupied many of the valleys and outer slopes of the Zagros Mountains, some distance east of Assyria proper, and they were soon in collision, from time to time, with Assyrian forces sent to check their advance. This people were to have a chief share in the general revolt, to the west, the south, and the east of Assyria, which was to lay the giant power in the dust, combined with wearing attacks from a people to the far north, the Scyths or Scythians, as the Greeks called them, the Sakhi or Saki in the Asiatic name. These were, to some extent at least, Aryan nomads whose hordes had overrun the vast plains of what is now southern Russia.

Turning now to the career of Asshurbanipal, we must describe him as a patron of literature and art, in whose reign Assyrian art reached its highest point. He soon found himself, through his generals .chiefly, engaged in war in Egypt, against the Ethiopian Taharka, who was expelled from Memphis, and then driven, by way of Thebes, to his own land of Kush. Another revolt led to the despoiling of Thebes. Then Phoenicia had to be again subdued, and in 653 the revolt of Egypt under Psamatik ended in the loss of that dominion by Assyria. Asshurbanipal had been engaged by a serious revolt under his brother, the viceroy of Babylon, who was aided by the king of Elam. The whole strength of the Assyrian king had to be concentrated on this contest for the space of five years, until Babylon, Borsippa, and Sippara were taken by siege, when the rebels were treated with merciless severity. Then came a fierce struggle with the people of Elam, ending in the capture and sacking of their capital Shushan and their other chief towns, and the disappearance of Elam as a kingdom and a nation.

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Pictures for The Assyrian Empire

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