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The Assyrian Empire

Unknown author

Israel's Enemies and the Great Empires

During the monarchy, Israel's enemies were mainly those in surrounding nations. The enemies within the promised land are not mentioned much after King David. It is recorded that Solomon put the people who remained in the land to forced labour (1 Kings 9:20-22).

The Assyrians and Babylonians

Assyria and Babylonia were both ancient but distinct kingdoms located in the fertile crescent, in the cradle of civilisation. Babylonia occupied the plain between modern Baghdad and the Persian Gulf. Assyria was generally bordered on the west by the Syrian desert, on the south by Babylonia, and on the north and east by the Armenian and Persian hills.

The rivers Tigris and Euphrates were vital to both civilisations. The high and dry plateaus were unfavourable to agriculture, so an irrigation system was constructed using canals.

Assyria and Babylonia share a common Semitic language, Akkadian, and have much in common. Power oscillated back and forth between the two, with Assyria generally being the leading political and military power, especially during 900-612 BC, when Assyrian power reached its zenith, under Sargon II, Sennacherib, Esarhaddon and Ashurbanipal. However, Babylon had the stronger cultural and religious influence.

Assyrian Religion

The Assyrian religion was mostly derived from Babylonia. The Assyrian national god was Ashur, the ancestor of the Assyrians, the second son of Shem (Gen 10:22). His name was given to the capital city, Assur, where the main temple to Ashur was situated. The Babylonian national god was Marduk.

Absolute authority was ascribed to the national god. The people were required to give complete subservience, self-abasement and humble submission to his will. Ashur came into prominence in the 2nd millennium BC. He had no truly distinctive character of his own, but merely personified the interest of Assyria as a nation. The worship system had similarities to Israel. A high priest with many priests directed daily rituals of sacrifices, hymns, prayers and laments, anointing, exorcisms, interpretation of dreams and fertility ceremonies. Animals, fruits and vegetables were offered as sacrifices.

The current Assyrian king was seen to act as a regent for Ashur and the military campaigns were seen as holy wars against those who would not worship Ashur. The other Assyrian cities were believed to be guarded by different deities, although each city had many temples to various gods. Ishtar, the goddess of war and love was worshipped at Nineveh.

Assyrian Warriors

The Assyrians had a passion for war. Their nobility belonged to the military caste. Palace walls were covered with bas-reliefs depicting scenes of war. The bearded soldiers were highly disciplined and were well equipped with battering rams and throwers for siege warfare. In their conquest, a strategy of terror was adopted: unless the besieged city surrendered, paying a heavy tribute, all inhabitants were mercilessly massacred. They deported all surviving captives to a foreign land and replaced them with Assyrians or other conquered peoples, thus avoiding risk of rebellion. They were committed to writing war exploits in annals of conquests, each king boasting of his gruesomeness. Ashurbanipal wrote about a captive king, "I took him alive in the midst of the battle. In Nineveh, my capital, I slowly tore off his skin."

Assyrian Culture

Assyrians were devoted hunters when they were not at war. There was abundant wild-life in the area and Assyrian bas-reliefs frequently show hunting scenes, especially hunting lions. In the British Museum is a series of very detailed wall-carvings showing Sennacherib's hunting scenes.

Assyrians were also devoted to art and literature. Excavations have revealed thousands of tablets of cuneiform writings as well as the refined architecture of the kings' palaces and temples.

History of Assyria

Origin of Assyrian Empire

Nimrod, the mighty hunter, built many cities, including Nineveh and Calah, forty kilometres south of Nineveh on the River Tigris (Gen 10:6-12). Assyria is referred to as the "Land of Nimrod" (Micah 5:6). The land of Assyria is likened to the promised land when it is described as a land of grain and wine, of bread and vineyards, olive trees and honey (2 Kg 18:32). It was situated in the fertile crescent and consisted of strips of alluvial soil on each side of the River Tigris. The area was originally settled about 3500 BC.

Around 2500 BC the Sumerian civilisation came to an end. Assyria became subject to Akkad, then Gutium of Babylonia. It was later occupied by Babylonians, who brought their religion, laws, script and language. For part of the time before 1400 BC, Assyria was also subject to Egypt.

Early period

At this time, groups of high priests of Ashur called the Mitanni, ruled the area. These were Semitic rulers, subject to king Hammurabi of Babylon (1790-1750 BC).

Assuruballid I (1365-1330)
He became king of Assyria and married his daughter to the Babylonian king. The Babylonian king was murdered and Assuruballid's grandson was made king of Babylon. Assyria began to return to its former greatness.

Shalmaneser I (1274-1245)
He fought tribes in the eastern and northern hills, and against the Hittites who were supporting Babylon, and cut off communication between the two nations. He rebuilt Calah as his new capital.

Tukulti-Ninurta I (1244-1208)
The Hittites had been crushed by people from the north, so Assyria concentrated on Babylon and conquered it. Tukulti-Ninurta reigned over all Mesopotamia for seven years and took the image of Merodach from Babylon to Assur. Babylon revolted and again became independent, Assyria retreated and Tukulti-Ninurta was murdered by his son.

Old empire (1100-1000's)

The Assyrian Empire began to rise again after a period of a decline in power, when the Arameans were able to put pressure on their western border, and move into northern and southern Syria.

Tiglath-Pileser I (1115-1077)
Extended the Assyrian empire to the north and to Cappadocia. He reached the Mediterranean coast and received tribute from Egypt. He planted gardens at Assur with trees from the conquered countries. After his death, Assyria declined, Arameans took Pethor, so access was lost to the Mediterranean.

Assur-rabi II (1010-970)
Assyria at its weakest under under threat from Aramean desert tribes. This was the period when David's kingdom reached its greatest, reaching through Syria to the River Euphrates.

Ashur-dan II (933-910)
Start of the revival of Assyria, during the time of the division of the kingdom with Jeroboam in the north (Israel) and Rehoboam in the south (Judah).

Neo-Assyrian period

Ashurnasirpal II (883-859)
This was a time of rising power. The Assyrian Empire began to expand west to conquer the Aramean tribes around the Euphrates and reached the Mediterranean. They took tribute from the Phoenician cities of Tyre and Sidon and received homage from Hittite king at Carchemish. They expanded northward, subduing Armenia and Commagene, and to the Zagros mountains in the east. The continual pushing west eventually brought her into conflict with Israel, during the time of King Omri. Ashurnasirpal rebuilt the ruins of Calah (also known as Nimrud), using 50,000 prisoners, as his administrative capital.

Shalmaneser III (859-823)
He organized the administration in the lands his father, Ashurnasirpal, had conquered. He also extended the borders of the empire to rule from Urartu in the north, to the Persian Gulf, and from Media, to the Syrian coast and Cicilia (Tarsus). He conquered Carchemish in 857 BC.

In 853 BC he fought against an alliance of ten kings at Qarqar. This alliance included Benhadad of Syria, with 1200 chariots, 1200 calvary, 20,000 infantry; and Ahab of Israel, with 2000 chariots, 10,000 infantry. Assyria boasted of a great victory, but in reality it was more of a draw as their expansion was halted for five years. The battle is recorded on the Shalmaneser III Stela in the British Museum.

By 842 BC, the anti-Assyrian coalition had broken up, so Shalmaneser besieged Damascus, but failed to conquer it, Hazael was king of Syria at this time. He took tribute from Tyre and Sidon, as well as from Jehu of Israel (2 Kg 10:32), which is recorded on the Black Obelisk in British Museum. Jehu had purged the house of Ahab, leaving Israel weak. Shalmaneser also overran Armenia and Tarsus, conquering mines in the Taurus Mts. The king of Babylon became subject to him.

Sammshi-Adad V (823-811)
He campaigned against Media and Babylonia. Internal problems and raids from the north weakened Assyria. Sammshi-Adad died young leaving his widow to act as regent until his son Adad-Nirari was old enough to become king.

Adad-Nirari III (811-783)
He was the grandson of Shalmaneser III, and claimed to have subdued all Syria, Phoenicia, Edom & Philistia, relieving Israel from the attacks from Syria. He is possibly the saviour referred to in 2 Kg 13:4, during the reign of Jehoahaz. He built a new palace outside the walls of Calah.

Assyria weak, with 3 weak kings (783-746)
During this period there was internal strife. Jeroboam II of Israel took advantage of Assyria's weakness and invaded Syria, as prophesied by Jonah (2 Kg 14:25), bringing a peaceful and prosperous time for Israel, with the borders restored to the extent of Solomon's kingdom. However, Hosea and Amos show the bad spiritual situation at this time. Jonah preached in Nineveh during this time. After the death of Jeroboam II, the northern kingdom became very unstable, with five kings in twelve years.

Second Empire

Pul (Pulu) (745-727)
Pul usurped the Assyrian throne, taking the name Tiglath-pileser III and reigned for eighteen years. He reorganized the army, his aim was to make western Asia one empire to secure trade for merchants of Nineveh, especially from Egypt. He established a vast empire and deported conquered peoples and thereby established strong central administration.

Syro-Ephraimite War

Rezin (the last king of Syria before it was incorporated into the Assyrian empire) and Pekah, king of Israel wanted Jotham of Judah to join a coalition against Assyria (2 Kg 15:37). Both Jotham and his son Ahaz of Judah refused, so Rezin and Pekah came against Judah (2 Kg 16:5-9), Edom also rebelled. Ahaz's response was to submit to Tiglath-pileser (1 Chr 5:26), and ask for help. Isaiah exhorted Ahaz not to bow to Assyria, but Ahaz did not take any notice (Is 7). Ahaz took the treasures of the temple and king's house and gave them to the king of Assyria. Ahaz became a vassal of Assyria and had to adopt Assyria's gods (2 Kg 16:10-16).

In 743 BC, in response to Ahaz's request, Tiglath-pileser marched into Northern Syria, conquering Hamath and extracting tribute from a number of major cities, including Damascus (2 Kg 15:29).

In 738 BC, Pul took 1000 talents of silver as tribute from King Menahem of Israel, becoming the first Assyrian king to be mentioned in Scripture (2 Kg 15:19).

In 732 BC, he conquered and destroyed Damascus, taking the people captive (2 Kg 16:7-9). He also invaded northern Israel taking people from Galilee and Naphtali captive to Assyria (2 Kg 15:29-31), leaving only the land around Ephraim. This was the first deportation from the northern kingdom. Pekah was assassinated, and Tiglath-Pileser placed Hoshea on the throne of Samaria as a puppet-king.

In 728 BC, Tiglath-Pileser marched into Babylon and was made king of Babylon.

Shalmaneser V (727-722)
Shalmaneser was the son of Tiglath-pileser and continued fighting in the west and made Hoshea of Israel one of his vassals (2 Kg 17:3). Hoshea rebelled by refusing to pay tribute, expecting help from Egypt (2 Kg 17:4), so Shalmaneser invaded Israel, and besieged Samaria (2 Kg 17:5-6) and died during the siege in 722.

Sargon II (722-705)
Sargon usurped the Assyrian throne and finished the job of capturing Samaria, claiming credit for the victory. He took 27,290 people from Israel into captivity. They were carried away to the upper Euphrates and Media, losing their cultural and religious identity. He built himself a palace in Khorsabad, tem miles north east of Nineveh, while Calah remained the military centre.

At this time Hezekiah of Judah rebelled against Assyria (2 Kg 18:7). His reforms, by clearing out the idols and return to worship of Yahweh would be seen by Assyria as rebellion.

In 717 BC, Carchemish, the Hittite capital was captured. Also a revolt in southern Palestine was suppressed and Merodach-Baladan of Babylon was driven back to the Persian Gulf.

In 705 BC, Sargon was murdered and succeeded by his son Sennacherib.

Sennacherib (705-681)
Sennacherib was an able soldier who restored the capital to Nineveh. In his first years, he had to suppress revolts which broke out at the time of his father's death as well as a revolt by Merodach-Baladan in Babylon, who asked Hezekiah of Judah for help (2 Kg 20:12-19).

In 701 BC, Sennacherib invaded Philistia and Judah to bring his rebellious vassal Hezekiah back under Assyrian control. He took forty-six walled cities of Judah and 200,000 people captive (2 Kg 18:13). During the siege of Lachish (2 Kg 18:14-16), Sennacherib sent messages to Hezekiah, who paid tribute, 300 talents of silver and 30 talents of gold, even stripping the gold from the door of the temple, but this was not enough. Jerusalem was besieged by Sennacherib's Tartan (the second in command of the army), who mocked the God of Hezekiah (2 Kg 18:35, 19:10). Sennacherib said that "He had shut up Hezekiah in Jerusalem as a bird in a cage",and demanded his surrender. Sennacherib himself did not come against Jerusalem, he was busy fighting other battles.

Through Isaiah, God promised deliverance. Hezekiah sought God and God delivered Judah from the hand of Assyria (2 Kg 18:17 - 19:36, Is 36-39). When there was a rumour that Tirhakah of Ethiopia was coming against Assyria (2 Kg 19:9), they withdrew from Jerusalem. When they returned, God's angel killed 185,000 of their troops (2 Kg 19:35). Herodotus wrote that the Assyrian army was killed by a plague of mice (possibly bubonic plague carried by rats).

In 697 BC, Sennacherib suppressed a revolt in Cilicia, fighting against the Greeks, and conquered Tarsus. In 689 BC, he levelled and burnt down Babylon because of the rebellion by Merodach-Baladan, who was driven out.

Finally, in 681 BC, Sennacherib was assassinated by his sons in the temple of Nisroch in Nineveh (2 Kg 19:37).

Esar-Haddon (681-669)
He was the younger son of Sennacherib, brought Assyria to the height of its power and built a new palace at Calah. Babylon was rebuilt and made the second capital of the empire. King Manasseh of Judah paid him tribute, being required to provide building material. Under Manasseh, Judah returned to idolatry and being under the yoke of Assyria. For a short time, Manasseh was taken to Assyria (2 Chr 33:11). Under the terms of the tribute, Judah must submit to Ashur, the national god of Assyria, and the children must be taught this.

In 674 and 671 BC Egypt was conquered by Esar-haddon, Manasseh assisted in this campaign. Campaigns into Media & Arabia. Esar-Haddon described himself as "king of the world". In 669 BC, he died on the way to Egypt to repress a revolt by the native chiefs of lower Egypt.

Ashurbanipal (669-626)
He was the last of the strong Assyrian kings. King Manasseh of Judah was present at his inauguration. He was a scholar who collected a huge library of over 100,000 tablets in Nineveh, having his scribes copy the libraries of ancient Babylon. These were discovered in the ninteenth century. He was a keen big game hunter. Ezra 4:10 mentions "the great and noble Osnappur", probably referring to Ashurbanipal. His had a cruel war policy and repopulated Samaria with Babylonians. The prophet Nahum probably prophesied against Nineveh during his reign.

During the 640's, he subdued rebellions in Babylon. Then in 663 BC, he continued the suppression of the revolt in Egypt and conquered No-amman (Thebes) (Nahum 3:8). Assyria now came to its greatest territorial extent, ruling most of the fertile crescent, from southern Egypt, north to the mountains of Armenia, and east to the Persian Gulf.

During his reign, Assyria began to be weakened by internal strife, and Nabopolassar of Babylon as well as others began to rebel. After 626 BC, the death of Ashurbanipal, Assyria rapidly declined.

Fall of Assyria

The rapid decline of Assyria was caused by the excessive luxury of the court and the many wars, against Egypt, Tyre, Babylon and east to Susa. Ashurbanipal's brother had stirred up a revolt through much of empire. Babylon was besieged for a long time and eventually submitted because of starvation. In Northern Arabia rebels were forced to submit, and Egypt gained independence under Psammetichus. Both these exhausted financial resources and fighting men for the army.

In the north-east Medes became powerful. In the south-east other Semitic tribes pushed inland like the Chaldeans, under Merodach-Baladan (2 Kg 20:12-13).

Assuretililani, son of Ashurbanipal.

Sirisharishkin (626 - 606)
After a civil war, he became the last king of Assyria. Scythians from Caucasus Mts. inundated the Assyrian Empire, looting and burning as far as Egypt (Zeph 2:4,7). Nabopolassar, the founder of the Neo-Babylonian empire, and then his son Nebuchadnezzar began to have more and more power, driving Assyria out of Babylon for the last time.

Josiah's reforms continued throughout Israel in the 620's BC, cleaning out all the idolatrous practices of foreign religions, showed that Assyria no longer had control over her provinces.

In 614 BC, the Medes, under Cyanxares (625-585) and the Babylonians, under Nabopolassar (626-605) invaded Assyria, sacking Ashur, the ancient Assyrian capital and Calah.

Finally in 612 BC, the combined force of Babylon, Media, and the Scythians besieged and sacked Nineveh (Zeph 2:13), fulfilling the prophecies of Nahum and other prophets.

In 609 BC, Pharaoh Necho came out of Egypt to help Assyria. He took Jehoahaz to Egypt and put Eliakim / Jehoiakim on the throne of Judah (2 Kg 23:29,31-34). Assyria could do nothing, the tyrant of the fertile crescent was dead.

In 606 BC, Sirisharishkin was killed fighting the Scythians. Soon after they disappeared, Nabopolassar took control of northern Babylon. By Cyrus' time, Assur, the old capital was a small town, the great cities of Nineveh and Calah no longer existed. The Assyrian empire was so totally destroyed that it was widely believed until the archaeological sites were discovered last century that the Assyrian empire was a myth only described in the Bible.

The city of Nineveh

Nineveh, the capital of the Assyrian empire, was originally founded by Nimrod (Gen 10:11-12), shortly after the flood. Nineveh and Babylon were two rival cities about 300 miles apart, both in the Euphrates valley.

Nineveh rose to world power around 900 BC. It included a complex of associated villages served by a great irrigation system and protected by a network of fortifications based on the river defences. The city was thirty miles long and ten miles wide, protected by five walls and three moats. It's population reached around one million. It was built by forced labour from foreign captives.

The inner city was three miles by 1½ miles, situated at the junction of Tigris and Khoser rivers, protected by walls one hundred feet high, eight miles long and broad enough at the top to hold four chariots driven abreast.

Fall of Nineveh

Within twenty years of Nahum's prediction, an army of Babylonians and Medes sieged Nineveh for two years. After two years, a sudden river flood washed away part of the walls, fulfilling the prediction made by Nahum, "The river gates will be opened" (Nah 2:6). The attacking armies swept through the breach to destroy the city.

The destruction was so complete that even its site was forgotten. Many Biblical scholars thought that references to a city of Nineveh were mythical, the city never having existed. The ruins were not found until 1820 near the city of Mosul and not identified definitely until 1845 by Layard. The mound covers one hundred acres, being an average of ninty feet high. The palaces of the Assyrian kings (Ashurbanipal, Sennacherib, Sargon) have now been uncovered and many inscriptions found which fit with the Biblical account. The library of Ashurbanipal was uncovered in 1852, in the palace of Sennacherib. It originally contained 100,000 volumes. A third of it was uncovered and is now in the British Museum along with wall panels from the palaces.

Dates of the reigns of Assyrian kings

King Date Comment
Ashur-Dan II 933 - 910
Shalmaneser III 860 - 825 Began to "cut off " Israel
Adad-Nirari III 808 - 783 Took tribute from Israel, Jonah's visit?
3 weak kings 783 - 747
Tiglath-pileser III 747 - 727 Deported most of Israel
Shalmeneser IV 727 - 722 Besieged Samaria
Sargon II 722 - 705 Took Israel Captive. Ministry of Isaiah
Sennacherib 705 - 681 Invaded Judah and besieged Hezekiah in Jerusalem
Esarhaddon 681 - 668 Very powerful
Ashurbanipal 668 - 626 Powerful and brutal. Time of Nahum?
2 weak kings 626 - 607

Key Dates

Fall of Ashur 614
Fall of Nineveh 612
Fall of Haran 610
Fall of Carchemish 605

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