The name applied to the country anciently occupying the northern end of the Mesopotamian plain or the extreme northern portion of what is today the modern country of Iraq. Basically, it lay within the triangle formed by the Tigris and Little Zab Rivers, these rivers constituting generally its western and southern boundaries, while the mountains of ancient Armenia formed the northern boundary, and the Zagros mountain range and the land of Media the eastern boundary. It should be noted, however, that these boundaries were quite fluid, Assyria spreading S of the Little Zab when Babylon weakened, but retreating when Assyrian political fortunes were low and those of Babylon were in ascendancy. Such fluctuation was true of the other boundaries and particularly that of the Tigris, as Assyria early extended its influence W of that river. The Assyrian Empire, of course, came to embrace a far larger area.
There was a continued close relationship between Assyria and Babylon throughout their history. They were neighboring states jointly occupying a region with no real natural division to serve as a frontier between their territories. The region of Assyria proper, however, was mostly a highlands area, generally of rugged terrain and with a more invigorating climate than that of Babylonia. The people appear to have been more energetic and aggressive than the Babylonians. They are represented in carved reliefs as of strong physique, dark complexioned, with heavy eyebrows and beard, and prominent nose.
The city of Asshur, the only city of Assyria proper located W of the Tigris, is considered to have been the original capital of the region. Thereafter, however, Nineveh became its most prominent capital, while both Calah and Khorsabad were used at times by Assyrian monarchs as capital cities. A trade route to the Mediterranean and to Asia Minor ran along the northern part of Assyria, and other routes branched off into Armenia and the region of Lake Urmiah. Much of Assyria’s warring was in order to gain or maintain control of such trade routes.
Assyria was essentially a military power and the historical picture left of its exploits is one of great cruelty and rapaciousness. One of their warrior monarchs, Ashurnasirpal, describes his punishment of a rebellious city in this way:
“I built a pillar over against his city gate and I flayed all the chiefs who had revolted, and I covered the pillar with their skin. Some I walled up within the pillar, some I impaled upon the pillar on stakes, . . . And I cut the limbs of the officers, of the royal officers who had rebelled. . . .
“Many captives from among them I burned with fire, and many I took as living captives. From some I cut off their noses, their ears and their fingers, of many I put out the eyes. I made one pillar of the living and another of heads, and I bound their heads to tree trunks round about the city. Their young men and maidens I burned in the fire.
“Twenty men I captured alive and I immured them in the wall of his palace . . .
“The rest of their warriors I consumed with thirst in the desert of the Euphrates. . . .”
Reliefs often show their captives being led by cords attached to hooks that pierced the nose or the lips, or having their eyes put out at the point of a spear. Thus, sadistic torture was a frequent feature of Assyrian warfare, about which they shamelessly boasted and which they carefully recorded. The knowledge of their cruelty doubtless served them to an advantage militarily, striking terror into the hearts of those in their line of attack and often causing resistance to crumble. Assyria was aptly described by the prophet Nahum as a ‘lair of lions’ and their capital, Nineveh, as “the city of bloodshed.”—Nah. 2:11, 12; 3:1.
Assyria’s religion was largely inherited from Babylon and, although their own national god Asshur was viewed as supreme by the Assyrians, Babylon continued to be viewed by them as the chief religious center. The Assyrian king served as the high priest of Asshur. One seal, found by A. H. Layard in the ruins of an Assyrian palace and now preserved in the British Museum, represents the god Asshur with three heads. The belief in triads of gods was prominent in Assyrian worship as well as that of a pentad, or five gods. The chief triad was formed of Aner, representing heaven, Bel, representing the region inhabited by man, animals and birds; and Ea, representing the terrestrial and subterranean waters. A second triad was composed of Sin, the moon; Shamash, the sun; and Ramman, god of the storm, although his place was often filled by Ishtar, the queen of the stars, symbolized by the crescent moon. (Compare 2 Kings 23:5, 11.) Then followed the five gods representing five planets. Commenting on the gods forming the trinitarian groups, Unger’s Bible Dictionary (p. 102) states: “These gods are invoked at times severally in phrases which seem to raise each in turn to a position of supremacy over the others.” Their pantheon, however, included innumerable other minor deities, many serving as patrons of towns. Nisroch is mentioned as being worshiped by Sennacherib at the time of his assassination.—Isa. 37:37, 38.
The religion practiced in connection with these gods was animistic, that is, the Assyrians believed every object and natural phenomenon to be animated by a spirit. It was somewhat distinguished from other nature worship prevalent in surrounding nations in that war was the truest expression of the national religion. Thus, Tiglath-pileser I said of his fighting, “My Lord, Asshur, urged me on”; while in his annals, Ashurbanipal says: “By the command of Ashur, Sin, Shamash, Ramman, Bel, Nabu, Ishtar of Nineveh, Ninib, Nergal, and Nusku, I entered the land of Mannai and marched through it victoriously.” Sargon regularly invoked Ishtar’s help before going to war. The armies marched behind the standards of the gods, apparently wooden or metal symbols on poles. Great importance was attached to omens, ascertained by examination of livers of sacrificed animals, by the flight of birds, or the position of the planets. The book Ancient Cities, by W. B. Wright (p. 25), states: “Fighting was the business of the nation, and the priests were incessant fomenters of war. They were supported largely from the spoils of conquest, of which a fixed percentage was invariably assigned them before others shared, for this race of plunderers was exceedingly religious.”
CULTURE, LITERATURE AND LAWS
The Assyrians, however, were not mere barbarians. They built impressive palaces, lining the walls with sculptured slabs portraying with quite powerful realism scenes of war and peace. Human-headed, winged bulls, carved from a single block of limestone weighing as much as forty tons (36.3 metric tons), adorned the entranceways. Their cylinder seals show intricate engraving. (See ARCHAEOLOGY.) Their metal-casting indicated considerable knowledge of metallurgy. Their kings built aqueducts and developed systems of irrigation, produced royal botanical and zoological parks containing plants, trees and animals from many lands. Their palace buildings often gave evidence of a well-planned drainage system and quite good sanitation.
Of particular interest have been the great libraries built up by certain Assyrian monarchs, containing tens of thousands of cuneiform inscribed clay tablets, prisms, and cylinders setting out major historical events, religious data, and legal and commercial matters. Certain laws dating from one period of Assyrian history, however, illustrate again the harshness so frequently characterizing the nation. Mutilation is provided as punishment for certain crimes. Thus, a slave girl was not allowed to go veiled in public, and for violating such ordinance her ears were to be cut off. The lack of legal protection available for a married woman is evidenced by one law stating: “Leaving aside the penalties relating to a married woman which are inscribed on the tablet, a man may flog his wife, pull out her hair, split and injure her ears. There is no legal guilt (involved) in it.”
BIBLICAL AND SECULAR HISTORY
The first reference to Assyria in the Bible record is at Genesis 2:14, where the Hiddekel River (the Tigris), originally one of the four heads of the river “out of Eden,” is described by Moses in his day as “going to the east of Assyria.”—Gen. 2:10, 14.
The land derived its name from Shem’s son Asshur. (Gen. 10:22) It thus appears to have been first populated by Shemites shortly after the Flood. However, it was early subjected to infiltration, as Ham’s grandson Nimrod entered into Assyria and built “Nineveh and Rehoboth-Ir and Calah and Resen between Nineveh and Calah: this is the great city.” (Gen. 10:11, 12; compare Micah 5:6.) Whether this was subsequent to the erection of the Tower of Babel and the resulting confusion of tongues is not stated (Gen. 11:1-9), although different “tongues” are already mentioned in this tenth chapter of Genesis. (Gen. 10:5, 20, 31) Nevertheless, it is established that Nineveh, the capital of Assyria, was developed from Babylon, and secular history harmonizes with this. At a later date, the tribes that descended from Abraham’s son Ishmael are described as reaching up to Assyria in their nomadic movements.—Gen. 25:18.
Due to the recovery of thousands of clay tablets from Assyrian sites the names of a large number of the Assyrian monarchs are known, and historians have arrived at some conclusion as to the general history of the country. It is held that the period between about 1100-900 B.C.E. (following the rule of Tiglath-pileser I) was a period of decline for Assyria, and this is often suggested as a favorable circumstance for the extension of the boundaries of the nation of Israel under the rule of David (1077-1037 B.C.E.) and the further extension of its influence under Solomon’s reign (1037-997 B.C.E.). The success of such expansion was, of course, due primarily to God’s backing and hence not dependent on Assyrian weakness.—2 Sam. chaps. 8, 10; 1 Ki. 4:21-24.
In the consideration of Assyrian history as it relates to the Biblical record no attempt is made here to fix the dates for the beginning and the end of each of the successive reigns of the Assyrian monarchs; rather, they are shown as they relate to the various kings of Judah and Israel, whose reigns are indicated after their respective names. For further information as to the reason for this and for the considerable difference between the dates hereinafter listed for the reigns of Judean and Israelite kings as compared with many reference works, please see the article on CHRONOLOGY.
Ashurnasirpal and Shalmaneser III
Assyrian aggression began drawing close to Israel during the rule of Ashurnasirpal, who was noted for his ruthless warring campaigns and cruelty, already mentioned. Inscriptions show him crossing the Euphrates and overrunning northern Syria and exacting tribute from the cities of Phoenicia. His successor, Shalmaneser III, is the first king who records direct contact with the northern kingdom of Israel. Assyrian records show Shalmaneser advancing to Qarqar on the Orontes River, where he is reported to have fought against a coalition of kings, including the forces of Hadad-ezer of Damascus. King Ahab of Israel is thought by many to be listed among the kings forming the coalition; however, see the article on SHALMANESER. The result of the battle was indecisive. Shalmaneser’s Black Obelisk at Nimrud lists Jehu (c. 905-876 B.C.E.) as a later king paying tribute to him and carries a carving in relief evidently depicting Jehu’s emissary delivering the tribute to the Assyrian monarch.
After Shamshi-adad V, Shalmaneser III’s successor, Adad-nirari III came to the Assyrian throne. Inscriptions report his attacking Damascus during the reign of Hazael, successor to Ben-hadad (1 Ki. 19:15; 2 Ki. 8:12-15), who ruled during and perhaps beyond the reigns of Kings Jehu (905-876 B.C.E.) and Jehoahaz (876-860 B.C.E.) of Israel. (2 Ki. 10:31-34; 13:1-3) He also includes ‘Omri-land’ (the northern kingdom of Israel) as paying tribute to him, the name of Omri being used at this late date evidently due to the still-remembered prowess of that powerful Israelite king, the builder of Samaria.—1 Ki. 16:23-27.
Jonah’s mission to Assyria
Sometime around the middle of the ninth century B.C.E. (c. 844 B.C.E.), the prophet Jonah was sent on a mission to Assyria’s capital Nineveh, and, as a result of his warning of coming destruction, the entire city, including its king, responded with repentance. History records three kings following Adad-nirari III: Shalmaneser IV, Ashur-dan III, and Ashur-nirari V; but there is no certainty as to which, if any, of these is the king referred to in the book of Jonah. It is of interest, however, to note that this period is one of decline as far as Assyrian aggressiveness is concerned.
The first Assyrian king to be mentioned by name in the Bible is Tiglath-pileser (III) (2 Ki. 15:29; 16:7, 10), also called “Pul” at 2 Kings 15:19. At 1 Chronicles 5:26 both names are used and this caused some in the past to view them as separate kings. However, Babylonian inscriptions refer to “Pulu” and indicate that both names apply to the same individual. The suggestion is made by some that this king was originally known as Pul and that he assumed the name Tiglath-pileser upon ascending to the Assyrian throne.
It was during the reign of Menahem of Israel (791-780 B.C.E.) that Tiglath-pileser III entered the domain of that northern kingdom. Menahem made a payment to him of one thousand silver talents (about $1,423,590) and thus obtained the withdrawal of the Assyrian. (2 Ki. 15:19, 20) Later, however, King Pekah of Israel (778-758 B.C.E.) joined together with King Rezin of Syria against Judean King Ahaz (761-745 B.C.E.). Despite Isaiah’s prophecy foretelling the certain elimination of this Syro-Israelite threat through the power of the king of Assyria (Isa. 7:1-9, 16, 17; 8:3, 4), Ahaz chose the unwise course of sending a bribe to Tiglath-pileser so that he might attack that combine and thus relieve the pressure upon Judah. The Assyrian monarch responded by capturing a number of cities in the northern part of the kingdom of Israel, as well as the regions of Gilead, Galilee and Naphtali. Earlier in his reign, Tiglath-pileser III had Inaugurated the policy of transplanting the populations of conquered areas, thus to reduce the possibility of future uprisings, and he now proceeded to deport some of the Israelites. (1 Chron. 5:6, 26) Additionally, Judah was now in a subservient position toward Assyria, and Ahaz of Judah traveled to Damascus, which also had fallen to the Assyrians and evidently rendered homage to Tiglath-pileser.—2 Ki. 15:29; 16:5-10, 18; 2 Chron. 28:16, 20, 21, compare Isaiah 7:17-20.
Shalmaneser V succeeded Tiglath-pileser. Hoshea (758-740 B.C.E.), who usurped the throne of Israel, at first submitted to Assyria’s exaction of tribute. Later he conspired with Egypt to free Israel from the Assyrian yoke and Shalmaneser began a three-year siege of the city of Samaria that eventually brought its fall (740 B.C.E.) and Israel’s exile. (2 Ki. 17:1-6; 18:9-11; Hos. 7:11; 8:7-10) Most reference works state that Shalmaneser died before completing the conquest of Samaria and that Sargon II was king by the time the city finally fell.—See, however, SARGON; SHALMANESER No. 2.
Sargon’s records speak of the deportation of 27,290 Israelites to locations in the Upper Euphrates and Media. Description is also given of his campaign in Philistia in which he conquered Gath, Ashdod and Asdudimmu. It was at the time of this campaign that the prophet Isaiah was instructed to warn of the futility of putting trust in Egypt or Ethiopia as a means of protection against the Assyrian aggressor. (Isa. 20:1-6) It was evidently first during Sargon’s reign that people from Babylon and Syria were brought into Samaria to repopulate it, the Assyrian king later sending an Israelite priest back from exile to instruct them in “the religion of the God of the land.”—2 Ki. 17:24-28; see SAMARIA.
Sennacherib, the son of Sargon, attacked the kingdom of Judah during Hezekiah’s fourteenth year (732-731 B.C.E.). (2 Ki. 18:13; Isa. 36:1) Hezekiah had rebelled against the Assyrian yoke imposed as a result of the action of his father Ahaz. (2 Ki. 18:7) Sennacherib reacted by sweeping through Judah, reportedly conquering forty-six cities (compare Isaiah 36:1, 2), and then, from his camp at Lachish, demanded of Hezekiah a tribute of thirty gold talents and three hundred silver talents (approximately $1,586,907). (2 Ki. 18:14-16; 2 Chron. 32:1; compare Isaiah 8:5-8.) Though this sum was paid, Sennacherib sent his spokesmen to demand unconditional surrender of Jerusalem. (2 Ki. 18:17–19:34; 2 Chron. 32:2-20) Jehovah’s subsequently causing the destruction of 185,000 of his troops in one night obliged the boasting Assyrian to withdraw and return to Nineveh. (2 Ki. 19:35, 36) There he was later assassinated by two of his sons and replaced on the throne by another son, Esar-haddon. (2 Ki. 19:37; 2 Chron. 32:21, 22; Isa. 37:36-38) These events, with the exception of the destruction of the Assyrian troops, are also recorded on Sennacherib’s prism and a prism of Esar-haddon.
During Manasseh’s reign (716-661 B.C.E.), Assyrian army chiefs were permitted by Jehovah to take this Judean king captive to Babylon (then under Assyrian control). (2 Chron. 33:11) Some think this may have been at the time of Esar-haddon’s victorious campaign against Egypt. At any rate, Menasi (Manasseh) of Judah is named in inscriptions as one of those paying tribute to Esar-haddon. Manasseh was later restored to Jerusalem. (2 Chron. 33:10-13) It appears from Ezra 4:2 that the transplanting of people from and to the northern kingdom of Israel was still continuing in the days of Esar-haddon, which may explain the period of “sixty-five years” in the prophecy at Isaiah 7:8.—See AHAZ No. 1; ESAR-HADDON.
Ashurbanipal and the fall of the empire
Ashurbanipal, Esar-haddon’s son, was the last great king of Assyria and the one who brought about the greatest expansion of the empire. He put down an uprising in Egypt and sacked the city of Thebes (No-amon; compare Nahum 3:7, 8). The boundaries of the Assyrian Empire now embraced the regions of Elam, part of Media up into Ararat, as far W as Cilicia in Asia Minor, through Syria and Palestine, down into Egypt, Arabia, and Babylonia. He appears to be the “great and honorable Asenappar” referred to at Ezra 4:10.—See ASENAPPAR.
Prior to Esar-haddon’s death he had appointed his son Ashurbanipal as ‘king of the realm’ and another son, Shamashshumukin, as king of Babylon. Shamashshumukin later rebelled against his brother, and Ashurbanipal overcame the rebellion and sacked the city of Babylon. The remainder of Ashurbanipal’s reign, and, in fact, that of the Assyrian Empire, is obscure. Commenting on this The Interpreter’s Dictionary of the Bible (Vol. 1, p. 274) says: “Whether this fight taxed the strength of Assyria too much or whether it was for other, unknown reasons, a strange period of silence blacks out the last twenty years of the reign of Ashurbanipal. . . . the country seems to have fallen with appalling suddenness into obscurity.”
As will be noted in our article on NINEVEH, we have accepted the year 632 B.C.E. as the probable date for the fall of Nineveh, whereas most reference works place it at the year 612 B.C.E., or some twenty years thereafter. The uncertainty of the history of that period as found in secular records is acknowledged, and, as is demonstrated in our article on CHRONOLOGY, we have relied on the chronological framework indicated in the Bible record and have accommodated secular history to it, rather than give precedence to what may be presently accepted and popular in the way of chronology but which is often conjectural or based on evidence that is undeniably weak.
The Babylonian Chronicles (B.M. [British Museum] 21901) recount the fall of Assyria’s capital Nineveh following a siege carried out by the combined forces of Nabopolassar, the king of Babylon (“king of Akkad”) and of CyaxAres the Mede. The city is described as being turned “into a ruin-mound and heaps of debri[s . . .].” (Chronicles of Chaldaean Kings by D. J. Wiseman, p. 61) Thus the fierce Assyrian rule came to an ignominious end, though Ashur-uballit is referred to as attempting, briefly and unsuccessfully, to continue Assyrian rule from Haran as his capital city.—Isa. 10:12, 24-26; 23:13; 30:30-33; 31:8, 9; Nah. 3:1-19; Zeph. 2:13.
The Babylonian Chronicles (B.M. 21901) indicate an alliance of Assyrian troops and Egyptian troops against Babylon at this point, and this factor is in harmony with the account relative to the activity of Pharaoh Nechoh recorded at 2 Kings 23:29 (see footnote of NW, 1955 ed.), resulting in the death of King Josiah of Judah (629/628 B.C.E.). This text states that “Pharaoh Nechoh the king of Egypt came up against the king of Assyria by the river Euphrates,” but the “king of Assyria” against whom Nechoh came is doubtless the Babylonian conqueror of Assyria, Nabopolassar, who, by virtue of his conquest, could now properly be styled the true “king of Assyria.” (See NECHO.) A few years later (625 B.C.E.), Nechoh was thoroughly defeated by the Babylonians in the battle of Carchemish.—Jer. 46:2.
The title “king of Assyria” was similarly applied to the Persian king (Darius I [Hystaspis]) who dominated Assyria in the time of the rebuilding of the temple at Jerusalem (completed in 515 B.C.E.).—Ezra 6:22.
ASSYRIA IN PROPHECY
Assyria figured in the prophecy uttered by Balaam about the year 1473 B.C.E. (Num. 24:24) Numerous references to Assyria are found in the prophecies of Isaiah, Jeremiah, Ezekiel, Micah, Nahum, Zephaniah and Zechariah, while the warning about Assyria’s ravaging of the northern kingdom of Israel is interwoven throughout the entire prophecy of Hosea. Frequent condemnation was made of the reliance placed upon such pagan nations by apostate Israel and Judah, often vacillating between Egypt and Assyria, like “a simple-minded dove without heart.” (Jer. 2:18, 36; Lam. 5:6; Ezek. 16:26, 28; 23:5-12; Hos. 7:11) The disastrous results of such course are vividly described. (Ezek. 23:22-27) The fall of Assyria into Sheol, likened to the crash of a great and lofty tree, and the subsequent restoration of the exiled Israelites to their homeland were also prophesied. (Isa 11:11-16; 14:25; Jer. 50:17, 18; Ezek. 31:3-15; 32:22; Zech. 10:10, 11) Finally, the time is even foretold when peaceful relations will exist between the lands of Assyria and Egypt and they will be united with Israel in God’s favor and constitute “a blessing in the midst of the earth.”—Isa. 19:23-25.
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THE ASSYRIAN EMPIRE
ARMENIA (URARTU [ARARAT])
Little Zab River
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Sculpture showing cruel treatment of Assyrian captives, found at Khorsabad
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Winged bull with king’s head, believed to be from throne room of Sargon II
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Black Obelisk of Shalmaneser, showing him receiving tribute from Jehu, perhaps by means of an emissary