By Cam Rea
Northern Iraq, northeast Syria and southeastern Turkey, this was a region once known as Assyria. A nation that established its dominance by unleashing its Iron Army, Assyria commanded the Near East from the 10th century BCE to the 7th century BCE at the tip of the sword. At its apex, Assyria stretched from the borders of Iran to Upper Egypt; the largest and most powerful empire the world had yet seen.
The Assyrians were the first to engulf the region (and then some) under one imperial power… but this empire, like all those before and after, was not to last…
But let’s begin with their rise, before recounting their fall.
The Assyrians were originally Semites who migrated to the upper reaches of the Tigris in northern Mesopotamia. It was there, seemingly undiluted by heterogeneous ethnic elements that they carved out their “warrior nation.”
Though they didn’t start that way. The earliest leaders are recorded as, ‘kings who lived in tents’, and may have been independent Akkadian semi-nomadic pastoralist rulers. However, at some point these kings became fully urbanized and founded the city state of Ashur.
By the 21st century BCE, the role of the Assyrian king had changed. Through ritual purification by both divine and human attendants, the king was considered a mediator between the gods and his subjects. Unlike the pharaoh of Egypt, he was not exactly divine but despotic… and prone to battle.
The only consequence of a war mongering king was…well, war.
The Assyrians used military force to punish the enemies of Assur, the city’s Patron God. Battle chariots, cavalry, infantry, archers, and siege engines fought together as an iron juggernaut, guided by the king and utilized as the divine tool of Assur’s wrath.
“States make war, but war also makes states,” writes Bruce D. Porter, a political scientist at Brigham Young University.
Assyria was no exception to this rule and, moreover, the Assyrians benefited greatly at other people’s expense… once they burst forth from their borders.
But, in reality, Assyria’s rise to power was a gradual one.
Assyria was not unlike its city-state counterparts that dotted Mesopotamia, with its capital Assur located on the Tigris River. Additionally, Assyria straddled important trade routes that connected them with the Egyptians, the Hittites, and the Mittani, where traders spread the use of writing in the form of the Mesopotamian cuneiform script. It was those trade routes, however, that the powers just listed sought to control.
While Assyria benefited from these marketable channels, Assyria’s economic base was still insufficient. The people depended on agriculture, which in turn relied on the fortunes of the Tigris River. But subduing the Tigris was anything but easy. The Tigris River, unlike the Nile, was not a gentle river; violent floods threatened Assyria’s way of life, requiring the need for major irrigation projects.
This was problematic, for Assyria lacked manpower to build or maintain such projects.
Thus, war, conquest, and the enslavement of peoples, alleviated the problem. With fresh new slaves and resources being brought in to help maintain the Assyrian way of life, the Assyrians were able to focus on other needs… such as iron.
Assyria possessed few easily available iron deposits for the manufacture of weapons. It also lacked stone for its building projects, as well as wood (with the one exception of the weakly thin palm wood). Assyria was, for the most part, economically stagnant.
With Assyria lacking resources, the need to expand its borders was a necessity. But they had one problem; they were checked by their more powerful neighbor, Mitanni, to which they were vassals until 1360 BCE.
Then Mitanni fell into civil war, dividing them and allowing neighboring powers, such as the Assyrians and the Hittites, to take advantage of the situation. The Mitanni Kingdom was dismantled in 1360 BCE. The remaining traces of the once intimidating Mitannis, the mini state of Hanigalbat, was then finally annihilated in 1345 BCE by Assyria.
With the Mitanni power removed, Assyria focused on their troublesome eastern neighbors, barbarians living in the Zagros Mountains. King Tukulti-Ninurta I (1244-1208) BCE subdued them, taking thousands of prisoners, before turning his attentions to the Kassite king of Babylon, who was defeated in 1235 BCE. He then ruled over Babylon as king for seven years, taking on the old title “King of Sumer and Akkad”, first used by Sargon of Akkad.
With a large domain under their control, Assyria’s economic power centered on the three major cities of Nimrud, Nineveh, and Ashur, located on the Tigris River in northwestern Iraq.
However all good things must end; Tukulti-Ninurta was murdered by his son. With his death, Assyria’s borders rapidly receded.
With little goods and resources to utilize, the Assyrians remained mostly dormant during the “Late Bronze Age collapse,” which caused a domino effect throughout the Near East. With the collapse or partial collapse of the major civilizations, the vital trade routes were also affected, causing further economic regression in Assyria.
But from that low moment, Assyria began its slow three-hundred-year rise to power. It really only had one way to go! Under the direction of a line of capable successive kings, Assyria came onto the world stage, establishing an empire in the ninth century BCE.
However, a lack of resources and manpower stubbornly persisted, causing economic stagnation… and Assyria sought to fill this void by engulfing its neighbors via violently political means. Assyria was already firmly familiar with the art of war, and as time progressed (even when the borders fluctuated) Assyria only grew smarter and stronger militarily due to centuries of constant hostilities.
With each warrior generation, learning from the last, it was just a matter of time until Assyria felt comfortable enough to unleash its military machine onto the Near East.
That time came in 745 BCE, when Tiglath-Pileser III seized the Assyrian throne during a civil war and murdered the royal family.
While some Assyrian kings in the past had no issue with subjugating large tracts of land, they were never able to hold onto their newly found possessions for long… this was not the case with Tiglath-Pilser II.
Once king, he reformed the military, and turned it into a weapon of mass destruction, one of which would not been seen again until the time of Rome. The Assyrian army was professional and efficient in conquering. They confiscated both slave power and resources like never before, bringing both fear and torture to keep the spirits of the subjugated low. Any nation not within the sphere of Assyria’s influence had to think twice about confronting the amassing empire.
However, like all empires, there is a time when it must end.
What once was thought unstoppable in its unquenched quest to consume people and material fell in 605 BCE.
This was partially due to over-expansion, and its consequence, the inability to safeguard its borders. Their permeable boundaries opened Assyria to external invasions, which were able to penetrate, raid, and then leave unnoticed and without punishment.
While Assyria was struggling with external threats, internal troubles also boiled to a point. Those who pondered rebellion took action, politically shocking the empire to the core, and eventually causing its ultimate collapse.
In the end, the Assyrian state existed for approximately nineteen centuries (c. 2500 BC to 605 BC), spanning the Early Bronze Age through to the late Iron Age. But its duration and power didn’t manage to stop the tides of history… for no empire can last forever…