Assyria by Wikipedia

Assyria was a civilization centered on the Upper Tigris river, in Mesopotamia (Iraq), that came to rule regional empires a number of times through history. It was named for its original capital, the ancient city of Assur (Akkadian: ?￰メヒラ? ? Aššūrāyu; Arabic: أشورAššûr; Hebrew: אַשּׁוּרAššûr, Aramaic: ܐܫܘܪ Ašur, ܐܬܘܪ Atur). The term Assyria can also refer to the geographic region or heartland where these empires were centered.

During the Old Assyrian period (20th to 15th centuries BCE), Assur controlled much of Upper Mesopotamia. In the Middle Assyrian period (15th to 10th centuries BCE), its influence waned and was subsequently regained in a series of conquests. The Neo-Assyrian Empire of the Early Iron Age (911 – 612 BCE) expanded further, and under Ashurbanipal (r. 668 – 627 BCE) for a few decades controlled all of the Fertile Crescent, as well as Egypt, before succumbing to Neo-Babylonian and Median expansion, which were in turn conquered by the Persian Empire.

Early history

The earliest neolithic site in Assyria is at Tell Hassuna, the center of the Hassuna culture in Iraq. Of the early history of the kingdom of Assyria, little is positively known. According to some Judaeo-Christian traditions, the city of Ashur (also spelled Assur or Aššur) was founded by Ashur the son of Shem, who was deified by later generations as the city’s patron god. The upper Tigris River valley seems to have been ruled by Sumer, Akkad, and northern Babylonia in its earliest stages. The Akkadian Empire of Sargon the Great claimed to encompass the surrounding “four quarters”; the regions north of the Akkadian homeland had been known as Subartu. It was destroyed by barbarian Gutian people in the Gutian period, then rebuilt, and ended up being governed as part of the Empire of the 3rd dynasty of Ur.

Old Assyrian city-states and kingdoms

The first inscriptions of Assyrian rulers appear after 2000 BC. Assyria then consisted of a number of city states and small Semitic kingdoms. The foundation of the Assyrian monarchy was traditionally ascribed to Zulilu, who is said to have lived after Bel-kap-kapu (Bel-kapkapi or Belkabi, ca. 1900 BC), the ancestor of Shalmaneser I.

City state of Ashur

The city-state of Ashur had extensive contact with cities on the Anatolian plateau. The Assyrians established “merchant colonies” in Cappadocia, e.g., at Kanesh (modern Kültepe) circa 1920 BC – 1840 BC and 1798 BC – 1740 BC. These colonies, called karum, the Akkadian word for ‘port’, were attached to Anatolian cities, but physically separate, and had special tax status. They must have arisen from a long tradition of trade between Ashur and the Anatolian cities, but no archaeological or written records show this. The trade consisted of metal (perhaps lead or tin; the terminology here is not entirely clear) and textiles from Assyria, that were traded for precious metals in Anatolia.

Like many commercial city-states in history, Assur was to a great extent an oligarchy rather than a monarchy. Authority was considered to lie with “the City”, and the polity had three main centres of power — an assembly of elders, a hereditary ruler, and an eponym. The ruler presided over the assembly and carried out its decisions. He was not referred to with the usual Akkadian term for “king”, šarrum; that was instead reserved for the city’s patron deity Assur, of whom the ruler was the high priest. The ruler himself was only designated as “the steward of Assur” (iššiak Assur), where the term for steward is a borrowing from Sumerian ensi(k). The third centre of power was the eponym (limmum), who gave the year his name, similarly to the archons and consuls of Classical Antiquity. He was annually elected by lot and was responsible for the economic administration of the city, which included the power to detain people and confiscate property. The institution of the eponym as well as the formula iššiak Assur lingered on as ceremonial vestiges of this early system throughout the history of the Assyrian monarchy.[1]

Kingdom of Shamshi-Adad I

The city of Ashur was conquered by Shamshi-Adad I (1813 BC – 1791 BC) in the expansion of Amorite tribes from the Khabur river delta. He put his son Ishme-Dagan on the throne of a nearby city, Ekallatum, and allowed the former Anatolian trade to continue. Shamshi-Adad I also conquered the kingdom of Mari on the Euphrates putting another of his sons, Yasmah-Adad on the throne there. Shamshi-Adad’s kingdom now encompassed the whole of northern Mesopotamia. He himself resided in a new capital city founded in the Khabur valley, called Shubat-Enlil.

Ishme-Dagan inherited the kingdom, but Yasmah-Adad was overthrown, and Mari was lost. The new king of Mari allied himself with Hammurabi of Babylon. Assyria now faced the rising power of Babylon in the south. Ishme-Dagan responded by making an alliance with the enemies of Babylon, and the power struggle continued for decades.

Assyria reduced to vassal states

Hammurabi eventually prevailed over Ishme-Dagan, and conquered Ashur for Babylon. With Hammurabi, the various karum in Anatolia ceased trade activity — probably because the goods of Assyria were now being traded with the Babylonians’ partners. Assyria was ruled by vassal kings dependent on the Babylonians for a century. After Babylon fell to the Kassites, the Hurrians dominated the northern region, including Assur.

There are dozens of Mesopotamian cuneiform texts from this period, with precise observations of solar and lunar eclipses, that have been used as ‘anchors’ in the various attempts to define the chronology of Babylonia and Assyria for the early second millennium, i.e., the “high”, “middle”, and “low” chronologies.

Middle Assyrian period

Map of the Ancient Near East during the Amarna Period, showing the great powers of the day: Egypt (green), Hatti (yellow), the Kassite kingdom of Babylon (purple), Assyria (grey), and Mitanni (red). Lighter areas show direct control, darker areas represent spheres of influence. The extent of the Achaean/Mycenaean civilization is shown in orange.

(Scholars variously date the beginning of the “Middle Assyrian period” to either the fall of the Old Assyrian kingdom of Shamshi-Adad I, or to the ascension of Ashur-uballit I to the throne of Assyria.)

Ashur-uballit I

In the 15th century BC, Saushtatar, king of Hanilgalbat (Hurrians of Mitanni), sacked Ashur and made Assyria a vassal. Assyria paid tribute to Hanilgalbat until Mitanni power collapsed from Hittite pressure from the north-west and Assyrian pressure from the east, enabling Ashur-uballit I (1365 BC – 1330 BC) to again make Assyria an independent and conquering power at the expense of Babylonia; and a time came when the Kassite king in Babylon was glad to marry the daughter of Ashur-uballit, whose letters to Akhenaten of Egypt form part of the Amarna letters. This marriage led to disastrous results, as the Kassite faction at court murdered the Babylonian king and placed a pretender on the throne. Assur-uballit promptly marched into Babylonia and avenged his son-in-law, making Kurigalzu of the royal line king there.

Assyrian expansion

See also: Military history of the Neo-Assyrian Empire

Hanilgalbat was finally conquered under Adad-nirari I, who described himself as a “Great-King” (Sharru rabû) in letters to the Hittite rulers. The successor of Adad-nirari I, Shalmaneser I (c. 1300 BC), threw off the pretense of Babylonian suzerainty, made Kalhu his capital, and continued expansion to the northwest, mainly at the expense of the Hittites, reaching Carchemish and beyond.

Shalmaneser’s son and successor, Tukulti-Ninurta I, deposed Kadashman-Buriash of Babylon and ruled there himself as king for seven years, taking on the old title “King of Sumer and Akkad”. Another weak period for Assyria followed when Babylon revolted against Tukulti-Ninurta, and later even made Assyria tributary during the reigns of the Babylonian kings Melishipak II and Marduk-apal-iddin I.

The correct chronology of these Assyrian kings is still is much debated. There are four crucial solar eclipse records. For example, the Assyrian eclipse associated with June 15 763 BC is widely accepted by the defenders of a middle chronology, but three ignored solar eclipses from the reign of Esarhaddon would affect the calculation drastically.

Tiglath-Pileser I reaches the Mediterranean Sea

As the Hittite empire collapsed from onslaught of the Phrygians (called Mushki in Assyrian annals), Babylon and Assyria began to vie for Amorite regions, formerly under firm Hittite control. When their forces encountered one another in this region, the Assyrian king Ashur-resh-ishi I met and defeated Nebuchadnezzar I of Babylon.

The son of Ashur-resh-ishi’s, Tiglath-Pileser I, may be regarded as the founder of the first Assyrian empire. In 1120 BC, he crossed the Euphrates, capturing Carchemish, and defeated the Mushki and the remnants of the Hittites — even claiming to reach the Black Sea. He advanced to the Mediterranean, subjugating Phoenicia, where he hunted wild bulls. He also marched into Babylon twice, assuming the old title “King of Sumer and Akkad”, although he was unable to depose the actual king in Babylonia, where the old Kassite dynasty had now succumbed to an Elamite one.

Society in the Middle Assyrian period

Assyria had difficulties with keeping the trade routes open. Unlike the situation in the Old Assyrian period, the Anatolian metal trade was effectively dominated by the Hittites and the Hurrians. These peoples now controlled the Mediterranean ports, while the Kassites controlled the river route south to the Persian Gulf.

The Middle Assyrian kingdom was well organized, and in the firm control of the king, who also functioned as the High Priest of Ashur, the state god. He had certain obligations to fulfill in the cult, and had to provide resources for the temples. The priesthood became a major power in Assyrian society. Conflicts with the priesthood are thought to have been behind the murder of king Tukulti-Ninurta I.

The main Assyrian cities of the middle period were Ashur, Kalhu (Nimrud) and Nineveh, all situated in the Tigris River valley. At the end of the Bronze Age, Nineveh was much smaller than Babylon, but still one of the world’s major cities (population ca. 33,000). By the end of the Neo-Assyrian period, it had grown to a population of some 120,000, and was possibly the largest city of that time.[2] All free male citizens were obliged to serve in the army for a time, a system which was called the ilku-service. The Assyrian law code, notable for its repressive attitude towards women in their society, was compiled during this period.

Neo-Assyrian Empire

Map of the Neo-Assyrian Empire and its expansions.

Main articles: Neo-Assyrian Empire and Military history of the Neo-Assyrian Empire

The Neo-Assyrian Empire is usually considered to have begun with the accession of Adad-nirari II, in 911 BC, lasting until the fall of Nineveh at the hands of the Babylonians in 612 BC.[3]

In the Middle Assyrian period, Assyria had been a minor kingdom of northern Mesopotamia, competing for dominance with Babylonia to the south. Beginning with the campaigns of Adad-nirari II, Assyria became a great regional power, growing to be a serious threat to 25th dynasty Egypt. It began reaching the peak of its power with the reforms of Tiglath-Pileser III (ruled 745 – 727 BC).[4][5] This period, which included the Sargonic dynasty, is well-referenced in several sources, including the Assyro-Babylonian Chronicles and the Hebrew Bible. Assyria finally succumbed to the rise of the neo-Babylonian Chaldean dynasty with the sack of Nineveh in 612 BC.

Language

The ancient people of Assyria spoke an Assyrian dialect of the Akkadian language, a branch of the Semitic languages. The first inscriptions, called Old Assyrian (OA), were made in the Old Assyrian period. In the Neo-Assyrian period the Aramaic language became increasingly common, more so than Akkadian — this was thought to be largely due to the mass deportations undertaken by Assyrian kings, in which large Aramaic-speaking populations, conquered by the Assyrians, were relocated to other parts of the empire. The ancient Assyrians also used the Sumerian language in their literature and liturgy, although to a more limited extent in the Middle- and Neo-Assyrian periods, when Akkadian became the main literary language.

The utter and complete destruction of the Assyrian capitals of Nineveh and Assur by the Babylonians and Medes ensured that the bilingual elite, perhaps the few remaining still competent in Akkadian, were wiped out. By the 6th century B.C., much of the Assyrian population that survived used Aramaic and not the cuneiform Akkadian. In time, Akkadian would no longer be used by the Assyrians, although many aspects of the culture associated, such as naming with Ashur,giving children Akkadian personal names etc continued, and do so to this very day among Assyrians..

Arts and sciences

Main article: Art and architecture of Babylonia and Assyria

Relief from Assyrian capital of Dur Sharrukin, showing transport of Lebanese cedar (8th century BC)

Assyrian art preserved to the present day predominantly dates to the Neo-Assyrian period. Art depicting battle scenes, and occasionally the impaling of whole villages in gory detail, was intended to show the power of the emperor, and was generally made for propaganda purposes. These stone reliefs lined the walls in the royal palaces where foreigners were received by the king. Other stone reliefs depict the king with different deities and conducting religious ceremonies. Many stone reliefs were discovered in the royal palaces at Nimrud (Kalhu) and Khorsabad (Dur-Sharrukin). A rare discovery of metal plates belonging to wooden doors was made at Balawat (Imgur-Enlil).

Assyrian sculpture reached a high level of refinement in the Neo-Assyrian period. One prominent example is the winged bull Lamassu, or shedu that guard the entrances to the king’s court. These were apotropaic meaning they were intended to ward off evil. C. W. Ceram states in The March of Archaeology that lamassi were typically sculpted with five legs so that four legs were always visible, whether the image were viewed frontally or in profile.

Since works of precious gems and metals usually do not survive the ravages of time, we are lucky to have some fine pieces of Assyrian jewelry. These were found in royal tombs at Nimrud.

There is ongoing discussion among academics over the nature of the Nimrud lens, a piece of Quartz unearthed by Austen Henry Layard in 1850, in the Nimrud palace complex in northern Iraq. A small minority believe that it is evidence for the existence of ancient Assyrian telescopes, which could explain the great accuracy of Assyrian astronomy. Other suggestions include its use as a magnifying glass for jewellers, or as a decorative furniture inlay. The Nimrud Lens is held in the British Museum.[6]

Legacy and rediscovery

Main articles: Assyria (Persian province), Assyriology, and Assyrianism

Achaemenid Assyria retained a separate identity for some time, official correspondence being in Imperial Aramaic, and there was even an attempted revolt of the two provinces of Mada and Athura in 520 BC. Under Seleucid rule, however, Aramaic gave way to Greek as the official language. Aramaic was marginalised as an official language, but remained spoken in Assyria Judea (Biblical Aramaic), the Syrian Desert (Nabataeans) and Khuzestan (Mandaic), it also remained the spoken tongue of the Semitic citizens of Mesopotamia under Persian, Greek and Roman rule. Ancient Assyrio-Babylonian gods were still worshipped and the Assyrian people continued to exist, being Christianised in the 1st and 2nd centuries AD.

Classical historiographers had only retained a very dim picture of Assyria. It was remembered that there had been an Assyrian empire predating the Persian one, but all particulars were lost. Thus Jerome’s Chronicon lists 36 kings of the Assyrians, beginning with Ninus, son of Belus, down to Sardanapalus, the last king of the Assyrians before the empire fell to Arbaces the Median. Almost none of these have been substantiated as historical, with the exception of the Neo-Assyrian and Babylonian rulers listed in Ptolemy’s Canon, beginning with Nabonassar.

With the rise of Syriac Christianity, Aramaic enjoyed a renaissance as a classical language in the 2nd to 8th centuries AD, and the Assyrian people continue to speak Neo-Aramaic dialects.

The modern discovery of Babylonia and Assyria begins with excavations in Nineveh in 1845, which revealed the Library of Ashurbanipal. Decipherment of cuneiform was a formidable task that took more than a decade, but by 1857, the Royal Asiatic Society was convinced that reliable reading of cuneiform texts was possible. Assyriology has since pieced together the formerly forgotten history of Mesopotamia. In the wake of the archaeological and philological rediscovery of ancient Assyria, Assyrian nationalism has come to strongly identify with ancient Assyria.

Assyrian Pantheon:

Assur………………Osiris

Anu………………..Anu

Hea…………………Enki

Sin [the Moon]..Nannar

Merodach……….Marduk ?

Yav Jahve……….Adad

Jah…………………Ninhursag ?

Ninip………………Ninurta ?

Nebo……………….Nabu

Beltis……………….Ninlil ?

Nergal……………..Nergal

Bel-Dagon………..Enlil ?

Samas [the Sun].Utu

Istar…………………Inanna

Assyria (general introduction)

Aššur !; from J. Black & A. Green, Gods, demons and
symbols of ancientMesopotamia, 1992)

Assyria (mât Aššur): ancient name for the northeastern part of modern Iraq, situated on the east bank of the Tigris. It is also the name of one of the greatest empires of Antiquity. Assyria was overthrown in 612 BCE by the Babylonians.

The word Assyria is derived from mât Aššur, which means “the country of the god Aššur”. The capital of Assyria, which was more or less situated between the rivers Tigris and Little Zab, was also called after this god. The western part of Assyria consists of an alluvial plain, where irrigation enables agriculture; in the eastern part, the foothills of the Zagros, there is sufficient rainfall.

Old Assyrian Period

The city of Aššur is known to have existed in the second half of the third millennium. Not unlike Susa in Elam, it was an independent city state that had close ties with the powerful Sumerian and Akkadian states in the south, like those of king Sargon of Agade and the rulers of the Third Dynasty of Ur. This is all we can conjecture. Things become more clear after the invasions of the Amorites.

At the beginning of the second millennium, Aššur was an important trade center. The activities of Assyrian merchants in Anatolia are known from thousands of tablets from Kaneš, which often mention the trade in copper.

Šamši-Adad I (1813-1781?) was king of a small empire that included the western Zagros, a part of the area between Euphrates and Tigris. He was powerful enough to call himself “king of the universe”, but his son Išme-Dagan lost his independence and became a vassal of king Hammurabi of the Old-Babylonian empire. Meanwhile, the trade activity continued.

For the mid-second millennium, we know less about the history of Assyria, although we know that it became a vassal of the powerful empire of Mitanni, and know (from the Assyrian King List) that there were thirty-five rulers until Aššur-Uballit I (1364-1328). During his reign, Assyria becomes “visible” again. He and the Hittite king Suppiluliumas attacked Mitanni, and Assyria regained its independence. This is the beginning of the Middle Assyrian period.

Middle Assyrian Period

The successors of Aššur-Uballit, especially Adad-Nirari I (1305-1274), Shalmaneser I (1273-1244) and Tikulti-Ninurta (1243-1207), continued the Assyrian expansion. In the west, the empire shared a border with the empire of the Hittites, and in the south, Babylon was attacked. Warfare was merciless: the first evidence for mass deportations dates back to this period. It was to become a useful instrument for rulers of empires, also applied by the kings of Babylonia and Persia, and Alexander the Great.

The twelfth century started quietly for the Assyrians. The ancient Near East had become unstable by the invasions of the Sea People, and there were other nations that had left their homelands in search for more fertile land, like the Aramaeans. The Hittites were overthrown. It seems that the Assyrians succeeded in consolidating their conquests, although in the west, forts were evacuated.

Assyrian soldiers. Relief from the Pergamon Museum, Berlin (Germany). Photo Jona Lendering.

Assyrian soldiers (Pergamonmuseum, Berlin;


At the end of the century, the Assyrian ruler Tiglath-Pileser I (1114-1076) resumed the aggressive policy. For the honor of the god Aššur, his charioteers waged war in the west, where, since the fall of the Hittite empire, no serious enemy could obstruct the Assyrians, who could wash their weapons in the Mediterranean Sea. In the north, the tribes near
Lake Van, and in the south, the Babylonians suffered from Assyrian aggression. But after the death of Tiglath-Pileser, his kingdom got its share of the problems that were encountered by the entire Near East. The Aramaeans settled in Assyrian towns in the west, and later become independent. For a century and a half, Assyria was in decline.

The Neo-Assyrian Empire

By the end of tenth century, Assyria’s fortunes were restored, and under king Aššurnasirpal II (883-859), the soldiers of Aššur, now often fighting on horseback, marched to the Zagros mountains, reached Lake Urmia, and waged war against the kingdom of Urartu in the north. Other campaigns were directed against the Aramaeans in Syria and the towns on the plains of eastern Cilicia.

King Jehu of Israel doing obeisance to Šalmaneser III of Assyria. Black obelisk, British museum, Londen (Britain). Photo Marco Prins.
King Jehu of
Israel doing homage to Šalmaneser (British Museum)


The empire had now reached the same size as it had had during the reign of Tiglath-Pileser I. The expansion continued under Aššurnasirpal’s son Šalmaneser III (858-824), who consolidated the Assyrian power in the west and whose designs even encompassed
Israel. (Its king Ahab was part of an anti-Assyrian coalition that for some time managed to repel the invaders, but in the end, Šalmaneser was victorious and received tribute from king Jehu.) A new Assyrian capital was founded at Nineveh. Yet, after Šalmaneser’s reign, we hear less about military successes. From the east, nomadic Medes made started to raid the Assyrian empire. Yet, it survived, was consolidated, and still exercised great political influence (example).
Slowly but securely, all tribute paying vassal kings were replaced by provincial governors. Regions as far away as Cilicia were directly ruled by Assyrian officials and visited by royal inspectors. There were garrisons on several places, and a
Royal road connected Nineveh with Susa in Elam and Gordium in Anatolia. King Tiglath-pileser III (744-727) finished the conversion of the empire. This system of provinces, governors and inspectors, roads and garrisons was to survive the Assyrian empire. Later, the Babylonians, Persians, and Seleucids used the same instruments to rule the ancient Near East. Relief from Nineveh, showing the fall of Lachish.

Detail of a relief from Nineveh,
showing the fall of Lachish


Now, the expansion started again. Tiglath-pileser III conquered Damascus and Gaza. One of the great challenges was the organization of
Babylonia in the south, which was Assyria’s twin-culture and was too highly esteemed to be reduced to the status of province. Tiglath-pileser III sought a solution in a “double monarchy”: he united the two countries in a personal union. His son Shalmaneser V (726-722) continued this policy. In the west, he tried to add Israel to the Assyrian empire, but was murdered during the siege of Samaria. The (partly reconstructed) city walls of Nineveh.

The walls of Nineveh (partly reconstructed;


His successor was Sargon II (721-705), who did not belong to the royal dynasty. He was a capable general, however, and conquered Israel, defeated the Egyptians near Gaza, captured Karkemiš in the west, fought against the Medes, supported king king Mit-ta-a of Muški (= 
Midas of Phrygia?) against the invasion of the Cimmerians, and overcame king Rusa of Urartu. His son Sennacherib (704-681) captured Lachish, the most important city of Judah, and received tribute from Jerusalem. Babylon, which had revolted under Marduk-apla-iddin, was sacked in 703, and its entire population was deported – a harsh measure, even for oriental standards. The Babylonians were forced to work in Nineveh, which was surrounded by a double wall of perhaps 25 meters high, and received its water from a canal with a length of 50 kilometers. The Assyrian Empire. Design Jona Lendering.

The Assyrian empire


During the reign of Sennacherib’s son and successor Esarhaddon (680-669), the Assyrian armies defeated the Cimmerians, who had threatened Anatolia, and advanced to Egypt, which was evacuated by the last
pharaoh of the Kushite dynasty, Taharqo. It is during this period that our sources start to mention internal strife. This may be an optical illusion -we have more sources- but it is more likely that the spoils of the successful conquests were unequally divided. At the same time, it seems that the empire suffered from overstretch, because Egypt was too heavy a burden. Although Esarhaddon’s successor Aššurbanipal (668-631) sacked Thebes, he eventually gave up the country along the Nile. One of the Assyrian vassals, Psammetichus, hired Greek and Carian mercenaries, reunited Egypt, and founded a new dynasty. The 'flood tablet'. British Museum, London (Britain). Photo Marco Prins.

The ‘Flood tablet’ (British Museum)


The end of the Assyrian occupation of Egypt was probably partly due to the fact that the viceroy of Babylonia, Aššurbanipal’s older brother Šamaš-šuma-ukin, had revolted (
ABC 15). When the Assyrians had overcome this insurrection, they attacked the Babylonian ally Elam and destroyed its capital Susa. The Arabs also suffered. Again, many people were deported to Nineveh.

Of the more peaceful activities of king Aššurbanipal, the creation of a great library must be mentioned. The 22,000 cuneiform tablets are among the most important sources for our understanding of ancient Assyrian culture. Among the most famous texts is the Epic of Gilgameš, which also contains an account of the Great Flood.

Relief with the portrait of Aššurbanipal. British museum, London (Britain). Photo Marco Prins.
Aššurbanipal (British museum)

Decline and fall

Although the Assyrians had evacuated Egypt, their armed forces were still superior. One of the few serious problems was the status of Babylon. Several solutions had been attempted: a personal union, destruction, and appointment of a viceroy. None of these solutions had been really successful, but the Assyrians had always been able to impose their ideas. Another enemy was the coalition of Medes in the east, but they were usually defeated. Why things went wrong, is a still unsolved puzzle, not in the least because we have few sources for the final regnal years of Aššurbanipal.

After his death in 631, the situation was confused, and the Babylonians revolted against their two Assyrian governors, Sin-šumlišir and Sin-šar-iškun. The people of Babylon defeated an Assyrian army, and according to the Babylonian chronicle known as ABC 2, the Babylonian general Nabopolassar was recognized as king on 23 November 626. This seems to have been the beginning of a series of insurrections against the Assyrians, in which the Medes also played a role. The only ally of the Assyrian king was pharaoh Psammetichus, who understood that if the Babylonians would overthrow Assyria, the new superpower would attack Egypt.

Cuneiform tablet with a description of the fall of Nineveh. British museum, London (Britain). Photo Jona Lendering.

Cuneiform tablet with a description of the fall of Nineveh (British Museum;


In the
Fall of Nineveh Chronicle, we can read about the events in these years. We find Nabopolassar defeating the Assyrians near Harran in 616, which betrays a daring strategy: the Babylonians tried to block the main road between Assyria and the west. This time, however, the Egyptians arrived in time to prevent disaster. Next year, Nabopolassar started to besiege Aššur, still the religious capital of Assyria. Again, the Assyrians averted a catastrophe, but now, the Medes appeared on the scene. In 614, they took the city. This was the beginning of the end.

The Median leader Cyaxares now concluded an alliance with the Babylonians, which was cemented, according to the Babylonian historian Berossus (third century BCE), by a royal wedding: the Babylonian crown prince Nebuchadnezzar married a Median princess named Amytis, who may or may not have been a daughter of the Median crown prince Astyages.

After a year of inconclusive campaigning, the united Medes and Babylonians laid siege to Nineveh in May 612, and in July, the city fell. (Archaeologists have discovered the remains of forty of the defenders.) King Sin-šar-iškun, who had once been in charge of Babylon (above), seems to have committed suicide.

A wounded soldier is attacked by a vulture. Assyrian relief from Nimrod, British Museum, London (Britain). Photo Marco Prins.

A wounded soldier is attacked by a vulture. Relief from Nimrod. (British Museum)


He was succeeded by a man with the ironical name Aššur-Uballit, after the founder of the Middle-Assyrian empire. He briefly reorganized his forces in Harran, but was expelled, and when pharaoh
Necho II appeared on the scene, he was defeated.  The Babylonians and Egyptians would continue their struggle in Syria and Palestine.

This was the end of the Assyrian empire, but the word ‘Assyria’ remained in use and referred to the non-Babylonian parts of the Babylonian empire. In the Achaemenid royal inscriptions, Athurâ can both indicate ‘real’ Assyria, and the former Assyrian possessions on the far side of the Euphrates, which we call Syria.

A winged horse (Pegasus) from Aššur, c.200 BCE. Rijksmuseum van Oudheden, Leiden (Holland). Photo Jona Lendering.

A winged horse (Pegasus) from Aššur, c.200 BCE (Rijksmuseum van Oudheden, Leiden)


After the conquest of the
Achaemenid Empire by Alexander the Great, Asyria proper, with its capital Arbela, was variously known as Hdayab (Syriac), Adiabene (Greek and Latin), Nôd-Šîragân (Parthian) and Ardaxširagân (Sasanian Persian). Yet, the original word was never forgotten. When the Roman emperor Trajan conquered Armenia and Mesopotamia, the province on the other side of the Tigris was called Assyria, and even today, the Christian church of Adiabene, which is very old, still calls itself Assyrian.