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Who were the Assyrians and what were they known for?

Infamous for its brutality which is even recorded in the Bible’s Old Testament, the Assyrian Empire is regarded as one of the world’s first true Empires.

At its height, in the 7th century BCE, the Assyrian Empire covered the area of Iraq, Syria, Lebanon, Israel, Turkey, Iran, and Egypt.

It was also a culturally sophisticated Empire with one of the best Libraries in the Ancient world coupled with an impressive Botanical Garden and Zoo that showed the Citizens the wide reach of the Empire through a wide collection of Plants and animals gathered from all corners of the Empire.

The story of Assyria began towards the end of the Bronze Age, in the Mesopotamian City of the God Ashur which was a busy trading centre along the Tigris River.

Around 1300 BCE, a High Priest of the Temple of Ashur became King and began the transformation of Ashur from a simple City State to a Kingdom through a series of successful military campaigns which saw Ashur extend its power and influence in Mesopotamia for the next 150 years. 

In order to consolidate their territorry, the Assyrians first conquered the Mesopotamian nations in the proximity of Ashur and under Assyrian King Shamashi Adad I, they expelled the Amorites securing Assyria’s first recognised borders with Ashur as its Capital. 

However, the rise of Hammurabi and Babylon would see the decline of Assyria as Babylon became the pre-eminent Empire in Mesopotamia under a new Amorite Dynasty. 

After Hammurabi’s death however around 1750 BCE, Babylon was weakened and a series of Assyrian Kings would embark on campaigns that would eventually see Assyria assert its dominance in the area with the conquest of the Mitanni by King Shalmaneser I. 

The Assyrians were infamous for their siege warfare and extreme punishments like impalement or flaying for those who had chosen to oppose the Assyrian War Machine. They also deported conquered populations which they dispersed to parts of the Assyrian Empire where their skills would be most utilised.

For instance, the Bible’s Old Testament records King Sennacherib’s ruthless campaign against Israel and Judah and the deportation of the Jews.

Eventually Ashurnasirpal II extended Assyrian rule all the way to Canaan with the Empire reaching its peak under Sargon II around 714 BCE.

Subsequent Assyrian Kings like Ashurbanipal admired the Old Sumerian Civilization and actively preserved Sumerian Culture by collecting or copying Ancient Books writtten in Sumerian and Akkadian Cuneiform Script which were brought to Nineveh and filed in the Royal Library.

However, after Ashurbanipal’s death, the Assyrian Empire began to disintegrate mainly because its borders were too vast and could not be properly policed.

The cruelties visited on the conquered populations also led to revolt and in 612 BCE, the City of Nineveh was sacked by a coalition of Assyria’s old enemies made up of the Persians, Medes, Scythians and Babylonians.

Despite its destruction, the Assyrian Empire is largely responsible for the preservation and spread of Mesopotamian culture around the world from Ancient times to the present day.

In this way, Mesopotamian ideas and culture have survived as part of our modern world’s literary and cultural heritage.