Assyria through the times (Nahum 3)

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The heartland of Assyria lay in a small area in the northern Mesopotamia, centred on the Tigris River. Villages were established in this area by 7000 B.C., although traces of human activity appear from thousands of years earlier. The great cities of Assyria included Asshur (founded ca. 2700 B.C.), Nineveh (founded ca. 3000 B.C.) and Kalhu (Biblical Calah, modern Nimrud, founded ca. 878 B.C.). Although Assyria was dominated early on by Babylonia, it eventually became the most powerful empire in the ancient Near East. Its history was one of continual expansion and retraction.

Old Assyrian Period (ca. 2334-1275 B.C.)

Early in its history Assyria was a group of independent cities. The empire of Sargon of Akkad (ca. 23334-2279 B.C.) exercised authority in Assyria, a king in Sargon’s line, Manishtusu (ca. 2269-2255 B.C.), is said to have built a temple in Nineveh. With the collapse of the power of Akkad, Assyria came under another Mesopotamian power, the Third Dynasty of Ur (ca. 2112-2004 B.C.). Sometime later Asshur won its independence and began to establish trading colonies in Anatolia. Thousands of cuneiform documents from the Anatolian town of Kanish (modern Kultepe) provide detailed information about prosperous Assyrian merchant colonies from approximately 1900 to 1750 B.C.

At the same time Amorite tribes from the west began to invide Mesopotamia. An Amorite ruler, Shamshi-Adad I (ca. 1814-1782 B.C.) dominated most od the Assyrian heartland, including Asshur. He installed hos sons as governors of Mari on the Euphrates River and Ekallatum, south of Asshur on the Tigris. Shamshi-Adad himself ventured west, establishing a vast empire stretching over northern Mesopotamia into Syria. After his death in 1781 B.C. Shamshi-Adad’s son Ishme-Dagan I was unable to maintain his father’s empire. Hammurabi of Babylon conquered Mari and Asshur, while the Hurrians invaded from the northeast. For the next 400 years there is virtually no documentation from the Assyrian cities, except for the Assyrian king List.

The reign of Ashur-uballit I (1364-1329 B.C.), who unified and consolidated the city-states of Assyria into a stable political entity, marks the beginning of Assyria as a political state. Letters uncovered ar Amarna demonstrate that he corresponded as an equal with Egypt’s Amenhotep IV. Although the Babylonian king considered Ashur-uballit I as his vassal, Ashur-uballit I was able to exert considerable influence in Babylon when his daughter was given in marriage to the Babylonian king; the son of this union became the next ruler of Babylon.

Much Babylonian literature and learning was imported to Assyria, a practice later Assyrian monarchs would continue. Following the reign of Ashur-uballit, his successors lost influence in Babylonia; however, they (particularly Adad-narari I) were able to push westward into Mitanni and as far as Carchemish, continuing to lay groundwork for empire building.

Middle Assyrian Period (ca. 1274-935 B.C.)

The Assyrian empire emerged under the next two kings, Shalmaneser I (ca. 1274-1245 B.C.) and Tukulti-Ninurta I (ca. 1244-1208 B.C.). As the son of Ashur-uballit, Shalmaneser I campaigned especially in the west against the Hittites and also against the Hurrians of Mitanni. Tukulti-Ninurta contined the miliary expeditions of his father, even gaining temporary control of Babylonia. The first recorded deportation occurred under Tukulti-Ninurta, who relocated Hittites from Syria to the Assyrian heartland as labourers. Tukulti-Ninurta also established a new capital on the eastern bank of the Tigris – and was murdered in his own new palace.

With the collapse of the Hittite empire, other peoples began to move. The Mushki (probably the Phrygians) migrated into Anatolia, and the Arameans (Syrians) pushed against Assyria from the west, causing a decline in Assyrian control. In the ensuing instability Babylonia was able to regain its independence, and Assyrian control over other areas weakened.

Ahur-resha-ishi I (ca. 1133-1116 B.C.) restored and reunified the core area of Assyria, and Tiglath-Pileser I (ca. 1115-1077 B.C.) built upon this fundation, expanding the empire in all directions. He campaigned successfully against the Mushki and the Arameans to the west, bringing all of Syria and southern Anatolia under Assyrian domination. He also marched south into Babylonia, capturing many of its leading cities. Assyrian culture surged under the prosperity brought about by these military conquests. Upon the death of Tiglath-Pileser, however, the fortunes of Assyria once again declined until the reign of Ashur-dan II (ca. 934-912 B.C.).

Neo-Assyrian Period (ca. 934-612 B.C.)

Ashur-dan II returned stability to Assyria and reclaimed western territory lost to the Arameans. The next two kings reconsolidated and expanded the state. Military outposts were established throughout the empire to replenish troops on campaign.

Ashurnasirpal II (884-859 B.C.) built a new capital at Calah – later Nimrud. He marched north to the Zargos Mountains and west to Syria-Palestine, exacting tribute and subjecting defeated peoples to forced labour in Calah. His son Shalmaneser III (859-824 B.C.) continued to expand the empire north and west. His annals record a conflict involving a coalition of ten kings, including Ahab of Israel, who provided 2,000 chariots and several thousand soldiers for the battle at Qarqar in 853 B.C. Shalmaneser, unable to defeat the coalition. returned to engage these nations again during subsequent years. Eventually Jehu of Israel paid tribute to the Assyrian king, as depicted on the Black Obelisk of Shalmaneser III. On the southern front Shalmaneser assisted the Babylonin king in dispelling Aramean invaders.

Toward the end of Shalmaneser’s reign Assyria began to decline due to internal revolutions. For 80 years after his death, Assyrian kings attempted to retain control over outlying territories. The famous queen Semiramis ruled Assyria during the minority of her son, Adad-narari III (810-782 B.C.), who in turn subjugated Damascus; received tribute from nearby kings, including Israel’s Joash; and was recognized as sovereign by the Chaldean tribes.

Tiglath-Pileser III (744-727 B.C.) strengthened royal authority and regained lost Assyrian territories. He continues his march through Syria and Palestine down to Egypt, receiving tribute from Damascus, Byblos, Tyre ans Samaria (cf. 2 Chronicles 28:19-21). When Damascus and Samaria rebelled, Tiglath-Pileser quelled the uprising, making them vassal states (cf. 2 Kings 15:30). He installed an appointee as king of Babylonia, later taking that throne himself.

During the short reign of Shalmaneser V (726-722 B.C.), Samaria was besieged. Assyrian records attribute Samaria’s capitulation to Shalmaneser V or to Sargon II (622-705 B.C.). Most likely the fall of Samaria was a foregone conclusion when Shalmaneser was assassinated and Sargon II usurped the throne in 722 B.C. Massive deportations of Israelites to Assyria followed. Sargon II gained control of Syria-Palestine, defeating a coalition of Syrians and Egyptians at Qarqar in 720 B.C. From 720 to 710 B.C. he also fought against and eventually prevailed over the Babylonian king Marduk-apal-iddins (Merodach-Baldan of Isaiah 39:1).

Sargon’s son Sennacherib (705-681 B.C.) is famous for his siege of Jerusalem. Hezekiah of Judah was encouraged to rebel against Assyria on the basis of resurgent Egyptian strength. Egypt, however, was soundly defeated by Sennacherib, who then pressed against Hezekiah. Jerusalem, though besieged, miraculously escaped defeat (2 Kings 18-19). Sennacherib destroyed Babylon in 689 B.C. but was assassinated by two of his sons and succeeded by another son, Esarhaddon.

Under Esarhaddon (680-669 B.C.) the Egyptian army was defeated, after which Egypt was ruled by Assyrian-appointed governors. With most of Syria-Palestine submissive, Esarhaddon rebuilt Babylon and oversaw extensive work in Nineveh, Asshur and Calah. Before his death in 669 B.C. he required his Babylonian throne, however, upon another son, Shamash-shuma-ukin.

Ashurbanipal focused on Egypt, which was attempting to regain independence. Although Memphis and Thebes were captured in 663 B.C., Egypt was freed from Assyrian domination when troubles in oher parts of the empire required Ashurbanipal’s attention. Civil war broke out between Ashurbanipal and his brother Shamash-shuma-ukin in 652 B.C. Ashurbanipal emerged victorious four years later after a long siege of Babylon.

Although Assyria emerged as victor, it never recovered from the drain on its military and resources. Ahurbanipal’s successors were unable to restore the empire’s greatness. Nabopolassar of Babylonia retrieved much territory from Assyria during the latter portion of the seventh century B.C. and the Babylonians and Medes invaded the heartland, capturing Asshur in 614 B.C. In 612 B.C. the Assyrian capital of Nineveh fell following a short siege. Although Ashur-uballit II attempted to rule an independent Assyrian state from Harran, he was no match for Babylonia and her allies. The once formidable Assyrian empire had come to a decisive end.


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