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The rise and fall of the Assyrian Empire – Marian H Feldman


Before the sun never
set on the British Empire, before Genghis Khan swept the steppe, before Rome extended its influence
to encircle the Mediterranean Sea, there was ancient Assyria. Considered by historians
to be the first true empire, Assyria’s innovations laid the groundwork
for every superpower that’s followed. At its height, in the 7th century BCE, the Assyrian Empire stretched
across modern Iraq, Syria, Lebanon, Israel, and parts of Turkey, Iran, and Egypt. Its wonders included a vast library
and large botanical and zoological park. But the story of Assyria’s rise
to dominance began many centuries earlier, in the Late Bronze Age,
in a city called Ashur. Ashur was a tin and textiles
trading center located along the Tigris River
in northern Iraq. It shared its name with a god thought
to be an embodiment of the city and later of the entire empire. For the administration-minded Assyrians,
politics and religion were closely linked. Around 1300 BCE, a high priest named
Ashur-uballit I took the title of king and initiated a tradition
of military campaigns, effectively transforming Assyria
from a city-state to a territorial state. This meant that a single
administrative entity oversaw many places, cultures,
and peoples. For the next 150 years,
Assyria extended its reach and thrived. In the 12th century BCE, a mysterious catastrophe
that still bewilders archaeologists caused the Assyrians
to lose much of their territory. A few hundred years later, however, Assyrian kings began
a new round of conquests. This time, they honed
their administrative system into an empire
that would last generations. Assyrians were military innovators
and merciless conquerors. During their conquests, they used siege tactics and cruel
punishments for those who opposed them, including impalement and flaying. The growth of their empire
was due, in part, to their strategy
of deporting local populations, then shifting them around the
empire to fulfill different needs. This broke peoples’ bonds
with their homelands and severed loyalties among local groups. Once the Assyrians conquered an area, they built cities connected
by well-maintained royal roads. Often, when a new king came to power,
he would build a new capital. With each move, new palaces and temples
were erected and lavishly decorated. Although kings claimed absolute power, we know that an extensive system
of courtiers, provincial officials, and scholars influenced affairs. At least one woman, Sammuramat,
ruled the kingdom. Assyrian rulers celebrated
their military excursions by having representations
of their exploits carved into the walls
of their newly built palaces. But despite the picture of a ruthless
war state projected by these records, the Assyrian kings were also interested
in the cultural traditions of the region, especially those of Babylonia,
a separate state to the south. Babylonia had been
a cultural leader for millennia, stretching back
to the beginning of writing at the end of the 4th millennium BCE. Assyria saw itself as the inheritor
and protector of this tradition. Assyrian rulers supported scholars in specialties ranging
from medicine to magic, and the capital cities, like Ninevah, were home to elaborate parks and gardens that housed plants
and animals from around the empire. One of Assyria’s final rulers,
Ashurbanipal, sent scholars throughout Babylonia to
gather up and copy ancient literary works. Ashurbanipal’s library took the form
of clay tablets inscribed with cuneiform in the languages
of Akkadian and Sumerian. The library was lost during the final sack
of Ninevah in 612 BCE. But thanks to a 19th century
archaeological excavation, many masterpieces of ancient literature, including the Epic of Gilgamesh
and the Babylonian Creation Epic, survive today. After centuries of rule, the Assyrian Empire fell to
the Babylonians and Medes between 612 and 609 BCE. Yet the innovations that the Assyrians 
pioneered live on. Their emphasis on constant innovation, efficient administration, and excellent infrastructure set the standard for every empire
that’s followed them in the region and across the globe.

About James Carlton

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