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1170 BC - 612 BC - Assyrians

One of the cities that flourished in the middle of the Tigris Valley was that of Ashur, named after the sun-god of the Assyrians. The Assyrians were Semitic speakers who occupied Babylon for a brief period in the thirteenth century B.C. Invasions of iron-producing peoples into the Near East and into the Aegean region in approximately 1200 B.C. disrupted the indigenous empires of Mesopotamia, but eventually the Assyrians were able to capitalize on the new alignments of power in the region.

At the beginning of the 19th century little was known of the ancient capitals of the Assyro-Babylonians aside from the meagre and imperfect accounts given by the Jewish and Greek historians. One would have searched his maps in vain for the exact location of Nineveh, the headquarters of the Assyrian armies which plundered the Israelites for so many years and finally besieged, captured, and transported the inhabitants of Samaria. In the case of Babylon it was no better - a city one of whose kings carried into captivity the remnant left by his northern kinsmen, the Assyrians.

The year 1857 is memorable in the annals of Assyriology. In that year the Royal Asiatic Society of London proposed a test of the genuine character of the translations offered by scholars of the Assyrian inscriptions. The general similarity of the results formed a strong confirmation of the genuineness of the translations and the correctness of the method of decipherment, which even sceptics freely admitted.

It is very difficult to define the exact boundaries of Babylonia and Assyria, since these varied so greatly at different periods in their history In general, they occupied the region watered by the Tigris and Euphrates Rivers. Babylonia lay to the south and occupied the alluvial plain between the two rivers from the point where they most nearly approach each other on the north to the Persian Gulf on the south. The boundaries of Assyria were the mountain chains of Armenia and Kurdistan on the north and east, Babylonia on the south, and the country watered by the Tigris on the west. The area of Assyria was about seventy-five thousand square miles - about three hundred and fifty miles in length, and varying in breadth Jrom one hundred and seventy-five to three hundred miles. The Tigris and Euphrates Rivers were the chief physical features of these countries. The part of Assyria ty the east of the Tigris was rough. It was, however, well supplied with water and very fertile. The part to the west was larger in extent, but poorly watered and barren.

The chief cities of Assyria were Asshur (Qal'at Sherkat), its earliest capital; Nineveh (Kouyunjik and NebbiYunus), Calah (Nimrud), Dur-Shargina (Khorsabad), Arba'il (Arbela), Imgur-Bel (Tel-Balawat), and Tarbis (SherifKhan). Asshur was the only city of importance on the western side of the Tigris.

The Babylonians and Assyrians were Semites, and more closely allied to the northern group than to the southern. The home of the Semites is still a disputed question. No definite statement can be made about the time when they settled in southern Babylonia, nor do we know the region from which they came. The southern part of the Mesopotamian Valley seems to have been occupied before the arrival of the Babylonians by a non-Semitic people, the Sumerians. The Semitic Babylonians gradually dispossessed this people, adopting, in a great measure, their religion and gods, their customs and their script, the so-called cuneiform.

The Babylonians were a mixed type. They were small of stature and of a peaceful disposition, preferring agriculture and trade to the pursuit of war. The Assyrians were a purer Semitic type, larger, fiercer, more brutal, and more warlike. The Babylonians were very religious and extremely superstitious, with a large number of gods and demons. The Assyrians were religious but less superstitious. Their religion was derived from the Babylonians, but it was early modified and nationalized by them. Ashur, their national god, who gave his name to both city and country, was set above all the Babylonian deities. It was with his troops and under his protection that the Assyrian monarchs made war against his enemies. The other gods of the Assyrian Pantheon were subordinated to him, each one, however, receiving due honour and position.

The Babylonians were a literary people, and made great use of the non-Semitic literature of their Sumerian predecessors. The Assyrians, on the other hand, were not literary, and with the exception of the Historical Inscriptions, which can hardly be called literature, they have left us very little. They were, however, great coypists and editors, and they appropriated to themselves the literature of their more original, cultured, and learned relatives in the south. In fact, knowledge of Babylonian literature is due, in great part, to the Assyrian copies made in the time of their great king, Ashurbanipal.

The language of the two peoples is generally referred to as Assyrian. It is Semitic and more closely related to the Phoenician, Aramaic, and Hebrew of the northern group than to the Arabic of the southern. The Babylonians pronounced a few consonants in a way different from the Assyrians. These differences were not of enough importance to warrant the distinction of two dialects. As stated above, both Babylonians and Assyrians made use of the non-Semitic Sumerian script, and hence their method of writing differed from the other Semitic peoples in being ideographic and syllabic rather than alphabetic.

The materials on which the literature of Babylonia and Assyria is written are clay, stone, and metal. The most common material was clay, which was carefully selected by the scribes so as to be free from sand. It was washed and rolled, and then cut and pressed into the various sizes desired by the scribes. " For writing, a stick of boxwood was used, one end of which was cut into an exact square; this end of the stylus was cut away obliquely, so that one of the corners of the end formed a somewhat acute angle. The stylus was held like a pen, and the pressure was applied chiefly to the upper edge in the direction of the point, with a slight inclination toward the left. When the tablet was very large, small wooden pegs were inserted into the blank spaces of the inscribed side before turning, in order to prevent obliteration of the writing. These pegs were consumed during the process of baking. After the writing was finished the tablet was dried by exposing it to the sun for a day or two. About a week after drying it was placed in the oven, probably protected by some earthen case to preserve its coming in direct contact with the flame" (Haupt).

Some of the Assyrian Historical Inscriptions are engraved on slabs, monuments, bulls, lions, etc. Others are written with the stylus on prismoids and cylinders. The Babylonian Historical Inscriptions were generally written on the so-called Barrel-cylinders. An important exception is the East India House Inscription of Nebuchadrezzar, which was cut in stone. But clay was the most common writing material.

The history of Assyria as a world power is divided into three periods: (1) the Old Empire; (2) the Middle Empire; (3) the New or Last Empire. The rise and growth of the Old Empire started from the days of Ashur-uballit until the reign of Tukulti-Ninip [Tukulti-Ninurta II], when it flourished in great splendour and suddenly went to pieces. Thereafter, until the second period of the Old Empire, Assyria comprised but a few city States which had agricultural resources and were trading centers. Of these the most enterprising was Asshur. When a ruler of Asshur was able, by conserving his revenues, to command sufficient capital with purpose to raise a strong army of mercenaries as a business speculation, he set forth to build up a new empire on the ruins of the old. In its early stages, of course, this process was slow and difficult. It necessitated the adoption of a military career by native Assyrians, who officered the troops, and these troops had to be trained and disciplined by engaging in brigandage, which also brought them rich rewards for their services. Babylonia became powerful by developing the arts of peace; Assyria became powerful by developing the science of warfare.

Very little can be said about northern Assyria during the 2nd millennium BC. Information on the old capital, Ashur, located in the south of the country, is somewhat more plentiful. The old lists of kings suggest that the same dynasty ruled continuously over Ashur from about 1600. The rulers of Ashur styled themselves not king but partly issiakum, the Akkadian equivalent of the Sumerian word ensi, partly ruba'um, or "great one." Unfortunately, the rulers cannot be synchronized precisely with the kings of southern Mesopotamia before Shamshi-Adad I (c. 1813-c. 1781 BC).

Ashur-uballit I (c. 1354-c. 1318) was at first subject to King Tushratta of Mitanni. After 1340, however, he attacked Tushratta, presumably together with Suppiluliumas I of the Hittites. Taking away from Mitanni parts of northeastern Mesopotamia, Ashur-uballit now called himself "Great King" and socialized with the king of Egypt on equal terms, arousing the indignation of the king of Babylonia. Ashur-uballit was the first to name Assyria the Land of Ashur, because the old name, Subartu, was often used in a derogatory sense in Babylonia.

In the first half of the last millennium BC, the two cities of Babylon and Nineveh had ascended above all others in Mesopotamia. It was just prior to this period that the Kassite Dynasty was overthrown in Babylon, replaced by the Second Dynasty of Isin, of which the most important ruler was Nebuchadnezzar I. Nineveh, the capital of a vassal state of neighboring Mitanni called Assyria, was nearly as old as Babylon‹ dating back to the third millennium B.C. The Assyrians had been expanding and contracting their influence from this base for two centuries or more.

By 1000 B.C. the more northern Assyria began a far-ranging expansion of its empire, continuing up to 612 B.C. and extending to Syria, Palestine, the mouth of the Nile, and to Babylonia. The Assyrians were remarkable not only for their mastery in battle, but for their love of building and for their political organization. They built or rebuilt great cities such as Assur, Nineveh, Nimrud, and Dur Sharrukin.

The Assyrians began to expand to the west in the early part of the ninth century BC; by 859 they had reached the Mediterranean Sea, where they occupied Phoenician cities. Damascus and Babylon fell to the next generations of Assyrian rulers. During the eighth century BC, the Assyrians' control over their empire appeared tenuous, but Tiglath-Pileser III seized the throne and rapidly subdued Assyria's neighbors, captured Syria, and crowned himself king of Babylon. He developed a highly proficient war machine by creating a permanent standing army under the adminis- tration of a well-organized bureaucracy. Sennacherib built a new capital, Nineveh, on the Tigris River, destroyed Babylon (where citizens had risen in revolt), and made Judah a vassal state.

Assyria had to maintain a standing army, which grew from an alliance of brigands who first enslaved the native population, and ultimately extended their sway over neighboring States. The successes of the army made Assyria powerful. Conquering kings accumulated rich booty by pillaging alien cities, and grew more and more wealthy as they were able to impose annual tribute on those States which came under their sway. They even regarded Babylonia with avaricious eyes. It was to achieve the conquest of the fertile and prosperous mother State that the early Assyrian emperors conducted military operations in the north-west and laid hands on Mesopotamia. There was no surer way of strangling it than by securing control of its trade routes. What the command of the sea is to Great Britain at the present day, the command of the caravan roads was to ancient Babylonia.

Babylonia suffered less than Assyria by defeat in battle; its natural resources gave it great recuperative powers, and the native population was ever so intensely patriotic that centuries of alien sway could not obliterate their national aspirations. A conqueror of Babylon had to become a Babylonian. The Amorites and Kassites had in turn to adopt the modes of life and modes of thought of the native population. Like the Egyptians, the Babylonians ever achieved the intellectual conquest of their conquerors.

The Assyrian Empire, on the other hand, collapsed like a house of cards when its army of mercenaries suffered a succession of disasters. The kings depended on the tribute of subject States to pay their soldiers and maintain the priesthood; they were faced with national bankruptcy when their vassals successfully revolted against them.

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