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Ancient Assyrians: History, Civilization & Culture

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  • 0:00 The Ancient Assyrians
  • 0:42 Ancient Assyrian History
  • 2:13 Ancient Assyrian Expansion
  • 5:14 Ancient Assyrian Culture
  • 7:34 Lesson Summary
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Lesson Transcript
Instructor: Jonathan Reich
Ancient Assyria was one of the first great international empires. Located in Mesopotamia, it dominated the entire Middle East for several hundred years. Learn about the civilization, culture and imperial expansion of the Ancient Assyrians in this lesson.

The Ancient Assyrians

The people known as the Ancient Assyrians existed from roughly the second millennium BCE to 612 BCE. They were from the kingdom of Assyria which was located in northern Mesopotamia in what is modern-day Iraq. This general area was one of the places where civilization first originated, where people first began cultural practices such as writing, agriculture, and city-building. The Assyrians arose from this area to become a massive international empire which, through their literature, culture, and military conquests, had a profound effect on the different civilizations that existed in this and surrounding areas over the next several centuries.

Ancient Assyrian History

The kingdom of Assyria was founded in the late second millennium BCE, and was only one of a number of ancient Mesopotamian kingdoms. It contained several large and important cities such as Ashur (which gave its name to the country as a whole), Arbel, and Nineveh. The Assyrians expanded throughout the Mesopotamian region and also established trading posts throughout the Middle East, dealing in textiles and raw materials such as tin.

The period from 934-609 BCE, beginning with the reign of King Ashur-Dan II, is known as the Neo-Assyrian Empire. This period saw unprecedented expansion of the Assyrian state. During this period, Assyria became one of the world's first large, international empires. At its height, the Neo-Assyrian Empire stretched from the Persian Gulf in the east to Egypt in the west, up to Cappadocia (in modern-day Turkey) in the north, and down to the island of Cyprus in the Mediterranean Sea in the southwest. In 612 BCE this massive empire was effectively destroyed when its capital, Nineveh, was conquered by forces led by another Mesopotamian kingdom, Babylon. The Babylonian Empire ruled the former Assyrian territories for a relatively brief period, approximately 70 years, before themselves falling to the expanding Persian Empire.

The neo-Assyrian empire at its height.

Ancient Assyrian Expansion: A Historical Example

The expansion of the Neo-Assyrian Empire brought it into contact with another culture which recorded its experiences of the conflict: Israel. At this time, Israel was split into two occasionally hostile kingdoms--Israel to the north and Judah to the south--with its capital at Jerusalem. The Judean perspective as recorded in the Bible is well preserved.

The conflict between the Assyrian king Sennacherib and the Judean king Hezekiah is a valuable historical event because we have records from both sides of the conflict. The biblical text records the Judean perspective, while the Assyrian view is found on a hexagonal clay tablet known as Sennacherib's Prism or the Taylor Prism. It is written in cuneiform which was a type of wedge-shaped writing that made up the writing system of the ancient Assyrians.

The Taylor prism, containing the Assyrian account of the siege of Jerusalem.

Neither account presents an objective viewpoint, and a brief comparison of the two is very instructive. The Bible provides an account of the attack but does not dwell on the devastation wreaked on Judah by the Assyrians, focusing instead on the successful defense of Jerusalem:

So says the Lord regarding the king of Assyria. 'He shall not come unto this city, nor shoot an arrow there…nor cast a mound against it….he shall not come unto this city, says the Lord. I will defend this city to save it, for My sake and for My servant David's sake' (2 Kings 19: 32-34).

The account continues with this theological interpretation, describing the end of the Assyrian siege which was apparently due to an outbreak of disease which s is typical of any biblical narrative.

The Assyrian account, on the other hand, emphasizes Assyrian successes, and you have to read between the lines to realize that Sennacherib never actually says he conquered Jerusalem or captured Hezekiah;

As for Hezekiah the Judahite, who did not submit to my yoke; forty-six of his strong, walled cities…I besieged and took them. Hezekiah himself, like a caged bird I shut up in Jerusalem, his royal city. I threw up earthworks against him…the terrifying splendor of my majesty overcame him, and his mercenary troops which he had brought in to strengthen Jerusalem, his royal city, deserted him

This language gives an idea of the might of the Assyrians, and the grandeur and power that they wished to project.

Despite their failure to capture Jerusalem (something that the Babylonians would accomplish a little over a century later), the Assyrians did, for the first time, unify the Middle East by putting virtually the entire area under one rule, thereby spreading one language and one culture throughout the region.

Ancient Assyrian Culture

The Assyrians spoke a Semitic language known as Akkadian. By the Neo-Assyrian period, they had added another language, Aramaic. While the writing system of cuneiform did not spread with the Assyrians, the Aramaic language did, and it became the international language of the region for a thousand years before it was replaced with Arabic during the Muslim conquests. The Assyrians developed a complicated and rich literature consisting of religious texts as well as heroic epic poetry. Perhaps the best-known piece of Assyrian literature is the 'Epic of Gilgamesh'. This epic poem tells the story of the hero Gilgamesh, a Mesopotamian king, and his many adventures, including encounters with various gods and monsters. This story includes elements that can be found in many other myths including some (like the story of a worldwide flood with a lone family surviving in a boat) that have parallels in the Hebrew bible.

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