Ancient Assyria: Geography & Environment

Instructor: Christopher Muscato

Chris has a master's degree in history and teaches at the University of Northern Colorado.

The ancient Assyrians came to dominate their region, but their success had a lot to do with their environment. In this lesson, we'll explore ancient Assyria and see how geography and civilization interact.

Geography and Sargonid Assyria

It was in West Asia (the Middle East) that the first settled human societies appeared. They developed the first agriculture, the first cities, and the first kingdoms. One of these ancient cultures was that of the Assyrians, who spread from their humble city into one of the largest empires in the world, stretching across the region.

This civilization reached its peak under the rule of Sargon II (r. 722-705 BCE), who ushered in an era of prosperity we call the Sargonid dynasty. But how did Sargon and the Assyrians become so powerful?

Part of it was skill and knowledge, but part of it was simply the world they lived in. Geography played a major role in all of humanity's earliest civilizations, and the Assyrians were certainly no exception.


Let's start by identifying the homeland of the Assyrians themselves. The Assyrians originated in an ancient city called Assur (sometimes spelled Ashur). This city remained important to the Assyrians as they grew, and in fact every Assyrian king except one was buried here.

By the height of their dominance, the Neo-Assyrian Empire controlled lands from Turkey all the way down the coast of the eastern Mediterranean to Egypt.

Assur itself was located in what is today northern Iraq. Back in the 8th century BCE, however, Assur was considered part of a major region called Mesopotamia, which roughly corresponds to Iraq, with parts of Syria and Turkey.

The most important features of Mesopotamia are the two rivers that run through it: the Tigris and Euphrates. It was these rivers that provided people with enough fresh water to start farming and settle in one place. In fact, the oldest settlements in the world are found in Mesopotamia, and the region is often known as the cradle of civilization.

Assyria was centered in Mesopotamia, between the Tigris and Euphrates

The city of Assur was located on a plateau overlooking the Tigris River, which turned out to be very beneficial. Not only did the Assyrians of Assur have enough fresh water to start farming, but their access to the river let them become important traders and merchants.

This is actually where their influence first came from; they sailed along the Tigris and later Euphrates, buying and selling goods with other Mesopotamian cities. By the time of Sargon II, the Assyrians had expanded their trade routes even further, traveling up and down the eastern coast of the Mediterranean Sea, as well as along several major rivers across this large region.

Most settlements were established along the Euphrates and Tigris rivers
Assur map

Climate and Land

The access to water was fundamental to the success of the Assyrians. It helped them create a trade empire, and later helped them move troops and resources across their military empire.

However, we can't ignore the importance of climate and land to Assyrian success as well. In this time period, Mesopotamia may have had some of the most reliable weather patterns in the world. Rain fell in predictable and reliable ways, and the temperatures were warm, but not too hot.

On top of this, the Tigris and Euphrates flooded every year and added nutrients to the soil, making it rich and healthy. Assyria was in a part of this flood plane that was prone to drying up, so the Assyrians invented numerous kinds of plows to work the soil and bring out all those nutrients.

They were pretty good at it too; by as early as the 3,000 BCE they were farming several grains like wheat, barley, and millet. They mostly ate barley (wheat was used to make beer), but also domesticated olives, peas, figs, apples, pomegranates, and pistachios. The ability to produce a lot of food with relatively low effort is one thing that helped the Assyrians grow quickly in size and wealth.

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