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Neo-Assyrian Empire: Art & History

Instructor: Patricia ONeill
Ancient Assyria was one of the earliest transcontinental empires; it dominated Southwest Asia for centuries during the era known as the Neo-Assyrian period. Here we will see an overview of the Neo-Assyrian Empire and understand not only the history but the art of this exceptional society.

Mesopotamia

Mesopotamia is a Greek word meaning between the rivers, and refers to the region between the Tigris-Euphrates river system, an area which is today Iraq, Turkey and Syria. In ancient times, this region encompassed numerous distinct cultures and spanned a period from the 10th century B.C.E. to the 6th century B.C.E.

Although the Mesopotamian region was the setting for such famous stories as the Garden of Eden and the Tower of Babel, it was also one of the places where civilization emerged independently, meaning people formed increasingly complex societies, with central governments, intensive agriculture, writing, organized religion, and extensive urban areas.

History of Assyria

In northern Mesopotamia, a people called the Assyrians took advantage of their location on trade routes to build an extensive empire, including magnificent cities such as Nineveh and Asshur (which gave the empire its name). The Assyrians made use of recently invented iron weapons to build a powerful and intimidating military. At its high point, the Assyrian Empire controlled not only Mesopotamia, but also Syria, Palestine, much of Anatolia, and most of Egypt.

Map of the Assyrian Empire
Map of Assyrian Empire

The Rise of a Warrior People

The Assyrians are probably best known for their skill in warfare, which they regarded as their most important activity; in fact, they considered it a divinely-inspired goal to impose their gods upon conquered territories. The Assyrians were the first major power not only to equip soldiers with iron weapons, but also to master the tactics of the light horse-drawn chariot, which turned them into the most successful fighting power the ancient world had yet seen.

The Neo-Assyrian Period

The era from 934 to 609 B.C.E. is known as the Neo-Assyrian Period. It was during this epoch that Assyria became one of the first truly international empires. At its peak, around 650 B.C.E., the Assyrian Empire included almost all of the old centers of civilization and power in Southwest Asia. However, although advanced planning and technical skill allowed the Assyrians to conquer, Assyria's brutality also earned them many enemies.

By 614 B.C.E., the Chaldeans (also known as the New Babylonians) from southern Mesopotamia, allied with the Medes from east of Assyria, staged a massive assault. The empire that had tyrannized Southwest Asia was shattered, and, in 612 B.C.E., the former Assyrian territories were absorbed into the Persian Empire.

Neo-Assyrian Culture

Some of Assyria's most feared rulers also made important cultural contributions. For example, King Sennacherib established Assyria's capital at Nineveh along the Tigris River. Not only was imperial Nineveh one of the largest cities in the ancient world, it also included extensive gardens, zoos, and a 'palace without rival,' decorated with sculptured relief scenes of brutal military campaigns and successful lion hunts.

King Sennacherib
Sennacherib

Nineveh was home to one of the ancient world's largest libraries, with more than 20,000 cuneiform tablets (writing formed by the arrangement of small wedge-shaped elements) from throughout the Fertile Crescent. The collection included the ancient Sumerian poem the Epic of Gilgamesh and provided historians with much information about the earliest civilizations in Southwest Asia. The library was the first to have many of the features of a modern library. For instance, the collection was organized into many rooms according to subject matter, and the collection was also cataloged.

One component of a 'civilization' is the evidence of a written system. We know that the ancient Assyrians spoke a Semitic language, Akkadian, but by the Neo-Assyrian period, they had also introduced a second language, Aramaic, which became the international language of Southwest Asia for centuries, until it was replaced by Arabic during the Islamic conquests.

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