The Might that was Assyria

The Akkadian Empire of Sargon the Great of Akkad spanned the Four Quarters of the world. One of the four quarters of his empire was Assyria, the region encompassing northern Mesopotamia on the banks of Tigris river with Nineveh and Ashur being its most prominent cities. Assyria became independent of the Akkadian rule sometime in the middle of 22nd century BC and remained relatively independent except brief span of foreign domination till about 605 BCE when they were finally conquered and assimilated by Cyaxares the great of Media. Assyria was a power to reckon with in the known world for almost 1800 years with periods wherein it was the dominant force in the world. And I am sure very few on this planet would have heard about them.

The Assyrian empire reached its peak under the rule of Tilath Pileser III in the eight century BCE (745 – 727 BCE). In a palace coup, Tilath Pileser III, murdered the existing royal family and crowned himself the king of Assyria. Tilath Pileser III turned his attention to Babylon in the south first. This was followed by conquest of Urartu (Modern Armenia), Medes and Persia (Modern Iran), Hittites and Syrians (Modern Turkey and Syria) and Northern Israel (Modern Israel). Under Tilath Pileser III, the Assyrians conquered most of the world known to them.

Tiglath Pileser III
Tiglath Pileser III

Deportation of native population was one of the tools of subjugation. Thus under Tilath Pileser III and his son Shalmaneser V, the population of Northern kingdom of Israel was deported thus leading to the Ten Lost Tribes of Israel.


Assyria - Deportation of Jews
Assyria – Deportation of Jews

Innovations in science of warfare

Another reform that was introduced by Tilath Pileser III was the concept of standing army. Traditionally, the armies were conscript armies that fought only during the summer months when the agricultural work was less or when there was an external threat. The conscript armies were little more than farmers with weapons. Tilath Pileser III instead created a standing army that could fight and train year around. The armies lived off the land and were paid by the spoils of the conquests. The standing army enabled campaigns of conquest and required campaigns for their existence. The core of the army was composed of Heavy Infantry, Cavalry and Chariots taken from the native Assyria. There were auxiliaries composed of recruits from the conquered territories. Mercenaries were also part of the army. Assyrians used iron weapons whereas many of their foes still used bronze weapons. The Assyrians built good roads in their empire to facilitate quick movement of troops. Torture and fear was another tool used by the Assyrians to demoralize their enemies.

The title of this post is taken from an eponymous book by H W F Saggs.

Early Assyria

Patriarchs, in the Abrahamic tradition, are the twenty ancestors from Adam to Abraham. Jewish traditions narrows this definition to Abraham, Isaac and Israel. The first ten patriarchs are called antediluvian as they came before the flood.

Noah was the patriarch and hero of the story of The Great Deluge and had three sons Ham, Shem and Japheth. As Noah, his sons and their wives were the only survivors of the flood, the whole population of earth (or at least the middle east) are believed to be descended from Noah. Japheth is believed to be the progenitor of the Europeans with one of his sons, Ashkenaz being the originator of Germany hence the name Ashkenazic Jews for a group of Jews settled in Germany during the middle ages. The sons of Ham were believed to have populated Canaan and Africa. Shem is the forefather of the Semitic people. Semitic refers to people of middle eastern origin that share a same language family. Semitic now normally refers to the Jewish people.

Shem had five sons:

Elam who created the Elamite nation in the Zagros mountains

Arpachshad, who founded the city of Ur and is the ancestor of Abraham

Lud, the ancestor of Lydians.

Aram, whose descendants may have founded Damascus and Bactria.

Assur was the fifth son of Shem. One tradition has it that it was Ashur who founded the cities of Assyria, Assur and Nineveh prominent among them, and was later deified as God Assur. Other tradition has it that the mighty hunter Nimrod, son of Cush, son of Ham built these cities along with the cities of Babel, Akkad and Sumer. Biblical translations is confusing here as Ashur can refer to both the person and the city (region). Thus whether it was nimrod who went to Ashur and founded these cities or it was Ashur that built them is confusing and is translated differently in different versions of Bible.

All this mythology are obviously not the literal truth but like most mythology, may have some grains of truth in them.

Assyria, with its major cities and capitals of Assur and Nineveh, was centered around the Upper Tigris river. During the era of the Akkadian and the Sumerian empire, it is believed that they were subject nations of these empires. After the downfall of the Sumerian Ur III, Assyrian gained independence and managed to keep this freedom, despite attacks by the Amorites and increasing pressure from the Gutians and the Elamites. It is believed that an Assyrian king Ushpia built the first temple for God Assur in the city, probably giving the city its name in the process.

Assyrians had extensive trade with Asia Minor (Anatolia or the Asian part of Turkey) and established the first Special Economic Zone! I am kidding man! But they did establish colonies in Anatolia that had special tax status.

We have already seen the attempt by Shamshi-Adad I to establish an Assyrian empire the attempt that eventually died with him. Ishme-Dagan, the able son of Shamshi-Adad I managed to repel Hammurabi attacks but during the reign of Ishme-Dagan’s successors, Hammurabi managed to add Assyria to his empire.

After Hammurabi, the power of the Babylonian empire started to wane. Assyrian’s under the king Adasi were finally able to shrug off the yoke of Babylon and become an independent nation. Assyrians were able to maintain their independence for the next two hundred odd years and were little trouble with their numerous neighbors.

In the 15th century BCE, Shaushtatar, a Hurrian king of Mittani (A region in the SouthWest Anatolia), sacked Assur and bought Assyria under Mittani rule. The Assyrian seemed to be a client nation under the Mittani influence with considerable freedom to manage their state.

The Four Quarters of the World

Many of the kings of the Greater Mesopotamian region proclaimed themselves to be the “King of Four Quarters”. This term is apparently similar to the Indian term of Cakravartin. A Chakravala Chakravartin is the one who has conquered the four continents. Only Chandragupta Maurya and Ashoka are qualified with this title.

In the Mesopotamia, the Four Quarters referred to Martu in the west, Subartu (or Assur) in the north, Elam in the east and Sumer in the south. Naram-Sin of Akkad, grandson of Sargon of Akkad, was apparently the first to boast of being the King of Four Quarters.

The Akkadian empire, originating in the central Mesopotamia was the first of the great empires. The cause of its destruction was the invasion of Gutians. Gutians belonged to the Zagros mountains somewhere to the North of Elam. The end of Akkadian empire gave rise to the Sumerian or the Ur III empire. Its destruction was caused by the attacks of Amorites from Martu in the west and conquest by the Elamites from the East.

The Amorite dynasty in Babylon reached its peak with Hammurabi. Apparently forgetting his heritage, Hammurabi destroyed Mari, the great city of the Amorites. Defeating the Elamites in the west, the Larsans in the south, the Amorites of Mari in the east and Eashunna in the north, he became the King of Four Quarters. Whether he defeated the Assyrians is unclear to me at the moment.

Below are some of the maps that have helped me understand the locations of the various cities and kingdoms. All of them are sourced from Wiki. The links to the original wiki page is also given for attribution.

Cities of Sumer
Cities of Sumer

The Akkadian Empire
The Akkadian Empire

Hammurabi's Babylon
Hammurabi’s Babylon

Location of Elam (Highlighted) and other nations
Location of Elam (Highlighted) and other nations

Map of Mesopotamia with the modern countries and cities marked in addition to the ancient ones.
Map of Mesopotamia with the modern countries and cities marked in addition to the ancient ones.

The Tigris and Euphrates river that defined the history of the region from time memorable.
The Tigris and Euphrates river that defined the history of the region from time memorable.

The map of the Assyrian empire
The map of the Assyrian empire

Akkadian Empire

The foundation of the Akkadian Empire, the first true empire in the history of mankind was laid by Sargon of Akkad. Sargon was the Cup-Bearer of Ur-Zababa, the king of Kish. There was a falling out, purportedly over a dream that Sargon had about drowning Ur-Zababa by  Inanna the goddess. Eventually Sargon usurps the power in Kish. Soon after, he attacks the Uruk and dismantles its legendary walls (Built by Gilgamesh). After the Battle of Uruk, Sargon brings Lugal-Zage-Si, the king of Uruk in a dog collar. One wonders how old the invention of dog collar is.

Bust of Sargon of Akkad or Naram-Sin of Akkad
Bust of Sargon of Akkad or Naram-Sin of Akkad

Sargon then went ahead and conquered the vast swath of land that was Mesopotamia. It is believed that Sargon was the inspiration behind the biblical hero and great hunter Nimrod. His rule lasted from 2270 BCE at age 30, to 2215 BCE, a staggering 56 years when the average lifespan was 26 years (Bronze Age). To keep things in perspective, Queen Elizabeth II has been ruling the commonwealth for more than 60 years now and she is one of the longest serving monarch. A reign of 55 years over the first empire almost 4300 years ago seems like a miracle. Emperor Ashoka, almost 2000 years after Sargon, ruled for 36 years and he was crowned at age of 36.

One of the prominent successor of Sargon was Naram-Sin, who like his Grandfather ruled for 56 years. He was the first Mesopotamian king to be God-King, perhaps inspired by the Egyptian Pharaohs. Naram-Sin was the king of Four Quarters, perhaps a title similar to Indian Chakravartin indicating the ruler of the whole world.

Akkadian tablets from the reign of naram-Sin writes that he traded with Magan, Dilmun and Meluhha. Magan is generally believed to be referring to modern day Oman while Dilmun with Bahrain or modern Iran. The identity of Meluhha is a hotly debated one with most consensus associating it with the Indus Valley Civilization. The Akkadian empire reached its zenith during Naram-Sin’s reign. After the death of Naram-Sin, raids by barbarian (?) Gutians and increased aridity resulted in the collapse of the Akkadian empire within 180 years of its founding.

Short Chronology gives the period of Akkadian Empire from 2270 BCE to 2129 BCE corresponding to the Middle Chronology of 2334 BCE to 2193 BCE. {Citation needed for this information :)}