The End of An Empire

Royal Library of Ashurbanipal was a great library discovered in the ruins of Nineveh in modern Iraq. Ashurbanipal was the last strong king of Assyria with his reign lasting almost 40 years (668 – 637 BCE). Ashurbanipal was a learned man, perhaps the only Assyrian king who could read and write. He built a great royal library which was perhaps the inspiration for the later Library of Alexandria. His library consisted of more than 10,000 distinct texts consisting of 30,000+ clay tablets and numerous wax boards and payrii. He was a strong king and used his wars and threats of war to stock his library with knowledge gleaned from various regions of Mesopotamia. This library is the best source of such classics as the Epic of Gilgamesh (the epic traces its origin to sometime around 18th century BCE) and the creation myth of Enuma Eli. I can imagine the king reclining on his bed with pretty ladies of the harem, enjoying the sweet taste of most expensive wine of the period and reading the epic of Gilgamesh and imagining himself doing the deeds of Gilgamesh.

 

Library of Ashurbanipal
Library of Ashurbanipal

The alliance of Nabopolassar of Babylonia and Cyaxares of Media was formalized by a marriage between the daughter of Cyaxares, Amytis, and the son of Nabopolassar, Nebuchadnezzar II. It was this Amytis, the legend has it, for whom Nebuchadnezzar II built the Hanging Garden of Babylon, so that she would not miss her native Media. It was this Nebuchadnezzar II after whom Saddam Hussein named one of his Elite Republican Guard Division. The alliance later included the Scythians and Cimmerians. Taking advantage of the internal strife in the Assyrian empire, this alliance of nations that were under the domination of Assyria for a long time waged a war against the Assyrian empire for almost ten years (616 BCE – 605 BCE). This long war included another battle of Megiddo where Necho II of Egypt, who was on his way to assists the Assyrians, defeated King Josiah of Judah. Nineveh, the great capital of Assyrian empire, fell in 612 BCE. The capital of the empire was then moved to Harran that survived a two year siege but fell in 610 BCE. The capital was again moved to Carchamesh. The battle of Carchamesh in 605 BCE finally sealed the fate of the Assyrian Empire. Within 20 years of death of mighty Ashurbanipal, Assyrian empire that had been one of the strongest and greatest kingdom/empire in the greater Mesopotamia for almost 1500 years (21st Century BCE – 7th Century BCE) ceased to exists as an independent nation.

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.

Rise of Assyria

Assyria came on the center stage of the world history again in the middle of the 14th century BCE with the ascension of Ashur-Uballit I to the Assyrian throne (1365-1330 BCE). Akehnaten, the Egyptian Pharaoh, may have been his contemporary, as was Suppiluliuma I, a Hittite king. Suppililiuma I is known for being a great warrior who successfully challenged the Egyptian supremacy in Canaan and Syria and also known for his role in what I call the “Affair of the murdered Pharaoh and the dead prince”, more on it later.  Ashur-Uballit I  was able to throw of the yoke of Mitanni rule over Assyria. He was able to defeat the Mitannis, the Babylonians, the Hurrians and the Hittites. The successors of Ashur-Uballit I continued expansion of the Assyrian kingdom.

A year after the famed Battle of Kadesh (Ramesses the Great and the battle deserves a separate post), Shalmaneser I became the ruler of Assyria in 1274 BCE. Shalmaneser won many battles and apparently blinded 14000+ prisoners of war in one eye. Talk about War Crimes! Tukulti-Ninurtha I was the son of Shalmaneser and the last of the great Assyrian kings for almost a century. Tukulti-Ninurtha I  was again a great warrior and conquered Babylon and in the process defeated the Kassites and the Elamites. He plundered the temples in Babylon and is identified with the biblical Nimrod by some historians. Nimrod was the king in the bible, who is named as “Great Hunter In the Face of God” implying standing against God. He is also associated with the Tower of Babel. I believe the rise to infamy for Tukulti-Ninurtha I  was the disrespect that he showed in sacking the temples and the outrage that must have produced in the then existing religion. He also built a new capital city which would have led to the legend of Tower of Babel.

The biblical, Talmudic tradition also gives Nimrod the first crown ever worn by kings which seems incorrect as the Pharaohs were wearing the Pschent since before Tukulti-Ninurtha I.

 

14th Century Mesopotamia
14th Century Mesopotamia

Tukulti-Ninurtha I  proclaimed himself the king of Sumer, Akkad and also surprisingly Meluhha. Sadly history is written by the victors or in the case of ancient history, those who can write. Hence I don’t think we will ever be able to decipher the mystery of how could Tukulti-Ninurtha I I the king of Assyria could also be the king Meluhha which by most accounts was the Harappan civilization. The distance itself would have been insurmountable consisting of modern day Iran, Afghanistan and Pakistan. The fact that they knew about Meluhha in those times is itself astonishing let alone conquer it. The most likely explanation is that Tukulti-Ninurtha I  was just boasting a little bit. Or that Meluhha in later periods referred to some distant place in general and not necessarily the Meluhha of Harappans. Or that our identification of Meluhha with Harappa is incorrect.

Anyways, Tukulti-Ninurtha was killed by his sons, which started the period of stagnation of the Assyrian empire which was ended by Tiglath Pileser I more than a century later.

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

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/File:Cities_of_Sumer_(en).svg

The Akkadian Empire
The Akkadian Empire

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/File:Empire_akkad.svg

Hammurabi's Babylon
Hammurabi’s Babylon

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/File:Hammurabi%27s_Babylonia_1.svg

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

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/File:Elam_Map.jpg

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.

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/File:Karte_Mesopotamien.png

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.

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/File:Tigr-euph.png

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

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/File:Map_of_Assyria.png