Assyria (Gr. 'Aσσυρia; Heb. Ashshur), an ancient country in Asia, lying upon both banks of the Tigris, the seat of one of the great monarchies of antiquity, and now comprised within the easternmost dominions of the Turkish empire. The name comes from Asshur, a son of Shem and grandson of Noah, probably a leader in one of the great early migrations, who was deified and recognized as the tutelary divinity of the country occupied by the descendants of the clan of which he was the chief. In its earlier and most limited sense, Assyria was a narrow territory, mainly on the E. bank of the Tigris, including the triangle formed by that river and the Greater Zab (the Zabatus or Lycus of the classical writers), a district especially known as Aturia; the district of Adiabene, between the Greater Zab and the Lesser (the Caprus of the Greeks and Romans); and some regions to the southeast of the latter. Assyria was thus bounded N. by the snowy Niphates range, which separated it from Armenia, and E. by the Zagros mountains of Kurdistan, which separated it from Media, and on the S. and W. it bordered on Susiana, Babylonia, and western Mesopotamia. It was mountainous in the north and east, a rolling plain in most other parts, and east of the Tigris well watered.
Later, when Assyria became the predominant power in the region, the name came to embrace also all northern Mesopotamia. Still later, and in the widest sense, Assyria denoted the entire plain watered by the Euphrates and the Tigris, together with the countries to the west, north, and east, which became subjects of or tributary to the great Assyrian empire. - There is no record of the time when the country was first peopled. Berosus, whose chronology from the commencement of the historic period is confirmed from various sources, makes a period of 36,000 years before the capture of Babylon by Cyrus (538 B. C.); but of this, 34,080 years belong to a mythical dynasty of 86 kings. This number is merely assumed to make up the grand Chaldean cycle of 36,000 years. His historic chronology begins at 2458 B. C, a short period before the time when, according to the Scriptural narrative, Nimrod established his reign in "Babel, and Erech, and Accad, and Calneh, in the land of Shinar," out of which land "went forth Asshur, and builded Nineveh, and the city Rehoboth, and Calah, and Resen between Nineveh and Calah," all cities on or near the upper Tigris. From this time for fully 1,000 years there is no record of Assyria in the Hebrew writers; and down to about 1850, when the inscriptions of Nineveh and Calah had been unearthed and deciphered by Botta, Layard, and others, there was absolutely nothing known of the true history of this great empire, which lasted more than 1,000 years, except as it was for a brief space connected with that of the kingdoms of Israel and Judah. The legends of Ninus, Semiramis, Ninyas, and Sardanapalus have no other foundation than that among the Assyrian kings was one named Asshur-idanni-pal, or similarly, and a queen Sammuramit; that Nineveh was taken by a revolt in which the Medes took part; and that the final destruction of the great palace was by fire. - The earliest known native document of Assyrian history is impressed upon three clay cylinders found by Layard at Kileh-sherghat, the earlier Asshur, one of the capitals, the only one situated on the right bank of the Tigris. It forms the records of King Tiglath-pileser I., whose date is by other records fixed at about 1130 B. 0. From this and other monuments it appears that for many centuries there were in the lands on the Tigris and Euphrates two rival kingdoms, Babylonia and Assyria, each in turn superior to the other; and that about 1250 Assyria had come to be a powerful and compact kingdom, under a single monarch, surrounded on the north and east by scattered tribes, who sometimes coalesced into temporary alliances, but were one by one beaten down and rendered tributary.
The Assyrian capital was at Kileh-sherghat, the old Asshur, some 60 m. below Nineveh, and on the opposite bank of the Tigris. On the west it reached the Euphrates; on the south was the rival kingdom of Babylonia. For the next two centuries the history of Assyria is almost a blank. During this period a compact kingdom of Israel was founded by David. The dominion of David and Solomon stretched beyond the range of Lebanon, nominally reaching quite across the desert to the banks of the Euphrates; but it is clear that neither David nor Solomon ever came into contact with the Assvrian power. This power seems indeed to have then become enfeebled; and when, after the separation into Israel and Judah, the Hebrews were pressed back within their old limits, the new kingdom of Damascus had arisen. When our record is resumed, the residence of the Assyrian kings had been removed 40 m. up the Tigris to Calah (now Nimrud), on the E. bank of the river. At the angle formed by the junction of the Upper or Greater Zab, Calah was only 20 m. below the site now recognized as that of Nineveh, and possibly was considered a part of that great city.
The monarch whose reign was from 886 to 858 appears on the inscriptions as Asshur-nasir-pal (or, according to other readings, Asshur-izir-pal or Asshur-idanni-pal), "the great king, the powerful king, king of hosts, king of Assyria." He overran the mountain region of Armenia and Kurdistan, and his furthest expedition was through Lebanon and the valley of the Orontes to the Mediterranean shore, where he received the submission of the chief cities of Phoenicia. From Lebanon he brought back the cedar which was used to ornament, his palace at Calah or Nimrud. The sculptures from this palace are among the most striking of all the Assyrian remains. He was succeeded by his son Shalmaneser II., whose reign lasted from 858 to 823. He is known as the "black obelisk king," from an obelisk 7 feet high and 22 inches wide, now in the British museum, upon the four sides of which is portrayed, pictorially and literally, the history of his 27 campaigns. These were carried on upon the middle Euphrates, in Babylonia, in the mountains of Kurdistan and Armenia, upon both slopes of Lebanon, down the valley of the Orontes, and in the kingdom of Israel. Among the prostrate figures is one described as Jehu the son of Omri, the king of Israel. The Assyrian king moved down the Mediterranean coast, leaving Judah on his left untouched, but receiving tribute from the Phoenician cities of Tyre, Sidon, and Byblus. Five years before his death Shalmaneser was dethroned by a revolt headed by his eldest son.
This revolt was put down by a younger son, Shamas-iva, who reigned 13 years (823-810), carried his arms into Media and Babvlonia, and was succeeded by his son Iva-lush, who married Sammuramit, a Babylonian princess who, as the only female ruler recorded in Assyrian history, furnished the Greek fabulists with the name of Semiramis. Babylonia and Assyria seem now to have been formally united; the government of the former being specially put into the hands of a member of the royal Assyrian family, who acted as viceroy. Nineveh, the main ruins of which are now visible at Kovun-jik and Nebbi-Yunus, opposite Mosul, had now become the Assyrian capital. The book of Jonah, who is believed to have lived during this period, is of historical value from the glimpse which it affords of the extent of that great city in its palmiest days. If we assume that the 120,000 persons who " knew not their right hand from their left," that is, children, is an approximation to the census, the population of the city would be about 600,000. It is mentioned as a city of three days' journey, containing also "much cattle"; other authorities say it was 17 m. long and 10 broad.
The probability is that Nineveh, like Babylon, was a district, about as large as our District of Columbia, enclosed with high walls, containing pastures, fields, and gardens, besides several strongly fortified points. Three other reigns fill up the interval from 781 to 745. With the last of these the reigning dynasty seems to have come to a close; for in 745 we find Tiglath-pileser II., apparently a usurper, on the throne, with his capital at Calah. The duration of the new dynasty, known as the lower monarchy, is variously estimated at 120 or 139 years - 745 to 625 or 606. The names of five out of the seven kings of the last dynasty are familiar from their occurrence in the Hebrew records. The first of these was Tiglath-pileser II. His accession (745) coincides closely with one of the great eras of history. The first Greek Olympiad began a generation earlier (776); Rome was, according to her traditions, founded eight years before (753); the Babylonian era of Nabonassar is synchronous within two years (747). Thus the last and most splendid age of the Assyrian empire coincides with the infancy of Greek and Roman civilization.
The records of this Tiglath-pileser are fragmentary, for Esar-haddon, his fourth successor, undertook to destroy all the palaces of his predecessor, and to use the materials for the construction of new ones of his own. The work was incomplete when the Assyrian kingdom came to an end. When Tiglath-pileser came to the throne he found all the tributary nations in a state of revolt. In reducing them he struck first at the nearest ones, Babylonia and Chaldea; these were soon reduced to submission. He then had to turn to Syria and Palestine. Hitherto the kingdom of Judah had been able to keep aloof from the quarrels of its neighbors; but now Pekah, king of Israel, and Rezin, king of Syria, entered into a league against Ahaz, the new king of Judah, who applied to Tiglath-pileser for assistance, and paid him tribute. The Assyrian reduced Syria, overran Israel, and began that series of deportations which we know as the captivities, carrying away the people of the northern districts of Israel. Ahaz was now summoned to Damascus to pay homage to his protector and to satisfy his exactions.
The Hebrew chronicle records: "Ahaz made Judah naked, and Tiglath-pileser distressed him, but strengthened him not." The next Assyrian king was Shal-maneser IV., of whose short reign (727-721) no mention is found in the Assyrian records yet discovered; but from the Hebrew records we know that he carried on the war against Israel, whose king Hoshea refused to pay the tribute levied upon him. Samaria was beleaguered, and captured after a siege of three years, and her king was "cut off as the foam upon the face of the water." Shalmaneser died during this siege, leaving an infant son. The war was carried on by the tartan, or general-in-chief, who soon assumed the government, taking the name of Sargon, or, as the inscriptions are read, Sargina or Sar-yukin. This Sargon, though only once mentioned in the Hebrew records, is shown by the Assyrian inscriptions to have been a great ruler. He had to finish the war in Palestine. How he did this he tells: "I besieged, took, and occupied the city of Samaria, and carried away 27,280 people who dwelt in it. I changed the former establishments of the country, and set over them my lieutenants." A strong power was now again established in Egypt, which was trying to spread itself to the east.
Sabaco,. the Egyptian king, had already entered into an alliance with Hoshea of Israel, and was marching to his aid. Sargon, having taken Samaria, moved to meet Sabaco, marching down the Mediterranean coast. The encounter took place at Raphia, near Gaza. The Egyptians were defeated, and Sargon in time came into possession of all the strong places on the Phoenician coasts, though he seems to have been foiled in an attack upon Tyre. All these wars occupied a space of ten years. From them Sargon was recalled by troubles nearer home. Babylonia had asserted its independence under a king called Merodach-baladan, who sought to strengthen himself by alliances with Elam (Susiana) on the east, the Arabs, Damascus, and Judah on the west, and even with Egypt and Ethiopia. In Judah the national spirit had revived under Hezekiah, who received the messengers from Merodach-baladan with favor, and made an ostentatious display of his resources, but did not formally join the league. Sargon attacked the confederates in detail, routed the Elamites on the plains of Chaldea and marched upon Babylon, defeated Merodach-baladan, took him prisoner, and assumed his kingdoms but spared his life.
He then overran Damascus, pushed down the seacoast, and sent a successful expedition over sea to Cyprus. Merodach-baladan took occasion to revolt, and recovered his throne. A conspiracy was formed at home, and Sargon was assassinated (704). His residence was originally at Calah; he rebuilt the walls of Nineveh; but his chief ambition was to replace that capital by a new city on a beautiful site 10 m. N. of Nineveh. This royal residence was named Hisr Sargina, "the house of Sargon." From the ruins of this palace, at Khorsabad, have come many of the most valuable of the Assyrian relics. Sargon was succeeded by his son Sennacherib, the greatest of the Assyrian kings (704-080). The disasters of the last few years of Sargon had reduced the dominions of his son to little more than Assyria proper. Babylonia was in open revolt. In the third year of his reign Sennacherib undertook its reconquest, which was effected in a single brief campaign. The next year he made successful'expeditions against Media and Armenia. Hezekiah of Judah had renounced his allegiance to Assyria, conquered Philistia, and formed an alliance with Egypt and Ethiopia. In the fourth year of his reign (701) Sennacherib regained all Hezekialfs conquests, defeated the Egyptians, and shut up Hezekiah in Jerusalem. The Assyrian bass-reliefs are full of scenes of this war.
Hezekiah offered his submission, and, according to Sennacherib, sent a tribute of 80 talents of gold, 800 of silver, and a vast quantity of other gifts. To raise this tribute he was forced to strip the temple of its treasures, and to cut off the golden ornaments from the building itself. Sennacherib, having left a detachment under his general-in-chief (tartan), chief eunuch (rab-saris), and chief cup-bearer (rab-shakeK) to receive the submission of Jerusalem, was besieging Lachish, then a strong town on the road to Egypt. Meanwhile a great army under Tirhakah, king of Ethiopia, was advancing to the aid of Judah. Hezekiah, encouraged by Isaiah, refused to surrender. Sennacherib broke up the siege of Lachish and moved to Libnah to meet the Ethiopians. But on the night before the day when battle was to be given occurred that great disaster, of which the Assyrian records contain no. mention, but of which the Hebrew account is: "The angel of the Lord went forth and smote in the camp of the Assyrians 185,000." Whatever may have been the nature of this disaster, there can be no doubt that Sennacherib looked upon it as an indication of divine displeasure; for during the remaining 20 years of his reign he made no new attempt upon Judah, although he held on to his conquests in Phoenicia, He was thereafter engaged in numerous and for the most part successful wars.
Merodach-baladan again revolted, and was finally crushed in lower Chaldea. Again the combined rulers of Babylon and Elam, aided by the Arabs on the middle Euphrates, attempted to make head against Assyria, but were defeated in a great battle on the Tigris. Three times more Babylonia revolted, and at the close of the last revolt Babylon was captured and sacked (683). The annals of Sennacherib are silent as to the last three years of his reign, from which it may be inferred that they were years of disaster to his kingdom. He was assassinated in the temple of Nisrocn by two of his sons, who fled to Armenia. His great work was the restoration and embellishment of Nineveh, of which his palace at Koyunjik, the most magnificent of the Assyrian ruins, was a part. Sennacherib was succeeded by his fourth son, Esar-haddon (680-667). He appears to have reconquered Babylonia, and to have been appointed viceroy. Esar-haddon is the only Assyrian king who ruled also over Babylonia during his whole reign. He pushed his conquests far and wide, extending them to Cilicia on the west and across the sea to Cyprus, and on the east he advanced into Media further than any of his predecessors had done.
He overran Judah, and carried King Manasseh a captive to Babylon, which seems to have been his joint capital with Nineveh. He was the first Assyrian king who actually invaded Egypt, and assumed the title of king of Egypt and Ethiopia. He built two great palaces at Nineveh and Babylon, and began another at Calah. In this unfinished palace the slabs which line the walls were torn from the palaces of former kings, their sculptured faces placed toward the wall, and the backs smoothed preparatory to being carved with the king's own exploits. Toward the close of his reign he divided the empire, placing one of his sons as viceroy over Babylonia. Asshur-bani-pal, whom some consider the Sardanapalus of the Greek romances, ascended the throne in 667, and reigned till 660, or according to others till 647. He was also a great conqueror; but his chief glory is that during his reign, and under his patronage, Assyrian art and literature reached their highest point. He established what may properly be called a great public library. In his palace of Koyunjik were found three chambers the floors of which were covered a foot deep with tablets of clay of all sizes from an inch long to nine inches, covered with inscriptions, many of them so minute as to be read only by the aid of a magnifying glass.
The letters had been punched into the moist clay, which was afterward burned. Most of these tablets were broken into fragments; but as there were four copies of each, many of them have been pieced together, so that they have been deciphered. These partially restored tablets are among the most precious of the cuneiform inscriptions, and contain the annals of the first seven years (which some suppose to be the whole) of the reign of Asshur-bani-pal. (See Cuneiform Inscriptions.) His first campaign was in Egypt, against Tirhakah, who had broken the treaty by which he had agreed to confine himself to his own country of Ethiopia. The Assyrian drove him out of Egypt, of which he took possession, but left the petty rulers in actual government. He had scarcely returned to Nineveh when these rulers allied themselves again with Tirhakah. Asshur-bani-pal went back and took summary vengeance. Memphis, Sais, and other cities were stormed and their people put to the sword. Thebes was taken and sacked to its foundations. When Asshur-bani-pal died, Assyria seemed at the summit of its greatness. But its fall was close at hand.
Of his successor nothing remains but a few bricks inscribed with a name which has been read Asshur-emit-ilin. He commenced a palace at Nimrud, the inferiority of which to earlier structures bears witness to the decline, while its unfinished state indicates the sudden downfall of the kingdom. No Assyrian records describe the fall of Nineveh or the events which led to it. Its very time is uncertain, some placing it in 625, others in 606. It is not certain that Asshur-emit-ilin was the last king, for a fragment attributed to Berosus gives Sa-racus as the name of the ruler under whom the kingdom fell. The account gathered from several writers is this: The Medes, having established their independence and power, made war upon Assyria. The Babylonians, Chaldeans, and Susianians revolted, and joined the Medes. Saracus sent against them his general Nabo-polassar, who turned traitor, and, having betrothed his son Nebuchadnezzar to a daughter of the Median king, led the Babylonians upon Nineveh. When Saracus learned this, he burned himself in his palace, as told in the legend of Sardanapalus. Assyria ceased to be a kingdom, not even being embraced within the brief but splendid empire of Babylon, which comprised Babylonia, Chaldea, Susiana, and the region along the Euphrates. All that was properly Assyria fell to the share of the Medes. - The Assyrians were undoubtedly a homogeneous people of Semitic stock, while the Babylonians were a mixed race, embracing Ilamite, Aryan, and Turanian elements.
The religion of the Assyrians was apparently in general similar to that of the Babylonians, distinguished mainly by the greater predominance of Asshur, the national deity. He was the "great god," the "king of all the gods," "he who rules supreme over the gods." He was from first to last the main object of worship, never confounded with the personified or individualized deities: Shamas, the sun; Sin, the moon; Nergal, the god of war; Nin, the god of hunting; Iva, the wielder of the thunderbolt; and the like. The great temple at Asshur is the only one yet discovered specially dedicated to him; from which some have inferred that instead of separate temples he had the first place in the fanes of all the other divinities. It is more probable that in Assyrian mythology he occupied the place of Brahma in that of the Hindoos. After this supreme god, the source of all being, and the supreme arbiter of all events, came a series of secondary gods, arranged in two series of double triads, male and female. The first consists of Ann, masculine, Anat, feminine - Pluto; Bel, m., Bilit, f. - Jupiter; Hea, m., Mylitta, f. - Neptune. The second triad is Sin, the moon; Shamas, the sun; Iva, the air: in this triad the moon occupies the place of precedence.
Then there is a secondary group of five planetary divinities: Ninip, Saturn; Merodach, Jupiter; Nergal, Mars; Ishtar, Venus; Nebo, Mercury. This pentad in time seems to have superseded in popular esteem the older triads, Nebo, like Hermes and Mercury, being the especial patron of learning and eloquence, and the symbol of royal authority. The two triads and the pentad constituted the 12 great deities of the Assyrian pantheon, below which-there was a host of inferior divinities, prominent among whom was Nisroch or Salman, the eagle-headed and winged god, whose figure appears so frequently in the sculptures. How little these religious notions served to raise the moral character of the nation, and chiefly of its rulers, is best proved by the sculptural records of the latter, whose greatest and constant boast is the successful hunting of men and beasts, the burning of cities, and flaying and mangling of captives. The monuments of Nineveh more than justify the bitterest invectives of the Hebrew prophets against "the bloody city," which was "full of lies and robbery," with "a multitude of slain" and "no end of corpses." - In certain departments of science the Assyrians attained to considerable eminence.
Their system of astronomy was in advance of that of the Egyptians. They knew the synodical period of the moon, the true length of the year, and even, though not quite accurately, the precession of the equinoxes; they made it 30" instead of 50", so that their great cosmical year was 43,200 years instead of 26,000, its true length. They ascribed solar eclipses to their true cause, and calculated lunar eclipses with great accuracy. They must therefore have been acquainted with the golden cycle of 223 lunations, after which eclipses recur in the same order. They fixed this period at 18 years and 10 days, which is within less than 8 hours of the true period. - For further particulars relating to the geography and history of Assyria, see the articles Babylon, Babylonia, Cuneiform Inscriptions, Kurdistan, Mesopotamia, Nineveh, and Turkey. The principal authorities are: Rich's "Journey to the Site of Babylon" (London, 1839); Botta and Flandin's Monument de Ninixe (5 vols, fol., Paris, 1849-'50); Layard's "Nineveh and its Remains" (2 vols., London, 1849), "Discoveries in the Ruins of Nineveh and Babylon" (London, 1853), and "Monuments of Nineveh" (1849, and continued for several years); Vaux's "Nineveh and Perse-polis" (London, 1850); Brandis's Ueber den historischen Gewinn aus der Entzifferung der Assyrischen Inschriften (Berlin, 1856); M. von Niebuhr's Geschichte Assurs und Babels seit Phul (Berlin, 1857); G. Rawlinson's "Five Great Monarchies of the Ancient World" (vol. i., London, 1862); Oppert's Les inscriptions assyriennes des Sargonides (Versailles, 1863); Philip Smith's "Ancient History of the East" (London, 1870).