The ancient city of Ashur (Assur) was located on the west bank of the river Tigris in northern Mesopotamia. Although it had controlled an extensive trading network in the early second millennium B.C. and formed a core area of the empire of Shamshi-Adad I (r. 1813–1781 B.C.), the city had slipped into the shadows in the following centuries.
Middle Assyrian Period
After several centuries of obscurity and even loss of independence from around 1400 B.C. under the powerful northern Mesopotamian state of Mitanni, Assyria’s fortunes revived in the reign of Ashur-uballit I (1365–1330 B.C.). From his capital at Ashur, Ashur-uballit extended Assyrian control over the rich farming lands of Nineveh and Arbela to the north. The new conquests were consolidated by succeeding kings and, under Adad-nirari I (r. 1307–1275 B.C.), the remnants of the state of Mitanni were conquered and Assyrian control stretched to the Euphrates and the borders of the Hittite empire. Assyria reached its greatest extent during this so-called Middle Assyrian period under the warrior king Tukulti-Ninurta I (r. 1244–1208 B.C.), who defeated the ruler of Babylonia to the south and installed puppet kings to govern the region for some thirty-two years. Tukulti-Ninurta established a new royal city on the opposite side of the Tigris from Ashur and named it Kar-Tukulti-Ninurta. Struggles for the throne led to the king’s assassination and a series of short-lived reigns. Nonetheless, apart from the loss of Babylonia, the Assyrian empire did not disintegrate. Under Tiglath-pileser I (r. 1114–1076 B.C.), campaigns were conducted north as far as Lake Van, and the king even journeyed to the Mediterranean, where he received royal gifts. Much campaigning by Tiglath-pileser and succeeding kings was directed against Aramaean pastoralist groups in Syria, some of whom where moving against Assyrian centers. By the end of the second millennium B.C., the Aramaean expansion had resulted in the loss of much Assyrian territory in Upper Mesopotamia.
From the ninth to the seventh centuries B.C., Assyria prospered under a series of exceptionally effective rulers who expanded its borders far beyond the northern plains. Beginning in the ninth century B.C., the Assyrian armies controlled the major trade routes and dominated the surrounding states in Babylonia, western Iran, Anatolia, and the Levant. The city of Ashur continued to be important as the ancient and religious capital, but the Assyrian kings also founded and expanded other cities. Ashurnasirpal II (r. 883–859 B.C.) established Nimrud (ancient Kalhu) as his capital and undertook impressive building works, including the Northwest Palace. During Ashurnasirpal’s rule, Assyria recovered much of the territory that it had lost around 1100 B.C. at the end of the Middle Assyrian period. Shalmaneser III (r. 858–824 B.C.) succeeded his father, Ashurnasirpal, as king and attempted to consolidate earlier military successes both to the west in Syria and the Levant and to the north in Anatolia. After a series of kings, Sargon II (r. 721–705 B.C.) founded Khorsabad (ancient Dur-Sharrukin), where he built a great palace. Sargon appears to have seized the throne in a violent coup and, after dealing with resistance inside Assyria, spent much of his rule in battle. He was succeeded on the throne by his son Sennacherib (r. 704–681 B.C.), who chose the ancient city of Nineveh as his capital. Here he built the “Palace without Rival” and created a vast library. During Sennacherib’s rule, the city of Babylon was captured and sacked as well as the city of Lachish in Judah, an incident recorded in the Bible. After Sennacherib was assassinated by two of his sons, another son, Esarhaddon (r. 680–669 B.C.), came to the throne. He extended Assyrian activity into Egypt, capturing Memphis in 671 B.C., but died en route to a second campaign in Egypt in 669 B.C. Ashurbanipal (r. 668–627 B.C.) succeeded his father as king and during his reign attacked Egypt, Babylonia, and Elam in western Iran.
Assyria was at the height of its power, but persistent difficulties controlling Babylonia would soon develop into a major conflict. At the end of the seventh century, the Assyrian empire collapsed under the assault of Babylonians from southern Mesopotamia and Medes, newcomers who were to establish a kingdom in Iran. Nimrud was destroyed twice, first in 614 and again in 612 B.C. In that final year, Ashur and Nineveh also fell, and Assyrian rule in the Near East came to an end.
Department of Ancient Near Eastern Art. “Assyria, 1365–609 B.C.” In Heilbrunn Timeline of Art History. New York: The Metropolitan Museum of Art, 2000–. http://www.metmuseum.org/toah/hd/assy/hd_assy.htm (originally published October 2004, last revised April 2010)
Curtis, John E., and Julian E. Reade, eds. Art and Empire: Treasures from Assyria in the British Museum. Exhibition catalogue. New York: Metropolitan Museum of Art, 1995.
Kuhrt, Amélie. The Ancient Near East c. 3000–330 BC, vol. 2, From c. 1200 B.C. to c. 330 B.C. London: Routledge, 1995.
Reade, Julian E. Assyrian Sculpture. 2d ed. London: British Museum Press, 1998.