Ancient Assyria

By Levi Clancy for Student Reader on
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Kings were responsible for the care and feeding of the gods. They had to build, rebuild and improve temples in order to maintain their connection with the divinity. They also were responsible for waging war. There were three types of Assyrian wars: guerilla wars in the mountains; wars of movement in the Jazirah; and wars of position in the Middle Tigris.

Sources of Assyrian History

SourcePeriodDescription

Limmu lists

Middle Assyria

In Assyria, each year was named after an official (the limmu, aka eponymous magistrate) from ~850-~700 BC. Useful and corrective to the triumphal rhetoric of the royal inscriptions: defeats, internal revolts, famines, and diseases are mentioned. As a formal state text, they are recorded in the Assyrian language in cuneiform.

Royal Inscriptions

Middle Assyria

Particularly foundation inscriptions. often fragments, as from a bowl; rarely from a stone. Inscription composed for display in royal palaces and covering material that overlaps with the annals. These inscriptions are briefer and arranged geographically on the four compass points (instead of chronologically, like the royal annals). These are all cuneiform.

More Inscriptions

Inscribed stelae, obelisks and rocks are similar to royal inscriptions and royal annals, but are intended for the proclamation of royal achievements far and wide by being placed on roads, in or near conquered cities and at the furthest points reached by a king. These are all cuneiform.

Administration

Middle Assyria

Laws and administrative texts. With Aramization, then the administrative texts of the ancient empire were recorded in either Aramaic on leather scrolls or in Assyrian on clay. No leather scrolls survive, but there are thousands of tablets that survive today.

Letters

Middle Assyria

Local and diplomatic letters. For instance, requests for pottery for a dinner party. Official state letters had to be recorded in cuneiform on clay in proper Assyrian.

Babylonian Chronicle

Middle Assyria

The Bablylonian Chronicle span 744-668 BC and are a dispassionate, sober and annual account of political events impacting Babylonia. Three copies are known, written in Akkadian on clay tablets, and provide invaluable thoughts on Assyria from a 3rd-party perspective (only equalled by the Old Testament). The Egyptian chronicle is also somewhat useful when Assyria conquers Egypt.

Annals

Middle Assyria
Neo-Assyria

Tiglath-pileser I (1114-1076 BC) began a tradition of annals, which are written annually by the king scribe to document the king's most important deeds that year. Variants, especially in prior periods, is a letter from the king to God Assur that was read aloud in various cities.

Most Neo-Assyrian evidence comes from the Assyrian court's royal annals, which are written in Akkadian and found primarily at the main Assyrian sites of Ashur, Kalhu (modern Nimrud), Nineveh and Dur Sharrukin (modern Khorsabad). The royal annals grippingly describe the annual achievements of individual kings, particularly focusing on military achievements and the king's piety, and span from ~900 BC onward. The annals recounted booties, counts of enemy dead and calendrical data. Also, their descriptions of unfamiliar territory are extremely vivid and rich. Sometimes the annals were possibly read aloud at formal events.

The annals were sometimes revised, but Olmstead's rule of thumb is that the oldest annal is the most reliable (Olmstead, 1916). The annals were often inscribed on special objects (prisms, cylinders) that were deposited in the walls or foundations of memorials, indicating they were meant for the gods as well as future kings. It is known, for example, that Cyrus the Great of Persia (559-530 BC) found Ashurbanipal's (668-631 BC) building texts in Babylon.

Old Testament

Particularly in Isaiah and in Chronicles.

Assyrian capitals

The settlement and resettlement of the Habur region by people from Samaria, the Mediterranean shore or even way over on the border of Iran had an Aramization on Assyria. Sargon II (722-705) claims to have built a structure at Dur Sharrukin in the bit hilani style. Also, Sennacherib (704-681) claims to have done construction at Nineveh in the bit hilani style.

SiteFoundedDescription

Ashur

The capital of the kingdom Shamshi-Adad I (1813-1781 BC).

Karum Kanesh
modern Kültepe

Though not an Assyrian capital, most of our knowledge of early Assyria is from the commercial colony Karum Kanesh founded by Amorite businessmen a few hundred miles north of Assur on the Anatolian plateau.

Kar Tukulti Ninurta

~1220 BC
by Tukulti-Ninurta I

Kalhu
modern Nimrud

Ashurnasirpal II

Dur Sharruken
modern Khorsabad

717 BC
by Sargon II

Temple: ideograms are expressing great king, king of the universe type of thing, are the sequence of pictures.

Nineveh
modern Mosul

by Sennacherib

Citadel is mound called Kuyunjik. Main citadel itself has palace without rival of Sennacherib, likely completed by his son. There is a semi-completed zigarat. There was also a Nabu, Shin Shamash and Kidnumi temple. Excavations at the kuyunjik go back to the 6th millennium BC. There was a change in style starting in Sennacherib, with miles and miles of relifs (not just throne room like at Nimrud). These reliefs lacked extensive inscriptions and only had epigraphs.

Lachish

Not a capital of Assyria itself, but the capital of Assyrian control over Judah.

Glossary

TermDescription

Sukkallu Rabu

Great vizier. This position was developed by Shalmaneser I.

Saknu

Governors in fortified manners across upper Mesopotamia and perhaps in the Upper Tigris. This position was developed by Shalmaneser I.

Bel Pihati

District governor responsible to the king (previously Saknu).

Turtan

Commander-in-chief

Rab Alani

Town commandant.

Amel SAG

Chief land registrar