The history of ancient Assyria



ASSYRIA, a daughter land born of Babylon, thrust aside the mother city and for a brief time held control of the Euphrates valley. Assyria has long stood in history as the symbol of ferocity and brutal cruelty. This view is enforced not only by the lamentations in the Bible, the outcry of the stricken Hebrews, but also by the boastful inscriptions of the Assyrians themselves, and by the desolation which they left everywhere behind them.

The Assyrians were a Semitic race, and, like most of the Semites, they had attained to the religious idea of a single, all-controlling god. They called this god Asshur; and, as did the Hebrews with Jehovah, the Assyrians regarded themselves as their god's chosen people. Not only do they ascribe all their victories to Asshur's favor, but they attribute to his command all their hideous barbarities. In the inscriptions of their conquering kings we read constantly that they tore out the tongues of thousands of prisoners "by Asshur's bidding," or they impaled masses of men on stakes and left them to die in agony because Asshur had ordered the extinction of "that rebellious nation."

The rise of Assyria to power was a natural consequence of the weakness of Babylon under her foreign Kassite kings. These, being fully occupied in suppressing rebellion at home, had no time for guarding against the growing strength of neighboring nations. For several centuries between 1600 and 800 B.C., western Asia thus became the seat of various jarring powers, no one able to master the others completely. None was strong enough to overcome the difficulties which climate and distance opposed to universal conquest. Among the contenders were the Elamites, who were so sheltered in their mountain fastnesses that no Babylonian conqueror had ever succeeded in exterminating them. Another strong power was that of the Hittites of the Bible, or Khatti, as the inscriptions call them. These were a Hamitic, or possibly even an Aryan, race dwelling in Syria and Armenia, with their chief capital at Karchemish on the upper Euphrates. Such was their strength, both in numbers and valor that had they been united they might easily have been in their turn "Lords of the four corners of the earth"; but they fought among themselves, city against city, Karchemish on the Euphrates, against Kadesh, or Hamath, or Damascus in Syria.

More notable than either Hittites or Elamites were the Egyptians, who now came forth from their sheltered African home. Some Asiatic tribes, the "Hyksos," had once conquered Egypt; now the Pharaohs sought revenge. Somewhere about 1500 B.C., the Egyptian monarch Thothmes III. made fifteen great raids into Asia,--fifteen raids in eighteen years--sweeping everything before him and bearing home enormous loads of plunder and tribute. None of the people of Palestine could withstand him. He defeated the Hittites at Megiddo, at Kadesh, at Karchemish; and having thus reached the Euphrates valley, he received tribute from both Babylon and Assyria. The Euphrates region was, however, too distant for permanent Egyptian conquest, nor does Thothmes seem to have striven for any more lasting purpose than plunder. Hence the ravaged and exhausted lands were left almost helpless to the ruthless, newly growing might of the Assyrians.

Assyria occupied originally the hill country along the middle course of the Tigris River, and gradually spread its power throughout the upper Euphrates valley, and thence southward over the whole of ancient Sumer and Akkad. The Assyrians were a younger tribe of the Semites; and in their distant borderland, far removed from the excesses of Babylon, they had retained their freedom, their vigor of body, and also their purity of race. The first historical mention we find of them is when Thothmes III., in his boastful inscription of conquest, enumerates among the lesser princes who sent him tribute the "Chief of Assur."

By 1450 B.C., Assur, the mother city of Assyria, had so grown in power that we find its ruler warring with the great metropolis Babylon, and making a treaty on equal terms. A little later, however, a soured Babylonian king complained bitterly to the Egyptians because they had failed to recognize his ancient authority over his neighbor and had despatched a direct kingly message to the



Assyrian. This ancient letter of protest is one of a most interesting batch of documents recently found in Egypt, and called from their place of discovery the Tel-el-Amarna letters. They represent the state correspondence between Egypt and Asia at about this period, and from them we learn that the Babylonian tongue was used for communication between different governments, just as Latin was in mediaeval Europe, or French during the mighty sovereignty of Louis XIV.

About 1360 B.C., the ever-turbulent Kassite soldiery of Babylon, in a sudden revolt, slew their king, and placed on the throne "a man of low parentage," as the later monarchs scornfully called him. The murdered king had been connected by marriage with the ruler of Assur; so we find the latter promptly marching up to Babylon, where he restored by force the rightful heir, his own grandson.

From this time Assyria seems rather the stronger power of the two. With the exception of an occasional Elamite raid in the south, or an expedition by the Assyrians against the less civilized nations to the north, the history of the two rival capitals becomes, for centuries, merely a tedious chronicle of wars between them. They drained each other's life-blood. Again and again they fought until they sank exhausted, unable longer to supply soldiers for their armies. Then for a generation or so the lesser neighboring states would flourish and grow insolent, till the two lions again roused themselves. Slowly Assyria's predominance increased. One king advanced her frontier to the suburbs of Babylon. Another, Tukulti-ninib, captured the metropolis itself, looted the palaces and temples, and appointed governors to rule there.

Seven years later the Babylonians successfully revolted and the struggle recommenced. The real reason and object of these endless wars is scarcely clear to us. Probably they arose from far deeper causes than the mere ambition of monarchs or the cupidity of soldiers. Famine and religious faith have been suggested as seeming to be their ultimate sources. We must remember that back of these kings whose inscriptions have survived there stood millions of ordinary mortals who have left us little trace, yet who shaped the destinies of their times. We get glimpses of failing harvests, of powerful officials driving weak kings this way or that, of oratorical priests swaying a frenzied multitude. We must not think of these old kingdoms as being each the mere plaything of an absolute monarch, but as being what all such governments have been called, "despotism tempered by assassination." An unjust and cruel king seldom long survived the rancors he aroused.






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Read about The history of ancient Assyria in the The Story of the Greatest Nations and the Worlds Famous Events Vol 1

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