Artist's impression of a hall in an Assyrian palace

Introducing the Assyrians

By Gareth Brereton, Curator, Ancient Mesopotamia

Publication date: 19 June 2018

In advance of our major autumn exhibition, curator Gareth Brereton gives a run down of what you need to know about the Assyrians, from luxury palaces and lion hunting to libraries and letters.

Introducing the Assyrians

Where and when was 'Assyria'?

The mighty Assyrian empire began as the small city-state of Ashur in what is now the north-eastern region of Iraq. It first asserted control over a large area in the 14th century BC, but by the 12th century BC it had collapsed. During the 10th and 9th centuries BC, Assyria gradually recovered, reclaiming lost lands, and campaigning in new ones. By the 7th century BC, the last great Assyrian king, Ashurbanipal, ruled over a geographically and culturally diverse empire, shaping the lives of peoples from the eastern Mediterranean to western Iran. When people talk of 'Assyria', it generally means the time of its great flourishing between the 9th and 7th centuries BC, sometimes referred to today as the 'Neo-Assyrian empire'.

Map highlighting area of land covered by Assyrian empire
Map of the Assyrian empire at its greatest extent during the reign of Ashurbanipal (668 BC to c. 627 BC).

Living in luxury

The kings of the Neo-Assyrian empire built on a lavish scale. They ruled from their capital cities at Ashur, Nimrud, Khorsabad and Nineveh. When a king decided to move his capital or to simply rebuild it, they made sure it was bigger and better than what came before.

Two banks of river, city buildings along furthest bank, boats on the water
Illustration of Assyrian palaces from The Monuments of Nineveh by Sir Austen Henry Layard, 1853.

Nineveh was transformed by King Sennacherib (reigned 705–681 BC) into a metropolis whose size and splendour would astonish the ancient world. It covered 7 square kilometres and its palaces and temples were adorned with colossal sculptures and brilliantly carved reliefs. An intricate system of canals and aqueducts watered the king's pleasure gardens and game parks. Sennacherib's grand residence, the 'Palace Without Rival', was built 'to be an object of wonder for all the people'. Visitors entered the palace through massive gateways flanked by colossal human-headed winged bulls (called lamassu) that protected the king from dangerous supernatural forces.

Winged bull with human face
Sculpture of a winged bull (lamassu) from the Assyrian city of Nimrud. 865–860 BC.

Sennacherib's grandson Ashurbanipal ruled from this palace for most of his reign (669–631 BC), before moving to a new royal residence at Nineveh. His 'North Palace' was decorated with reliefs painted in vivid colours that glorified his rule and achievements.

Supreme power

The king's power was absolute, assigned through the divine will of the Assyrian deity Ashur. For the Assyrians, the heartland of the empire, with its magnificent cities, was the perfect vision of civilised order. Foreign lands were thought to be full of chaos and disorder. As the earthly representative of the gods, it was the king's duty to create order in the world by conquering foreign lands and absorbing them into Assyria. As the shepherd of his people, the king also protected Assyria from foreign enemies or wild animals. The most dangerous animal in Assyria was the lion, which came to symbolise all that was wild and chaotic in the world. Assyrian kings proved they were worthy by hunting these fearsome beasts. The royal hunt was a drama-filled public spectacle staged at game parks near the cities. Lion hunting was represented in Assyrian art, most famously in the reliefs from king Ashurbanipal's palace.

Military might

Assyria's rapid expansion was achieved through force. By the mid-8th century BC, Assyrian kings commanded a professional standing army with chariots, cavalry and infantry. This massive army was supplemented by the king's personal bodyguard of elite troops. The army grew as it absorbed members of defeated enemy armies, which gave rise to a multicultural military force drawn from all corners of the empire. The Assyrians preferred to mount surprise attacks against an inferior force to guarantee an easy victory. Large fortified cities with multiple moats, walls and towers could take years to capture. A city's fortifications could be breached using siege engines, battering rams and sappers. To avoid heavy casualties, the Assyrian army would blockade a city with siege forts to cut off its supplies, reinforcements, and any means of escape.

Military conquest was followed by the extraction of wealth through plunder, tribute payments, taxation – and even people. Entire populations from defeated kingdoms were forcibly deported and resettled elsewhere within the empire. Deportees could be exploited – conscripted into the army, made to populate newly established cities, and resettled in underdeveloped provinces to work the land. The most valued – elite families, specialist craftsmen and scholars – were settled and put to work in the major cities. Here they could support public works, produce luxury goods, and generate knowledge for the benefit of the empire.

Divine punishment

As the earthly representative of the gods, it was the king's duty to punish Assyria's enemies. Captured enemy leaders and rebels were displayed alongside the spoils of war and publicly humiliated in triumphal parades. Some were forced to wear the heads of their accomplices around their necks, others were chained to the gates of the city like dogs, or hitched up to the king's chariot like horses. The message was simple – mess with Assyria and you will face the consequences. This kind of violence was thought to be a form of divine justice against those who had opposed the king and the gods.

Trusted eunuchs

Assyrian kings liked to present themselves as the sole protectors of the empire. In reality, the empire was organised into a patchwork of provinces, each supervised by a governor appointed by the king. The governors made up a group of officials called the 'Great Ones', which formed the king’s cabinet. The 'Great Ones' held considerable power, so much so that they could even threaten the king’s rule. Initially, these state positions were inherited, but their considerable wealth and influence posed a threat to the king. To counter this, the Assyrians devised an innovative scheme to ensure that positions of power were awarded on merit and not through family ties. They appointed eunuchs to positions of power because they could not father children and therefore could not build dynasties of their own. Only the king could pass power down family lines.

A library fit for a king

Much of what we know about Assyrian history and culture is from written records. Assyrians used the ancient writing technique of cuneiform, which was first developed by the Sumerians around 3000 BC. Texts were written by pressing a reed pen into soft clay. The characteristic wedge-shaped strokes give the writing its modern name (cuneiform means simply 'wedge-shaped'). Cuneiform tablets were used to record everything from day-to-day administration to science and literature.

Library tablet with cuneiform inscription shown from different angles
Fragment of a clay tablet with inscription in cuneiform, written for the library of Ashurbanipal. 7th century BC.

King Ashurbanipal seems to have wanted a copy of every book worth having. His interest in books was not for entertainment. They helped him communicate with the gods and learn what the future held. There were books about omens from sacrifices, the heavens, and the earthly world. Alongside them were rituals and calendars, hymns and prayers, and magic and medicine.

Royal Mail

The empire's unity depended on a reliable and efficient communications network. To speed up the transfer of information, the empire was connected by an innovative system of royal roads, along which express mail could travel. It only took a few days for news to travel between the capital and the furthest reaches of the empire. If a message was particularly sensitive, state letters would travel with a trusted envoy across the entire distance to hand deliver the message.

Clay envelope with breakages, letter poked inside
Clay letter and envelope. 8th century BC.

Access to the royal mail service was only granted to the king's most trusted officials. Each wore a golden signet ring engraved with an image of the royal seal – the Assyrian king slaying a ferocious lion. Letters sealed by these rings carried royal authority and any instructions had to be obeyed. By delegating royal power, the king could be in many places at once.

Clay seal depicting bearded Assyrian King wearing royal tiara fighting upright lion, grasping its mane and stabbing it
Clay seal showing an Assyrian king in combat with a lion. 715 BC.

The end of an empire

Following the death of Ashurbanipal around 631 BC, it took just under 20 years for the empire to crumble. The Babylonians, under their leader Nabopolassar, rebelled against Assyrian rule, causing chaos throughout the land. Conditions under siege were dire, the populace stricken by disease and famine. Parents were forced to sell their children to buy food. Gradually, Nabopolassar won the upper hand and advanced into Assyria. A war of independence became a fight for Assyria's survival. Assyria was doomed when the Medes from western Iran, lead by Cyaxares, joined the assault by sacking the holy city of Ashur. Nabopolassar and Cyaxares swore an alliance that was to seal Assyria's fate. In 612 BC the two armies converged on Nineveh. The greatest city in existence fell, its palaces and temples burnt to the ground, and the last Assyrian king to reign from Nineveh, Sin-shar-ishkun, perished in the flames.

Assyria into legend

The fall of Assyria was an iconic event that was recorded in passages of the Bible and by Greek and Roman writers. Accounts describe how Assyria was punished for the moral depravity of its rulers, who surrounded themselves with great riches and luxury. According to classical sources, Assyria's last king was so debauched that he caused the empire's complete destruction. Realising that Nineveh was lost, he erected an enormous pyre in the palace and consigned himself to the flames along with his vast wealth, concubines and eunuchs.

The negative image of Assyria was challenged by archaeological discoveries of the mid-nineteenth century, which established Assyria as one of the great civilisations of the ancient world.

Assyria rediscovered

Although a number of travellers and explorers had visited the Assyrian sites of Nimrud and Nineveh, they weren't excavated until the mid-19th century, when a young British diplomat, Austen Henry Layard, started work at Nimrud. Layard's remarkable discoveries at Nimrud included colossal winged bulls and carved stone reliefs from the Assyrian palaces, which attracted sponsorship from the British Museum. Layard moved his team to the main mound at Nineveh in 1847, where he discovered the 'Palace Without Rival', king Sennacherib's great royal residence.

Three men at the archaeological site at Nimrud, near the winged bulls
Frederick Charles Cooper, drawing showing the winged bulls found by Layard at Nimrud. Watercolour on paper, mid-19th century.

Arrangements were made with the Ottoman government to have the Assyrian sculptures shipped to Britain. Due to the size of the sculptures, this proved to be some task. Firstly, the sculptures were transported to the river Tigris, where they were loaded on rafts that sailed to the city of Basra in southern Iraq. From here they were placed on a steamship and taken to Bombay in India, before sailing around Africa to England, where they were finally transported to the British Museum. Layard's discoveries caused a media sensation and captured the public imagination. This had a major impact on painting and applied arts, in the UK and beyond, during the second half of the nineteenth century, which led to a brief phase of 'Assyrian revival'. The Assyrian sculptures at the British Museum largely remain today where they were first installed over 160 years ago.

Discover more about Assyria, its last great king and the BP exhibition I am Ashurbanipal: king of the world, king of Assyria which ran from 8 November 2018 to 24 February 2019. Supported by BP Logistics partner IAG Cargo

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