Who were the Assyrians?
The Assyrians referenced in the Hebrew Bible were a mighty force that exerted power over much of the Near East, including Israel and Judah, in the ninth through seventh centuries B.C.E. In “Biblical Archaeology 101: Who Were the Assyrians?” in the May/June 2019 issue of BAR, ancient Near Eastern studies professor Christopher B. Hays describes the Assyrians’ beginnings more than a millennium before they appeared in the Bible and how they expanded their empire from Urartu to Egypt. Below, learn 10 fascinating facts about the Assyrians.
1. The Assyrian population grew around the region known as Mesopotamia in modern-day Iraq.
Nourished by the Tigris and Euphrates Rivers, the cities of Mesopotamia—Greek for “the land between two rivers”—flourished from the 20th century to the end of the seventh century B.C.E. As the Assyrians created and expanded their empire, their political reach came to encompass—at its zenith around 680 B.C.E.—the Fertile Crescent, Egypt, central Anatolia, and western Iran.
2. Akkadian was the lingua franca of the ancient Near East.
The earliest known Semitic language, Akkadian comprises both the Assyrian and Babylonian dialects. The name Akkadian comes from the capital city of Akkad, established by King Sargon around 2300 B.C.E. Hundreds of thousands of inscriptions dating from the 26th century B.C.E. to the first century C.E. attest to the pervasiveness of the cuneiform-based writing system.
3. The Assyrians of the Bible were part of the Neo-Assyrian Empire.
Throughout the Hebrew Bible, the Assyrians who again and again came into conflict with Israel and Judah were part of the Neo-Assyrian Empire (c. 1000–609 B.C.E.). Detailed inscriptions and imposing reliefs attest to the strength of their reign across the Middle East.
4. Ashurnasirpal II (r. 883–859 B.C.E.) is thought of as the founder of the Neo-Assyrian Empire.
Ashurnasirpal II established the city of Kalhu (biblical Calah, modern Nimrud) as the capital of his kingdom, lavishly outfitting it with a walled citadel, palace, temples, and gardens paid for through taxes, trade, and tribute from vassal nations.
5. Shalmaneser III’s famous Black Obelisk describes King Jehu of Israel paying tribute to the Assyrians.
The 6.5-foot-tall Black Obelisk of Shalmaneser III (r. 858–824 B.C.E.) features 20 reliefs depicting five defeated kings bringing tribute before the Neo-Assyrian monarch. The prostrate figure in the bottom panel (see image right) is thought to be King Jehu, although some scholars have called this identification into question.
6. According to the Bible, the Israelite king Menahem taxed landowners to pay for tributes to the Assyrian Empire.
During his campaign in the region around 738 B.C.E., Tiglath-pileser III received tribute from Menahem in exchange for the Israelite king’s independence. Menahem, in turn, taxed every landowner 50 shekels of silver (2 kings 15:19–20).
7. Assyrian king Sargon II (r. 721–705 B.C.E.) faced rebellion from Syro-Palestinian states after ascending to the throne.
After defeating the rebels, King Sargon II turned Israel into the province of Samaria and claimed in the so-called Great Summary Inscription that he took more than 27,000 Israelites as booty.
8. Judahite king Hezekiah was prepared for Sennacherib’s siege of Jerusalem in 701 B.C.E.
Ahead of the Assyrian king Sennacherib’s attack on Jerusalem, Hezekiah ordered a tunnel to be dug to the Gihon Spring outside the city wall to ensure that the town’s residents would have access to water. The Judahite king also repaired the city walls, built towers, strengthened the Millo, and made sure weapons were in adequate supply (2 Chronicles 32: 5). These efforts kept the Assyrians from invading the city itself, but Sennacherib’s Prism listing the Assyrian king’s campaigns boasts of having shut up Hezekiah in Jerusalem “like a bird in a cage.” In an attempt to end the siege, Hezekiah paid the tribute that he had been withholding.
9. There are many similarities between the life of Assyrian king Esarhaddon and the story of Joseph in the Bible.
Like the story of Joseph from the Book of Genesis, Esarhaddon was favored by his father over his older brothers and had to flee to a foreign land for safety. After eventually gaining the throne, Esarhaddon pacified the land and expanded the Assyrian Empire southward into Egypt between 675 and 671 B.C.E.
10. The Hebrew prophets taunted the fall of Assyria.
Toward the end of the seventh century B.C.E., the Assyrian Empire began its rapid descent. The Babylonians, together with the Medes and Scythians, overtook various Assyrian cities in 615. The Assyrian capital of Nineveh fell in 612 after just three months of battle.
A version of this post originally appeared in Bible History Daily in May 2019.
Dig into more than 9,000 articles in the Biblical Archaeology Society’s vast library plus much more with an All-Access pass.
Sign up to receive our email newsletter and never miss an update.