The Rise and Fall of the World’s First Empire


By Eckart Frahm

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A new history of Assyria, the ancient civilization that set the model for future empires 

At its height in 660 BCE, the kingdom of Assyria stretched from the Mediterranean Sea to the Persian Gulf. It was the first empire the world had ever seen. Here, historian Eckart Frahm tells the epic story of Assyria and its formative role in global history. Assyria’s wide-ranging conquests have long been known from the Hebrew Bible and later Greek accounts. But nearly two centuries of research now permit a rich picture of the Assyrians and their empire beyond the battlefield: their vast libraries and monumental sculptures, their elaborate trade and information networks, and the crucial role played by royal women.

Although Assyria was crushed by rising powers in the late seventh century BCE, its legacy endured from the Babylonian and Persian empires to Rome and beyond. Assyria is a stunning and authoritative account of a civilization essential to understanding the ancient world and our own.




A Small Town on the Tigris

Where to begin? All historians, those studying the civilizations of ancient Mesopotamia no less than others, have to struggle with this question. Clear answers can be found in legend, but legend tends to be unreliable: just as Rome was not founded in 753 by Romulus, Assyria was not founded hundreds of years earlier by Ninus, as the Greeks thought, or by Nimrod or Ashur, as the Hebrew Bible claims, or even by a certain Tudiya, the first ruler mentioned in the Assyrian King List. The story is more complicated. As the German novelist Thomas Mann put it with characteristic literary flair in the introductory sentences of Joseph and His Brothers, his renowned epic of ancient Near Eastern history, “Deep is the well of the past. Should not one call it bottomless?”

The roots of Assyrian civilization reach well into prehistoric times. More than ten thousand years ago, the area in northern Iraq that would later see the birth of the Assyrian kingdom played an important part in the emergence of agriculture, animal husbandry, and other technologies of civilization. There is no evidence that the people who produced these developments were early “Assyrians.” But between 2500 and 1700 BCE, a tangible Assyrian identity began to take form, with sociopolitical, cultural, and linguistic features that would define Assyrians until the end of the Assyrian kingdom. While frustratingly little is known about the first five hundred years of this period, it is clear that there were now people who spoke the Assyrian language, built Assyrian temples, and believed that the god Ashur, worshipped in the city of the same name, was their true king.

The three centuries after 2000 BCE—the so-called Old Assyrian period—saw the flourishing of the first independent “Assyrian” state. With its rule largely limited to the city of Ashur, its aversion to warfare, and its governmental structures based on civic institutions rather than an all-powerful monarch, the city-state of Ashur was in many respects the opposite of the empire that Assyria would eventually become. Even so, with its wide-ranging commercial interests, it foreshadowed two central features that would define the later empire: its broad geographic horizons, and its acquisitiveness.

Northern Iraq was not only the cradle of Assyrian civilization; it played an important role in the history of the human species long before Ashur became established. Neanderthal remains have been found in the Shanidar Cave, in the Erbil Governorate, dating back some seventy thousand years. Groups engaged in hunting and gathering inhabited the region for tens of thousands of years. Then, slowly but inexorably, major changes began to occur. From around 10,000 BCE onward, during the so-called Neolithic period, more and more people began to live in settled communities, practicing animal husbandry and agriculture. They domesticated pigs, sheep, and goats and cultivated the native wild emmer and einkorn, ancient varieties of wheat. They also started to produce pottery, an important type of artifact for prehistoric archaeologists, who trace the movement of cultural traditions and the people behind them by analyzing the ceramic styles found at different ancient sites. Some of the earliest known pottery from the Middle East comes from mid-seventh millennium BCE Hassuna, a site some 35 kilometers (about 22 miles) southwest of Nineveh.1

The Neolithic Revolution that set humanity, for better or worse, on the path to modernity was forged in a region known as the Fertile Crescent, a semicircular zone spanning from southern Palestine to Anatolia and then onward to the Zagros range in southeastern Turkey, Iraq, and Iran. Throughout this area, rainfall was plentiful enough to allow for settled farming. The region that would later form Assyria’s core, a triangle marked by the cities of Nineveh in the north, Arbela in the east, and Ashur in the south, lies in the northeastern segment of the Fertile Crescent. Demarcated by the western fringes of the Zagros Mountains in the east, the southern foothills of the Taurus range in the north, and the Syrian Desert in the west (in antiquity an area less arid than it is today), it is a land of rolling hills and plains, crossed by the southward-flowing Tigris River and its main eastern tributaries, the Upper and Lower Zab.2

Ashur lies just barely within the range of 200 millimeters (about 8 inches) of annual precipitation, the minimum amount needed for rain-fed agriculture. The potential of its hinterland for farming was therefore always precarious. This must have prompted Ashur’s inhabitants from early on to engage in economic activities other than raising crops, most notably trade.

Downstream from Ashur, farther south toward the Persian Gulf, lay the cradle of another great civilization: Babylonia. Closely intertwined with Assyria in economic, cultural, and eventually political terms, Babylonia exerted, throughout the millennia, a significant influence on its northern neighbor.

In stark contrast to Assyria’s geographical setting, the land of Babylonia was a flat alluvial plain, formed and defined by the Euphrates and Tigris Rivers and with too little rainfall to allow for rain-fed agriculture, or so-called dry farming. But as groups of Neolithic people, driven by ever-increasing population pressure, slowly migrated southward from northern Iraq, they discovered that there were other ways to turn the inhospitable Babylonian terrain into a productive agricultural landscape. They established that the alluvial soil carried down by the two big rivers was extremely fertile and, when properly irrigated, capable of producing crop yields significantly higher than anywhere else in the ancient Near East. Getting the water to where it was needed, however, was difficult and required a great amount of manual labor. A network of canals, filled from the Euphrates and the Tigris, had to be created, dams had to be constructed, and fields had to be drained to fend off salinization. This could not be done without an organized workforce. Furthermore, since basic raw materials such as stone and timber were not available in southern Mesopotamia, someone had to make sure they were imported from other regions. All the while, a gradual decrease over time in water levels forced people to live in fewer but larger settlements.

As a response to such challenges, several important milestones commonly associated with the birth of “civilization” were reached in the alluvial plain of southern Iraq during the fourth millennium BCE. One of them was a fully developed urban culture. The world’s first real city, Uruk, later famous as the seat of the legendary king Gilgamesh, may have had as many as sixty thousand inhabitants around 3000 BCE. A few centuries earlier, cuneiform, the world’s earliest writing system, had been invented in Uruk. Other historical breakthroughs of the era, marking the end of the Neolithic and the beginning of the Bronze Age, include the rise of a new managerial elite, increased social stratification, new patterns of processing and redistributing commodities such as grain and wool, new religious ideas and institutions, and the increased use of bronze rather than stone for implements, weapons, and vessels. All these innovations, perhaps most importantly the invention of writing, would shape the world of the ancient Near East for millennia to come. But this happened gradually, taking centuries in some places, and progress would not be without setbacks.3

Northern Mesopotamia had for a long time followed a path of its own. Some (proto-)urban development had already taken place in the region during the Neolithic era, for example at Hamoukar in northeastern Syria, near the Iraqi border. During the fourth millennium, this site harbored a settlement of considerable size. Thousands of clay sealings and substantial quantities of obsidian, imported from regions far away, indicate that Hamoukar, reminiscent of the later city-state of Ashur, was engaged in complex forms of long-distance trade at this time. But around 3500, large parts of Hamoukar were destroyed, perhaps by warriors from Uruk, in what may be the world’s earliest example of urban warfare.4

While Hamoukar’s later history was not particularly noteworthy and of no significance for the eventual rise of Assyria, the opposite is true for another upper Mesopotamian site with Neolithic roots: Nineveh. Located next to an important ford across the Tigris and inhabited from around 6000 BCE onward, Nineveh remained a key regional, and then transregional, center for millennia to come, despite intermittent phases of urban decline. But before the mid-second millennium, Nineveh was not yet an “Assyrian” city, at least if one understands “Assyrian” in an ethnolinguistic sense. It was instead dominated, both in political and cultural terms, by members of an ethnic group known as Hurrians. During the twenty-first century BCE, the main goddess of Nineveh, later identified with the Semitic Ishtar, bore the Hurrian name Shaushka (lit., “the Great [Goddess]”). Ashur, the deity more closely associated with a genuinely Assyrian identity than any other, was not worshipped at Nineveh—his cult center lay elsewhere.5

Rather than at Nineveh, the origins of Assyrian civilization are to be found at Qal’at Sherqat, the site of the aforementioned ancient city of Ashur, which would eventually give the land of Assyria its name. Located some 100 kilometers (62 miles) south of Mosul, on a rocky crag rising some 40 meters (130 feet) above the western bank of the Tigris, Ashur was a natural fortress and, thanks to its position near a river ford on an important trade route, well suited to become a key commercial hub. It linked the southern alluvial plain with resource-rich territories in the north, and the fertile agricultural lands east of the Tigris with the steppe regions crisscrossed by herdsmen farther west.6

From around 2700 BCE, the region on the Middle Tigris experienced a phase of increased urbanization, and it is likely that Ashur, too, grew into a town of some significance during this period. The area stretching from Ashur northward to the foothills of the Taurus and Zagros ranges was known as Shubur or Subartu at the time. At least intermittently, it was under southern domination: a stone inscription from the Babylonian city of Kish, probably written between 2750 and 2600 BCE, records the deportation of 6,300 prisoners of war from Shubur/Subartu to the south, where they were apparently forced to work in orchards. Ashur is not yet mentioned in this inscription, but it is included in a mid-third-millennium Babylonian list of geographical names, where it appears together with several cities located along the northern boundary of Babylonia’s alluvial plain.7

From about the same time the earliest archaeological traces of some significance have been uncovered at Ashur. Near the center of the city, deep below the foundations of several later buildings dedicated to the cult of the goddess Ishtar, excavators found the remains of an earlier sanctuary, undoubtedly built to honor the same deity or an early avatar of her. A “great goddess” was also worshipped from early on in Nineveh, and probably also in Urbil(um), the later Arbela, suggesting that one of the spiritual roots of Assyrian civilization was a strong belief in a powerful female deity. Whether the god Ashur played an equally important role at this early time is unclear—the date of the deepest archaeological layers in the area of the later Ashur Temple, located on the northeastern promontory of the city, cannot yet be established with certainty.8

The finds from the “archaic” Ishtar Temple in Ashur also shed some light on the people who lived in the city during this early time. The main room of the temple, about 16 × 6 meters (52 × 20 feet) in size, featured on one of its narrow sides a niche with a pedestal holding the cult image of the goddess. A small basin for blood from sacrificed animals, clay incense holders, and libation vessels provide clues about some of the rituals performed in the temple. But the most remarkable finds made in the sanctuary’s debris were fragments of some ninety votive statues, usually less than 50 centimeters (20 inches) high, that had originally been positioned on low mudbrick benches lining the long sides of the inner room. Made of stone, they depict worshippers with folded hands and unnaturally enlarged eyes, undoubtedly set up in the sanctuary to represent members of Ashur’s elite families before the goddess in uninterrupted prayer. Some of them were probably dedicated by the political leaders of Ashur, whoever they were at the time. Others depict women, who must have held positions of considerable influence in Ashur’s early society (see Plate 4).9

The figurines from the Ishtar Temple strongly resemble votive statues from the Babylonian south, at the time inhabited by an ethnic group known as Sumerians. Basing their ideas on such similarities as garments covered with rows of stylized tufts of wool and men with shaved heads, earlier scholars suggested that Ashur’s population included a pronounced Sumerian element during the mid-third millennium. But this idea, grounded in a flawed “ethnic” understanding of ancient Near Eastern art, is now widely rejected. It seems more likely that the people of Ashur spoke a Semitic language at the time, possibly an early version of Assyrian. An inscribed stone fragment from Ashur, probably dating to the period between 2500 and 2250 BCE, lists textiles and copper presented to several individuals, at least one of whom, a certain Beli-[… ], clearly bore a Semitic name, meaning “My lord is [… ].”10

The aforementioned similarities are nonetheless intriguing. They bespeak the strong influence that the culturally more advanced south exerted on Ashur from early on. This influence extended to the political sphere. The powerful southern dynasty of Akkad, founded around 2350 BCE by a king named Sargon and soon in command of large parts of Western Asia, also ruled over Ashur. Akkadian rulers paid their respect to the goddess Ishtar of Ashur through votive gifts, which included a stone mace head with an inscription mentioning the Akkadian king Rimush. The earliest cuneiform tablets from Ashur, economic documents and “school texts” produced by young students, date to the Akkadian period as well. The school texts reflect scribal traditions introduced under the Akkadian kings, perhaps marking the beginnings of the long-lasting fascination that the people of Ashur felt for the political and cultural legacy of Akkad. Later rulers of Ashur would adopt the names of the two most famous Akkadian kings, Sargon and Naram-Sîn, and a legend featuring King Sargon was among the few literary tablets found at the Old Assyrian trade colony of Kültepe/Kanesh.11

There are hints that Ashur was already heavily engaged in the overland trade by the time it was ruled by Akkad. The city is mentioned in a few Akkadian period texts from Gasur, an ancient town southwest of the modern city of Kirkuk in eastern Iraq, suggesting that it participated in the commercial exchange with Iran at the time.12

The earliest local ruler of Ashur known from textual records is a certain Ititi, son of Inin-labba. According to a votive inscription on a stone plaque from the Ishtar Temple in Ashur, he dedicated to Ishtar a portion of the “booty of Gasur,” apparently after conquering that city. Unfortunately, the intriguing text leaves some crucial questions unanswered. Ititi’s title is written with a sign that can be interpreted as waklum, “Overseer,” or as iššiakkum, “Steward” or “Governor.” If the former is correct, Ititi would have been an independent ruler, perhaps from shortly after the collapse of the Akkadian state around 2200 BCE, bearing a title later also assumed by the hereditary rulers of the Old Assyrian period and closely linked to Ashur’s “City Assembly” (Assyrian ālum), a legislative and judicial institution. In this case, the political system in place during Old Assyrian times would have had much earlier antecedents. If instead Ititi’s title was that of an iššiakkum, one would have to assume that he was a governor who ruled Ashur on behalf of the Akkadian kings. Which of these alternatives is correct remains unclear. That the name of Ititi’s father, Inin-labba, means “Ishtar-is-a-Lion” suggests again that it may have been Ishtar rather than the god Ashur who dominated the pantheon of the city of Ashur before the twenty-first century BCE.13

If Ashur, in the wake of the Akkadian period, was indeed ruled by sovereign local leaders, then its independence did not last long. Around 2100 BCE, under the so-called Third Dynasty of Ur, another powerful kingdom emerged in Babylonia. Before long Ashur found itself again subjected to southern rule, this time as an outlying military province of the Ur III state. When a military governor of Ashur by the name of Zarriqum (or Sarriqum) built the temple of the goddess Belat-ekallim, he did so on behalf of the Ur III king Amar-Suen (r. ca. 20442036 BCE). Zarriqum is attested in Ur III documents from southern Mesopotamia dating from 2048 to 2040 BCE and might have been installed in Ashur by the great Ur III ruler Shulgi (r. ca. 20922045 BCE): tellingly, Zarriqum named one of his sons Shulgi-ili, which means “Shulgi-is-my-God.” At one point, Zarriqum visited the heartland of the Ur III state with an entourage of no fewer than fifty men, which suggests that Ashur was a city of some significance by now.14

As revealed by an economic text from the southern city of Puzrish-Dagan, another visitor to the south was a merchant by the name of Ilshu-rabi, the son of one Puzur-Ashur and therefore clearly a citizen of Ashur. He brought elaborately decorated toggle-pins, one more indication that Ashur’s role as a commercial center preceded the subsequent Old Assyrian period. Since other Ur III documents list individuals with names including the divine element Ashur as well, it is, moreover, evident that the god Ashur had become a deity of great importance by this time. Clearly, by the mid-twenty-first century BCE, central elements of Ashur’s religious identity were fully formed, and the commercial ambitions of its residents had become a main driving force for the city. Ashur was ready to take on a new role: that of a self-governed economic and religious hub.15

It is likely that Ashur gained its independence not much later than 2025 BCE. By then, the Ur III state, exhausted by its hyper-bureaucratic system of economic control and under threat from the seminomadic Semitic Amorites infiltrating it from various directions, entered a final phase of slowly accelerating collapse.

What exactly triggered the transformation that Ashur experienced in the decades around 2000 BCE remains very much a mystery. Unfortunately, the Assyrian King List is not fully reliable when it comes to Ashur’s earliest history. It mentions neither Ititi nor Zarriqum, instead claiming that Ashur was initially ruled by seventeen “kings who lived in tents”—the first of whom was named Tudiya—and then by ten “kings who were ancestors.” But it is clear that these two groups of rulers are later additions to the list, derived from genealogical traditions popular among the Amorites and originally extrinsic to Assyrian history. They were probably incorporated during the reign of Ashur’s conqueror king Shamshi-Adad I (r. ca. 18081776 BCE).16

We get closer to actual history with the King List’s next group of rulers. These comprise “six kings (whose names) are found on bricks but whose eponyms are unknown.” “Eponym” (Assyrian limmum) is the modern term for the high-ranking officials after whom the Assyrians, starting with the reign of Erishum I (r. ca. 19691930 BCE), named individual years of their calendar. As the first of the six rulers who were allegedly in power before this system was put in place, the list names a certain Sulili (or Sulê). He can probably be identified with a “Silulu son of Dakiku,” whose name occurs in the inscription of a seal that was found impressed on several later tablets and clay envelopes from Kanesh. The seal inscription claims that Silulu served as “Steward of Ashur,” one of the most common titles of Ashur’s rulers throughout history, as well as “Herald (nāgirum) of the city of Ashur,” a more exceptional designation. Based on stylistic criteria, the Silulu seal probably dates to the twenty-first century BCE. While the conclusion that Silulu ruled shortly before the Ur III takeover cannot be ruled out, it seems more likely that he was the first in the long series of independent leaders who held office in Ashur after the city slipped away from the control of the Ur III kingdom. Silulu may have been identical with a certain Ilaba-si/ululi(?), “governor of Ashur,” who is mentioned in a text from Ur. If so, one can hypothesize that he had initially served as another chief administrator installed in Ashur by the Ur III kings, before cutting ties with his southern overlords. The image on Silulu’s seal shows a triumphant hero placing his foot on a prostrate enemy, perhaps an indication that Silulu gained his new position by force.17

Most remarkable is that Silulu’s seal inscription does not begin with his name and titles, but with the resounding declaration that “Ashur is king.” This is the theocratic credo, here found for the first time, that would define Ashur’s political identity for centuries to come. A similar ideological model is known from Eshnunna, a city in Babylonia in the Eastern Tigris region, where the god Tishpak was “king,” and the ruler, just like in Ashur, his “steward.” Eshnunna had close cultural links with Ashur and may have been the place where this political-theological conception originated.18

A more elaborate expression of how Ashur’s rulers conceived of their god during the Old Assyrian period can be seen in an unusually enigmatic and poetic inscription of King Erishum I, a few decades after Silulu. Originally inscribed on a stela erected near the Step Gate, the structure in Ashur where justice was administered, the text is known from two copies on clay tablets from Kanesh:

May justice prevail in my city! Ashur is king! Erishum is Ashur’s Steward! Ashur is a swamp that cannot be traversed, ground that cannot be trodden upon, canals that cannot be crossed.

He who tells a lie in the Step Gate, the demon of the ruins will smash his head like a pot that breaks.19

Ashur is presented in this text as a deity who cannot really be grasped or visualized (even though he was not completely without mundane cravings, for example for alcohol, as the placement by Erishum of two massive beer vats in the area of the Ashur Temple indicates). Some evidence suggests that the god had bovine qualities: during Erishum’s reign, his temple was called “Wild Bull,” and a seal impression from eighteenth-century BCE Acemhöyük in Anatolia depicts him as a rock with four legs and a bull’s head projecting from its middle. The rock on this image probably represents the elevated northeastern portion of the city of Ashur, but apparently also Mount Ebi, where, according to an inscription of Erishum I’s father Ilushumma, Ashur had opened two sources to provide his city with water. A Sumerian myth known from Babylonia links Ebi to the goddess Inanna, the Sumerian counterpart of Ishtar.20

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  • "A sweeping, delightfully readable effort to remind us of Assyria’s place in history…Mr. Frahm balances a clear-eyed account of Assyria’s gruesome politics with empathetic portraits of everyday life.”—Wall Street Journal
  • "A work of remarkable synthesis. The range of its sources is truly extraordinary.”
     —Times (London)
  • “A remarkable scholarly work and a masterful exploration of one of the most intriguing and influential civilizations of the ancient world…an essential addition to the libraries of history enthusiasts and scholars alike.”—World History
  • “Sweeping in scope yet meticulously detailed, this is a worthy introduction to a significant yet lesser-known chapter of ancient history.”—Publishers Weekly
  • "An extremely readable introduction to Assyria and the Assyrians, from their origins to their ultimate demise. Frahm presents a wealth of knowledge and information in an accessible manner, and with relevance to today, which will be of interest to scholars, students, and members of the general public alike."—Eric Cline, author of 1177 B.C.
  • “Eckart Frahm has produced a compelling account of how the Assyrians built an empire that ruled over large territories and diverse peoples. Assyria offers us a new way to think about the formation and sustainability of an imperial model that has shaped human experiences for much of the past 3000 years. It is ancient history that remains relevant to this day.”—Edward J. Watts, author of Mortal Republic
  • “A superb, compelling, and exuberantly written history of the Assyrians, popularly known only as the bad guys of the Old Testament, but actually one of the most significant of all ancient Near Eastern empire builders. This book is filled with fascinating detail and cliché-busting analysis. Sweeping yet nuanced, Eckart Frahm challenges—and changes—the way we think about the Assyrians and the culture they fashioned.”—Lloyd Llewellyn-Jones, author of Persians
  • “Eckart Frahm has given us a history which jumps with life. From Assyria’s humble origins at mercantile Ashur to the smoking ruins of imperial Nineveh, Frahm animates a lost world with the authority and the eye of a master painter. This is Assyria with all its jealous princes, scheming viziers, exorcists, rebels, and vassals—its glittering palaces, besieged cities, and vast borderlands. Readers can rejoice knowing they hold in their hands a book both definitive and compelling.”—Seth Richardson, University of Chicago
  • “Eckart Frahm’s eminently readable Assyria is the most comprehensive account to date of the world’s first true empire. It will transform how we approach Assyria and its role in history.”—Gojko Barjamovic, Harvard University

On Sale
Apr 4, 2023
Page Count
528 pages
Basic Books

Eckart Frahm

About the Author

Eckart Frahm is professor of Assyriology in the department of Near Eastern languages and civilizations at Yale. One of the world’s foremost experts on the Assyrian Empire, he is the author or coauthor of six books on ancient Mesopotamian history and culture. He lives in New Haven, Connecticut. 

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