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Dawn of Civilization
he Rise of Sumer and the Akkadian Empire
Assyria, Neo-Babylonia, Collapse
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In the Wake of Alexander
Parthian & Sassanian Rule
The Rise of Islam
Rediscovering the Past
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Iraq Cultural Property Law, 2002
The Impact of War on Iraq's Cultural Heritage


Northern Mesopotamia, generally known as Assyria, followed a different developmental path than the apparent cultural unity that began during the Ubaid period in the south. A key difference is that Assyria had sufficient rainfall for agriculture, and irrigation was needed only for large plantations. The north also enjoyed an ample supply of building stone, and the area was close to the metal and mineral resources of Anatolia. To the north and east, in the mountainous area today known as Iraqi Kurdistan, heavy forests in ancient times yielded ample game and timber, which fueled the stoves (for baking bread), kilns (for making pottery) and furnaces (for refining metals and making weapons) that helped build an empire.

Politically, this area alternated between southern domination and independence in the third millennium. The Assyrian King list describes the first rulers in this area as dwelling in tents, i.e. nomadic. While northern Mesopotamia was under the control of the Akkadian and Ur III empires, after the collapse of the latter, Assyria went its own way.

Scientific excavation at Kul Tepe, ancient Kanesh, has yielded more than 3000 texts identifying the presence of an Assyrian trading colony, which imported finished textiles and lead to trade for copper ores, sometimes in shipments of up to five tons. The fact that these were Assyrians is known only from the texts, written in Assyrian (a dialect of Akkadian) cuneiform.

Had most of these texts not been excavated in situ, the presence of the colonists would not have been known, as the material culture and pottery are local. Probably this karum, or merchant colony, which followed its own laws and municipal organization, was under the protection of a foreign king. 

The wealth from such trade strengthened Assyria’s position after the fall of Ur III, and some early kings are described as making incursions into Babylonia. The trading colony ended in a time of confusion, with the rise of the Indo-European Hittites into Anatolia. The Amorites also moved in, with Assyria falling under control of the Amorite chieftain, Shamsi-Adad, who established a dynasty and was unusually energetic and politically canny, installing his sons as puppet rulers at Mari and Ekallatm. The correspondence that has been recovered sounds almost like a TV melodrama, with the older son an apparent paragon and the younger one (at Mari) inept.

The City of Assur and the Rise of Assyria. The name Assyria comes from the venerable city of Assur, named after the deity Assur, who was identified as the Assyrian national god. Rather colorless compared to the well-developed personalities of the Sumerian and Akkadian gods, he seems more like an embodiment of the Assyrian manifest destiny.

Built on an outcrop of limestone rising to a considerable height above two course of the Tigris which forms an angle, the city had good natural protection on two sides and had constructed powerful defensive walls on the third side.

Assur dates back to Early Dynastic time and the remains of a temple to Ishtar dating to this period have been discovered. The city was the religious center of Assyria and was covered with temples – inscriptions mention thirty-eight of them – and three ziggurats. Shamshi Adad rebuilt the largest ziggurat, dedicated to Assur, and built another Assur temple, while other prominent structures included two unusual double shrines, one to Anu and Adad, the creator and weather gods, and one to Sin and Shamash, the moon and sun gods.

After the prominence of Shamshi Adad, Assyria fell into a period of decline, under pressure from the Hittite kingdom in Anatolia and the Mitannian (Hurrian) kingdom in the Central Euphrates, during the time of the Armara letters previously mentioned. When Mittani declined, Assyria came to prominence again during what is called the Middle Assyrian Period, from about 1350-1100 BC. Once again, new groups that presented threats were moving into the bordering areas: from the west, nomads known as Ahlamu (Arameans, another Semitic speaking group), and to the east, Urarteans in the area that now included Armenia.














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Around 1000 BC, the Arameans coalesced into a number of small states. Their presence in the Euphrates valley, where they could control the trade routes the Assyians depended upon, represented a major challenge.

In southern Mesopotamia, these tribesmen had been able to infiltrate the areas between the cities. In the far south, a group related to the Arameans called the Kalhu, (in Biblical sources, the Chaldeans) settled in the Sealands, the marsh area that had always been so difficult to keep under centralized control, and thus could interfere with the sea-borne trade of the Persian Gulf.

At the beginning of the first millennium, it might have seemed that Mesopotamian civilization was fading away in a wash of nomads.  But the curtain was about to rise on the most powerful Mesopotamia empire ever, and some curtain calls.

The Neo-Assyrian Empire and the Conquest of the Near East. 
Early in the 10th century B.C., a new Assyrian dynasty led by several able kings saw the revival of economic stability and military initiative that led to the creation of a true Assyrian empire. Early steps included campaigns to establish secure borders, fortifying the cites of Kirkuk and Tell Halaf and annexing small Aramean principalities on the Euphrates to protect trade routes.

The southern frontier with Babylon was defined by a treaty, the text of which has been preserved, and from this point forward, preserved documents that scholars call limmu lists, provide accurate historical dating down to year and month.

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Subsequent kings campaigned on an annual basis for part of every year with an exceptionally well-organized army. At the center was a small standing army, with an elite corps of royal guards (an ancient equivalent of Saddam's Republican Guard unit), shock troops, noblemen (who wore uniforms and helped finance military campaigns), supplemented by annual levies of militia, which came from Assyria as well as conquered and incorporated provinces.

Estimates of troop size range from 100,000-200,000 soldiers (truly immense given the size of the overall population). The army was highly disciplined and organized into specialized units devoted to chariotry, cavalry, infantry, engineers, archers and service workers. 

Surviving texts and magnificent relief sculptures discovered at Nineveh and other Assyrian-era sites provide elaborate detail about the military campaigns, depicting scenes of battle, looting of conquered cities, deportation of conquered peoples, horrific instances of torture (flaying, impaling) and carnage and camp life. In addition to troops, the campaigns, which were usually led by the king or high officer of state, included scribes, who are sometimes depicted in the bas-relief sculptures recording booty: one writing Akkadian on clay with a stylus and another writing in the increasingly widely spoken Aramaic on papyrus with a pen.

Like Napoleon in Egypt, Assyrian kings apparently brought along artists, and the apparent accuracy of geographical details, foreign architecture, costume, suggests sketches were made on the spot to provide information for the relief carvers who plied their trade back in the capital.

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Conquered peoples were often deported great distances and resettled in Assyrian provinces to break down their patriotic spirit  and minimize the possibility of revolts. The “ten lost tribes of Israel” were deported to the region of Lake Urmia after Shalmaneser conquered Samaria, the capital of the northern kingdom of Israel.

During the ninth century BC, two long-reigning kings, Ashurnasirpal II (883-859 BC) and Shalmaneser III (859-824 BC),  extended control  as far west as Carcamesh, defeating at Qarqar a coalition led by the kings of Damascus and Israel (Ahab), and gaining control of all of Syria.

The next great king, Tiglath-Pileser III (745-727 BC) undertook administrative reforms, reorganizing the civil service and provinces, and set up a system of posting stages (for which the Persians are often given credit) across the empire to facilitate the rapid passage of messengers between king and governors. Tiglath-Pileser III campaigned against Urartu to the northeast and extended Assyrian control all the way to the Mediterranean.

Under Sargon, Sennacherib, Esarhaddon and Ashurbanipal, the empire reached its widest extent with the conquest of Egypt in the south (although it was not held for long) and Elam in the east. Ashurbanipal is also famous for his library in Nineveh and his claims of literacy, which included the ability to read even ancient and difficult Sumerian texts.

The Imperial Cities of Nineveh, Kahlhu and Dur Sharrukin. While Assur remained a sacred city and the religious center, the Assyrian empire had three great capital cities: Nineveh (which was of considerable age), Kalhu and Dur Sharrukin (a brand new city, built from the ground up, like a kind of Mesopotamian Brasilia or Dubai.

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Traces of occupation at Nineveh have dated to the beginning of the sixth millennium BC, and an Akkadian king founded a temple for Ishtar there, Sennacherib made it his capital, and it remained as such until the fall of Assyria.

Kalhu (modern Nimrud) was a less important city at the junction of the Tigris and Upper Zab rivers which Ashurnasirpal enlarged and chose as his capital, ceremonially opened in 879, and settled with peoples captured and deported during his campaigns. The extensive building projects included temples, gardens and a zoo. A stele describes the formal dedication of the city with 70,000 people, workers male and female, government officials and representatives of tributary and vassal states being feted and feasted for ten days.

Most interesting perhaps is Dur Sharrukin, founded by Sargon and given his own name. Sargon is the biblical form of Dur Sharrukin, which literally means “the king is legitimate”. By taking the name of the first Akkadian king as his own, this latter-day Sargon indicates that he was a usurper, and disguises the fact by wrapping himself in the prestige and accomplishments of the Akkadian dynasty. 

The remains of the heavily walled city of Dur Sharrukin, located 12 miles northeast of Nineveh, indicated massive public buildings and fortifications that were constructed in a very short time and completed circa 706 BC.

Though grand in scale, the opportunity to see how the city would work as a capital disappeared after Sargon was killed in battle (a bad omen) in 705 BC and the city was abandoned in favor of Nineveh.

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Each of these imperial cities had elaborate temples and palaces; the latter decorated with magnificent relief sculptures showing scenes of battle, royal hunts and rituals.

The distinctive styles and subject matter suggest each king had a specific artistic program which was designed and executed according to his individual taste and preferences — among the earliest examples of art used for propagandistic purposes, the projection of power and glory through public works of art.

Collapse of Assyria and the Neo-Babylonian Empire.
The contentious relations between Babylonia and Assyria during this period, described by scholars as “the Babylonian problem,” is an issue that was both political and cultural.

A love-hate relationship existed: Babylonia was revered for its cultural supremacy and antiquity, while remaining a major diplomatic and administrative challenge.

Too often Babylonian kings, especially those from the Sealands or Chaldeans, while owing allegiance to Assyria, would assert their independence and occasionally revolt, finally leading to the sack of Babylon under Sennecherib, and the installation of a series of Assyrian puppet kings, including a brother of Ashurbanipal, who himself revolted against his brother and was burned to death in his palace as the city was attacked.


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Meanwhile, far to the south, Chaldeans were growing in strength under a dynasty established by Nabopolassar, and allied diplomatically and by marriage with the Medes, a group of separate but associated Indo-European tribes who had moved into Iran and welded themselves into a mighty military fist.

Assyria’s collapse was relatively sudden. The country had 
over-extended itself in the conquest of Egypt, unable to bear the heavy toll in resources and manpower.  In 612 BC, Nineveh fell to a joint coalition of Chaledeans and Medes under Nebuchadnezzar, who established the Neo-Babylonian Empire (612-539 BC). 

During the Dynasty’s short rule, its kings built extensively in Babylon, including the famous hanging gardens, and the Sacred Way of blue-glazed brick with painted bas-reliefs, and conquered the southern kingdom of Israel, deporting its king and people to Babylonia. This represents the last full flowering of the characteristically Mesopotamian cultural tradition.

In 535 BC the end of Mesopotamia, as we know it, occurred with the fall of Babylon to the Persian Achaemenid ruler, Cyrus the Great, whose ancestors had settled in Elam, allied themselves the Medes and united the Persians across the Iranian Plateau. Cyrus, who extended his conquest to Asia Minor, was a generous and liberal ruler and apparently entered Babylon with little resistance. Cyrus and his successors Darius and Xerxes showed a high degree of religious tolerance, and under their rule, Babylonian culture and daily life continued with little change. But the essence, and independence, of Mesopotamian culture was finished, never to return.

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