The Dark Ages and The Assyrian Empire

The Dark Ages (1595–1200 B.C.E.)

The subsequent era until about 1200 B.C.E. is usually referred to as the Dark Ages because fewer texts were written, thus providing less information for historians to work with. From the fall of the fi rst Babylonian empire to the conquest of Babylon by the Assyrians, raids and counterraids characterized the period, and although lesser dynasties emerged, such as the Hittites and the Kassites, no one nation or people were strong enough to gain the upper hand and take control of the ultimate prize, Babylonia.

Even though in certain epochs Assyrian commanders were able to defeat the lightly armed tribes decisively, submission to one ruler meant very little in the unstable politics of the time. While tribal leaders paid an arranged tribute to signify their obeisance, the minute the Assyrian commanders wheeled around to return home, the tribes went back to their established ways.

The Assyrian Empire (1170–612 B.C.E.)

The Assyrians were Semitic peoples who lived through a turbulent history, fi rst as a small kingdom at the mercy of pillaging tribes and then as subjects of the Babylonians. But in about 1350 B.C.E., Ashuruballit I founded the independent state of Assyria, and a few centuries later, this state metamorphosed into the supreme masters of ancient Iraq.

Throughout their long history of empire-building, the Assyrians were known as fi erce fi ghters, invading and controlling large swaths of land formerly belonging to their traditional enemies, the Babylonians and the mountain tribes, as well as inhabitants of Mediterranean countries far beyond their borders.

Under a succession of able military commanders and rulers and over a period of several centuries, the Assyrians began to expand across the entire known world. Under Tiglath-pileser (r. ca. 1113–1075 B.C.E.), and especially Ashurnasirpal II (r. 883–859 B.C.E.) and his son Shalmaneser III (r. 858–824 B.C.E.), the countries of the eastern Mediterranean fell under Assyrian sway, and for all intents and purposes, the Mediterranean became an Assyrian lake (ca. 853 B.C.E.).

One of the recurrent themes of Assyrian history, then, is perpetual expansion; even when military setbacks occurred, as they often did, the memory of earlier successful raids created a momentum that was not easily forgotten. One of the fi rst actions normally undertaken by a reigning Assyrian king was to step up military offensives to recover lands lost, either in the south or the west. Oppenheim has made a provocative case for the relentless Assyrian compulsion to go to war.

He believes that the Assyrians periodically created and re-created “ephemeral empires” (Oppenheim 1977, 167) that rarely outlasted a particular Assyrian king’s reign because of two main reasons: the instability of the Assyrian system of government and the collapse of the economic revenues available to Assyrian rulers within the core territories. Certainly, evidence suggests that the tightly centralized inner domain (Ashur) was always under pressure to produce a surplus to meet taxes.

Obviously, one of the calculations of Assyrian generals was that a wider empire would extend revenue fl ows. But Oppenheim speculates that the almost automatic imperative to “restore” the greater empire may also have sprung from protonationalist ideals on the part of a select Assyrian ruling clique who wanted to enlarge the homeland for ideological (that is, religious) reasons. In other words, in order to appease the gods as well as to actualize an “Assyrian” identity, more tribute-bearing lands would have to be joined to the Assyrian center.

Of course, on a more mundane level, it is undeniable that the Assyrian campaigns were also launched as defensive wars, to secure the always troublesome outermost borders of the empire and to keep open vital trade routes from northern Iraq to Syria, Anatolia, Iran, and the Gulf.Alongside issues of war and peace, the Assyrians may also have innovated mass deportation campaigns. History relates that Tiglath-pileser III (r. 744–727 B.C.E.) was particularly well known for employing this strategy.

According to Roux, “[W]hole towns and districts were emptied of their inhabitants, who were resettled in distant regions and replaced by people brought in force from other countries. In 742 and 741 B.C.E., for instance, 30,000 Syrians from the region of Hama were sent to the Zagros mountains, while 18,000 Arameans from the left bank of the Tigris were transferred to northern Syria” (Roux 1992, 307).The other famous example is that of Sargon II (r. 721–705 B.C.E.), who vigorously dispersed the Hebrews after the conquest of the northern kingdom of Israel (after having made them pay taxes, as Assyrian kings did with all occupied peoples).

Referred to as the dispersion of the Ten Lost Tribes of Israel, this mass deportation was perfectly in line with Assyrian practice (deportation measures were carried out as far south as Arabia). Deportations occurred for a number of reasons. Assyrian commanders, always anxious to maximize imperial gain, either transported farmers and laborers from one overpopulated area to a less productive district and made the deportees grow crops deemed necessary for the empire or pressed the deportees in the army, or even forced them to relocate to less-developed areas where crafts and industries were absent.

The point, crudely made by these forced migrations, was that Assyrian authorities would not rest until Greater Assyria became completely self-suffi cient in terms of people and resources, and the internal distribution of specializations and services was rationalized to create a rough equity, if not for the Assyrians at large, then at least for the elite that ran the empire.In sum, even though the Assyrians followed the tradition of earlier civilizations and built institutions that infl uenced the region for centuries to come, their innovations and adaptations are always deemed secondary to the more celebrated exploits of boots on the ground.

And yet, most Assyrian kings, for example, were avid builders: Ashurnasirpal II constructed a great palace complex close to the Tigris River and Upper Zab tributary in northern Iraq; eventually the site took on the name of Nimrud (originally, Kalkh). Nimrud, south of present-day Mosul, has been the scene of excavations for more than 150 years by the British, Poles, Italians, Americans, and of course, Iraqis.

Its site is now so well known that archaeologists can confi dently list four important palaces, three smaller ones, “perhaps fi ve temples, three gates, a ziggurat or temple tower of Ninurta, the patron god of the city, and six townhouses, all dating to the period of the Assyrian Empire” (Paley 2003, 1). After the coalition attack on Baghdad in 2003, a National Geographic team drained the underground fl oors of a Baghdad bank to fi nd the vast treasure of one of Ashurnasirpal’s palaces. The bank’s vaults had been plunged underwater in the war’s chaotic aftermath.

The ruler Sargon II, who succeeded Ashurnasirpal II, built an entire town in Khorsabad (Dar-Shrukin). Khorsabad had a square plan and was defended by statues of bull-men erected at the seven major gates. The palace, situated in the inner sanctum of the city, was built on a raised platform and had 300 rooms and 30 courtyards and a ziggurat of many different hues. But Sargon did not live long enough to take pleasure in his new town: One year after Khorsabad was completed, he was killed in battle, after which the Assyrian ruling house retreated to Nineveh, ancient capital of Ashur.

Even Sennacherib (r. 705–681 B.C.E.), famous for destroying Babylon, built temples and palaces and started massive public works to restore agricultural prosperity to the empire. Nineveh became the spacious, fortifi ed capital of the Assyrian Empire with a great exterior wall, the remains of which still occupy the left bank of the Tigris, opposite present-day Mosul.

A splendid palace guarded by statues of bronze lions and surrounded by a landscaped garden, watered by an aqueduct built specially for that purpose, completed the lavish picture. Esarhaddon (r. 680–669 B.C.E.), Sennacherib’s son, rebuilt Babylon, which his father had razed to the ground because of Babylonian “perfi dy,” and by 669 B.C.E., Assyria’s southern province had taken on all the magnifi cence of the old.

The Spread of Tribal Movements

The cities and empires that ruled Iraq and battled each other for domination also constantly fought to extend their sway over the nomadic peoples who lived on the margins of urban settlements and whose histories are, for the most part, unwritten (except by their enemies) and therefore all the more obscure.

Geography truly determined destiny in ancient Iraq; the same patterns were repeated over and over again for thousands of years and all the way into the premodern era, with the eruption of nomadic pastoralists emerging out of the Arabian Peninsula, the settlement of tribal peoples on the fringes of civilization in Iraq, Syria, and Yemen, and their eventual defeat and incorporation into the larger empires.

The fact that city folk were once nomadic pastoralists or seminomads themselves only tends to blur the boundaries between cities, empires, and tribes. The cycle of nomads settling down to form or join already established cities and then blending into larger formations such as empires, only to return to a pastoralist mode once these larger formations disappear, is a familiar one in the Middle East.

It is best described by a 14th-century Muslim historian, Ibn Khaldun, the famous author of al-Muqadimma (Prolegomena). In that work, Ibn Khaldun described the “natural life of empires” as having three stages, basically corresponding to generations in which the nomadic (or, for modern empires, rural) life gives way to the settled, or urban, life. In the fi nal stage, the nomadic life is completely forgotten, and decadence sets in.

The domestication of the camel (2000–1300 B.C.E.), allowed the Arabs to become more mobile, and they started to penetrate into the more prosperous regions of the Middle East. In the ninth century B.C.E., we fi rst begin to hear of the Arabs, a term usually glossed over by archaeologists and historians until the dawn of the Islamic era.

And yet, 15 centuries before the rise of Islam, the word Arab appears on clay tablets in the Assyrian period, starting from the reign of Shalmaneser III onward (Gailani and Alusi 1999, 9–14).

Referring both to the Arabian Peninsula, as well as to a distinct category of people under a variety of names, such as Arubu or Amel-Ur-bi, the term has generally been suspended in favor of broader categories, such as “the Semites,” which came to include not only the Arabs but the Aramaeans and Canaanites as well.

Of nomadic origins but from different regions of the eastern Mediterranean, both the Aramaeans and the Arabs turned to trade once they had crossed into greener Syrian pastures, while the Canaanites, the best-known traders of the region, made Palestine their home. In north Syria, the largest group, the Aramaeans overwhelmed earlier civilizations and took over their cities, eventually subordinating the megalopolis of Aram-Damascus to their growing empire.

Equally important was another community, the Chaldeans, who lived in the marshes of southernmost Iraq. The Chaldeans spoke a dialect of Aramaic but they were a distinct group of peoples. Like the Aramaeans and Arabs at an earlier stage, the Chaldeans were divided into several different regions, each ruled by a tribal chief.

They grew dates, subsisted on fi shing, and bred horses. The Chaldeans, just like the Arabs and the Arameans, profited from the overland trade passing by way of Arabia to northern Syria. Fortune was only to smile on the former group, in 626 B.C.E., when the fl uctuating military and political developments of the period brought forth the Neo-Babylonian Empire.