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Assyria was an important empire in the ancient Near East, and it had a significant impact on the authors of the Hebrew Bible, who mention the empire and its kings in several places.

Panel relief of the Assyrian ruler Sennacherib watching the capture of the Judean city Lachish, discovered in the Nineveh South West Palace, ca. 700–692 BCE. Courtesy The British Museum.

The Assyrian Empire is widely considered the world’s first empire. At its peak in the first millennium BCE, it encompassed Mesopotamia and the surrounding areas from Elam (southwest Iran) in the east to the Levant (the eastern Mediterranean coastal region), Cyprus, and Egypt in the west. It also extended into Anatolia (Turkey) in the north and to the Persian Gulf in the south. The empire’s impact on world history and the Hebrew Bible in particular was substantial.

How did the Assyrian Empire develop?

Assyria’s origins begin with a single city, Ashur (Qal’at Sherqat, Iraq), which was founded on the Tigris River in the third millennium BCE. For a long time, Ashur was mostly subject to other kingdoms, such as those of Akkad and Ur. When the third dynasty of Ur dynasty collapsed around 2025 BCE, Ashur gained its independence and developed into a city-state. This began the Old Assyrian period. During this period, Ashur was governed by a ruler and a city assembly, and merchants founded trading colonies in Anatolia, which established Ashur as a central hub in trade between Anatolia, southern Mesopotamia, and Elam. Towards the end of the seventeenth century, Assur was conquered by the Amorite kingdom and then by the Mittanian kingdom.

When Mitanni fell in the fourteenth century, Ashur became the capital of the Middle Assyrian kingdom, a territorial state that controlled northern Mesopotamia. The region was called māt Aššur,“land of Ashur,” that is, Assyria. In the ninth century, Assyria developed into an empire. This begins the Neo-Assyrian period. Assyria expanded aggressively outwards in the eighth century, reaching its zenith in the seventh century under the Sargonid dynasty. While many factors contributed to Assyria’s fall, the empire’s final chapter began when Nabopolassar became king of the neighboring kingdom of Babylonia in 626 and declared war against Assyria. Assur fell in 614, and Assyrian Empire came to a symbolic end around 612 BCE with the fall of Nineveh, which had become the capital in the early seventh century. The last Assyrian ruler lived in Ḫarrān until it was captured in 609.

What do we know about Assyrian religion?

Like other Near Eastern religions, Assyrian religion was polytheistic. Each city and temple was home to numerous deities, many of whom were shared with Assyria’s southern neighbor, Babylonia. The dominant male god was Ashur, who originated in the eponymous city and became the patron of the kings and the empire. Kings were crowned in the Ashur temple, and they participated as high priests in certain important state rituals. The war goddess Ištar became the primary female deity, particularly when the capital moved to Nineveh, one of her patron cities. Assyrian religion was nonproselytizing, and conquered peoples maintained their local traditions.

Why is Assyria important for biblical history?

The first Israelite king mentioned in the Assyrian royal inscriptions was Ahab, against whom the Assyrian king Shalmaneser III fought in 853 BCE. Shalmaneser III’s Black Obelisk features the earliest depiction of an Israelite king (Jehu’s surrender in 841). Subsequent Assyrian kings pushed westwards and had more frequent political and military interactions with Levantine states. The northern kingdom of Israel fell to Assyria in 722/720, and the southern kingdom of Judah, which had initially allied with Assyria, became a vassal state in 701 after it attempted to reject Assyrian hegemony. Resettling conquered peoples was a common practice in the ancient Near East, and many Levantine peoples were subsequently moved by the Assyrians into Mesopotamia. However, Israel and Judah were among many territories Assyria sought to control in the Levant as the empire moved towards the Mediterranean Sea and its trading routes. From Assyria’s perspective, the Levantine states had no special status, unlike Assyria’s southern neighbor Babylonia, which was consistently Assyria’s focus for economic, cultural, and prestige reasons.

In contrast to the relatively minor status of Israel and Judah in the Assyrian royal inscriptions, Assyria’s expansion had a significant impact on the authors of the Hebrew Bible, who mention the empire and historical events relating to it in numerous places. For instance, several Assyrian kings are named, including Shalmaneser V, Tiglath-pileser III, Sargon II, Sennacherib, Esarhaddon, and possibly Ashurbanipal. Several conflicts between Assyrian kings and rulers of Israel and Judah were recorded in both biblical and Assyrian texts. In some cases, the accounts agree to some extent, such as the interactions between Tiglath-pileser III and Ahaz of Judah and Hoshea of Israel, which are recorded in 2 Kgs 16–17 and Tiglath-pileser III’s annals.

However, the ways in which biblical texts were edited or changed over time and, especially, the addition of ideologically motivated embellishments mean that much of the content is historically unreliable. For instance, Sennacherib’s conquest of Judah is described in 2 Kgs 18–19, 2 Chr 32, and Isa 36–37, which claim an angel decimated the Assyrian army and saved Judah. As mentioned above, however, Judah had actually been defeated and became a vassal of Assyria. Elsewhere, Assyria is often presented more metaphorically; for example, prophetic books like Isaiah and Hosea conceptualize Assyria as an instrument of God’s divine punishment for Israel’s sins. Similarly, the account of Nineveh’s fall in Nahum and the story of Jonah traveling to Nineveh are less about the empire’s historical realities and more about presenting a contrast with the peoples of Israel and Judah or describing the power of Israel and Judah’s deity.

  • Shana Zaia is an Assistant Professor at the Vrije Universiteit Amsterdam in the Netherlands. She is an Assyriologist who specializes in the Neo-Assyrian and Neo-Babylonian Empires. Her published research focuses on state religion, kingship ideals, and imperial administration. She maintains a collection of resources for anyone who is interested in learning more about Assyria on