The Old Assyrian Period – The Growth Towards an Empire


The country of Assyria encompasses the north of Mesopotamia, made up of city-states that were politically unified after the middle of the second millennium b.c.e. Assyria derived its name from the
city-state Ashur (Assur). This city was subject to the Agade king, Manishtushu, and the Ur III king, Amar- Sin. During the Ur III period, Ashur also appears as the name of the city’s patron deity. Scholars have suggested that the god derived his name from the city and, indeed, may even represent the religious idealization of the city’s political power.

The Old Assyrian period

The Old Assyrian period (c. 2000–1750 b.c.e.) began when the city of Ashur regained its independence. Its royal building inscriptions are the first attested writing in Old Assyrian, an Akkadian dialect distinct from the Old Babylonian then used in southern Mesopotamia. This period also saw the institution of the limmu, whereby each year became named after an Assyrian official, selected by the casting of lots. The sequence of limmu names is not continuous for the second millennium b.c.e., but has been completely preserved for the first millennium b.c.e. A solar eclipse (dated astronomically to 763 b.c.e.) has been dated by limmu and thus provides a fixed chronology for Assyrian and—by means of synchronisms—much of ancient Near Eastern history.


During the Old Assyrian period Ashur engaged extensively in long-distance trade, establishing merchant colonies at Kanesh and other Anatolian cities. Ashur imported tin from Iran and textiles from Babylonia and, in turn, exported them to Kanesh. Due to political upheavals, Kanesh was eventually destroyed, and Assyria’s Anatolian trade was disrupted. Before this disaster, moreover, Ashur itself had been incorporated into the growing empire of Eshnunna.


Around the end of the 19th century b.c.e., the Amorite Shamshi-Adad I attacked the Eshnunna empire and conquered the cities of Ekallatum, Ashur, and Shekhna (renamed Shubat-Enlil). With the defeat of Mari in 1796 b.c.e., Shamshi-Adad could rightfully boast that he “united the land between the Tigris and the Euphrates” in northern Mesopotamia. The Assyrian King List was manipulated so as to include Shamshi-Adad in the line of native rulers, despite his foreign origins. In the new empire Shamshi-Adad reigned as “Great King” in Shubat-Enlil, delegating his elder son, Ishme- Dagan, as “king of Ekallatum” and his younger son, Yasmah-Adad, as “king of Mari.” Government officials were frequently interchanged among the three courts. This mobility had the effect of homogenizing administrative practices throughout the kingdom, as well as creating loyalty to the central administration instead of to native territories. Shamshi-Adad’s empire, unfortunately, did not survive him for long. A native ruler, Zimri-Lim, reclaimed Mari and King Hammurabi of Babylon eventually subjugated northern cities such as Ashur and Nineveh.

Middle Assyrian kingdom

The four centuries after Ishme-Dagan are referred to as a “dark age,” when historical records are scarce. During this time the kingdom of Mittani was founded. As it expanded its territory in northern Mesopotamia, the city-states once united under Shamshi-Adad became separate political units. The Middle Assyrian kingdom (1363–934 b.c.e.) began when Ashur-uballit I threw off the Mitannian yoke. Whereas former rulers had identified themselves with the city of Ashur, Ashur-uballit was the first to claim the title “king of the land of Assyria,” implying that the region had been consolidated as a single territorial state under his reign. In his correspondence to the pharaoh, Ashur-uballit claimed to be a “Great King,” on equal footing with the important rulers of Egypt, Babylonia, and Hatti.

Adad-nirari I and Shalmaneser I

Mitanni remained in the unenviable position of warfare on two fronts: the Hittites from the northwest and Ashur-uballit’s successors from the east. Adad-nirari I annexed much of Mitanni, extending Assyrian’s western frontier just short of Carchemish. Shalmaneser I turned Mitannian territory into the Assyrian province of “Hanigalbat,” governed by an Assyrian official. His reign also witnessed the first seeds of Assyria’s policy on deportation: Conquered peoples were relocated away from their homeland in order to crush rebellious tendencies as well as to exploit new agricultural land for the empire.

Tukulti-Ninurta I

Tukulti-Ninurta I conquered Babylon and deposed the Kassite king, Kashtiliash IV. He appointed a series of puppet kings on Babylon’s throne, but a local rebellion soon returned control to the Kassites. This Assyrian monarch also set a precedent by founding a new capital, naming it after himself (“Kar-Tukulti- Ninurta”). Tukulti-Ninurta was eventually assassinated by one of his sons, and the rapid succession of the next three rulers suggests violent contention for the throne.

Assyrian annals

Stability returned to Assyria with the ascension of Ashur-resha-ishi I. Around this time the increased
use of iron for armor and weapons greatly influenced the methods of Assyrian warfare. His son, Tiglathpileser I, achieved great victories in the Syrian region and even campaigned as far as the Mediterranean. He was the first to record his military campaigns in chronological order, thus giving rise to the new genre of “Assyrian annals.”


To the south conflict between Assyria and Babylonia was temporarily halted by the advent of a common enemy: the Aramaeans. They were a nomadic Semitic people in northern Syria, who ravaged Mesopotamia in times of famine. Under this invasion Assyria lost its territory and may have been reduced to the districts of Ashur, Nineveh, Arbela, and Kilizi.

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