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Assyrians: Lost Kings of the Orient

Assyrians: Lost Kings of the Orient

Cover photo: Orientalizing

Assyrians are one of the ancient people of the Middle East, they are the descendants of the ancient population of Mesopotamia. Today Assyrians make a small minority in the region although they were once a nation that had a big empire, or as the Romans called "the first world empire of humanity."


Assyrians come from the Semitic population of Mesopotamia, where in 2600-2500 B.C. they founded their city Ashur name after their supreme god. Ashur being the spiritual centre became the centerpiece of the future mighty empire.

In the Assyrian state great attention was paid to the development all the spheres: science, art, crafts, but military science is what made Assyria famous and inscribed the country in the pages of world history. It was a nation with powerful military force that kept the entire Middle East region in awe.

The florescence of Assyria is associated with the king Tiglath-Pileser III (745—727 B.C.), who carried out fundamental reforms in the country. To strengthen his power the king formed his circle of confidants of eunuchs (castrates), whose physical mutilation was intended to ensure loyalty to the king and safety to his dynasty. By the way Assyrians were the first ones to introduce the practice of using eunuchs in the Middle East.

The king Tiglath-Pileser III

Using the resettlement method Tiglath-Pileser III successfully assimilated the people on the conquered territories: surrounded by the Assyrians other nations quickly learnt Aramaic language and culture. 

Migration of the family from the captured Babylon. Fragment of wall decoration of Tiglat-Pileser's Palace / Karen Radner.

Tiglath-Pileser III carried out radical military reforms: he reorganized the army and formed permanent professional forces with perfect Intelligence and communication service that were fully in his custody. It was in Assyria that they began to actively use steel weapons for the first time, and the new service in the forces; the combat engineers allowed successfully conducting sieges of fortresses and also breaking the way for cavalry through the rough terrain. 

Assyrian Fighters / Simon Leach

Battle of the Assyrian Cavalry with the Lion / Simon Leach

Tiglath-Pileser III died leaving the successors an empire stretching from the Persian Gulf to the Mediterranean Sea. Different tribes and nations constantly attacked the vast territory but the Assyrians persistently repelled the attacks defending their borders. It is worth noting that not a single army led wars in such a large area as Assyrians: they conquered the great city of Babylon and captured the inhabitants of Israel, even the Egyptian pharaoh paid tributes to the Assyrian king.

The Assyrian power fell in 612 B.C.: after the death of the last great king Ashurbanipal the empire fell into internal strife and therefore could not maintain the territories attached to the kingdom and resist the onslaught of the united forces of Media and Babylon. In 609—605 B.C. all the major Assyrian cities: Ashur, Nineveh, Khorasan and Karkemish were tamped out of existence, the Assyrian grand people were annihilated, part of the population was killed and the other part scattered across the neighboring lands. 

Language, Culture and Religion

Ancient Assyrians spoke Semitic languages: Assyro-Babylonian (Akkadian), but then it was squeezed out by the Aramaic language that became the language of international communication throughout the Middle East region.

If we talk about the ancient Assyrian culture, the most remarkable part of is the art of the Assyrian sculptors that had influenced Persian and even Greek culture: decorative compositions on palaces depicting the king and his deeds are one of the brightest pages of world art. 

Protective amulet with cuneiform writing

Another important contribution of the Assyrians to the history of world culture is the development of literature-historical genre “annals”. In the “annals” the main focus was on the artistic presentation of the material, and the authenticity of the historical facts took a back seat to, therefore they were full of vivid metaphors, exaggerations (for example the merits of kings) and, on the contrary, detractions (for example some casualties). 

One of the earliest "international books" of world literature & one of the most important literary monuments of ancient Assyria, "The Story of Ahikar", who lived in the VIII-VII centuries BC

The religion of ancient Assyrians had similarities with religious practice of ancient Egyptians. Both the Assyrians and the Egyptians professed polytheism had a conception of post-existence and leaders who ruled on behalf of gods. As mentioned above, the supreme god of Assyrians was Ashur and the king of Assyria was considered as mediator between the god and people. In ancient Assyria it was more important for a ruler to be strong than “nice” and sometimes power demanded violence. It is no coincidence that the goddess of war Ishtar whom the soldiers prayed before the battle was considered one of the main gods in the Assyrian pantheon. 

Goddess of war Ishtar /

The main religious buildings of ancient Assyria were ziggurats (sigguratu in Babylonian language — "peak"), literally "towering places." Although they resemble the Egyptian pyramids, they were built not as tombs but as temples for gods. Ziggurat had square bases and levels with stairs to the top where the temple of the local divinity was located.

A picture of a ziggurat 

With the emergence of Christianity in the region the Assyrians along with Armenians, Greeks and others were one of the first to adopt the religion: living within different empires Christianity conferred them the possibility to maintain their identity among the Greco-Roman paganism in the west and Persian Zoroastrianism in the east.

Our Times

Ever since the fall of Assyria, it has been 2500 years since the Assyrian people have lost sovereignty. They have to survive in the Middle East region where after the VI century Islam became the dominant religion. Turkey, Syria, Iraq and Iran appeared on the lands of former Assyrian empire where radical regimes ruled (or rule up to day) and the Assyrians as a Christian minority had to suffer a lot.

Assyrians performing their national dance

One of the saddest pages in the history of the Assyrians was the genocide committed in the Ottoman Empire at the beginning of the XX century, when almost one third of Assyrians (about 250 thousand people) were exterminated on their historic land and their villages were inhabited by Kurds. Over recent years many fled to neighboring countries to avoid persecutions both from the Sunni and Shia militants during the war in Iraq and most recently from the Islamic State: almost hundred years after the genocide in 2014 ISIS militants exterminated dozens of Assyrians living in northern Iraq, hundred thousand had to flee. Along with that the militants destroyed the ancient Assyrian artifacts in the museum of Mosul and the remains of the ancient Assyrian cities. 

Outrages and persecutions continue to this day that is why very few Assyrians live in their ancestral lands: many have emigrated to the west: to Europe and the USA, there are communities in Transcaucasia, Armenia and Georgia. To some extent Assyrian customs and traditions provide cultural communication between the scattered people, however the main adhesive force of today’s Assyrians is the World Wide Web. As said in one of the headlines, "3000 Years of History but the Internet is Our only Home."

Assyrian wedding. Spouses stand under metal crowns with a twisted cord, a symbol of a crown. Before putting on their rings, the priest blesses them in a glass with wine and water

Modern Assyrians speak a language close to Aramaic, it is also called New Aramaic however with some influence of Akkadian language, i.e. ancient Assyrian language. Syriac alphabet is used for writing (the Syriac is a dead language belonging to the Aramaic group), they write from right to left.

Today from the once mighty nation remain fragments scattered around the world. The tragic fate of Assyrians is demonstrated in the story of famous Armenian writer William Saroyan “Seventy Thousand Assyrians” where according to the plot the Assyrian barber Badal tells the writer the following:

"We were a great people once," (...) "But that was yesterday, the day before yesterday. Now we are a topic in ancient history. We had a great civilization. They're still admiring it. (...) We're washed up as a race, we're through, it's all over, why should I learn to read the language? (...)"

From there W. Saroyan wrote:

"Well," I said, "it is much the same with us. We, too, are old. We still have our church. We still have a few writers, Aharonian, Isahakian, a few others, but it is much the same." "Yes," said the barber, "I know. We went in for the wrong things. We went in for the simple things, peace and quiet and families. We didn't go in for machinery and conquest and militarism. (...) "We are hopeful," I said. "There is no Armenian living who does not still dream of an independent Armenia." "Dream?" said Badal. "Well, that is something. Assyrians cannot even dream any more. Why, do you know how many of us are left on earth?" "Two or three million," I suggested. "Seventy thousand," said Badal. "That is all. Seventy thousand Assyrians in the world, and the Arabs are still killing us. They killed seventy of us in a little uprising last month. There was a small paragraph in the paper. Seventy more of us destroyed. We'll be wiped out before long. My brother is married to an American girl and he has a son. There is no more hope. We are trying to forget Assyria. My father still reads a paper that comes from New York, but he is an old man. He will be dead soon." 

A page from the W. Saroyan's "Seventy Thousand Assyrians" story

This snatch of the story written in 1937 is of current concern. In XXI century Assyrians who according to various estimates are less than million people live with the memory of lapsed power and stories from heroic eposes. It is characteristic of ancient people who from the central roles in the region were left in the periphery.


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