The Middle Assyrian Empire is the period in the history of Assyria between the fall of the Old Assyrian Empire in the 14th century BC and the establishment of the Neo-Assyrian Empire in the 10th century BC.
By the reign of Eriba-Adad I (1392–1366 BC) Mitanni influence over Assyria was on the wane. Eriba-Adad I became involved in a dynastic battle between Tushratta and his brother Artatama II and after this his son Shuttarna III, who called himself king of the Hurri while seeking support from the Assyrians. A pro-Assyria faction appeared at the royal Mitanni court. Eriba-Adad I had thus finally broken Mitanni influence over Assyria, and in turn had now made Assyria an influence over Mitanni affairs.
Ashur-uballit I (1365–1330 BC) succeeded the throne of Assyria in 1365 BC, and proved to be a fierce, ambitious and powerful ruler. Assyrian pressure from the southeast and Hittite pressure from the north-west, enabled Ashur-uballit I to break Mitanni power. He met and decisively defeated Shuttarna II, the Mitanni king in battle, making Assyria once more an imperial power at the expense of not only the Mitanni themselves, but also Kassite Babylonia, the Hurrians and the Hittites; and a time came when the Kassite king in Babylon was glad to marry Muballiṭat-Šērūa, the daughter of Ashur-uballit, whose letters to Akhenaten of Egypt form part of the Amarna letters.
This marriage led to disastrous results for Babylonia, as the Kassite faction at court murdered the half Assyrian Babylonian king and placed a pretender on the throne. Assur-uballit I promptly invaded Babylonia to avenge his son-in-law, entering Babylon, deposing the king and installing Kurigalzu II of the royal line king there.
Ashur-uballit I then attacked and defeated Mattiwaza, the Mitanni king, despite attempts by the Hittite king Suppiluliumas, now fearful of growing Assyrian power, to help the Mitanni. The lands of the Mitanni and Hurrians were duly appropriated by Assyria, making it a large and powerful empire.
Enlil-nirari (1329–1308 BC) succeeded Ashur-uballit I. He described himself as a "Great-King" (Sharru rabû) in letters to the Hittite kings. He was immediately attacked by Kurigalzu II of Babylon who had been installed by his father, but succeeded in defeating him, repelling Babylonian attempts to invade Assyria, counterattacking and appropriating Babylonian territory in the process, thus further expanding Assyria.
The successor of Enlil-nirari, Arik-den-ili (c. 1307–1296 BC), consolidated Assyrian power, and successfully campaigned in the Zagros Mountains to the east, subjugating the Lullubi and Gutians. In Syria, he defeated Semitic tribes of the so-called Ahlamu group, who were possibly predecessors of the Arameans or an Aramean tribe.
He was followed by Adad-nirari I (1295–1275 BC) who made Kalhu (Biblical Calah/Nimrud) his capital, and continued expansion to the northwest, mainly at the expense of the Hittites and Hurrians, conquering Hittite territories such as Carchemish and beyond. He then moved into north eastern Asia Minor, conquering Shupria. Adad-nirari I made further gains to the south, annexing Babylonian territory and forcing the Kassite rulers of Babylon into accepting a new frontier agreement in Assyria's favor.
Adad-nirari's inscriptions are more detailed than any of his predecessors. He declares that the gods of Mesopotamia called him to war, a statement used by most subsequent Assyrian kings. He referred to himself again as Sharru Rabi (meaning "The Great King" in the Akkadian language) and conducted extensive building projects in Ashur and the provinces.
In 1274 BC, Shalmaneser I (1274–1244 BC) ascended the throne. He proved to be a great warrior king. During his reign he conquered the Hurrian kingdom of Urartu that would have encompassed most of Eastern Anatolia and the Caucasus Mountains in the 9th century BC, and the fierce Gutians of the Zagros. He then attacked the Mitanni-Hurrians, defeating both King Shattuara and his Hittite and Aramaean allies, finally completely destroying the Hurri-Mitanni kingdom in the process.
During the campaign against the Hittites, Shattuara cut off the Assyrian army from their supply of food and water, but the Assyrians broke free in a desperate battle, counterattacked, and conquered and annexed what remained of the Mitanni kingdom. Shalmaneser I installed an Assyrian prince, Ilu-ippada as ruler of Mitanni, with Assyrian governors such as Meli-sah, installed to rule individual cities.
The Hittites, having failed to save Mitanni, allied with Babylon in an unsuccessful economic war against Assyria for many years. Assyria was now a large and powerful empire, and a major threat to Egyptian and Hittite interests in the region, and was perhaps the reason that these two powers, fearful of Assyrian might, made peace with one another. Like his father, Shalmaneser was a great builder and he further expanded the city of Kalhu at the juncture of the Tigris and Zab Rivers.
Shalmaneser's son and successor, Tukulti-Ninurta I (1244–1207 BC), won a major victory against the Hittites and their king Tudhaliya IV at the Battle of Nihriya and took thousands of prisoners. He then conquered Babylonia, taking Kashtiliash IV as a captive and ruled there himself as king for seven years, taking on the old title "King of Sumer and Akkad" first used by Sargon of Akkad. Tukulti-Ninurta I thus became the first Akkadian speaking native Mesopotamian to rule the state of Babylonia, its founders having been foreign Amorites, succeeded by equally foreign Kassites. Tukulti-Ninurta petitioned the god Shamash before beginning his counter offensive. Kashtiliash IV was captured, single-handed by Tukulti-Ninurta according to his account, who "trod with my feet upon his lordly neck as though it were a footstool" and deported him ignominiously in chains to Assyria. The victorious Assyrians demolished the walls of Babylon, massacred many of the inhabitants, pillaged and plundered his way across the city to the Esagila temple, where he made off with the statue of Marduk. He then proclaimed himself "king of Karduniash, king of Sumer and Akkad, king of Sippar and Babylon, king of Tilmun and Meluhha." Middle Assyrian texts recovered at ancient Dūr-Katlimmu, include a letter from Tukulti-Ninurta to his sukkal rabi'u, or grand vizier, Ashur-iddin advising him of the approach of his general Shulman-mushabshu escorting the captive Kashtiliash, his wife, and his retinue which incorporated a large number of women, on his way to exile after his defeat. In the process he defeated the Elamites, who had themselves coveted Babylon. He also wrote an epic poem documenting his wars against Babylon and Elam. After a Babylonian revolt, he raided and plundered the temples in Babylon, regarded as an act of sacrilege. As relations with the priesthood in Ashur began deteriorating, Tukulti-Ninurta built a new capital city; Kar-Tukulti-Ninurta.
However, Tukulti-Ninurta's sons rebelled and besieged the ageing king in his capital. He was murdered and then succeeded by Ashur-nadin-apli (1206–1203 BC) who left the running of his empire to Assyrian regional governors such as Adad-bēl-gabbe. Another unstable period for Assyria followed, it was riven by periods of internal strife and the new king only made token and unsuccessful attempts to recapture Babylon, whose Kassite kings had taken advantage of the upheavals in Assyria and freed themselves from Assyrian rule. However, Assyria itself was not threatened by foreign powers during the reigns of Ashur-nirari III (1202–1197 BC), Enlil-kudurri-usur (1196–1193 BC) and Ninurta-apal-Ekur (1192–1180 BC), although Ninurta-apal-Ekur usurped the throne from Enlil-kudurri-usur.
Ashur-Dan I (1179–1133 BC) stabilised the internal unrest in Assyria during his unusually long reign, quelling instability. During the twilight years of the Kassite dynasty in Babylonia, he records that he seized northern Babylonia, including the cities of Zaban, Irriya and Ugar-sallu during the reigns of Marduk-apla-iddina I and Zababa-shuma-iddin, plundering them and "taking their vast booty to Assyria." However, the conquest of northern Babylonia brought Assyria into direct conflict with Elam which had taken the remainder of Babylonia. The powerful Elamites, under king Shutruk-Nahhunte, fresh from sacking Babylon, entered into a protracted war with Assyria, they briefly took the Assyrian city of Arrapkha, which Ashur-Dan I then retook, eventually defeating the Elamites and forcing a treaty upon them in the process.
Another very brief period of internal upheaval followed the death of Ashur-Dan I when his son and successor Ninurta-tukulti-Ashur (1133 BC) was deposed in his first year of rule by his own brother Mutakkil-Nusku and forced to flee to Babylonia. Mutakkil-Nusku himself died in the same year (1133 BC).
A third brother, Ashur-resh-ishi I (1133–1116 BC) took the throne. This was to lead to a renewed period of Assyrian expansion and empire. As the Hittite empire collapsed from the onslaught of the Indo-European Phrygians (called Mushki in Assyrian annals), Babylon and Assyria began to vie for Aramaean regions (in modern Syria), formerly under firm Hittite control. When their forces encountered one another in this region, the Assyrian king Ashur-resh-ishi I met and defeated Nebuchadnezzar I of Babylon on a number of occasions. Assyria then invaded and annexed Hittite-controlled lands in Asia Minor, Aram (Syria), and Gutians and Kassite regions in the Zagros, marking an upsurge in imperian expansion.
Tiglath-Pileser I (1115–1077 BC), vies with Shamshi-Adad I and Ashur-uballit I among historians as being regarded as the founder of the first Assyrian empire. The son of Ashur-resh-ishi I, he ascended to the throne upon his father's death, and became one of the greatest of Assyrian conquerors during his 38-year reign.
His first campaign in 1112 BC was against the Phrygians who had attempted to occupy certain Assyrian districts in the Upper Euphrates region of Asia Minor; after defeating and driving out the Phrygians he then overran the Luwian kingdoms of Commagene, Cilicia and Cappadocia in western Asia Minor, and drove the Neo-Hittites from the Assyrian province of Subartu, northeast of Malatia.
In a subsequent campaign, the Assyrian forces penetrated Urartu, into the mountains south of Lake Van and then turned westward to receive the submission of Malatia. In his fifth year, Tiglath-Pileser again attacked Commagene, Cilicia and Cappadocia, and placed a record of his victories engraved on copper plates in a fortress he built to secure his Anatolian conquests.
The Aramaeans of northern and central Syria were the next targets of the Assyrian king, who made his way as far as the sources of the Tigris. The control of the high road to the Mediterranean was secured by the possession of the Hittite town of Pitru at the junction between the Euphrates and Sajur; thence he proceeded to conquer the Canaanite/Phoenician city-states of Byblos, Tyre, Sidon, Simyra, Berytus (Beirut), Aradus and finally Arvad where he embarked onto a ship to sail the Mediterranean, on which he killed a nahiru or "sea-horse" (which A. Leo Oppenheim translates as a narwhal) in the sea. He was passionately fond of hunting and was also a great builder. The general view is that the restoration of the temple of the gods Ashur and Hadad at the Assyrian capital of Assur (Ashur) was one of his initiatives. He also invaded and defeated Babylon twice, assuming the old title "King of Sumer and Akkad", forcing tribute from Babylon, although he did not actually depose the actual king in Babylonia, where the old Kassite Dynasty had now succumbed to an Elamite one.
He was succeeded by Asharid-apal-Ekur (1076–1074 BC) who reigned for just two years. His reign marked the elevation of the office of ummânu (royal scribe) in importance.
Ashur-bel-kala (1073–1056 BC) kept the vast empire together, campaigning successfully against Urartu and Phrygia to the north and the Arameans to the west. He maintained friendly relations with Marduk-shapik-zeri of Babylon, however upon the death of that king, he invaded Babylonia and deposed the new ruler Kadašman-Buriaš, appointing Adad-apla-iddina as his vassal in Babylon. He built some of the earliest examples of both Zoological Gardens and Botanical Gardens in Ashur, collecting all manner of animals and plants from his empire, and receiving a collection of exotic animals as tributes from Egypt.
He was also a great hunter, describing his exploits "at the city of Araziqu which is before the land of Hatti and at the foot of Mount Lebanon." These locations show that well into his reign Assyria still controlled a vast empire.
Late in his reign, the Middle Assyrian Empire erupted into civil war, when a rebellion was orchestrated by Tukulti-Mer, a pretender to the throne of Assyria. Ashur-bel-kala eventually crushed Tukulti-Mer and his allies, however the civil war in Assyria had allowed hordes of Arameans to take advantage of the situation, and press in on Assyrian controlled territory from the west. Ashur-bel-kala counterattacked them, and conquered as far as Carchemish and the source of the Khabur river, but by the end of his reign many of the areas of Syria and Phoenicia-Canaan to the west of these regions as far as the Mediterranean, previously under firm Assyrian control, were eventually lost by the Assyrian Empire.
The Bronze Age Collapse from 1200 BC to 900 BC was a dark age for the entire Near East, North Africa, Asia Minor, Caucasus, Mediterranean, and Balkan regions, with great upheavals and mass movements of people.
Assyria and its empire were not unduly affected by these tumultuous events for 150 years, perhaps the only ancient power that was not. However, upon the death of Ashur-bel-kala in 1056 BC, Assyria went into a comparative decline for the next 100 or so years. The empire shrank significantly, and by 1020 BC Assyria appears to have controlled only areas close to Assyria itself, essential to keeping trade routes open in eastern Aramea, south eastern Asia Minor, central Mesopotamia and north western Iran.
New West Semitic peoples such as the Arameans, Chaldeans, and Suteans moved into areas to the west and south of Assyria, including overrunning much of Babylonia to the south. Indo-European speaking Iranic peoples such as the Medes, Persians, and Parthians moved into the lands to the east of Assyria, displacing the native Gutians and pressuring Elam and Mannea (which were all ancient non Indo-European civilizations of Iran). To the north, the Phrygians overran the Hittites, and a new Hurrian state named Urartu arose in eastern Anatolia and the Caucasus. Cimmerians, Colchians (Georgians), and Scythians were around the Black Sea and Caucasus. Egypt was divided and in disarray. Israelites were battling with other fellow Semitic Canaanite peoples such as the Amalekites, Moabites, Edomites, and Ammonites, and the non-Semitic Peleset/Philistines (who were probably one of the so-called Sea Peoples) for the control of southern Canaan.
Despite the apparent weakness of Assyria in comparison to its former might, at heart it in fact remained a solid, well defended nation whose warriors were the best in the world. Assyria, with its stable monarchy, powerful army and secure borders was in a stronger position during this time than potential rivals such as Egypt, Babylonia, Elam, Phrygia, Urartu, Persia, and Media. Kings such as Ashur-bel-kala, Eriba-Adad II, Ashur-rabi II, Ashurnasirpal I, Tiglath-Pileser II, and Ashur-Dan II successfully defended Assyria's borders and upheld stability during this tumultuous time.
Assyrian kings during this period appear to have adopted a policy of maintaining and defending a compact, secure nation and satellite colonies immediately surrounding it, and interspersed this with sporadic punitive raids and invasions of neighboring territories when the need arose.
Eriba-Adad II ruled for only two years, and in that time continued to campaign against the Arameans and neo-Hittites before he was deposed by his elderly uncle Shamshi-Adad IV (1053–1050 BC) who appears to have had an uneventful reign. Ashurnasirpal I (1049–1031 BC) succeeded him, and during his reign he continued to campaign endlessly against the Arameans to the west. Assyria was also afflicted by famine during this period. Shalmaneser II (1030–1019 BC) appears to have lost territory in the Levant to the Arameans, who also appear to have also occupied Nairi in southeast Asia Minor, hitherto an Assyrian colony.
Ashur-nirari IV took the throne in 1018 BC, and captured the Babylonian city of Atlila from Simbar-Shipak and continued Assyrian campaigns against the Arameans. He was eventually deposed by his uncle Ashur-rabi II in 1013 BC.
During the reign of Ashur-rabi II (1013–972 BC) Aramaean tribes took the cities of Pitru and Mutkinu (which had been taken and colonized by Tiglath Pileser I). This event showed how far Assyria could assert itself militarily when the need arose. The Assyrian king attacked the Arameans, forced his way to the far off Mediterranean and constructed a stele in the area of Mount Atalur.
Ashur-resh-ishi II (971–968 BC) in all likelihood a fairly elderly man due to the length of his father's reign, had a largely uneventful period of rule, concerning himself with defending Assyria's borders and conducting various rebuilding projects within Assyria.
Tiglath-Pileser II (967–936 BC) succeeded him, and reigned for 28 years. He maintained the policies of his recent predecessors, but appears to have had an uneventful reign.
Assyria had difficulties with keeping the trade routes open. Unlike the situation in the Old Assyrian period, the Anatolian metal trade was effectively dominated by the Hittites and the Hurrians. These people now controlled the Mediterranean ports, while the Kassites controlled the river route south to the Persian Gulf.
The Middle Assyrian kingdom was well organized, and in the firm control of the king, who also functioned as the high priest of Ashur, the state god. He had certain obligations to fulfill in the cult, and had to provide resources for the temples. The priesthood became a major power in Assyrian society. Conflicts with the priesthood are thought to have been behind the murder of king Tukulti-Ninurta I.
The main Assyrian cities of the middle period were Ashur, Kalhu (Nimrud) and Nineveh, all situated in the Tigris River valley. At the end of the Bronze Age, Nineveh was much smaller than Babylon, but still one of the world's major cities (population c. 33,000). By the end of the Neo-Assyrian period, it had grown to a population of 120,000, and was possibly the largest city in the world at that time.
The Middle Assyrian Period is marked by the long wars fought during this period that helped build Assyria into a warrior society. The king depended on both the citizen class and priests in his capital, and the landed nobility who supplied the horses needed by Assyria's military. Documents and letters illustrate the importance of the latter to Assyrian society. Assyria needed less artificial irrigation than Babylon, and horse-breeding was extensive. Portions of elaborate texts about the care and training of them have been found. Trade was carried out in all directions. The mountain country to the north and west of Assyria was a major source of metal ore, as well as lumber. Economic factors were a common casus belli.
Assyrian architecture, like that of Babylonia, was influenced by Sumero-Akkadian styles (and to some degree Mitanni), but early on developed its own distinctive style. Palaces sported colorful wall decorations, and seal-cutting (an art learned from Mittani) developed apace. Schools for scribes taught both the Babylonian and Assyrian dialects of Akkadian, and Sumerian and Akkadian literary works were often copied with an Assyrian flavor. The Assyrian dialect of Akkadian was used in legal, official, religious, and practical texts such as medicine or instructions on manufacturing items. During the 13th to 10th centuries, picture tales appeared as a new art form: a continuous series of images carved on square stone steles. Somewhat reminiscent of a comic book, these show events such as warfare or hunting, placed in order from the upper left to the lower right corner of the stele with captions written underneath them. These and the excellent cut seals show that Assyrian art was beginning to surpass that of Babylon. Architecture saw the introduction of a new style of ziggurat, with two towers and colorful enameled tiles.
All free male citizens were obliged to serve in the army for a time, a system which was called the ilku-service. A legal code was produced during the 14th and 13th centuries which, among other things, clearly shows that the social position of women in Assyria was lower than that of neighboring societies. Men were permitted to divorce their wives with no compensation paid to the latter. If a woman committed adultery, she could be beaten or put to death. It's not certain if these laws were seriously enforced, but they appear to be a backlash against some older documents that granted things like equal compensation to both partners in divorce. The women of the king's harem and their servants were also subject to harsh punishments, such as beatings, mutilation, and death.
Assyria, in general, had much harsher laws than most of the region. Executions were not uncommon, nor were whippings followed by forced labor. Some offenses allowed the accused a trial under torture/duress. One tablet that covers property rights has brutal penalties for violators. A creditor could force debtors to work for him, but not sell them.
Despite the harsh laws, Assyria was open to homosexual relationships between men. In the Middle Assyrian Laws, sex crimes were punished identically whether they were homosexual or heterosexual. An individual faced no punishment for penetrating someone of equal social class, a cult prostitute or someone whose gender roles were not considered solidly masculine. However, homosexual relationships between fellow soldiers, with slaves or royal attendants, and with those where a social better was submissive or penetrated, were treated as rape and were seen as bad omens. Omen texts referred to male homosexual acts without moral judgement or affirmation. One historian notes that the laws would not be so detailed "if homosexual behavior were not a familiar aspect of daily life of early Mesopotamia."