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Kitto's Popular Cyclopedia of Biblical Literature

Assyria

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Assyr´ia. We must here distinguish between the country of Assyria, and the Assyrian empire. They are both designated in Hebrew by Asshur. The Asshurim of Genesis 25:3, were, however, an Arab tribe; and in Ezekiel 27:6, the word ashurim (in our version 'Ashurites') is only an abbreviated form of teashur, box-wood.

Assyria Proper

Assyria Proper was a region east of the Tigris, the capital of which was Nineveh. It derived its name from the progenitor of the aboriginal inhabitants—Asshur, the second son of Shem (Genesis 10:22; 1 Chronicles 1:17). Its limits in early times are unknown; but when its monarchs enlarged their dominions by conquest, the name of this metropolitan province was expended to the whole empire.

According to Ptolemy, Assyria was in his day bounded on the north by Armenia, the Gordiæan or Carduchian mountains, especially by Mount Niphates; on the west by the river Tigris and Mesopotamia; on the south by Susiana, or Chuzistan, in Persia, and by Babylonia; and on the east by a part of Media, and mounts Choathras and Zagros. It corresponded to the modern Kurdistan, or country of the Kurds (at least to its larger and western portion), with a part of the pashalik of Mosul. 'Assyria,' says Mr. Ainsworth (Researches in Assyria, Babylonia, and Chaldæa, Lond. 1838), 'including Taurus, is distinguished into three districts: by its structure, into a district of plutonic and metamorphic rocks, a district of sedentary formations, and a district of alluvial deposits; by configuration, into a district of mountains, a district of stony or sandy plains, and a district of low watery plains: by natural productions, into a country of forests and fruit-trees, of olives, wine, corn, and pasturage, or of barren rocks; a country of mulberry, cotton, maize, tobacco, or of barren clay, sand, pebbly or rocky plains; and into a country of date-trees, rice, and pasturage, or a land of saline plants.' The northern part is little else then a mass of mountains, which, near Julamerk, rise to a very great height, Mount Jewar being supposed to have an elevation of 15,000 feet; in the south it is more level, but the plains are often burnt up with scorching heat, while the traveler, looking northward, sees a snowy alpine ridge hanging like a cloud in mid air. On the west this country is skirted by the great river Tigris, the Hiddekel of the Hebrews (Genesis 2:14; Daniel 10:4), noted for the impetuosity of its current [TIGRIS].

The most remarkable feature, says Ainsworth, in the vegetation of Taurus, is the abundance of trees, shrubs, and plants in the northern, and their comparative absence in the southern district. Besides the productions above enumerated, Kurdistan yields gall-nuts, gum-arabic, mastich, manna (used as sugar), madder, castor-oil, and various kinds of grain, pulse, and fruit. Rich informs us that a great quantity of honey, of the finest quality, is produced; the bees (comp. Isaiah 7:18, 'the bee in the land of Assyria') are kept in hives of mud. The naphtha springs, on the east of the Tigris, are less productive than those in Mesopotamia, but they are much more numerous. The zoology of the mountain district includes bears (black and brown), panthers, lynxes, wolves, foxes, marmots, dormice, fallow and red deer, roebucks, antelopes, etc. and likewise goats, but not (as was once supposed) of the Angora breed. In the plains are found lions, tigers, hyenas, beavers, jerboas, wild boars, camels, etc.

Ptolemy divides Assyria into six provinces. Farthest north lay Arrapachitis, south of it was Calakine, perhaps the Chalach of 2 Kings 17:6; 2 Kings 18:11. Next came Adiabene, so called from the above-mentioned rivers Dhab or Diab; it was so important a district of Assyria, as sometimes to give name to the whole country [ADIABENE]. North-east of it lay Arbelitis, in which was Arbela, famous for the battle in which Alexander triumphed over Darius. South of this lay the two provinces of Apolloniatis and Sittakene. The capital of the whole country was Nineveh, the Ninos of the Greeks, the Hebrew name being supposed to denote 'the abode of Ninos,' the founder of the empire. Its site is believed to have been on the east bank of the Tigris, opposite the modern town of Mosul, where there is now a small town called Nebbi Yunus (i.e. the prophet Jonah) [NINEVEH]. At the town of Al Kosh, N. of Mosul, tradition places the birth and burial of the prophet Nahum, and the Jews resort thither in pilgrimage to his tomb.

The greater part of the country which formed Assyria Proper is under the nominal sway of the Turks, who compose a considerable proportion of the population of the towns and larger villages, filling nearly all public offices, and differing in nothing from other Osmanlis. But the aboriginal inhabitants of the country, and of the whole mountain-tract that here divides Turkey from Persia, are the Kurds, from whom the country is now designated Kurdistan. They are still, as of old, a barbarous and warlike race, occasionally yielding a formal allegiance, on the west, to the Turks, and, on the east, to the Persians, but never wholly subdued; indeed, some of the more powerful tribes, such as the Hakkary, have maintained an entire independence. Some of them are stationary in villages, while others roam far and wide, beyond the limits of their own country, as nomadic shepherds; but they are all, more or less, addicted to predatory habits, and are regarded with great dread by their more peaceful neighbors. They profess the faith of Islam, and are of the Sunni sect. All travelers have remarked many points of resemblance between them and the ancient Highlanders of Scotland.

The Christian population is scattered over the whole region, but is found chiefly in the north. It includes Chaldeans, who form that branch of the Nestorians that adheres to the Church of Rome, a few Jacobites, or monophysite Syrians, Armenians, etc. But the most interesting portion is the ancient church of the primitive Nestorians, a lively interest in which has lately been excited in the religious world by the publications of the American missionaries, especially by a work entitled The Nestorians, by Asahel Grant, M.D. Lond. 1841. Besides the settlements of this people in the plain of Ooroomiah to the east, and in various parts of Kurdistan, where they are in a state of vassalage, there has been for ages an independent community of Nestorians in the wildest and most inaccessible part of the country. It lies at nearly equal distances from the lakes of Van and Ooroomiah, and the Tigris, and is hemmed in on every side by tribes of ferocious Kurds; but, entrenched in their fastnesses, the Nestorians have defied the storms of revolution and desolation that have so often swept over the adjacent regions; and in their character of bold and intrepid, though rude and fierce mountaineers, have so entirely maintained their independence unto the present day, as to bear among the neighbors the proud title of Ashiret, 'the tributeless.' The attempts lately made by Dr. Grant and others to prove that this interesting people are the descendants of the ten 'lost' tribes of Israel, cannot be regarded as successful, and will not bear the test of rigid examination. Another peculiar race that is met with in this and the neighboring countries is that of the Yezidees, whom Grant and Ainsworth would likewise connect with the ten tribes; but it seems much more probable that they are an offshoot from the ancient Manichees, their alleged worship of the Evil Principle amounting to no more than a reverence which keeps them from speaking of him with disrespect. Besides the dwellers in towns, and the agricultural population, there are a vast number of wandering tribes, not only of Kurds, but of Arabs, Turkomans, and other classes of robbers, who, by keeping the settled inhabitants in constant dread of property and life, check every effort at improvement; and, in consequence of this, and the influence of bad government, many of the finest portions of the country are little better than unproductive wastes.

The Assyrian Empire

No portion of ancient history is involved in greater obscurity than that of the empire of Assyria. In attempting to arrange even the facts deducible from Scripture, a difficulty presents itself at the outset, arising from the ambiguity of the account given of the origin of the earliest Assyrian state in Genesis 10:11. After describing Nimrod, son of Cush, 'as a mighty one in the earth' the historian adds (Genesis 10:10), 'And the beginning of his kingdom (or rather, the first theatre of his dominion) was Babel, and Erech, and Accad, and Calneh, in the land of Shinar,' i.e. Babylonia. Then follow the words:—'Out of that land went forth Asshur and builded Nineveh,' or (as it is in the margin) 'out of that land he (i.e. Nimrod) went out into Assyria and builded Nineveh.' Looking at the entire context, and following the natural current of the writer's thoughts, we shall find that the second translation yields the most congruous sense. It likewise agrees with the native tradition, that the founder of the Assyrian monarchy and the builder of Nineveh was one and the same person, viz. Ninus, from whom it derived its name, and in that case the designation of Nimrod (the Rebel) was not his proper name, but an opprobrious appellation imposed on him by his enemies. Modern local tradition likewise connects Nimrod with Assyria.

But though Nimrod's 'kingdom' embraced the lands both of Shinar and Asshur, we are left in the dark as to whether Babylon or Nineveh became the permanent seat of government, and consequently, whether his empire should be designated that of Babylonia or that of Assyria. No certain traces of it, indeed, are to be found in Scripture for ages after its erection. In the days of Abraham, we hear of a king of Elam (i.e. Elymais, in the south of Persia) named Chedorlaomer, who had held in subjection for twelve years five petty princes of Palestine (Genesis 14:4), and who, in consequence of their rebellion, invaded that country along with three other kings, one of whom was 'Amraphel, king of Shinar.' It is possible that Chedorlaomer was an Assyrian viceroy, and the others his deputies; for at a later period the Assyrian boasted, 'Are not my princes altogether kings?' (Isaiah 10:8). Yet some have rather concluded from the narrative, that by this time the monarchy of Nimrod had been broken up, or that at least the seat of government had been transferred to Elam. Be this as it may, the name of Assyria as an independent state does not again appear in Scripture till the closing period of the age of Moses. Balaam, a seer from the northern part of Mesopotamia, in the neighborhood of Assyria, addressing the Kenites, a mountain tribe on the east side of the Jordan, 'took up his parable,' i.e. raised his oracular, prophetic chant, and said, 'Durable is thy dwelling-place! Yea in a rock puttest thou thy nest: nevertheless, wasted shall be the Kenite, until Asshur shall lead them captive,' Numbers 24:21-22. The prediction found its fulfillment in the Kenites being gradually reduced in strength (comp. 1 Samuel 15:6), till they finally shared the fate of the trans-Jordanite tribes, and were swept away into captivity by the Assyrians (1 Chronicles 5:26; 2 Kings 16:9; 2 Kings 19:12-13; 1 Chronicles 2:55). But as a counterpart to this, Balaam next sees a vision of retaliatory vengeance on their oppressors, and the awful prospect of the threatened devastations, though beheld in far distant times, extorts from him the exclamation, 'Ah! who shall live when God doeth this? For ships shall come from the coast of Chittim, and shall afflict Asshur, and shall afflict Eber, but he also [the invader] shall perish forever,' Numbers 24:23-24. This is not without obscurity; but it has commonly been supposed to point to the conquest of the regions that once formed the Assyrian empire, first by the Macedonians from Greece, and then by the Romans, both of whose empires were in their turn overthrown.

In the time of the Judges, the people of Israel became subject to a king of Mesopotamia, Chushanrishathaim (Judges 3:8), who is by Josephus styled King of the Assyrians; but we are left in the same ignorance as in the case of Chedorlaomer, as to whether he was an independent sovereign or only a vicegerent for another. The first king of Assyria alluded to in the Bible, is he who reigned at Nineveh when the prophet Jonah was sent thither (Jonah 3:6). Hales supposes him to have been the father of Pul, the first Assyrian monarch named in Scripture, and dates the commencement of his reign B.C. 821. By that time the metropolis of the empire had become 'an exceeding great' and populous city, but one pre-eminent in wickedness (Jonah 1:2; Jonah 3:3; Jonah 4:11).

The first expressly recorded appearance of the Assyrian power in the countries west of the Euphrates is in the reign of Menahem, king of Israel, against whom 'the God of Israel stirred up the spirit of Pul (or Phul), king of Assyria' (1 Chronicles 5:26), who invaded the country, and exacted a tribute of a thousand talents of silver 'that his hand' i.e. his favor, might be with him to confirm the kingdom in his hand' (2 Kings 15:19-20). Newton places this event in the year B.C. 770, in the twentieth year of Pul's reign, the commencement of which he fixes in the year B.C. 790. About this period we find the prophet Hosea making frequent allusions to the practice both of Israel and Judea, to throw themselves for support on the kings of Assyria. The supposition of Newton is adopted by Hales, that at Pul's death his dominions were divided between his two sons, Tiglathpileser and Nabonassar, the latter being made ruler at Babylon, from the date of whose government or reign the celebrated era of Nabonassar took its rise, corresponding to B.C. 747. When Ahaz, king of Judah, was hard pressed by the combined forces of Pekah, king of Israel, and Rezin, king of Damascene-Syria, he purchased Tiglathpileser's assistance with a large sum, taken out of his own and the Temple treasury. The Assyrian king accordingly invaded the territories of both the confederated kings, and annexed a portion of them to his own dominions, carrying captive a number of their subjects (2 Kings 15:29; 2 Kings 16:5-10; 1 Chronicles 5:26; 2 Chronicles 28:16; Isaiah 7:1-11; comp. Amos 1:5; Amos 9:7). His successor was Shalman (Hosea 10:4), Shalmaneser or Salmanasser, the Enemessar of the apocryphal book Tobit (Tobit 1:2). He made Hoshea, king of Israel, his tributary vassal (2 Kings 17:3); but finding him secretly negotiating with So or Sobaco (the Sabakoph of the monuments), king of Egypt, he laid siege to the Israelitish capital, Samaria, took it after an investment of three years (B.C. 719), and then reduced the country of the ten tribes to a province of his empire, carrying into captivity the king and his people, and settling Cuthaeans from Babylonia in their room (2 Kings 17:3-6; 2 Kings 18:9-11). Hezekiah, king of Judah, seems to have been for a time his vassal (2 Kings 18:7). The empire of Assyria seems now to have reached its greatest extent, having had the Mediterranean for its boundary on the west, and including within its limits Media and Kir on the north, as well as Elam on the south (2 Kings 16:9; 2 Kings 17:6; Isaiah 20:6). In the twentieth chapter of Isaiah (Isaiah 20:1), there is mention of a king of Assyria, Sargon, in whose reign Tartan besieged and took Ashdod in Philistia. He is supposed to have been the successor of Shalmaneser, and to have had a short reign of two or three years. His attack on Egypt may have arisen from the jealousy which the Assyrians entertained of that nation's influence over Palestine ever since the negotiation between its King So, and Hoshea, king of Israel. From many incidental expressions in the book of Isaiah we can infer that there was at this time a strong Egyptian party among the Jews, for that people are often warned against relying for help on Egypt, instead of simply confiding in Jehovah (Isaiah 30:2; Isaiah 31:1; comp. Isaiah 20:5-6). The result of Tartan's expedition against Egypt and Ethiopia was predicted by Isaiah while that general was yet on the Egyptian frontier at Ashdod (Isaiah 20:1-4); and it is not improbable that it is to this Assyrian invasion that the prophet Nahum refers when he speaks (Nahum 3:8-10) of the subjugation of No, i.e. No-Ammun, or Thebes, the capital of Upper Egypt, and the captivity of its inhabitants. The occupation of the country by the Assyrians, however, must have been very transient, for in the reign of Sargon's successor, Sennacherib, or Sancherib, we find Hezekiah, king of Judah, throwing off the Assyrian yoke, and allying himself with Egypt (2 Kings 18:7; 2 Kings 18:21). This brought against him Sennacherib with a mighty host, which, without difficulty, subdued the fenced cities of Judah, and compelled him to purchase peace by the payment of a large tribute. But 'the treacherous dealer dealt very treacherously' (Isaiah 33:1); and, notwithstanding the agreement, proceeded to invest Jerusalem. In answer, however, to the prayers of the 'good king' of Judah, the Assyrian was diverted from his purpose, partly by the 'rumour' (Isaiah 37:6) of the approach of Tirhakah, king of Ethiopia, and partly by the sudden and miraculous destruction of a great part of his army (2 Kings 18:13-37; 2 Kings 19; Isaiah 36, 37). He himself fled to Nineveh, where, in course of time, when worshipping in the temple of his god Nisroch, he was slain by his sons Adrammelech and Sharezer, the parricides escaping into the land of Armenia—a fact which is preserved in that country's traditionary history [ARARAT].

Sennacherib was succeeded by his son Esarhaddon, or Assarhaddon, who had been his father's viceroy at Babylon (2 Kings 19:37; Isaiah 37:38). Hales regards him as the first Sardanapalus. The only notice taken of him in Scripture is that he settled some colonists in Samaria (Ezra 4:2), and as (at Ezra 4:10) that colonization is ascribed to the 'great and noble Asnaapper,' it is supposed that that was another name for Esarhaddon, but it may have been one of the great officers of his empire. It seems to have been in his reign that the captains of the Assyrian host invaded and ravaged Judah, carrying Manasseh, the king, captive to Babylon. The subsequent history of the empire is involved in almost as much obscurity as that of its origin and rise. The Medes had already shaken off the yoke, and the Chaldeans soon appear on the scene as the dominant nation of Western Asia; yet Assyria, though much reduced in extent, existed as an independent state for a considerable period after Esarhaddon. The last monarch was Sarac, or Sardanapalus II (B.C. 636), in whose reign Cyaxares, king of Media, and Nabopolassar, viceroy of Babylon, combined against Assyria, took Nineveh, and, dividing what remained of the empire between them, reduced Assyria Proper to a province of Media (B.C. 606).

In this brief sketch of the history of the Assyrian empire, we have mainly followed the writers of the Old Testament, from whom alone any consistent account can be derived.

The political constitution of the Assyrian empire was no doubt similar to that of other ancient states of the East, such as Chaldea and Persia. The monarch, called 'the great king' (2 Kings 18:19; Isaiah 36:4), ruled as a despot, surrounded with his guards, and only accessible to those who were near his person. Under him there were provincial satraps, called in Isaiah 10:8, 'princes' of the rank and power of ordinary kings. The great officers of the household were commonly eunuchs. The religion of the Assyrians was, in its leading features, the same as that of the Chaldeans, viz. the symbolical worship of the heavenly bodies, especially the planets. In Scripture there is mention of Nisroch, Adrammelech, Anammelech, Nebchaz, Tartak, etc. as the names of idols worshipped by the natives either of Assyria Proper or of the adjacent countries which they had subdued.

 

 

 

 

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Bibliography Information
Kitto, John, ed. Entry for 'Assyria'. "Kitto's Popular Cyclopedia of Biblical Literature". https://www.studylight.org/encyclopedias/eng/kbe/a/assyria.html.

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