6. The Assyrian Empire

6.4. Neo-Assyrian Empire

This period is known as the largest expansion of the empire. It is also the era which gave the Assyrian Empire the reputation it has for violence and cruelty. The historian Kriwaczek writes:

"Assyria must surely have among the worst press notices of any state in history. Babylon may be a byname for corruption, decadence and sin but the Assyrians and their famous rulers, with terrifying names like Shalmaneser, Tiglath-PileserSennacheribEsarhaddon and Ashurbanipal, rate in the popular imagination just below Adolf Hitler and Genghis Khan for cruelty, violence, and sheer murderous savagery. (208)"

Advancements in military technology were not the only, or even the primary, contribution of the Assyrians as, during this same time, they made significant progress in medicine, building on the foundation of the Sumerians and drawing on the knowledge and talents of those who had been conquered and assimilated. Ashurnasirpal II made the first systematic lists of plants and animals in the empire and brought scribes with him on campaign to record new finds. Schools were established throughout the empire but were only for the sons of the wealthy and nobility.

Women were not allowed to attend school or hold positions of authority even though, earlier in Mesopotamia, women had enjoyed almost equal rights. The decline in women’s rights correlates to the rise of Assyrian monotheism. As the Assyrian armies campaigned throughout the land, their god Ashur went with them but, as Ashur was previously linked with the temple of that city and had only been worshipped there, a new way of imagining the god became necessary in order to continue that worship in other locales. Kriwaczek writes:

One might pray to Ashur not only in his own temple in his own city, but anywhere. As the Assyrian empire expanded its borders, Ashur was encountered in even the most distant places. From faith in an omnipresent god to belief in a single god is not a long step. Since He was everywhere, people came to understand that, in some sense, local divinities were just different manifestations of the same Ashur. (231)

This unity of vision of a supreme deity helped to further unify the regions of the empire. The different gods of the conquered peoples, and their various religious practices, became absorbed into the worship of Ashur, who was recognized as the one true god who had been called different names by different people in the past but who now was clearly known and could be properly worshipped as the universal deity.