Ashur and the Assyrians: from 2000 BC

Since about 2000 BC the Assyrians, a Semitic group, have worshipped their god Ashur at a shrine on the Tigris known by his name. The city of Ashur has had periods of influence, trading and conquering westwards into Turkey, but the Assyrians have also often been subject to more powerful groups from those regions, such as the Hittites. And they have tended to be overshadowed by their great neighbour to the south, Babylon.

The balance changes markedly in Ashur's favour with the accession, in 883, of Ashurnasirpal II. In 879 he moves his capital to Nimrud, which he adorns with spectacular architecture and sculpture - giving clear notice that the Assyrians are now to be reckoned with.

Apart from a few periods of setback, the successors of Ashurnasirpal establish the Assyrian empire as the greatest yet seen in the Middle East. They do so by regular military campaigns to control and to extend their territories, using an army famed for ruthless efficiency. The northern kingdom of Israel and the coastal cities of Phoenicia are destroyed or subdued in the late 8th and early 7th century (see Israel and Phoencia). Next it is the turn of Egypt. Thebes, far up the Nile, is sacked in 663 BC.

A well-publicized use of brutality does much to encourage any threatened town to capitulate in good time. Those who refuse to do so are submitted to the unprecedented efficiency of Assyria's siege engines.

Battering rams and siege towers: from the 9th century BC

Fortified towns arrive with civilization, and sieges are as old as organized warfare. But siege implements are simple until the Assyrians.

They pay special attention to the battering ram. Soldiers in Early sieges swing a heavy timber ram against a town gate. They are vulnerable to missiles or heated oil from above. Under the Assyrians the ram becomes an engine. It is suspended from the roof of a timber structure, which in turn is mounted on wheels so that it can be pushed into position. Protected within this contraption, soldiers can swing the ram relentlessly against the gate. Archers, in protected turrets on top of the engine, exchange shots on almost equal terms with the defenders on the walls.

A siege tower is trundled towards a besieged town on the same principle as the mobile battering ram, but with a different purpose - to provide a platform as high as the town or fortress walls, from which the invaders can launch an attack.

In the 4th century BC engineers in the armies of Philip of Macedon and of his son, Alexander the Great, build mobile siege towers which can be taken on campaign. They also develop the Catapult which becomes the principal siege weapon of both Hellenistic and Roman armies.

The Assyrian war machine: 879-612 BC

Assyria is the first society to make militarism the central policy of state. A regular event each spring is the departure of the army for conquest. At the head of the march are standard bearers and priests; behind them come the king and his bodyguard, followed by the chariots, the cavalry, the infantry and, bringing up the rear, the baggage train.

This great cavalcade moves outwards through territories already under Assyrian control, growing as it moves, for each region is required to contribute troops. Eventually the great army reaches previously unconquered areas.

Resistance may be brief, for the Assyrian custom is to make an example of any town which refuses to capitulate. Siege engines are brought up, and the end is usually swift. Soon citizens of the unfortunate town are dangling on poles all round the city walls. The prophet Ezekiel provides a terrifying imaginary account of a town besieged, in his vision of Jerusalem destroyed by the wrath of God.

Other towns understand the message and open their gates. If they seem liable to cooperate, they may be incorporated into the Assyrian empire, providing troops for the army in their turn. If not, their people will be taken as slaves and others will be moved into their territory (the probable fate of the Lost tribes of israel after 722 BC).

Any group rash enough to oppose the Assyrians in the field faces formidable opposition. The main fighting force of an Assyrian army is the foot soldiers, wielding slings and spears, or swords and battleaxes of iron, and protected by armour and shields made mainly of leather. But the minority of specialist troops are also highly effective. They work as teams.

Archers on foot, with bows as tall as themselves, are protected by two companions, one carrying a huge shield and the other a spear. The cavalry operate in pairs; one horseman shoots with a Composite bow, while his colleague protects him with a shield. Two-wheeled Chariots carry a driver and an archer, often with a shield-bearer, or even two.

Nineveh: 700-612 BC

After nearly two centuries of Assyrian rule from Nimrud another spectacular capital city is created by Sennacherib, in about 700 BC, at Nineveh. His grandson, Ashburbanipal, builds a palace in the new city ornamented with superb Carvings in relief. He also stocks his palace with the world's first great library (see Ashurbanipal's library).

But Ashurbanipal's death, in 626, is close to Assyria's end. His grandfather's city lasts less than a century. Sennacherib has ruled Mespotamia with the customary Assyrian brutality. His treatment of his neighbours to the south, the Babylonians, eventually provokes the retaliation which proves fatal.

The revival of Babylon: from 625 BC

Sennacherib appals many in Mesopotamia by his brutal destruction, in 689, of the ancient city of Babylon. This act leads to prolonged unrest, occasional periods of outright rebellion and, eventually, to devastating revenge.

In 625 Nabopolassar, a Chaldean, establishes a new dynasty in Babylon (it is variously described by historians as Chaldean or Neo-Babylonian). Nabopolassar attacks Assyria, allying himself with the Medes - eastern neighbours of Assyria, and technically one of their vassal states. In 612 Nineveh is captured and destroyed after a three-month siege. This brings to an abrupt end the story of Assyria. It will be absorbed, eventually, in the Persian empire.