Before the sun never set on the British Empire, before Genghis Khan swept the steppe, before Rome extended its influence to encircle the Mediterranean Sea, there was ancient Assyria. Considered by historians to be the first true empire, Assyria’s innovations laid the groundwork for every superpower that’s followed. At its height, in the 7th century BCE, the Assyrian Empire stretched across modern Iraq, Syria, Lebanon, Israel, and parts of Turkey, Iran, and Egypt.
Its wonders included a vast library and large botanical and zoological park. But the story of Assyria’s rise to dominance began many centuries earlier, in the Late Bronze Age, in a city called Ashur. Ashur was a tin and textiles trading center located along the Tigris River in northern Iraq. It shared its name with a god thought to be an embodiment of the city and later of the entire empire.
For the administration-minded Assyrians, politics and religion were closely linked. Around 1300 BCE, a high priest named Ashur-uballit I took the title of king and initiated a tradition of military campaigns, effectively transforming Assyria from a city-state to a territorial state. This meant that a single administrative entity oversaw many places, cultures, and peoples. For the next 150 years, Assyria extended its reach and thrived. In the 12th century BCE, a mysterious catastrophe that still bewilders archaeologists caused the Assyrians to lose much of their territory.
A few hundred years later, however, Assyrian kings began a new round of conquests. This time, they honed their administrative system into an empire that would last generations. Assyrians were military innovators and merciless conquerors. During their conquests, they used siege tactics and cruel punishments for those who opposed them, including impalement and flaying. The growth of their empire was due, in part, to their strategy of deporting local populations, then shifting them around the empire to fulfill different needs.
This broke peoples’ bonds with their homelands and severed loyalties among local groups. Once the Assyrians conquered an area, they built cities connected by well-maintained royal roads. Often, when a new king came to power, he would build a new capital. With each move, new palaces and temples were erected and lavishly decorated. Although kings claimed absolute power, we know that an extensive system of courtiers, provincial officials, and scholars influenced affairs.
At least one woman, Sammuramat, ruled the kingdom. Assyrian rulers celebrated their military excursions by having representations of their exploits carved into the walls of their newly built palaces. But despite the picture of a ruthless war state projected by these records, the Assyrian kings were also interested in the cultural traditions of the region, especially those of Babylonia, a separate state to the south.
Babylonia had been a cultural leader for millennia, stretching back to the beginning of writing at the end of the 4th millennium BCE. Assyria saw itself as the inheritor and protector of this tradition. Assyrian rulers supported scholars in specialties ranging from medicine to magic, and the capital cities, like Ninevah, were home to elaborate parks and gardens that housed plants and animals from around the empire.
One of Assyria’s final rulers, Ashurbanipal, sent scholars throughout Babylonia to gather up and copy ancient literary works. Ashurbanipal’s library took the form of clay tablets inscribed with cuneiform in the languages of Akkadian and Sumerian. The library was lost during the final sack of Ninevah in 612 BCE. But thanks to a 19th century archaeological excavation, many masterpieces of ancient literature, including the Epic of Gilgamesh and the Babylonian Creation Epic, survive today.
After centuries of rule, the Assyrian Empire fell to the Babylonians and Medes between 612 and 609 BCE. Yet the innovations that the Assyrians pioneered live on. Their emphasis on constant innovation, efficient administration, and excellent infrastructure set the standard for every empire that’s followed them in the region and across the globe.