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Ancient Near East - The Fall of the Assyrian Empire

Updated: Feb 28, 2022


Assurbanipal was one of the longest reigning kings of Assyria. He ruled over the empire for 42 years and, in that time, campaigned successfully and ruled efficiently. However, late in his reign, control over certain peripheral areas of the empire started to slip. The empire had grown too large and the regions were being overtaxed. Furthermore, the vastness of the Assyrian domain made it difficult to defend the borders. As great in numbers as the army remained, there were not enough men to keep garrisoned at every significant fort or outpost.

By 629 B.C., Assurbanipal was in ill health. He left Nineveh for the city of Haran and left the empire in the hands of his son, Assur-etel-ilani. This decision was challenged by the new king's brother, Sin-shar-ishkun and a civil war erupted. The territories of the Assyrian Empire took advantage of this division and began to exercise more autonomy than they had been allowed previously. When Assurbanipal died in 627 B.C., the empire broke apart.

In 626 B.C., a native dynasty in Babylon arose under a former Assyrian official, Nabopolassar. Various cities proclaimed allegiance to the different claimants now fighting for the Assyrian throne, weakening the empire further. The Babylonians laid siege to and conquered several of the cities, causing great hardship among the inhabitants. By 616 B.C., Nabopolassar had sufficiently extended his powers throughout the region to be able to include Assyria.

Simultaneously, in western Iran, a mountain people called the Medes had strengthened its army, probably taking advantage of the power vacuum caused by Assurbanipal's eradication of Elam. The Medes had served the Assyrians in the past as mercenaries and may have learned advanced military techniques from their masters. In 615 B.C., while under the reign of King Cyaxares, they attacked cities in Assyria's heartland, and concluded an alliance with Babylon, possibly selling their services as mercenaries to them. In 613 B.C., the Assyrian army seems to have rallied and successfully repelled Babylonian, Median, and Scythian attacks. However, in 612 B.C., Nabopolassar and the Median King Cyaxares led a concentrated coalition of forces including Babylonians, Chaldeans, Medes, Persians, Scythians, and Cimmerians in an attack on Nineveh. The size of the forces brought against Assyria in its weakened state proved too much, and, after a bitter three-month siege, followed by house-to-house fighting, Nineveh finally fell, with Sin-shar-ishkun being killed defending his capital.

An Assyrian general, Assur-uballit II, became king of Assyria during the fighting. According to the Babylonian Chronicle, he was offered the chance to bow in vassalage to the rulers of the alliance. However, he refused and managed to fight his way free of Nineveh to set up a new capital at Haran. Nabopolassar, Cyaxares, and their allies, then fought Assur-uballit II for a further five-years, until Haran fell in 608 B.C. After a failed attempt to retake the city, Assur-uballit II disappeared from the pages of history.

The destruction of the great Assyrian Empire was so complete that, within two generations of the fall, no one knew where the cities had been. The ruins of Nineveh were covered by the sands and lay buried for the next 2,000 years.


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