Essentials: key topics in Assyrian politics and scholarship

This section provides a series of short overviews of the political and intellectual contexts of the letters, queries, and reports. Use the links below or in the menu to the left to select an article.

The Assyrian king's basic aim was to fulfil the wishes of the god Aššur. His scholars advised him on the best means of doing so. Detail from the stone decoration of Assurnasirpal II's Northwest Palace at Nimrud, room B panel 7 (bottom), c.860 BC (BM ANE 124549). Photo by Eleanor Robson. View large image.

The Assyrian empire in the 7th century BC. Assyria was by far the largest Middle Eastern empire of its time. It was organised into 70 provinces, and ruled by an all-powerful king.

Nineveh, Assyria's capital in the 7th century BC. This ancient settlement was transformed into the world's largest city when king Sennacherib made it the political centre of the Assyrian empire.

Sennacherib, king of Assyria (704–681). Infamous for his siege of Jerusalem, Sennacherib changed the very foundations of the Assyrian Empire with his political reforms, which may have provoked his own murder.

Esarhaddon, king of Assyria (681–669). Despite his fragile health, Esarhaddon ruled Assyria with an iron fist. His political decisions influenced the fate of people from Egypt to Iran.

Assurbanipal, king of Assyria (669-630?). The last great king of Assyria was a highly educated younger son of Esarhaddon. He fought with his brother over the right to rule Babylon — and won.

The royal family: queen, crown prince, eunuchs and others. The Assyrian queen and crown prince were nearly as powerful as the king. Other family members also had political roles to play, as did the royal eunuchs.

The king's advisors. The Assyrian king was surrounded by an elaborate retinue of courtiers. They included magnates of state, provincial governors, military officials, and scholarly advisors.

Assurbanipal's Library. The greatest library of antiquity comprised some 28,000 clay tablets. Some were donated or inherited, others written specially for it, and others captured from the great temples of Babylonia.

Celestial and terrestrial divination. The royal scholars systematically observed certain events in the the skies and on the earth. They read omens into these events, with which they advised the king on the gods' intentions for Assyria.

Sacrificial divination (extispicy). When the king wanted advice from the gods on a particular question, diviners performed a sacrifice. They read the ominous answer from the entrails of the sacrificial ram.

Medicine and healing. When a member of the royal family fell ill, the scholars drew on a variety of healing preparations and rituals. They kept the king informed of the patient's progress.

Lamentation and ritual. When faced with an unfavourable omen for Assyria, the king commissioned lamenters to grovel before the gods. Their chanting and drumming was intended to persuade the gods to change their minds.

Discovery and decipherment. The Assyrian palaces at Nineveh, Kalhu, and Assur were discovered in the 1840s, before the advent of scientific archaeology. Assyriologists are still working to understand it better today.

Cuneiform script. The Assyrians wrote in a wedge-shaped script now called cuneiform. It consisted of many hundreds of characters and was used to write two different languages: Sumerian and Akkadian.

Writing materials. Scribes and scholars wrote cuneiform with a stylus on clay tablets or on waxed wooden writing-boards. They also used the Aramaic alphabet on writing-boards and papyri, but only the tablets survive.

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© Higher Education Academy, 2007-11. Since 2015, SAAo is based at the Ludwig-Maximilians-Universität München, Historisches Seminar (LMU Munich, History Department) - Alexander von Humboldt Chair for Ancient History of the Near and Middle East. Content released under a CC BY-SA 3.0 [] license, 2007-20.
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