History Of A Nation: Old Assyrian Empire (Assyria Part 1)

c. 2025 BC – c. 1373 BC

We move to the last state that technically has a beginning before 2000 BC, at least by current timeline reckonings. At least the last state we know sufficient information about for me to publish a post on it. There may also be states who have legendary beginnings before now but as far as I’m concerned with doing the first Assyrian Empire I have passed the 2000 BC mark. You may have noticed in my maps that I’ve had Assyria on there for ages and that’s because it was an important city state from about 2500 BC onwards but only develops into a power really worth talking about with the rise of the dynasty of Puzur-Ashur I.


This map shows the approximate political situation for the Old Assyrian Empire at its brief height of local dominance in the 18th century BC. For much of this time it was a lot smaller, concentrated around the cities of Ninive (later Nineveh) and Assur in the east, but managed to extend its control farther west and against the similarly surgent kingdom of Babylon to its south thanks to a number of warrior kings. Though this would be nothing on what later Assyrian Empires could do, and their ‘control’ was more a good network of vassal city states, colonies of Assyrian culture and those swearing loyalty to them for a time, this was still at one point the most powerful state in Mesopotamia. Before it fell into disuse for another hundred years or so.

Assur was one of the northern Sumerian cities and always felt a bit outside of it in culture, so their conquest areas are a little to the north of the Akkadian Empire, but Assyria was in some ways a successor of Akkad, through language and such. Nevertheless, the Assyrian ethnicity has managed to somehow prevail through generations and still survives today, albeit beleagured a little. In 1754 BC, the capital of Assyria was moved to a previously unimportant site at Shubat-Enlil to the northwest. This was under the king Shamshi Adad I, who for a generation had the seat of power there rather than Assur, before it was abandoned in 1681 and power restored to Assur.


Prior to this ‘Old Assyrian Empire’ business, there was some history of Assur. It was founded around about 2500 BC as a Sumerian colony and would have originally had many Sumerian features. We don’t know very much about this early period, the first king of Assyria as an independent state is by tradition called Tudiya, however we only know about him from one source, the Assyrian King List and we have nothing else backing that up. The same goes for all of the next kings. Some of them don’t even have traditional Assyrian names. That is not true for the founder of the Old Assyrian Empire, and it’s mostly why we have him as being the person who founded it, Puzur-Ashur I was his name, and it literally means ‘servant of Assur’, so it may just be a pseudonym for a perceived founder of the Assyrian Empire. He’s referenced in inscriptions of later kings though. He may have started the first known dynasty of Assyria. He and the two kings before him (who he probably forcefully overthrew given the change in name), Kikkia and Akiya, may have also started a project to revamp and rebuild the walls of Assyria, which would have increased its prestige as a city to be reckoned with, which is another reason the Old Assyrian Empire starts around this date, which is 2025 BC and the two decades following it.

The next two kings Shalim-ahum and Ilu-shuma, we don’t know exactly when they reigned. We don’t know when Puzur finished his reign either. They are described as son and grandson of Puzur-Ashur though. This takes us to 1974 BC. They’re followed by Ilu-shuma’s son Erishum I, who reigns for forty years. His reign sees the beginning of the limmu tradition, picking a new noble each year to oversee the Assyrian New Year celebrations. The year was then named after them (as it would be in other ancient cultures but this is the first time I’ve come across it in this project). See, I knew this was a topical nation to be doing right now. Unlike in later periods, the king himself could never be the limmum, so we have a full list of all the people who served as limmum during Erishum’s forty year reign, giving us an extensive list of Assyrian names to work with. He also established trading posts as far away as Anatolia, known in Assyrian as karums. And all of these kings built temples to gods like Ishtar. They’re known by their building works. Then follow Ikunum, Sargon/Sharru-ken I (almost certainly named after Sargon of Akkad, who would have been an inspiring Alexander-like figure to these Assyrians now), Puzur-Ashur II (a short reign to contrast with Sargon’s long reign), Naram-Sin (also named after a king of Akkad), and then Erishum II, who was the last of the line of Puzur-Ashur. This takes us to about 1800. We’re not exactly sure, we anchor some of these dates to a solar eclipse recorded in 1833 BC that we can match to the records of the limmum appointed in that year but still the reign lengths are uncertain due to damage of the Assyrian King List which remains our only source for the regnal dates. This is where Assyria falls under the rule of nomads and outside forces, just like the Gutians did to Akkad/Sumeria.

The Amorites had been sweeping through the Levant for the last few centuries and had conquered the waning kingdom of Neo-Sumeria (i.e. Ur, if you want them to be less pretentious about it). They now turned their attention north. One Amorite (who some people argue had descent from an earlier Assyrian king) by the name of Shamshi Adad I overthrew the ruling Assyrian dynasty. And yes, that’s the same guy who founded a new capital for Assyria. He was one of the most successful kings of Old Assyria and knew it too, his inscriptions include his titles of ‘King of the Universe and Unifier of the land between Tigris and Euphrates’. He also tried to rename the kingdom ‘Kingdom of Upper Mesopotamia’ but that didn’t really catch on and we consider him Assyrian still.

His conquests include obliterating the third and last kingdom of Mari, remember them. They had been controlling the caravan trade from east to west and that was lucrative for Shamshi Adad. He assassinated the king and forced the heir to flee to Yamhad, for more details on the Mariote side, see the Personalities section of my Mari post (that was before I combined that and timeline into one). At this point, with an empire reaching almost to Anatolia and over much of Syria, Shamshi Adad declared himself King of All, the same title used by Sargon of Akkad (see what I mean about people idolising him). He made alliances with smaller states like Eshnunna (who I haven’t covered and probably won’t, it was another Sumerian city state that ended up being independent for a while longer than most of the rest) and put his sons to rule key cities like Mari in his absence. He was a good strategist. His son Ishme-Dagan was no slouch either, he was noted as an excellent general who helped in his father’s conquests a lot and had campaigns of his own against tribes in the Zagros mountains to the north-east of Assyria. However he couldn’t quite hold onto control of the outer regions in peace time and that extent of Assyria you see on the map that recognises Shamshi’s achievements wouldn’t be maintained for long.

The grandsons of Shamshi Adad did not have notable reigns, one married the daughter of a Hurrian king and they were also vassals at this point to Babylon, who managed one of its periods at outshining Assyria. The two would compete over this area so many times over the next thousand years. At some point the Amorite-led dynasty was driven out via a civil war led by a regent called Puzur-Sin, probably to halt Babylonian influence as much as anything else (they no longer exerted power by 1720 BC), and we get one of those very fun periods of instability where lots of people take the top spot and lose it just as quickly. Bel-Bani was the first to rule where there was a more stable Assyria and for him and his successors, Assyria seems to be a lot more stable, the 17th to 15th centuries are rather quiet for Assyria, with regnal numbers building up, as I like to see, Shamshi-Adad III and Erishum III. A coup here or there but quiet and peaceful politically. Ashur-nadin-ahhe I in the 15th century has a letter surviving in Egypt congratulating the pharoah Thutmose II on his victories, so there was definitely contact out that far and Assyria knew well to be polite to the powerful New Kingdom at that time. They were also rivals of the new threat to the Assyrians, the Hurrian kingdom of Mitanni. There is only one reason why I’m going this far for my first post on Assyria, because it was seemingly so peaceful and without incident. They all modelled themselves ‘vice-regent of the God of Assur’, divine kingship is important but this culture has them being deferent to a god instead of being a god. The last king of the Old Assyrian period is considered to be Ashur-nadin-ahhe II, ruling from 1393-1383 BC. This is because that this point Assyria was pretty much under the sphere of influence of the Mitanni and so the next king would break into proper independence for Assyria, starting the Middle Assyrian Period.


Assyrians spoke a dialect of Akkadian rather than Sumerian, which had been all but replaced at this time. They wrote in cuneiform beginning at the start of the Old Assyrian Period, which is why we have so little for before.

Their religion was almost entirely based around the god Assur, the protector of the city that was named after him. They of course worshipped other Mesopotamian gods like Ishtar and Adad and had temples and oracles dedicated to them but the key part of Assyrian religion was carrying out the wishes of Assur and showing his supremacy by conquering nearby cities, whose gods would have then abandoned them. This was particularly popular in the reign of Shamshi Adad, the main figure of Old Assyria. He gained the rest of the gods as more influence came from other parts of Mesopotamia to Assyria but originally, Assur was the only and throughout the Old period, he certainly remains the most important.

And that’s it for History Of A Nation’s first year, we’ve reached 2000 BC and it’s a glorious day. To celebrate, here’s my paint-like version of how the world was looking in 2000 BC.


You will definitely have to click on the link to see anything useful but that just highlights how much of the world we don’t know anything about at this time, where there was so little evidence of organised settlement. I’ve italicised people groups that would soon form a distinctive culture but really, it is so small. This map was helped by this youtube video to job my memory as it has been months since I wrote about the Indus. Even though I disagree on certain points, like he has Amorites having control as a monolithic state, when it was just a new face on some old cities, hence why it’s not exactly the same in terms of focused civilisations. Borders were so up in the air at this point, it’s completely open for argument for all of these really. But that map should just give you a rough idea.

Anyway, this series shall return in the New Year! We move into more enlightened times. Like after 2000 BC.

See also in History Of A Nation: Iraq


See also in History Of A Nation: Syria





4 thoughts on “History Of A Nation: Old Assyrian Empire (Assyria Part 1)

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