Most historians divide the long history of the Assyrians into four periods: 1) the Early Assyrian Period (c. 2600-c.2025 BCE), 2) the Old Assyrian Empire (c. 2025-1378 BCE), 3) the Middle Assyrian Empire (1392-934 BCE), and 4) the Neo-Assyrian Empire (c. 911-609 BCE).
As should be expected, not much is known about the Early Assyrian Period. Little archaeological evidence exists that can paint an accurate picture of what life might have looked like, but a general idea can be pieced together based on the writings and evidence left behind by nearby civilizations, specifically the Akkadians.
The term Assyrian is derived from the name of the Assyrian capital, Assur, most likely named after the god Ashur, who Assyrians believed to be the king of all Mesopotamian gods. Historians believe people were living at the site of Assur as early as 2400 BCE, but it was mainly used as an outpost by Sumerian and Akkadian kings. Assur would develop into an independent city-state by the end of the 3 rd millennia BCE (c. 2100 BCE).
During the time between the founding of Assur and the rise of the Old Assyrian Empire, Assur was largely a vassal state of the much larger Akkadian Empire, which dominated Mesopotamia in the 3 rd millennium by controlling most of the territory surrounding the Tigris and Euphrates rivers. Figure 1 depicts the extent of Akkadian-controlled territory during the peak of its influence.
Some claim that the Akkadian Empire was the world’s first, although it is difficult to verify this statement as understandings of what defines an empire differ, and earlier Sumerian civilizations may possibly be able to lay claim to this title. Nonetheless, the Akkadian Period is significant in that it was the first time any political body was able to unite both Sumerian and Akkadianspeaking populations under one rule.
The Assyrian language is a Semitic language, which describes the Afroasiatic language group that emerged out of the Middle East. The most commonly spoken Semitic languages still around today are Arabic, Amharic (spoken mostly in Ethiopia), Tigrinya (spoken mostly in Eritrea and Ethiopia), and Hebrew.
After the Akkadian Empire, the Akkadian language—the first Semitic language to gain prominence in the region—replaced Sumerian as the language of Mesopotamia. In the millennia after the fall of the Akkadians, Semitic languages would come to dominate Mesopotamia, something that would prove rather useful to Assyria when it began to flex its imperial muscle.
During Akkadian and Sumerian times, Assyria was referred to on maps as Subartu, and although the exact location of Subartu is not known, it’s believed to be in the northern regions of Mesopotamia near the source of the Tigris River. The Akkadians traditionally used this region as a source for slaves, and it was generally considered to be the furthest outpost of the Akkadian Empire.
The Assyrian King List documents the different Assyrian kings starting with the initial appearance of the Assyrians around Assur. The list was written on a terracotta stone in cuneiform script—the writing created in Mesopotamia that is credited as one of the origins of modern writing—and is typically divided into three groups. The first group, “The Kings Who Lived in Tents,” refers to the leaders of the semi-nomadic tribes who first settled in the area surrounding Assur.
The most notable king from this group is Ushpia, for he is said to have been the king to build the Temple of Ashur, the moment often regarded as the founding of the city of Assur and the birth of Assyrian civilization. Following this group are “The Kings Whose Fathers are Known,” which lists 11 kings who ruled from c. 2030 BCE to c. 2000 BCE. One interesting aspect of this part of the list is that it was written in reverse order, and it is sometimes interpreted as a list of Shamshi-Adad’s ancestors. This has led some scholars to conclude that the list was in fact created as an attempt to legitimize Shamshi-Adad’s claim to the Assyrian throne, but this is not a widely accepted interpretation.
The third group on the list is of kings whose names are known but whose ancestral lineage cannot be determined. Most of the kings on this list, though, were not independent sovereigns, but rather vassals to other leaders, mostly those of the Akkadian Empire. At times this was undesirable, specifically when Akkadian leaders needed slaves and made their way into the Assyrian territory to get them. But at other times, it was extremely beneficial. For example, one of the sources of Assyrian power were their trading posts, also known as karem.
They established several of them in Anatolia (the eastern part of modern Turkey), and frequently called upon the support of their Akkadian rulers to help them deal with raiders or other hostile forces near their trading posts. However, periods of Akkadian weakness were usually marked by Assyrian rebellions, since Assyrian kings sought to exert more power over the territory they called home. But, whenever this happened, it usually garnered a harsh response from the Akkadian rulers. People would be killed or taken into slavery as punishment for insurrection.
The Early Assyrian Period is but a shadow of what Assyrian civilization would become over the next few millennia, but it’s significant in that it laid the groundwork for what would become one of the most powerful and formidable civilizations of the ancient world. Early Assyrians organized themselves into a monarchy with Assur as the capital, and their trade with Anatolia to the west helped them to grow in both size and influence. While militarily they were still weak as compared to their neighbors, this would soon change, and Assyrian influence would grow in the region, giving birth to what is known as the Old Assyrian Empire.