1113 GMT June 25, 2022
The history of intensive Assyrian involvement in Iran is something which can only be traced in any detail for the periods that followed, above all from the royal inscriptions of the Assyrian kings. These recount the Assyrian penetration into the Zagros over a period of several hundred years.
The first forays occurred in the Middle Assyrian period. Adad-Nerari I (ruled from 1305-1274 BCE) styled himself defeater of several armies from various kingdoms.
Our knowledge of the geographic extent of these kingdoms and peoples is however not exact, something which hampers our understanding the question as to when Assyrian incursions first extended into the territory of present day Iran. But in any case these episodes are unlikely to have amounted to more than razzias to seize booty.
The same can be said of the operations of Assur-Dan II (ruled from 924-912 BCE) and Tukulti-Ninurta II (890-884 BCE).
Under Ashurnasirpal II (ruled from 884-859 BCE), however, the conduct of these raids became more systematic. When Nur-Adad, a ruler in the ancient kingdom of Zamua, withheld tribute, Ashurnasirpal II carried out a campaign of savage retribution, laying waste the country, deporting the adult population, burning children on pyres. He also massively increased the tribute due and the craftsmen of the country were deported to work on new constructions at Kalhu, a city in ancient Mesopotamia.
This begins the formal process of the Assyrian subjugation of Zagros territories, initiating an involvement which will go on to the end of the seventh century BCE, a complex history of almost three hundred years. Shalmaneser III (ruled from 859-824 BCE) continued Ashurnasirpal’s eastern advancing into western Media, ancient country of northwestern Iran.
Samsi-Adad V (ruled from 824-811 BCE) campaigned against the Medes and Manneans in 820 BCE, collecting a massive quantity of tribute. With Adad-Nerari III (ruled from 811-783 BCE), while at least 15 campaigns into the Zagros were carried out in his reign, no royal inscriptions which might have covered these in detail have so far been recovered. Very little is known of activities in the second quarter of the eighth century. This is a time when the Assyrian government was compromised by internal strife.
Elsewhere in the empire, the power of the king was greatly diminished. This decline was reversed by Tiglath-Pileser III (ruled from 745-727 BCE), who reestablished Assyrian control in the east in two lengthy campaigns: In 744 BCE, he subsumed Parsua and Bit Hamban as provinces into the Assyrian Empire; in the campaign of 737 BCE Mannea and Ellipi were brought under Assyrian rule.
Sargon II (ruled from 722-705 BCE) dealt with problems in Mannea and also annexed Karalla, a well-known ancient toponym in the eastern regions of Assyria.
In Parsua, he captured the cities of Kisesim and Harhar, turning them into provincial capitals and renaming them Kar-Nergal and Kar-Sarrukin respectively. Sargon’s conquests marked the high water mark of the Assyrian Empire in the east. In the seventh century BCE the situation changed rapidly. Sennacherib (ruled from 705-671) had to fight off a major coalition of Elamites, Babylonian and Iranian opponents.
A more intractable threat was posed by the movement of nomadic hordes across western Asia, the Scythians (coming from Azerbaijan) and the Cimmerians (from eastern Cappadocia).
Although Esarhaddon (ruled from 681-669) succeeded in defeating the invasions of the Cimmerians, and of the Scythians, ultimately these peoples were contributors to the disintegration of Assyria.
Another twist was the partly voluntary submission of Median chieftains to Assyrian authority, dramatically illustrated in the vassal treaties of Esarhaddon (672 BCE). The move, which was intended to cement loyalty to Assyria, may indeed have had exactly the opposite effect and provoked Media into revolt. This undoubtedly led to large-scale losses for Assyria. Ashurbanipal (ruled from 669-631 CE) did not regain territory in Media but he did reassert authority in Mannea and indeed the latter appears to have remained a loyal ally to the end.
The Medes by contrast went on to participate in the dismembering of the empire, capturing Arrapha (an ancient city in what today is northeastern Iraq) in 615 BCE, Assur (the capital of Assyrian Empire) in 614 BCE and finally Nineveh (an ancient Assyrian city of Upper Mesopotamia) in 612 BCE.
The above is a lightly edited version of the a chapter of ‘Archaeology of Iran in the Historical Period’, coedited by Kamal-Aldin Niknami Ali Hozhabri, and published by Springer in 2020. The photos originally appeared in the book.