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The Might of Assyria

Assyrian Winged Bull maze puzzle

Maze puzzle of Assyrian winged bull statue (850 BC)

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One day in 674 BC Esarhaddon, a powerful and capable ruler of Assyria, abdicated his responsibilities as King. He cast off his regal attire, traveled in secret far out into the countryside, and hid in fear for his life on an obscure plot of farmland, tilling the soil like a common laborer.

Only a select few from the King's inner circle of advisors and priests knew of his whereabouts, and if they dared write to him, they addressed their letters simply to "The Farmer." Like Esarhaddon himself, they too were afraid for the King's life, for only a few days before one of the most ominous events imaginable had occurred—a total eclipse of the moon. To the Assyrians, this meant nothing less than the certain death of their King.

Assyrian Lion

Expansion of the Assyrian Empire

From their origins in a few major cities on the Tigris river in Northern Iraq—Nineveh, Ashur, and Kalakh—the Assyrians grew by the 9th century BC to control most of the Middle East, from Egypt to the Persian Gulf. Almost uniformly illiterate (not that unusual for the time) the Assyrians regarded warfare as their most important activity, and considered it a divinely-inspired goal to impose their gods upon conquered territories. They were the first major power to equip soldiers with iron weapons and to master the tactics of the light horse-drawn chariot, and this, combined with their superb military organization, turned them into the most successful fighting power the ancient world had yet seen. At its height the Assyrian army numbered in the hundreds of thousands, and the thunder of its chariotry inspired fear in all who heard it.


I am powerful, I am omnipotent, I am a hero, I am gigantic, I am colossal!"

—One of King Esarhaddon of Assyria's inscriptions, 7th century BC

The Assyrian strategy for conquest depended heavily on psychological warfare. They would first send their "cup-bearers"—the representatives of the king—to try and persuade a city to surrender without a fight. If this failed, the Assyrian army would then surround the city and shout at the defenders, trying to convince them that resistance was useless. Woe to the people who still refused to capitulate, for if forced to fight, the Assyrians would then bring out their giant wheeled siege towers and enormous armored battering rams to breach the city walls.

Assyrian artwork

Deeply superstitious, Assyrian kings would not take any major military actions without first consulting their diviners. In addition to submitting detailed reports of their military campaigns to a statue of their supreme god, Assur, they also had many strange taboos that applied to them. Sometimes they had to fast until a new moon appeared, sit inside a reed hut being treated as if they were ill, or even wear the clothes of a nanny.

Fate of the Assyrians

After dominating their neighbors for centuries, the Assyrians were finally overcome by a coalition of the Babylonians and Medes, who laid waste to the Assyrian cities in 609 BC. The many magnificent colossal statues of protective genies that guarded the mighty Assyrian royal palaces, such as the human-headed bull pictured here, did nothing to interfere. Carved out of the rock by slaves taken during Assyria's many military campaigns, they looked silently out upon the burning cities with enigmatic smiles...

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Text taken from Amazeing Art: Wonders of the Ancient World — HarperCollins Publishers — Serialized in Games magazine — Recommended by the Archaeological Institute of America — A BookSense "What's in Store" Main Selection —  Maze puzzle art reproduced by the British Museum


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