Assyria. Geography and Physical Features. - Assyria" proper was a table-land, bounded on the north by Mount Niphates and part of Armenia; on the east by that part of Media which lies towards Mount Zagros; on the south by Susiana and part of Babylonia; and on the west by the river Tigris, or later by the Chaboras, a branch of the Euphrates. In size it may be compared to Great Britain. It was divided into seven provinces, and contained many great cities, of which the chief after Nineveh, the capital, were Ashur, which alone stood on the west bank of the Tigris, Calah, Dar-Sarukin, Arbela, Tarbisi. In her times of prosperity Assyria extended her borders on every side; and the Greeks and Romans often included the whole of Syria and of the regions watered by the Euphrates and the Tigris under the name. Assyria and the neighbouring provinces were celebrated for their great fertility; they were the original home of wheat and barley, and the date-palm grew there to perfection. The irrigation of the crops was ensured by the annual overflow of the Tigris, beginning in March, and reaching its highest point in May; while, to keep this within due bounds, the country was intersected by a network of canals, into which the water of the river was admitted, or from which it was excluded, by a system of dams. To preserve the principal buildings from damage by inundations, they were raised upon platforms above the level of the plain. Stone is not rare in Assyria, and could easily be procured from the mountains; but, probably in imitation of the Babylonians, brick was generally used for building, stone being employed only for foundations or facings. A soft gypsous kind of alabaster is found in the hills, and was used for sculpture. The chief amusement of the Assyrian kings - namely, hunting - was amply provided for by the lions, leopards, wild boars, deer, wild asses, and buffaloes which formerly abounded; ostriches, though now extinct, were still found here in the fourth century B.C. The horse was much employed in war; and the ox, the mule, and the camel were used as beasts of burden.
Recent Discoveries. - Through the Middle Ages Assyria remained almost unknown to Europeans, except by notices in the Old Testament and in classical writers. The natives of the district, however, had preserved the name and tradition of the site of Nineveh among the mounds of Nunia, opposite Mosul, on the Tigris, and pointed it out to Benjamin of Tudela when he passed by it about A.D. 1160. When about the seventeenth century the number of travellers in Asiatic Turkey increased, the ruins of Nineveh became better known, and were described by Rauwolf (1573), Sherley (1599), Tavernier (1644), Thevenot (1663), the Jesuit writer in the Lettres Edifiantes (1675), Otter (1734), Niebuhr (1766), Ollivier (1794). But with the beginning of the present century a fresh interest was taken in the examination and identification of all remaining traces of the ancient and powerful kingdom of Assyria. Claudius James Rich, the East India Company's Resident at Bagdad, visited Mosul in 1820 to inspect the mounds, and the inscriptions and other relics which he obtained there formed the nucleus of the Assyrian collection at the British Museum. A still more careful survey of the ruins of Nineveh was made in 1852 by Commander Jones, under the auspices of the Indian Government, the results of which show that the city walls were 7 miles 4 furlongs in circumference, containing an area of 1,800 acres, which might perhaps allow of a population of 174,000 inhabitants. To reconcile these facts with the statements of Ctesias and the Book of Jonah, it may perhaps be supposed that the name of Nineveh, used in a wide sense, sometimes included a neighbouring group of cities or suburbs. About 1850 Botta and Place excavated Khorsabad, ancient Dur-Sarrukin, 14 miles north-east of Mosul, containing the vast palace of Sargon, who founded it about B.C. 720. The most important excavations were carried out by Sir Henry Layard in the mound of Kouyunjik at Nineveh, and in that of Nimroud, 18 miles farther south, on the site of Calah. In the former the palaces of Sennacherib and Ashur-bani-pal, or Sardanapalus, and in the latter the palace of Ashur-nasir-pal, were laid bare, and an immense number of inscriptions and other objects discovered. Mr. Hormuzd Rassam and others have continued these excavations. Besides the large collection of inscribed clay tablets which formed the library of Ashur-bani-pal, the chief objects disinterred, and now to be seen at the British Museum, have been the immense series of bas-reliefs representing the campaigns, building operations, hunting expeditions, and private life of the Assyrian monarchs; the colossal figures of winged bulls which stood as guardians at the palace gates; and smaller objects without number, such as the bronze dishes and carved ivories of Phoenician workmanship found at Nimroud, the cylinders bearing the royal annals which were buried in the platforms of the palaces, and other antiquities in metal and glass.
Language and Literature. - Our knowledge of the Assyrian language dates from the publication by Sir Henry Rawlinson in 1847 of the inscription on the Rock of Behistun in North-Western Persia This inscription, describing the wars of Darius Hystaspis, King of Persia, B.C. 521-485, is in three languages, the Persian, the Susian, and the Assyrian or Babylonian, written in three varieties of the cuneiform character, composed of strokes resembling wedges combined in different forms. The way for the decipherment of the Assyrian inscriptions had been prepared by the previous interpretation of some of the ancient Persian inscriptions earlier in the century by Grotefend, Burnouf, and Lassen; for as the Persian kings were in the habit of engraving their decrees or religious invocations in Assyrian (or Babylonian) and Susian side by side with the Persian, when the latter was once translated the former could be made out. Since, however, there are very few of these trilingual inscriptions, much remained and still remains to be done by scholars before the Assyrian language can be fully understood, by collecting parallel passages and comparisons with the Hebrew and other kindred languages of the Semitic family, to which the newly-found language belongs. The cuneiform writing was borrowed by the Babylonians and Assyrians from the Accadians or earlier inhabitants of the country; it consisted of more than 500 separate characters, representing not simple sounds like our alphabet, but syllables, or even whole words. Except in monumental inscriptions upon stone, the Assyrians wrote upon clay tablets, upon which, while still soft, the characters were impressed with a stick ; upon this inconvenient but durable material, of which the country affords an abundant supply, every sort of composition was written. The most important documents were the historical cylinders and tablets containing the annals of the kings. An immense number of legal and commercial tablets have been found inscribed with deeds of sale, contracts, and records of lawsuits. Even private letters were written on clay tablets. A very large number of documents preserve forms of incantation used by priests and magicians, and lists of omens with their meanings. There are also legends of the gods and heroes of Assyrian mythology, among which are the famous tablets first translated by George Smith in 1872, which give the Babylonian account of the Flood transcribed by an Assyrian hand and forming part of the Royal library at Nineveh. Some of the Assyrian tablets give an Accadian text with an Assyrian translation, and others give lists of Accadian words and grammatical forms explained in Assyrian. This would seem to show that the old Accadian language was studied in Assyria as late as the seventh century before Christ, and that it held the position of a sacred language, like Latin in modern Europe.
History, - The history of Assyria begins to be known to us at a later period than that of Babylonia. The first of the kings whose names are preserved reigned, perhaps, about B.C. 2000, but we know little more of them. In the fifteenth century B.C., Ashur-uballit, king of Assyria, appears among the correspondents of Amenophis III., King of Egypt. In 1275 B.C. Tukulti-Adar I. conquered Babylonia, which from this date down to the destruction of Nineveh remained of secondary importance, and was often subject to the Northern power. Tiglath-Pileser, whose capital was Ashur, the modern Kalah Sherkat, carried on successful wars against the nations of Armenia and Northern Syria, full accounts of which are preserved on his cylinders. After this reign the power of Assyria temporarily declined, but with Tukulti-Adar II. a new period of greatness began; and his son, Ashur-nasir-pal (B.C. 885-860), of whose time there are nany monuments in the British national collection, extended his conquests in all directions. The extensive trade carried on by Phoenician merchants in Assyria at this time is largely illustrated by the Phoenician bronzes and ivories disinterred in the palace of Ashur-nasir-pal at Nimroud. The next king Shalmaneser II. (B.C. 860-825) is interesting to us on account of the tribute paid to him by Jehu, King of Israel, as recorded and represented on a sculptured obelisk; this was the first time that the Israelites came into contact with Assyria. Less than 100 years later, however, Tiglath-Pileser III. (745-727) carried away some of the tribes of Israel into captivity, and the destruction of the kingdom of Samaria was completed by Shalmaneser IV. (B.C. 727-722). Sargon (722-705) was a great conqueror and builder, being best known to us as the founder of Dur-Sarrukin, the modern Khorsabad. Sennacherib (705-681) invaded Syria and even invested Jerusalem, but King Hezekiah purchased his safety by a large tribute. Two years later Hezekiah having refused further allegiance, Sennacherib again invaded Judah and took Lachish; the campaign, however, had an unsuccessful ending, for the Assyrian army was destroyed, perhaps by a sudden epidemic, and the king retreated to Nineveh. Esarhaddon (681-668) waged a series of wars, and took captive Manasseh, King of Judah, who was afterwards allowed to return to Jerusalem. Egypt also was invaded, and partly reduced. Ashur-bani-pal (668-626), the Sardanapalus of Greek writers, was the last of the great Assyrian monarchs; he conquered Egypt, Elam, Babylonia, the kingdom of his own brother, Shamash-shum-ukin, Lydia, and part of Arabia. After this successful reign the power of Assyria suddenly declined. We hear of two obscure kings, Ashur-etil-ilani-ukin and Sin-shar-iskun, but there is no doubt that about B.C. 609 Nineveh was taken by the combined forces of the Medes and Babylonians, assisted by an inundation, which washed away part of the walls, and that it was utterly destroyed. The province of Assyria proper fell under the dominion of the Medes, and Babylonia with other districts formed the new Babylonian Empire, ruled over by Nabopolassar and his successors. The name of Nineveh now disappears from history, only to be heard of again as the designation of a battle-field in the seventh century A.D., or as the site of a Christian monastery.
Religion. - The mythological and liturgical texts of the Assyrian literature have hardly yet been deciphered with sufficient completeness or accuracy to enable us to acquire a full knowledge of the Assyrian religion. We possess, however, the names of their principal gods. Ashur was the chief of the pantheon, and is always named first in the invocations of the kings. Sin was the moon-god, Shamash the sun-god, Anum the god of the sky, Bel the god of the earth, and Ea the god of the abyss and of profound wisdom. Rammanu (the Biblical Rimmon) was the ruler of the weather, Ishtar (the Biblical Ashtoreth) the goddess of love, Nebo the god of learning, and Nergal the god of war and hunting. The Assyrian temples always contained statues of the gods or goddesses, and sometimes a particular statue was held in special veneration, as the Istar of Nineveh, or the Istar of Arbela; only two statues of a god have been discovered in modern times, namely the two limestone figures of Nebo, disinterred in a temple at Nimroud, and dating from the eighth century B.C. With regard to public worship, we know that constant sacrifices and libations were offered to the gods, images were carried in procession, and a highly organised and richly endowed priesthood existed. The building and maintenance of temples were among the chief functions of the king, who himself boasted of the title of high-priest. Many Assyrian psalms or hymns have been found among the tablets, and some of them may be compared to the Hebrew psalms in character. The importance of religion in the life of the Assyrians may be seen in the fact that almost every inscription begins with an invocation to some of the gods, and that all the actions of the king are attributed to divine assistance. Some of the Assyrian legends, such as.those of the Creation and the Flood, bear a close resemblance to the Hebrew narratives of Genesis; these, and indeed most of the religious beliefs of Assyria, seem to have been borrowed from the more ancient culture of Babylonia.
The Arts. - The Assyrians excelled in architecture, sculpture, and the industrial arts. Their towns were surrounded by high walls, with bastions and battlements, built of brick upon a basement of) stone. Their palaces were vast structures of brick, in which vaulted rooms, with exceedingly thick walls, opened into extensive courtyards; there were three principal divisions, as in oriental palaces of the present day; namely, the serai, or men's apartments, the hareem, or women's residence, and the khan, containing rooms for the slaves, and the offices. The decorations of the chambers and halls consisted of designs painted on plaster, friezes of enamelled tiles, and, above all, of thin slabs of alabaster carved in low relief with scenes from the life and wars of the king. While the Assyrians failed in sculpture in the round, chiefly from lack of suitable material, they exhibited in these bas-reliefs a very high degree of skill, in spite of the want of perspective and other defects which mark an early stage of art. The finest sculptures are the latest; namely, those from the palace of Ashur-bani-pal, in which the figures of animals in the various hunting scenes are rendered with a truth and spirit that has never been surpassed. It was in minute details that the Assyrian artist distinguished himself; nothing like the composition of scenes or co-ordination of figures is to be found. Apart from their own merit, the sculptures show us the perfection that the Assyrians had reached in the manufacture of artistic furniture, in jewellery, leather-work, and in those embroidered stuffs for the production of which Mesopotamia and Babylonia retained their celebrity under the Roman Empire, through the Middle Ages, and down to our own time. Of Assyrian bronze-work we possess a very fine example in the ornamental bands, decorated in repousse, with elaborate scenes from the history of Shalmaneser II. (857-822), which were once attached to the gates of his palace at the modern Balawat. The Assyrians seem to have been as fond as the Babylonians of cylindrical seals of precious stone, engraved with figures and inscriptions. Numbers of these, in cornelian, jasper, or haematite, are to be seen in all the museums of Europe, and some have even been found on the field of Marathon, where they had doubtless been worn by the Assyrian warriors in the army of Xerxes.
Present Condition. - The greater part of the ancient kingdom of Assyria is now contained in the modern province of Kurdistan. Owing to its greater elevation, the climate generally is much cooler than that of Mesopotamia. The country abounds in vegetation, and produces every sort of fruit and cereal; the so-called "manna" is still found on the leaves of the dwarf oak, and collected by the natives, who use it as a sweetmeat. The modern inhabitants, the Kurds, are a free and warlike race, and contrast favourably with the effeminate inhabitants of Mosul and Bagdad. Though partly of a different race from the old Assyrians, they preserve many of their ancient customs, and the weapons which they use in warfare resemble those described by Xenophon in relating his passage through the country. Besides the Mahometan Kurds, there are a large number of Christians of the Nestorian sect, and also the Yezidis, or Devil-worshippers. The larger portion of Kurdistan forms part of the Turkish Empire, but the spirit of the people is so rebellious that they are constantly in conflict with the authorities; the eastern districts are included within the Persian. frontiers. Mosul, the modern successor of Nineveh, is a somewhat mean town, with a population of about 70,000. The climate of the district is unhealthy, being cold in winter, but in summer too hot for the comfort of Europeans. The principal remains of ancient Nineveh are concealed under the two vast mounds of Kouyunjik and Nebbi Yunus; the former covering an area of about 100 acres, and containing about 14,500,000 tons of earth; the latter, which derives its name from the supposed tomb of the prophet Jonah, occupying 40 acres, and forming a mass of 6,500,000 tons; besides these, there are ridges which cover all that remains of the ancient walls. The ruined palaces of the ancient Calah are hidden under the modern mound of Nimroud, which rises 133 ft. above the autumn level of the Tigris; extensive traces of the walls are also to be seen. Besides these there are numerous large mounds scattered over the country, and awaiting excavations which will no doubt lay bare others of the great cities which were flourishing in the period of Assyria's prosperity.