The heartland of Assyria lies in the northern area of presentday Iraq, alongside the river Tigris, from the Anatolian foothills to the range of the Jebel Hamrin. Other important waterways to the east are the Upper and the Lower Zab, which run from the Zagros mountains. To the east extends a steppe-like plateau, known as the Jezirah, which reaches toward the Habur valley. Much of this land was fertile, suited to rain-fed agriculture and especially herding. Major trade routes, into Anatolia and the Iranian plateau via the Zagros range, as well as southward to Babylonia and west to the Mediterranean, crossed the country, which contributed toward the development of thriving economies.
   In the sixth millennium B.C., the country was densely settled, and several important sites produced fine hand-painted pottery in the Halaf culture style. In the fifth millennium, Nineveh was a populous city; the area was subsequently dominated by the south Mesopotamian Uruk culture. Assyria did not experience the intense urbanization that took place in the south during the third millennium. It was incorporated into the kingdom of Akkad, and Naram-Sin built a temple at Nineveh.
   Written sources, using a distinct Akkadian dialect known as Old Assyrian, only begin in the 20th century, when native kings, such as Ilushuma, established a dynasty. At this time, merchants from Assur began their lucrative trade with Anatolia, exporting Assyrian textiles and tin, which was obtained from a still-unknown source farther east, and importing copper. The relevant tablets all come from the Anatolian site Kultepe, near present-day Kayseri. In the 19th century, an Amorite leader named Shamshi-Addu I exerted his sovereignty over Assyria from his base in the Habur valley. During the first half of the second millennium B.C., Assyria was eclipsed by Babylonia. The country saw the influx of peoples from the east, especially the Hurrians, and from the west, various Semitic-speaking tribes, such as the Amorites. An Indo-European elite who ruled the mainly Hurrian population in northeast Syria formed their own state (Mitanni) around 1500 and made the Assyrian kings their vassals. This changed only when the Hittitesdefeated Mitanni around 1350 B.C.
   From the reign of Ashur-uballit I onward, the fortunes of the country began to revive. During the Middle Assyrian period (1400–1050), Assyria became one of the great military powers of the Near East. This entailed territorial expansion, mainly toward the north and the west, to form colonial dependencies that furnished tribute and manpower to the Assyrian state. Of prime importance for conquest and the maintenance of peace was the army, which became one of the best trained and equipped in the world. After the decline of the Hittite empire in the mid-13th century, Tukulti-Ninurta I(reigning 1244–1208) engineered the greatest expansion of the kingdom, including the incorporation of Babylonia.
   Large-scale invasions and tribal unrest around 1100 contributed to the disintegration of Assyrian power, and it was only in the 10th century that a new dynasty, with Ashur-Dan III, began to prepare the rise of the Neo-Assyrian empire (934–610).
   The height of Assyrian power was reached in the seventh century B.C., when energetic warrior kings such as Ashurnasirpal, Shalmaneser III, Tiglath-pileser III, Sargon II, Esarhaddon, and Ashurbanipal fought on all fronts to sustain Assyrian pressure. The Assyrian empire included all of Mesopotamia (since Babylonia was under direct rule), most of central Anatolia, Syria including the Levant, and even, for a brief time, Egypt. The policy of Assyrian kings was to nominate local rulers over their dependencies that had been won by military invasions and impose on them treaties of loyalty. As long as regular tribute payments and contingents of auxiliaries were received by the Assyrian authorities, the “vassal” partner was assured of Assyrian protection. Rebellions and treachery, such as joining anti-Assyrian alliances, were severely punished in raids, the leaders being gruesomely executed. Repeated disloyalty could be stopped by incorporating the country into the Assyrian provincial system, which entailed the complete loss of political and economic independence.
   A further pacifying method, deployed where the latter option was unfeasible, was to deport a significant sector of the population (the elite and artisans) to other Assyrian-dominated regions. It has been estimated that millions of people were systematically displaced (see DEPORTATIONS).
   Such harsh measures fanned the flames of resistance, and the Assyrian kings of the seventh century were forced to campaign relentlessly to keep their huge empire from falling apart. Their demise was swift. A coalition between the Babylonians, who resented Assyrian hegemony with great virulence, and the Medes, a new people who had settled in western Iran, spelled the final defeat in 612 B.C. when Nineveh was reduced to ashes.
   The Assyrian elite was much influenced by Babylonia. Ever since Tukulti-Ninurta brought important Babylonian tablet collections to Assur, the Assyrian intelligentsia immersed itself in Babylonian learning. In the seventh century, a number of southern scholars were permanently installed at the royal court.
   As far as the visual arts were concerned, Egypt, or rather the traditional Egyptian colonial outposts along the Syria coast, proved more inspirational, as the ivories from Nimrud (Kalhu) testify. The relief sculptures were initially borrowed from the Hittites but the fine, flowing lines of the classic palace orthostats from Kalhu and Nineveh are typically Assyrian.

Historical Dictionary of Mesopotamia. . 2012.

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