What comes to mind when you think of an empire? Is it the Roman Empire, with its impressive road network? Or, you could be reminded of the Mongol Empire, which stretched from Beijing in the east to Hungary in the west.
What about the British Empire, which was powered by a vast railroad system?
These empires pushed the boundaries of human progress while wreaking havoc on their enemies.
But what was the secret to their success?
Was it because of their effective management? Superior military technology? Perhaps they helped several people at the price of others?
Simply said, empire-building is a paradox.
How could a small band of uneducated nomads, the Mongols, overrun huge settled civilizations like Russia, China, and Persia?
How did traders from the small British Isles subdue one-quarter of the world's population?
For the answers to these questions, we must travel back in time and visit an ancient city in northern Iraq. The city is in shambles. Its heyday is long gone.
Assur is the city we are looking for.
Assur was the cradle of the first true global empire in human history, the Assyrian Empire. At its height, the empire included modern Iraq, Iran, Israel, Syria, Lebanon, parts of Turkey, and Egypt.
The Assyrian Empire laid the blueprint for future world empires to follow. The mystery of how a small group of people captures so much territory can be solved by studying the empire.
But first, let's learn a bit about the Assyrians and their rise to power.
Assyrians: The origins
The word "Assyrian" comes from the city of Assur, also known as Ashur. The city gets its name from the warlike deity of the same name. Assur was the chief god of the Assyrian people.
Related: Brief History of Assyrians
The Sumerians occupied the Assur during the early dynasty period (2900 BC to 2350 BC) in Mesopotamian history. The city later became a part of the Akkadian Empire (2334 BC to 2134 BC) under Sargon of Akkad.
Assyrians regarded Sargon as their direct ancestor.
Assur became a well-known trade center for the Bronze Age's most valuable resource, tin, during the early period of Assyrian history.
We term the initial period of Assyrian history (from 2025 BC to 1364 BC) as the Old Assyrian Period. The Middle Assyrian Period lasted from 1363 BC until 912 BC. The Neo-Assyrian Era(911 BC to 609 BC)is the following period in Assyrian history when the empire reached its zenith.
Assur became a powerful city during the rule of Shamsi-Adad I (1808 BC to 1776 BC). He extended Assur's influence beyond the city's borders.
In Anatolia, Assyrian merchants set up trading colonies. Assur became a prosperous city because of its business with neighboring kingdoms. The Assyrians would benefit in the future from their risk-taking and successful establishment of commercial colonies outside of the city.
Unfortunately, the Assyrians would succumb to Mitanni, a rising power in the fertile crescent, in 1430 BC. Assur was sacked, its temples destroyed and wealth looted.
After the agony of Mitanni enslavement, the Assyrians learned the hard way that they needed a stronger military. The honor of the people of Assur depended on it.
In 1363 BC, Ashur-Ubalit, a high priest of the temple of Assur, seized power, liberating the Assyrians from Mitanni's domination. Since Shamsi-Adad, he was the first Assyrian to adopt the title "Sar," which means king.
Ashur-Ubalit's coronation was a turning point in Assyrian history. Near Eastern kingdoms like Egypt and the Hittites soon saw Assyria as equals. Assyria grew from a city-state to a territorial state because of Ashur-Ubalit's policy of military conquest.
But the sword was only one-half of the equation. The Assyrians also used tactful diplomacy, alliances, and ruthless population transfer policies to expand their kingdom.
Building an empire part 1: Conquest
Ashur-Ubalit conducted military expeditions against the tribes and kingdoms that had previously beaten the Assyrians. He valued alliances of powerful kingdoms, such as the Babylonians in the South. To secure a long-term peace with Babylon, Ashur-Ubalit married his daughter to the King of Babylon.
During Shalmaneser I's reign (1273 BC to 1244 BC), the Assyrians avenged their humiliation at the hands of Mitanni by conquering them and destroying the Mitanni capital of Washukanni.
Military expansion and diplomacy remained a key strategy for future Assyrian leaders.
Assyrian governors were required to keep the resources for feeding an army. Assyrians expected subjugated kingdoms to supply soldiers. Refusing to do so was an act of rebellion.
Many of the world's later major empires, such as the Achaemenid Persian Empire and the Roman Empire, relied heavily on the support of foreign troops from the conquered territories. Likewise, the Mongols depended on the Chinese for siege engineering and gunpowder expertise.
As the Assyrian empire grew, they understood that relying on outsiders only during times of conflict was a concern. Assembling soldiers required time. The delay often gave rebels a head start to execute their plans.
Emperor Tiglath-Pileser III (745 BC to 727 BC) established a full-time standing army, which many historians believe was the world's first professional army. Even today, every nation recognizes the value of retaining a full-time army.
To move the military quickly and curb revolt, the Assyrians introduced a complex system of roads. Communication, transportation, and army movement were all carried out via these specified routes. The Romans and Persians inherited and expanded the network of roads.
Perhaps the saying "All roads lead to Rome" might have its origins in the Assyrian Empire.
Assyrians were brilliant military innovators. They transported their war chariots across the Euphrates and the Tigris rivers on sheepskin. Early siege engines developed by the Assyrians were important in bringing down walled cities.
The Assyrians understood brute force was not the only way to win wars. Propaganda and psychological warfare were crucial.
Assyrian monarchs used cruel methods of torture and execution to attain their military goals and instill terror in their foes.
You could say brutal executions were the norm for the era. What was special about the Assyrians?
Assyrians, like Egyptians, made it a point to keep thorough records of their military battles, recording every single gory detail of the combat. The records served as propaganda.
Propaganda was crucial for later empires. During the Mongol campaigns, Genghis Khan bought massive supplies of paper from China to feed his enemy scribes. The writers penned exaggerated images of the conqueror. Because of Genghis' fearsome depictions, cities surrendered without a fight.
The Mongols improved on a tried-and-true system, which can be credited to the Assyrians.
Tiglath-Pileser III introduced a widespread deportation strategy. He relocated conquered people to other parts of the empire. This severed loyalties and family bonds and reduced the chances of revolts.
Future Assyrian monarchs carried on the practice of deporting and moving people around the empire. Further, conquered areas were colonized by migrants from around the empire, who brought with them new cultural influences.
Do the terms "deportation" and "colonization" ring a bell?
Yes, you are right, pretty much every empire in world history after the Assyrians believed in colonization and mass deportations to maintain peace.
A cruel, but effective strategy.
Keeping the people happy was as vital to the Assyrians as dominating them militarily. How did they manage to keep the empire running smoothly?
Building an empire part 2: Peace
Every great empire in history has profited from keeping its people happy, especially those they conquered. The rulers benefited from a population that was both afraid and happy.
The Assyrians were great seekers of knowledge, besides being brutal conquerors. In their view, the imperial strategy would be incomplete without an emphasis on education and knowledge. We would be hard-pressed to find a civilization in ancient history that promoted scholarship as much as the Assyrians.
Mesopotamia had a long history of maintaining tax documents and literary works in temples. Assyrian libraries were the world's oldest examples of centralized record-keeping.
Assyrian ruler Esarhaddon (681 BC to 669 BC) was on a mission to learn everything he could about the world, so he trained his son, Ashurbanipal, to become a scribe.
Ashurbanipal didn't become a writer. He succeeded his father, in 668 BC, and became the most powerful and well-known ruler in Assyrian history.
He took Esarhaddon's love for knowledge to a whole new level by constructing the largest library in the ancient world, known as the Royal Library of Ashurbanipal.
Collection and categorization of materials began with Ashurbanipal's library. For him, getting every bit of information from all corners of his empire was essential.
Ashurbanipal's library may have inspired the Great Library of Alexandria.
The Assyrians applied what they had learned. They were master engineers.
Diverting river water to sustain exotic terraced gardens was one of their most impressive technical marvels. Sennacherib, Ashurbanipal's grandfather, invented the Archimedes screw centuries before Archimedes.
The screw created by Sennacherib's engineers was used to convey water from the rivers to the plants on top of the royal terraces.
Since royal gardens and intellectuals were few, how did the Assyrian reign help ordinary citizens?
A large irrigation network built by the Assyrians in Northern Mesopotamia revolutionized irrigation in the region.
Drawing water from the Tigris river is a bigger challenge compared to taking water from the Euphrates. Assyrian engineers used hydraulics, canals, waterways, and aqueducts to transport water from the Tigris.
Northern Mesopotamia relied on aqueducts for water distribution. Later empires, such as the Romans, realized the importance of building aqueducts for their citizens. A sophisticated irrigation network reduced the chances of drought, making the farmers happy.
Assyria was one of the few empires of the ancient world where we see progress in the status of women with time.
During the Neo-Assyrian period, there was no legal distinction between men's and women's rights. Both inherited property, started businesses, could take part in the administration, and could divorce their partners.
We only know about the condition of Assyrian women and not women from other regions of the empire. In some later empires, such as the Mongol Empire, women played a key role in political and administrative matters.
The merchants of the Assyrian Empire profited from the extensive road networks. Assyrians started as a trading community and continued to safeguard the rights of the small business owners. In an age when the state-controlled almost everything, Assyrians had property rights and private ownership.
The Assyrians devised ways to move heavy things, particularly wood and enormous stones, across vast distances. All future world empires relied on the transit of goods over long distances to build their empires.
Assyrians showed the future empires that the peace and prosperity of their citizens were as vital as conquest. Even the mightiest knew that might is not always right.
The Medes and Babylonians sacked Nineveh, the Assyrian capital, in 612 BC, ending the Assyrian empire. Assyria was absorbed into the Neo-Babylonian Empire.
As the Assyrian empire faded away, it left valuable lessons for future empire builders. The Assyrians also showed us both the cruel and dazzling sides of an empire.
This reminds me of a quote by novelist Jessica Cluess: "Gods dream of empires, but devils build them."