top of page
  • Elliott Holley

Is the Assyrian Empire linked to ISIS?

From the same lands in northern Iraq and Syria, ancient Assyria rose to power. The harshness of their laws, their suppression of women, and their joy at destroying the monuments of other civilisations, all invite comparisons. Could the destruction of Assyrian monuments by ISIS therefore be considered the ultimate irony of history?

The Assyrian Empire was one of the great civilisations of antiquity. It lasted from the 25th century BC until 7th century BC - a span of 1,800 years. The Assyrians were feared for their ruthless conquest of ancient Mesopotamia and the Near East. But they are also remembered for their striking artistic style, as well as their appearance in the Old Testament of the Bible.

Assyrian winged bull, preserved at the British Museum in London. These creatures were used as gate guardians, one on each side of the gate.

Echoes of Assyria?

In 2015, ISIS militants released videos of themselves smashing ancient historical artefacts, including Assyrian statues in the Mosul museum in northern Iraq. They also dynamited ancient monuments at Palmyra in Syria, and used bulldozers to destroy 90% of the excavated area at the ancient Assyrian city of Nimrud.

The destruction of statues at the Mosul museum, Iraq

ISIS vandals also destroyed the remains of the former Assyrian capital Khorsabad and inflicted further damage on the ancient city of Hatra, smashing and burning statues and leaving walls marked with bullet holes.

The areas controlled by ISIS at their height overlap the area where ancient Assyria emerged in antiquity; both had harsh laws, an expansionist agenda, and an appetite for destruction. So this prompts the question: is there some sort of link between ancient Assyria, and ISIS?

Map of ISIS territory at its greatest extent in May 2015

The reputation of the Assyrians

"Susa, the great holy city, abode of their gods, seat of their mysteries, I conquered," declared the Assyrian king Ashurbanipal, in a bombastic inscription recording his conquest of Elam in the 7th century BC.

"I entered its palaces, I opened their treasuries where silver and gold, goods and wealth were amassed... I destroyed the ziggurat of Susa. I smashed its shining copper horns. I reduced the temples of Elam to naught; their gods and goddesses I scattered to the winds. The tombs of their ancient and recent kings I devastated, I exposed to the sun, and I carried away their bones toward the land of Ashur. I devastated the provinces of Elam and on their lands I sowed salt."

The Assyrian army was a powerful, disciplined force, and their art is full of descriptions of soldiers armed with spears, bows and siege weapons. City after city was attacked and - if they resisted - destroyed utterly and the inhabitants slain or enslaved.

Assyrian bas-relief sculpture now displayed in the British Museum, London

Assyrian inscriptions are full of terrifying descriptions of the fate they imposed upon their defeated enemies. The Assyrian king Ashurbanipal proudly boasted of what happened to those who had rebelled against him in 652 BC. I won't repeat the inscription in full, but essentially they became food for a surprisingly specific list of six types of animal, including:

"...dogs, pigs, wolves, and eagles, to the birds of heaven and the fish in the deep..."

An amusing tale from the Bible

It's no surprise, then, that their fierce reputation also appears in the Old Testament in the Bible. One of the more entertaining stories in the Bible is the story of the prophet Jonah, who was swallowed up by "a great fish". Jonah was so afraid of being sent to preach to the Assyrians, that he preferred to run away rather than submit to god's commands.

"The word of the Lord came to Jonah son of Amittai: “Go to the great city of Nineveh and preach against it, because its wickedness has come up before me.

"But Jonah ran away from the Lord and headed for Tarshish. He went down to Joppa, where he found a ship bound for that port. After paying the fare, he went aboard and sailed for Tarshish to flee from the Lord."

'Jonah and the whale' by Dutch painter Pieter Lastman, 1621

Of course, Jonah wasn't able to escape his fate - after being swallowed up, he repented, god released him from the fish and he travelled to Nineveh to carry out his duty. But the story makes clear that poor Jonah did not relish the prospect of going into Assyria.

The power of Assyria

Other passages from the Bible make reference to the power of the Assyrian kings. The Assyrians attacked the city of Jerusalem in 701 BC, after the Israelites had refused to pay tribute to Assyria. King Hezekiah of Judah appears to have paid tribute to the Assyrian king in a desperate attempt to save the city, as described in 2 Kings 18:13-37.

"In the fourteenth year of King Hezekiah, Sennacherib king of Assyria came up against all the fortified cities of Judah and took them. And Hezekiah king of Judah sent to the king of Assyria at Lachish, saying, “I have done wrong; withdraw from me. Whatever you impose on me I will bear.” And the king of Assyria required of Hezekiah king of Judah three hundred talents of silver and thirty talents of gold.

"And Hezekiah gave him all the silver that was found in the house of the Lord and in the treasuries of the king's house. At that time Hezekiah stripped the gold from the doors of the temple of the Lord and from the doorposts that Hezekiah king of Judah had overlaid and gave it to the king of Assyria. And the king of Assyria sent the Tartan, the Rab-saris, and the Rabshakeh with a great army from Lachish to King Hezekiah at Jerusalem. And they went up and came to Jerusalem. When they arrived, they came and stood by the conduit of the upper pool, which is on the highway to the Washer's Field."

In the end, the Assyrians failed to capture the city, but they did divide up the surrounding lands among their subjects. The Bible says that god's angels struck down the Assyrian army, causing them to retreat. Modern historians have suggested that the Assyrian army may have withdrawn from the siege because of an outbreak of disease, perhaps caused by the lack of clean drinking water. There is a reference in Herodotus to the Assyrian army being overrun by mice when it attacked Egypt, which many have taken as a reference to plague or other diseases carried by rodents.

The modern connection

Assyria was known for the severity of its laws. Executions and other brutal punishments were common in ancient Assyria, along with forced labour and forced resettlement of conquered peoples. The status of women in society also appears to have been lower than in the surrounding civilisations, with the death penalty for adultery and no compensation for the woman in divorce.

Assyrian bas-relief, now in the British Museum, London. It depicts the king slaying the lion - an animal known for its strength and ferocity.

Many of these points are the same criticisms applied in the modern era to ISIS (and to the ultra-conservative, far-right, puritanical, intolerant version of religion they represent). When ISIS overran large parts of Iraq in 2014 and 2015, one of the first things they did was to replace the peaceful Sufi Muslim imams at the mosques in their territory, and replaced them with fanatical ISIS preachers who taught intolerance.

When the Assyrian ruler attacked Babylon in the 13th century BC, he sought the help of the god Shamash. The Assyrian conquest of the city included the plunder of the temple of Esagila, from which the Assyrians stole the statue of Marduk, the Babylonian chief deity.

Assyrian king Tukulti-Ninurta is said to have captured the king of Babylon and "trod with my feet upon his lordly neck as though it were a footstool" before sending the defeated and humiliated former king to Assyria in chains.

Comparison with ISIS

I do not intend to dwell on ISIS any more than strictly necessary, but there are a few things that stand out. They were known for holding open slave markets where human beings were bought and sold like cattle. Their treatment of women was notoriously brutal and inhuman. They committed genocide against the Yazidi and other minorities. And they had an expansionistic, militaristic society which envisaged the creation of a world-spanning empire that would unite all territories that had ever historically been under Islamic rule, with the eventual goal of world domination.

The harshness of their laws, including amputation for theft, as well as whippings, beatings and public executions, is well known. I trust readers are familiar enough with the group's barbarisms, that I do not need to repeat them here.

Perhaps what they most had in common with ancient Assyria was an emphasis on power, authority, hierarchy, strength, war, conquest and superiority over others (at least this is what comes across in the royal inscriptions and artworks, which represented the official state propaganda). Although it should be noted, similar themes appear in the work of plenty of other civilisations from antiquity; but what marks the Assyrians out was their brutality, the degree to which they seemed to revel in graphic descriptions of violence, as well as the contrast between Assyria and more tolerant empires (such as the Persians) that followed.

Civilisation and art

However, unlike ISIS, ancient Assyria was not entirely bereft of civilisation. They did have palaces and monumental architecture, as well as sculptures and reliefs. Whereas radical Wahhabists ban music, figurative art and anything joyful in life, the Assyrians did not.

Artist's impression of Assyrian palaces from The Monuments of Nineveh by Sir Austen Henry Layard, 1853

This 5th century BC Assyrian lion weight is now on display at the Louvre in France

It is true though that depictions of women are relatively rare in Assyrian art, unlike other civilisations such as the Egyptians, or the Greeks and Romans, who often produced sculptures and other artistic depictions of women.

Another notable difference is that the Assyrians grew organically out of the indigenous development of the areas they inhabited, and they successfully maintained power over many centuries (albeit with periods of rise and fall along the way).

This is different to ISIS, which arose out of a foreign intervention in the region (the US invasion of Iraq in 2003) and great power politics in Syria. The group drew its initial membership not so much from locals, but from international volunteers and recruits from across the entire Muslim world.

"None of them are Syrians," one source told me. "Syria was a sophisticated country before the war. Syrian people are educated. They love poetry. They are modern people. These people (ISIS) are not from there. Many of them are from outside - Chechens, people from Central Asia, etc. They have been brought there. It is a tragedy. Syrians are not as some people think. "

Syrian singer Faia Younan's debut song, Ohebbou Yadayka, uploaded in 2015

Anyway, regardless of what one thinks of the modern situation, the ancient Assyrian empire eventually crumbled. Now as then, one of the most destructive forms of conflict was civil war, and this played a major part in the demise of ancient Assyria.

The end of Assyria

"And he will stretch out his hand against the north and destroy Assyria, and he will make Nineveh a desolation, a dry waste like the desert. Herds shall lie down in her midst, all kinds of beasts; even the owl and the hedgehog shall lodge in her capitals; a voice shall hoot in the window; devastation will be on the threshold; for her cedar work will be laid bare. This is the exultant city that lived securely, that said in her heart, “I am, and there is no one else.” What a desolation she has become, a lair for wild beasts! Everyone who passes by her hisses and shakes his fist."

Bible, Zephaniah 2:13-15

The temple of Bel, Palmyra, Syria, in 2010. The temple was blown up by ISIS in 2015.

Assyria eventually collapsed after it fell into a period of civil war in the 7th century BC. The nomadic barbarian tribes the Scythians and Cimmerians (from the Ukraine and southern Russia) raided Assyria, as three different Assyrian claimants to the throne fought against each other. Egypt broke away from the empire. The Medes, an Iranian people, allied with the two barbarian peoples from the north and launched a surprise attack which sacked the major Assyrian city of Nimrud.

In fierce fighting, surrounded on all sides by a coalition of enemies, the Assyrians fought back with bravery and grim determination. Yet in the end the odds were just too great, and the civil war had damaged the ability to resist. One by one their cities were overwhelmed and destroyed by the invaders, with the Assyrian soldiers fighting to the bitter end. Assyria was later absorbed into the Persian Empire of the Achaemenids, and subsequently passed into history.

In a final parallel, the forces of ISIS were also attacked by a coalition of many countries, including the USA, Russia, Iran, Britain, France, Australia, the Netherlands, Egypt, Turkey, Jordan, Morocco and many others. By March 2019, their last stronghold in Syria was liberated, bringing to an end the ISIS "terrorist state of falsehood" (as former Iraqi president Haider al Abadi aptly named it) which had, for a few years, imitated the brutality of the Assyrians but attained none of their achievements.

bottom of page