3

The Rise and Decline of Assyria

The decline of Mitanni, followed by the sudden collapse of the Hittite Empire, created a power vacuum in Syria that a number of petty and local Aramaean states attempted to fill. None, however, was strong enough to dominate the area, a circumstance that made it a tempting target for Assyria, which was reemerging as a major force in the geopolitics of the Fertile Crescent.

From its earliest history, Assyria’s principal orientation was toward the west, even though it was often most preoccupied with problems in other directions. This orientation was dictated in great measure by its geostrategic position. East and north of the narrow Tigris Valley lay a mountainous region peopled by hardy raiding tribes such as the Guti and Lullubi, which always proved troublesome and difficult to restrain. To the south, of course, lay the rich Mesopotamian plain. But it was home to the more populous Akkadians, Sumerians, and Babylonians who had consistently sought to expand their kingdoms northward into Assyria, making it an imperative of Assyrian policy to fortify the frontier separating them. It was in the west, however, that both the greatest threat and greatest opportunity were to be found. The steppe of the Jazirah, which stretched westward for hundreds of miles, left Assyria exposed to attack by marauding armies or nomadic bands from the fringes of the vast Arabian Desert. Stability in this broad region was critical to Assyria’s security and, absent any natural formations that could serve as the basis for a fortified frontier, could be assured only through direct control.

Control of the Jazirah, however, would also bring Assyria within striking distance of the rich sources of copper, iron, lumber, silver, and stone that were to be found just a bit farther to the northwest in Anatolia. Moreover, it

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The Pre-Islamic Middle East
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