The two great Eastern empires before which all the old states of Syria and Palestine fell. We learn their history partly from the Bible narrative and also from contemporary monuments written in cuneiform characters and recently deciphered.
Babylonia or Shinar (Gen. 10:10) is the alluvial country on the lower course of the Euphrates and Tigris, of which Babel or Babylon was the chief city. Assyria, or Asshur, occupied the Tigris valley to the north of Babylonia. Its center lay on the left bank of the Tigris, where the great city of Nineveh stood, opposite Mosul. Babylon and Nineveh were long rivals, but they had a common civilization of which the southern alluvium was the original home. Their language was Semitic, but in the southern country the Semites seem to have been preceded by another race from whom they acquired many things in their culture and religion, and to whom the origin of their peculiar cuneiform system of writing is generally ascribed. In process of time Assyria became the stronger power and began to push forth beyond its original limits. In the latter part of the 12th century B.C. the great conqueror Tiglath-pileser Ⅰ crossed the Euphrates and penetrated as far as the Phoenician coast; but these conquests were not permanent, and a period of deep decline followed; the monuments are silent for more than a century, and when they speak again about the close of the 10th century we find Assyria engaged in reestablishing its lost sovereignty in Mesopotamia.
The great conqueror Assurnazirpal (884–860) consolidated his kingdom throughout the country of the Two Rivers to the borders of Babylonia and took tribute from the western princes as far as Phoenicia, while his successor Shalmaneser Ⅲ made many wars beyond the Euphrates. In 854 B.C. he defeated a great confederation of Syrian states with Damascus at its head, and in 842 he took tribute from Jehu, king of Israel, but no sustained attempt to incorporate Syria in the empire was made till the reign of Tiglath-pileser Ⅲ (745–727). In 738 he took tribute from Damascus and Samaria (2 Kgs. 15:19); in 734 these powers revolted and the result of a fresh war was the destruction of Damascus, the depopulation of Gilead and Naphtali (2 Kgs. 15:29), and the acceptance of Assyrian suzerainty by Judah. There was now no independent state between Assyria and Egypt, and Egypt had no power to check the progress of the victor. But when Tiglath-pileser died, the Ethiopian So or Sebech (2 Kgs. 17:4) had made himself lord of all Egypt and had begun to foment a revolt in which Syria was involved, together with Philistia and Samaria, and that occupied the whole reign of Shalmaneser Ⅴ (727–722) and the first years of his successor. The siege of Samaria, begun by Shalmaneser (2 Kgs. 17:3–6), was concluded by Sargon (722–705), a valiant prince, who smote the Egyptians at Raphia (720) and maintained and extended his borders on all sides.
There was again a rising of the Philistines in 711 (Isa. 20), but once more the Egyptians failed their friends in the time of need. On Sargon’s death a fresh revolt broke out through all the empire, and Merodach-baladan of Babylon sought alliances even in Judea (2 Kgs. 20). If the Egyptians had been active Assyria might have been ruined, but while they encouraged the rebels they were so slow to take the field that the new king, Sennacherib (705–681), had time to crush the rising in the east and then appeared in Palestine (701). Once more the center of the revolt lay in the Philistine country supported by Hezekiah of Judah; but the rebels could do nothing without Egypt, and the siege of Ekron was formed before an Egyptian army appeared on the scene and was defeated in a great battle at Eltekeh. All Palestine now lay at the feet of the Assyrian; one man alone, the prophet Isaiah, who had never ceased to warn the Judeans against the vanity of their reliance on Egypt, remained undaunted and encouraged Hezekiah not to surrender his stronghold. The prophet’s confidence was justified; a great disaster fell on Sennacherib’s host (2 Kgs. 19:35), and he was obliged to return to Nineveh, leaving Judea humbled indeed but in possession of some measure of self-government.
Sennacherib was assassinated in 681 (2 Kgs. 19:37), and from this date the Bible has little to say of the Assyrians. But their power was still mighty under Esarhaddon (681–668), who invaded and conquered Egypt, and his son Assurbanipal. The latter lost Egypt but otherwise maintained the empire in outward strength till his death, about 626 B.C. After this, the fall came swiftly. The Assyrians, powerful to destroy, never showed themselves able to build up a stable political structure. They ruled by terror, crushing their enemies by fire and sword or weakening them by wholesale deportations to other parts of their empire. Their subjects never ceased to be the foes of their masters, and the whole course of the empire was marked by incessant revolts. The Babylonians in particular rose again and again and, on the death of Assurbanipal, finally recovered their independence.
Meanwhile the Median tribes to the northeast of Assyria had been consolidated into a kingdom, with Ecbatana (Achmetha, Ezra 6:2, now Hamadan) as capital, and became lords of all the Iranian tableland, Persia (to the south of Media proper) acknowledging their suzerainty. Their king, Cyaxares, now began to press on Assyria. For a time their progress was interrupted by a great invasion of “Scythian” nomads, who overran Asia as far as Palestine and are probably alluded to in Jer. 4–6. But this diversion was only temporary and left Assyria exhausted. Again the Medes advanced in alliance with the Babylonians, and Nineveh fell, about 607 B.C. Assyria proper and the northern provinces fell into the hands of the Medes, while Syria lay open to be seized by Nabopolassar, king of Babylon. On this side, however, another claimant for empire had appeared in the person of King Necho of Egypt, who in the last days of Nineveh had advanced through Palestine to the Euphrates (2 Kgs. 23:29–35), and made Judah his vassal. Against him Nabopolassar sent his son, Nebuchadnezzar, who in 605 smote Necho in a great battle at Carchemish (Jer. 46:2).
The death of Nabopolassar checked the progress of the victor, but Nebuchadnezzar advanced again as soon as he was confirmed in his kingdom, and at the close of the century he was lord of all Syria to the Egyptian border. The Palestinian nations were still impatient of the yoke, and Egypt, under Necho’s successor Apries (Pharaoh Hophra, Jer. 44:30), was still ready with offers of help. But Nebuchadnezzar’s hand was too strong. Jerusalem was destroyed on a second revolt; Tyre too fell after a long struggle (Ezek. 29:18), and Egypt was humbled, though not permanently enslaved. Nebuchadnezzar’s chief concern in his reign of 44 years (604–561) was, however, to strengthen and beautify Babylon (Dan. 4:30), whose walls and great temple of Bel were among the wonders of the ancient world. (See Babylon.)
With all this splendor the Babylonian empire was nothing more than a short epilogue to that of Assyria, ruled by the same methods and equally incapable of accomplishing anything permanent in politics. The succeeding kings from Evil-merodach (2 Kgs. 25:27) to Nabonidus were not even great warriors, and in 538, Babylon fell almost without a struggle before Cyrus, king of Persia, who was welcomed not only by the captive Jews (Isa. 45:1) but even by the people of Babylon and at once entered on the whole inheritance of the empire. Cyrus had already overthrown the Median empire and the kingdom of Lydia in western Asia Minor, and on the east his conquests extended into Afghanistan, while his successor, Cambyses, subdued Egypt. Henceforth all western Asia was united in a single hand, and the Jews who returned to rebuild Jerusalem had before them no possibility of political independence and could give effect to their sense of nationality only under the form of an exclusive religious community.