Ancient Civilizations: The Assyrians

Contributor: Suzanne Riordan. Lesson ID: 13077

Flower gardens, zoos, networks of roads, indoor plumbing, paved streets, a library, a large army, an efficient government. Sounds like a modern state, but this place existed nearly 3,000 years ago!


World, World

learning style
Auditory, Kinesthetic, Visual
personality style
Lion, Otter
Grade Level
Middle School (6-8)
Lesson Type
Dig Deeper

Lesson Plan - Get It!


Which people built the world's first real empire? And what exactly is an "empire," anyway?

Starting with some small farming communities near the Tigris River, the Assyrians built a great empire that covered a large portion of northern Mesopotamia.

For a long time, the Assyrian people were ruled by different "neighbors:" the Sumerian, Babylonian, Hittite, and Mittani kingdoms. But, by 1100 BC, they began to grow stronger and to expand their control, creating the world's first real empire.

  • What do you think the word "empire" means?

An empire is a group of peoples or nations that are governed by one ruler. The Assyrian Empire covered modern Iraq, Syria, Lebanon, Israel, and parts of Iran, Turkey, and Egypt.

map of Assyrian Empire

Image by Ningyou, via Wikimedia Commons, was released into the public domain.

How did the Assyrians build their empire? Write down the following questions, and answer them as you watch the video below:

  • What did the Assyrians do at the city called Ashur?
  • Who was Ashur-ubillit I, and what did he do?
  • Why did the Assyrians move conquered peoples around to different places?
  • How did they rule their empire?
  • What did they carve on the walls of their palaces?
  • What did Assyrian leaders think of Babylonia?
  • What important things did Ashurbanipal collect?
  • What innovations did they focus on?

Watch The rise and fall of the Assyrian Empire - Marian H Feldman from TED-Ed:

Making an Empire

One of the most important parts of making an empire is having a strong army. The Assyrians became expert warriors and, as the video suggests, were probably very cruel and savage warriors. They had thousands of well-trained soldiers that formed a "standing army." (A standing army is one that is always on duty and ready to fight, not just gathered together in times of war.) Sometimes they used charioteers, and they also had troops on camels, a horse cavalry, and expert archers.

Assyrian relief of archers

They had a series of strong warrior-kings as rulers, whose main goal was to conquer other kingdoms and expand the empire. They attacked large cities, took their property and slaves back home, and then made the conquered people pay heavy taxes.

They kept control of these conquered cities by dividing the land into provinces and appointing a "governor" for each province. They also had soldiers stationed at different locations in the kingdom to keep order. This was one of the keys to their success, because it does no good to conquer a people if you can't control them. The Assyrians proved very good at governing the lands they conquered.

They also created a network of roads that connected all the cities. This was important, too, because they could send messages back and forth quickly to resolve any problems that came up. They even paved some of the roads with stones to make the trip easier.

Building Projects and Art

The Assyrians didn't have a lot of experience in building, so they hired experts from other lands to build new cities for them. They built temples, palaces, city walls, and irrigation systems. They had an aqueduct system to carry water to their cities long before the Romans, and some of the rich citizens also had running water and indoor toilets.

They built massive gateways and giant stone carvings.

Assyrian relief of a god

They also had a strong interest in making beautiful outdoor spaces, with large parks and gardens near their palaces. Some historians now believe the famous "Hanging Gardens of Babylon"--one of the "Wonders of the Ancient World"--were actually Assyrian gardens at Nineveh. Why do they think this? Because archaeologists have found evidence of large garden areas in Assyria but have found none in Babylon!

Hanging Gardens of Babylon

Would you believe the Assyrians also had a "zoo?" King Ashurnasirpal loved to collect animals from foreign lands and add them to the palace gardens and parks!

The Assyrians were also great artists, especially in the area of jewelry-making. Archaeologists have discovered artifacts that show they were experts in working with gold, jewels, ivory, and glass.

One of the best things the Assyrians "built" was a massive library of ancient documents. King Ashurbanipal ordered his people to collect all the written texts in the kingdom, so he could save them in his library. There were histories, records of medicine and astronomy, literature, and religious texts such as hymns and prayers.

Kings and Capitals

The Assyrian kings, besides expanding their empire, seemed to love to build new capital cities! As you saw in the video, their first capital was at Ashru. Under King Ashurnasirpal II, Kalhu (modern-day Nimrud) became the capital. Then Sargon II built a capital at Dur-Sharrukin (which means Sargon's fortress).

Sargon II palace in Dur-Sharrukin

Image [cropped] by Charles Chipiez from a collection at the Louvre Museum, via Wikimedia Commons, is in the public domain.

His son, Sennecherib, built another palace at Nineveh. Finally, Ashur-ubillit II established the last capital at Harran.

End of the Assyrian Empire

Although the Assyrians were close relatives of the Babylonians and made themselves the "guardians" of Babylonian culture, the Babylonians were not happy being a conquered people. They rebelled and conquered the Assyrians in 612 BC.

Now, head over to the Got It? section where you'll make a map of the Assyrian Empire and write a news article about the Assyrian library!

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