New Historian

New Research Claims Drought and Population Growth Felled the Assyrian Empire

Emblem of Asshur

<![CDATA[The Neo-Assyrian Empire ruled the Near East for three hundred years. From 910 BCE to 610 BCE it was the biggest multi-ethnic state in the world, encompassing many different peoples and tribes with diverse origins. In the late Seventh Century BCE however, it suddenly and rapidly declined. How a large, well-run empire could collapse so quickly has puzzled historians and archaeologists ever since. Most explanations for the Empire's decline focus on civil wars, political unrest and the sacking of Nineveh, the Assyrian capital, by Babylonian and Median forces in 612 BCE. Despite these explanations, it remains unclear exactly how the largest empire the Old World had ever seen declined so quickly and comprehensively. New research has proposed a different explanation for the spectacular fall. Dr Adam Schneider, from the University of California-San Diego, and Dr Selim Adali, from Koç University's Research Centre for Anatolian Civilisation, argue that a more gradual process led to a tipping point in the Empire's fortunes. Their research '"No harvest was reaped": demographic and climatic factors in the decline of the Neo-Assyrian Empire,' published in Climatic Change, looks at how climate change affected people in the seventh century BCE. By examining sediments from Eski Acigöl, a former crater lake located in the central Anatolian high lands, they found there was a gradual increase in aridity over three centuries, which peaked in the mid-seventh century BCE. Similarly, at Lake Iznik in northwest Anatolia, a shift towards a drier climate around 650 BCE was inferred from changes in the sediments. "[This was] one of the driest periods in the vicinity for the entire Holocene," they wrote in their report. Schneider and Adali also looked at population growth in the Empire. The heartland of the region experienced a significant population increase in the Eighth and Seventh Centuries BCE. It is possible that the population explosion was part of a larger, politically-motivated project of urban expansion led by King Sennacherib, who reigned from 705 to 681 BCE. "Upon his accession to the throne, Sennacherib decided to move the Assyrian capital to the city of Nineveh. Over the course of his reign, he greatly expanded the city, which by the time of its destruction in 612 BC had grown from 150 ha to a staggering 750 ha in size, making it by far the largest city that had ever existed in northern Mesopotamia up to that time," the report states. The expansion of Nineveh meant that large areas of prime cultivable land were build upon, reducing the city's agricultural production. The population of the newly-enlarged city was further increased by the mass immigration of slave labourers from conquered lands. Nearly half a million people were moved from outlying areas into the Neo-Assyrian heartland, which placed even greater strain on the city's diminished agricultural output. An increasingly arid climate, coupled with unsustainable population growth, meant that that the Assyrian Empire was increasingly vulnerable to severe drought. An outbreak of drought would have placed serious strain on the agricultural economy of the Assyrian Empire, and by extension, upon imperial political power. Dr Schneider's and Dr Adali's work adds an intriguing new hypothesis to our understanding of what caused the collapse of the Neo-Assyrian Empire. ]]>

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