The Assyrians and ISIS: Part I

A most timely account of the ancient Assyrians, on the surface similar to ISIS, but distinguished by their achievements in addition to war and carnage. Their savagery is all that ISIS mimics.

Joe David

OpEds Joe David
Joe David

To the casual historian, the Ancient Assyrians were savages who had turned war into a refined art. History books are replete with examples of them skinning, impaling, burning, and chopping off critical body parts of their enemies.[1] Reliefs discovered in their palaces echo such horrible acts of carnage, which they promoted with pride to terrify their enemies.[2]

War was a way of life for them, conceived to enlarge their wealth and territories. To guarantee success against their enemies, they developed skillful warriors trained to excel in specialized areas, such as charioteers, cavalry, bowmen, and lancers. Engineers were used to craft movable towers with battering rams to destroy city walls, and iron weapons were created to give them a decisive edge on the battlefield.

To serious scholars, though, the Ancient Assyrians accomplished much more than military power. Although Christianity didn’t take hold and spread throughout Asia until 33 AD a thousand or more years later, the Ancient Assyrians prepared the way for what would follow by their devotion to one god. His name was Ashur.

The Ancient Assyrians

(2500 BC to 612 BC)

The Assyrian empire was located in Iraq in an area called Mesopotamia – a Greek word meaning “between two rivers,” or more specifically between the Tigris and Euphrates Rivers. It was here in this fertile land, between these two rivers, home once to the Sumerians and later to the Akkadians, that the Assyrians built a civilization which at its height unified diverse cultural groups from Persia to Egypt.[3]   


What saved the Ancient Assyrians from being just another barbaric group was their achievements, which were shared with other civilizations that followed. They included a postal system, libraries, magnifying glasses, paved roads, locks and keys, a method for telling time, plumbing with flushing toilets[4], Hammurabi’s Law (which is generally known for its “eye for an eye” punishment)[5], a system for managing vast land holdings (by using governors to oversee territories),[6] and a useful knowledge of astronomy (acquired, not just for scientific purposes, but to assist superstitious rulers at making decisions[7]).

For the purpose of this article, their most important contribution lay much deeper than all that.

Although the Ancient Assyrians had many gods, representing different aspects of nature, those other gods were all aspects of their primary God, Ashur. He was their king of all gods, their omnipresent, omnipotent, and universal creator. By spreading this idea of one God, rather than the idea of a multitude of gods, so popular among primitive societies, throughout the region to the tribes and countries they had conquered, they prepared the foundation for what would follow: the birth of one-god religions like Islam, Judaism and Christianity.[8] 

Unfortunately, because of their cruelty to their citizens and their enemies, it was inevitable that discontent would spread throughout their empire and eventually destabilize it. Their collapse was accelerated by a military that was weakened by constant wars. In 612 BC, their primary enemies, the Babylonians and Medes, successfully destroyed their capital, Nineveh, and the mighty Assyrian empire collapsed. But their legacy of monotheism remained.

The Christian Assyrian Empire

(33 AD – 1300 AD)

It took about 600 hundred years for the Assyrians to rise from their ashes. In 33 AD they again became prominent and again built an empire. This time it was a Christian empire, the very first Christian empire in the world, based on the teachings of Jesus.[9]

Their transition to Christianity didn’t occur immediately. Their loyalty to Ashur continued until about 256 AD. But in 33 AD Ashurism began to fade in importance, as the Assyrians converted to Christianity through the teachings of three apostles – Saints Thomas, Bartholomew, and Thaddeus. These three apostles, credited with founding the Holy Apostolic Catholic Assyrian Church of the East in Edessa, Turkey in the upper Mesopotamia area, led the way for the spread of Christianity, which eventually made its way across Asia.[10]


Unfortunately, the Christian Assyrians are rarely given much attention in history books. When most people think of the Assyrians, they often think of the Ancient Assyrians, not the Christian Assyrians. Yet, like their predecessors, the Christian Assyrians also made noteworthy contributions to civilization, some of which have been carelessly attributed to other groups. Much of their noteworthy contributions were in the area of spiritual and intellectual endeavors. Here are only some of them:

  • Between the fourth and sixth centuries, they revived the knowledge accumulated by the Greeks and translated it into Syriac and later from Syriac to Arabic. This included many religious works as well as the works of important thinkers like Aristotle, Plato, and Socrates.[11]

  • They also made their own special contributions in science, philosophy, and medicine. In the ninth century, for example, Assyrian Scholar, Physician and Translator Hunayn ibn Ishaq, wrote the “Ten Treatises of Ophthalmology,” which was used as a textbook until 1800 AD. The book provided important information about the eyes and its anatomy in minute detail, including discussions about eye diseases and the treatments for them.[12]

  • In the area of architecture, it was the Assyrians who freely began to use the parabolic shape to create vaulted and domed chambers.[13]

  • During the ninth century, Job of Edessa, an Assyrian writer, who translated many scientific works from Greek to Syriac was credited with evolving a physical theory of the Universe, which replaced matter (or to be more exact, empiricism, as defined by Aristotle) with a new theory, a theory of forces[14] (which preceded the discoveries in quantum mechanics[15]).

Their contributions were many and significant. But of them all, again, for the purpose of this article, the two crowning achievements were:

  • Create a missionary system to spread Christianity throughout the world. With only a Bible, a cross, and some bread, the missionaries followed the silk route to the East, delivering their message of peace and a loving God to the world. Along the way, they established churches. By the 12th Century, the Assyrian Church of East became the largest church in the world with over 80 million followers, making it larger than the Roman Catholic and Greek Orthodox Churches combined.[16] At its peak, their missionaries had reached China, Japan and even the Philippines.

  • Establish the first university, the School of Nisibis (with three departments – theology, philosophy, and medicine). This university became an important spiritual center for intellectual development, and it was used as the model for a monastery school at the Vivarium, an estate in southern Italy in about 540 AD.[17]

Such achievements provide a glimpse into the sophistication of their civilization, which evolved over time. They also provide a glimpse into the character of the Assyrians, exemplified by their transition from a military to a peace-loving society – a direct result of their Christian development that began in 33 AD.

Unfortunately, this peaceful and cultured people faced a real threat roughly around 630 AD with the rise of Islam.


[1] Zebel, Sydney H. and Schwartz, Sydney, Past to Present, The Macmillan Company, New York, page 42.

[2] Starr, Chester, A History of the Ancient World, Third Edition, Oxford University Press, New York and Oxford, 1983, page 133.

[3] BetBasoo, Peter, “Brief History of the Assyrians,”

[4] BetBasoo, Peter, “Brief History of the Assyrians,”

[5] www,;Hammurabi.

[6] Starr, Chester A., A History of the Ancient World, page 133.

[7] Ibid, page 137.

[8] Kriwaczek, Paul, Babylon, Mesopotamia and the Birth of Civilization, Thomas Dunne Books, New York, 2010, pages 230-231, 242.

[9] BetBasoo, Peter, “Brief History of the Assyrians,”

[10] Ibid.

[11] Ibid.

[12] Ibid.

[13] BetBasoo, Peter, “Muslim Claims of Accomplishments,”

[14] BetBasoo, Peter, “Brief History of Assyrians,”

[15] Quantum mechanics is the science that explains the behavior of matter and its interactions with energy on an atomic- and subatomic-particle level.  (This knowledge all came to be known before Planck and Einstein.)

[16] BetBasso, Peter, “Brief History of Assyrians,”

[17] Ibid.

In about 630 AD, this all began to change for them with the rise of Islam. (Part II will be posted on Sunday)