One of the great empires of the ancient world, occupying a fertile area east of the River Tigris, corresponding to modern northern Iraq. In the city of Nineveh pottery which has been discovered is proof of habitation in the period 5000–3000 BCE, but its main importance for biblical history lay in the three centuries from about 900 BCE when its well-trained and equipped army, with chariots and infantry, terrified neighbouring countries (Jer. 1: 13). However, the northern kingdom was temporarily benefited by Assyria when it defeated Israel's Aramaean oppressors (2 Kgs. 13: 5). Nevertheless Shalmaneser III, king of Assyria 858–824 BCE, records on the Black Obelisk, found in 1846 at Calah on the River Tigris and now in the British Museum in London, that he received gifts from Jehu, king of Israel, in 841 BCE. Under Tiglath-Pileser III (744–727 BCE) a period of aggressive expansion brought vast areas under Assyrian control and local neighbours were subject to it; many of the inhabitants were deported. But Menahem, king of Israel, secured immunity by forcing all the well-to-do inhabitants to surrender fifty shekels each (the current price of a slave) as tribute to Assyria (2 Kgs. 15: 20). The enlarged Assyrian cities were magnificently beautiful and in them the arts flourished.
When Hoshea failed to send his annual tribute, Shalmaneser V (727–722 BCE) besieged Samaria and deported 27,000 of its residents; he repopulated it with a variety of foreigners who brought their own religion, which was later amalgamated with the worship of Yahweh (2 Kgs. 17: 28). According to this slander generated by local Jewish enmity, the syncretism initiated the impure Samaritan religion. But this is a misleading view of Samaritanism.
Judah long remained loyal to Assyria, until finally it joined the coalition against Sennacherib (705–681 BCE), but during the siege of Jerusalem the Assyrians unexpectedly withdrew. In the late 7th cent. Assyria collapsed and Medes and Chaldeans expelled Assyrians from Babylonia. Nineveh was captured in 612 BCE (cf. Nahum 3: 7). This gave a measure of space to Judah for Josiah's reforms.