The name Assyria is derived from the Greek name Ashur (a descendant of Cush). According to Genesis 10, Cush was one of the sons of Ham, and Cush begat Nimrod the mighty hunter. Nimrod was apparently a builder, as he founded Babel, as well as other important early cities in the land of Shinar (the region we now call Mesopotamia). Out of this region went Ashur, who built the prime cities of the region – Nineveh, Rehoboth, and Calah. These cities are located in the Tigris river valley in northern modern day Iraq (south of the present city of Mosul).
The Assyrian Empire extended from its chief city-state Assur in upper Mesopotamia on the Tigris River. At its peak, it extended from Babylon in the South, to the Kurdish mountains in the North. It occupied the Persian lands now known as Iran and extended as far west as Egypt. The Empire fell in the third century before Christ and was later conquered by the Medes and Romans. It was a hotbed of Christian growth for several centuries before the region was conquered by the Islamic Arabs.
The religion, art, and culture of Assyria was greatly derived from the Babylonians. The national god of the Assyrian people was Assur, who had the Assyrian King as his high priest. This god was also associated with Asherah, “the queen of heaven”, whose worship spread into Israel in the 10th century. Another important god of the Assyrian people was Ishtar, a Babylonian goddess, whose temple was at Ninevah, the capital city of Assyria.
The Kingdom of Assyria came to great prominence under King Tiglath-pileser I in the early 1100s BC (about the time of the reign of Saul over Israel). He extended the empire as far west as the Mediterranean. Later the kingdom declined (during the reigns of David, Solomon, and Solomon’s sons), but was greatly revived (Neo-Assyrian Empire) under the leadership of Assur-nazir-pal III (911 BC). His son, Shalmaneser III, who reigned during the period of Israelite prophets Elija and Elisha, organized all of these conquered territories in the mid-800s and extended the kingdom east and west, destroyed Syria, conquered Persia and Babylon and posed a great threat to Judah. Later Neo-Assyrian Kings (Tiglath-Pileser III, Shalmaneser V, and Sargon II) drove the Egyptians out of Canaan and conquered Samaria and the 10 Israelite Tribes comprising the northern kingdom of Israel. The conquered people were taken into captivity and resettled into new lands, never to return.
Shalmaneser’s son Sennacherib and moved the capital city to Nineveh, defeated the Greeks, and extended his power into Asia Minor. Egypt, trying to gain a foothold in the region, united with Israel (Hezekiah) and several other small nations (Sidon, Ascalon, and Ekron), but was driven out by Sennacherib in 701 BC. The Assyrians conquered Sidon, Ascalon, and Ekron and destroyed much of the land of Judah, but did not conquer Jerusalem. The Judeans paid tribute to Sennacherib and he left.
The Assyrians continued to exert power in the region until the rise of the Median and Persian kings in the 600s and 500s, respectively.