The Assyrian Conquests (853 BCE-612 BCE)

Gale Encyclopedia of World History: War. Volume 2. Detroit: Gale, 2008.

Major Figures

King Ahab of Israel

Ahab (birth and death dates unknown), king of Israel in the middle of the ninth century bce, is perhaps best remembered for the Biblical account of his marriage to the Phoenician princess Jezebel and the bloody revolution that eventually resulted from that union. But in his own time, the people of the Near East primarily knew him as one of the twelve allied generals who checked, albeit briefly, the relentless advance of the Assyrian war machine at the Battle of Qarqar.

The Political Climate in Ahab’s Time

At the time of Ahab’s rule, the ancient Hebrew tribes were split into two kingdoms. Ahab ruled Israel, the “Northern Kingdom,” which was centered on Samaria, a hilltop city chosen by Ahab’s father Omri as the new capital.

Throughout its turbulent history, the Northern Kingdom saw the passage of many “dynasties,” many of which only lasted as long as the kingship of one or two kings—in the case of the House of Zimri, all of seven days! Ahab had the fortune to be the son of the founder of one of Israel’s more successful dynasties.

During Ahab’s life, Israel became a player on the international scene, garnering mention in contemporary Assyrian documents. With its increased recognition came wealth, particularly after Ahab cemented an alliance through marriage with the rich Phoenician city-state of Tyre on the Mediterranean coast. The economic connection to Phoenicia’s vast mercantile empire brought fabulous wealth to Samaria. It also brought a religious influence that would eventually spell the doom of the House of Omri.

While Ahab was honoring his wife by constructing a temple to the Ba’al (“lord”) of Tyre, most likely the god Melkart, he was also busy shoring up good relations with his many neighbors. The region known as the Levant that today encompasses Israel, the Palestinian territories, Lebanon, Syria, and Jordan was in Ahab’s day a patchwork of small kingdoms and city-states. These states had arisen after the fall of the Hittite Empire had left a power vacuum in the region, and they spent most of their time warring with each other.

The most powerful city-state in the region was Damascus, and it was with Damascus that Israel had the most strained relations. Nevertheless, the bickering states had enough of a sense of self-preservation to band together in the face of the approaching Assyrians, whose empire was swiftly overshadowing the region.

Assyria on the Move

The Assyrian heartland is in modern-day northern Iraq and was in ancient times surrounded by more powerful nations. Initially as a method of self-preservation, the Assyrians developed the most warlike culture yet seen and began conquering their neighbors. Soon self-preservation turned to greed, and conquest, no longer defensively motivated, became a state policy. By the middle of the ninth century, the Assyrians, who were just entering into their last and greatest phase (the so-called Neo-Assyrian Empire) under Shalmaneser III, had turned their gaze to the fractured Levant.

In one of the earliest examples of psychological warfare and propaganda, Assyria had consciously built a reputation for brutality and cruelty, knowing that a fearsome reputation would more often than not compel potential resisters to surrender without a fight. Of course, this approach can backfire and inspire one’s enemies to band together and put up a fierce fight rather than submit—and this is precisely what happened as Shalmaneser marched his armies into Syria.

Ahab and the Battle of Qarqar

Strangely, the Old Testament is silent on Israel’s participation in the alliance and ensuing battle. Our chief source is an Assyrian stele (carved stone monument) that provides detailed lists of the twelve allied armies that stood against the Assyrians at the Battle of Qarqar in 853 bce

It would appear that Damascus was the leader of the alliance, but Ahab provided a sizeable contribution of troops, about half as many as Damascus. The battle took place near the town of Qarqar on the OrontesRiver in modern-day Syria. Although the stele makes a claim that the Assyrians emerged victorious, their advance was apparently checked.

It would be another decade before Assyria was able to lay siege to Damascus and begin raiding Israel proper. By that time the alliance of Qarqar had long since disintegrated and the Assyrians soon added the divided city-states of Syria to their growing empire. Israel was next in the line of conquest.

Ahab’s Legacy

Ahab was long gone by the time Assyria took Israel. He probably died only a few years after Qarqar and was succeeded by his son Ahaziah. The House of Omri disintegrated as the foreign influence, both religious and political, of Ahab’s widow Jezebel inspired a bloody revolution led by Jehu, a captain in the Israelite army. Ahab’s children were beheaded, Jezebel murdered. Ahab’s line was extinguished.

Tiglath-Pileser III

Tiglath-Pileser III (ruled 745-727 bce) is widely regarded as one of the greatest kings in the centuries-long history of the Assyrian empire. His reign marks a high point for the so-called Neo-Assyrian Empire, both militarily and culturally. Under his leadership Assyria finally defeated the Kingdom of Urartu, their longtime enemy. More importantly, Tiglath-Pileser III reformed Assyria’s imperial administration and is the king most likely responsible for creating a network of paved roads and messengers, a network that would outlive the Assyrian Empire by many centuries.

Rise to Power

Historians are unsure of Tiglath-Pileser’s exact birth date. He came to power in 745 bce, apparently as a result of a palace coup that overthrew the previous king, Ashur-Nirari V. It is also likely that he took the name Tiglath-Pileser when he ascended to the throne, a common practice in the Assyrian monarchy. He is also referred to in the Old Testament as Pul, which might have been the name he took when he assumed personal kingship over Babylonia in 729 bce.

Babylonia

Although the Assyrians numbered the ancient state of Babylonia as one of their first conquests, their southern cousins were never comfortable with Assyrian rule. Because of close linguistic and cultural ties, as well as the capital city Babylon’s status as a holy place, Assyrian kings were reluctant to deal with the periodic Babylonian revolts in their customarily harsh manner.

When Tiglath-Pileser III assumed the Assyrian crown, Babylonia had been operating in a state of near anarchy for some fifty years. One of the new king’s first acts was to take an army south, restore order, and install a new governor. Babylonia was pacified for the time being.

War with Urartu

Urartu, also known as the Kingdom of Van, was centered in modern-day Armenia. It had been steadily expanding, taking advantage of a series of weak Assyrian kings and annexing the city-states of Syria. This southern expansion had cut off Assyria’s access to the iron mines of Anatolia (modern Turkey). Tiglath-Pileser III prepared an expedition to win back the lost Assyrian territories and finally put an end to his troublesome northern neighbor.

The Assyrians defeated Sarduris, King of Urartu, and his Syrian allies in 742 bce and the flow of iron from the west was restored. Tiglath-Pileser extracted tribute from the Phoenician city-states of Tyre and Byblos, rich mercantile cities on the Mediterranean coast, and from Israel.

Military Intervention in Judah

It was to the Hebrew kingdoms that Tiglath-Pileser next turned his attention. Ever since the death of Solomon in the middle of the tenth century, there had been two kingdoms: Israel in the north and Judah in the south. Israel was by far the dominant one of the pair, enjoying sea access, a lucrative trade relationship with the Phoenicians, and strategic placement on north-south and east-west trade routes.

Judah, landlocked and with a smaller population and less arable land, was poor and often turned to its more powerful neighbors for protection. In 734 bce, King Ahaz of Judah was feeling sufficiently put-upon by both Israel and the great Syrian city-state of Damascus to appeal to Tiglath-Pileser III for help. The Assyrian king was only too happy to oblige and marched his armies, fresh from their victory over Sarduris, south.

King Pekah of Israel, knowing he could not stand up to the might of Assyria, submitted quickly, but Damascus shut its gates and prepared for a siege. Despite their mastery of siegecraft, it took the Assyrians two years to take the city. When they did, in 732 bce, they subjected the city to the usual round of atrocities that lay in store for any town that dared oppose Assyria. Damascus was ruined, its independence lost for centuries to come.

Invasion of Urartu

With his campaigns in the west wrapped up, Tiglath-Pileser III turned his attention back to Urartu. Although it had lost its southern possessions, the Kingdom of Van still posed a real threat to Assyrian interests. The king led his army into the mountainous north, looting and ravaging the countryside. Some Assyrians may have marched as far north as the Caspian Sea, bringing ruin in their wake as the main force besieged the capital-fortress at Van.

Van never did fall to the Assyrians, but the damage was done. The depredations of the invaders caused a major disruption from which Urartu would never recover. Assyria’s northern border was finally secure.

Innovations in the Infrastructure

After so many years of campaigning, Tiglath-Pileser III apparently felt it necessary to turn his attention to the upkeep of his vast empire, and he did this ably. Ancient roads were often little better than footpaths, making overland travel slow and difficult. Tiglath-Pileser saw that a speedy and reliable system of roads would make administration much easier and ordered the construction of a network of royal roads, wide lanes paved with limestone.

To this network Tiglath-Pileser added a system of messengers who operated in relays, much like the Pony Express of the Old West. Travel time throughout the empire improved dramatically, and messages could be conveyed to their destinations in days instead of weeks.

This system worked so well that it actually outlived the Assyrian Empire itself, which fell in 612 bce The later empires of the Near East—the Neo-Babylonians, the Persians, the Macedonian successor states—would continue to use, expand, and improve upon the system developed by Tiglath-Pileser III.

Babylonia Revisited

The reign of Tiglath-Pileser III began with trouble in Babylonia and ended the same way. In the 730s bce, a local usurper named Ukin-zer seized the Babylonian throne and incited an uprising against Assyria. Tiglath-Pileser led his army south one more time and put down the revolt with great severity.

At this point, the Assyrians had tried a variety of solutions to placate the restive Babylonians, such as installing local governors and puppet kings, using government-appointed eunuch viceroys, and so forth. Tiglath-Pileser decided on a new strategy: he had himself crowned King of Babylonia and Assyria, uniting the two thrones for the first time in history.

Ultimately this solution would not work any better than any of the others and Babylonia would continue to be a thorn in Assyria’s side, but Tiglath-Pileser III would not be around to see the failure of his last innovation. He died in 727 bce, two years after taking the Babylonian crown.

Sargon II

The reign of Sargon II (?-705 bce), king of Assyria from 722 bce to his death in 705 bce, marked a continuation of the growing power of the resurgent Neo-Assyrian Empire. Sargon II’s reign looms large in Biblical history, as it marks the end of the ancient Kingdom of Israel and the origin of the tale of the “Ten Lost Tribes.”

Sargon the Usurper

All indications point to Sargon II coming to power through a coup, usurping the power of King Shalmanassar V in 722 bce A close examination of the evidence further indicates that Sargon was most likely not of royal blood, or even a palace insider.

Sargon II, lacking the proper royal pedigree, tried to establish his legitimacy in other ways, starting with the name “Sargon,” which literally means “legitimate king” and was the name of the first great Mesopotamian empire builder, a Sumerian who conquered vast swaths of land sixteen hundred years before.

About a decade into his reign, Sargon II even went so far as to build his own capital city, most likely to get away from the entrenched political factions in the traditional capital of Ashur. Dur-Sharrukin (or “FortSargon”), also called Khorsabad, not only became Sargon’s refuge but a source of national prestige as well.

Dur-Sharrukin was dominated by the royal palace, a magnificent structure of brick, wood, precious stones and metals, and ivory. The city also featured a magnificent park filled with exotic trees and a variety of temples dedicated to different Assyrian gods. To populate the city, Sargon relocated subjects from around the empire, particularly from recently conquered lands, a common practice in ancient Assyria.

The Destruction of Israel

It was this practice of deportation and resettlement that sealed the fate of the northern Kingdom of Israel and the ten Hebrew tribes who lived within its borders. Although the Old Testament attributes the destruction of Israel to Sargon’s predecessor, it is likely that it was Sargon himself who finally captured the Hebrew capital of Samaria and completed deporting the native inhabitants to other parts of the empire.

The legend of the Ten Lost Tribes—the residents of Israel who vanish from the historical record after the Assyrian conquest—has been a source of debate and controversy ever since. Just what happened to the tribes will most likely never be known. What is known is that upon winning the town after a three-year siege, Sargon rebuilt Samaria and resettled it with Syrians and Arabs, who, by melding their own practices with Jewish tradition, became known as the Samaritans.

In 720 bce, Sargon II also won a major victory in the region at Qarqar, the site of a famous battle that took place over a century earlier when a coalition of twelve local kings had briefly checked the Assyrian advance. Sargon won a decisive victory over another coalition force, this time made up of armies from the states of Arpad, Simirra, Damascus, Samaria, and Hamath. In the wake of the battle the Assyrians found themselves masters of Syria. Sargon made the former Kingdom of Hamath into an Assyrian province.

Expedition in Urartu

After his successful campaigns in Palestine and Syria, Sargon II next turned his attention to that perennial Assyrian enemy, the Kingdom of Urartu. Centered on Lake Van and straddling modern-day Armenia and Turkey, Urartu’s rugged terrain and mountaintop fortresses had long challenged would-be Assyrian conquerors.

Sargon’s record of his campaign provides a detailed account of how the Assyrians conducted their military expeditions. Recorded in the form of a letter from Sargon to the chief Assyrian god, Assur, the account is written from the perspective of a defender of Urartu observing the Assyrian army as it invades and conquers his land. Whether written by Sargon himself or a creative court scribe, the account’s format is without precedent in Assyrian records and makes for a very readable tale.

Launched in 714 bce, the campaign into Urartu marked Sargon’s eighth military undertaking. It was traditional for Neo-Assyrian kings to lead their army on a military expedition once a year, every year of their reign. Sargon chose Urartu as his target that year because the northern kingdom had been weakened by invasions of the Cimmerians, horse nomads who had moved from what is now southern Russia into the region of modern Azerbaijan by the end of the eighth century bce

Sargon’s foe, King Rusas of Urartu, met the Assyrians in battle in a steep-sided mountain valley. Rusas, who had fought a nearly continuous war against Assyria since the days of Tiglath-Pilesser III, was defeated decisively. Put to flight, the king was forced into hiding as Sargon and his army plundered the countryside mercilessly and annexed the territory of Musasir, fixing an annual tribute on the remainder of Urartu from that point on.

Babylonia and the Rise of Merodach-Baladan

Having won a decisive victory in the north, Sargon’s next major campaign would be aimed squarely at Babylonia, which had been in open revolt against Assyrian rule since Sargon took the throne. Babylonia, despite sharing extremely close linguistic, cultural, and religious ties with Assyria, had never fully accepted the Assyrians as their imperial overlords and rebellion was a constant problem.

Tiglath-Pilesser III had instituted a dual monarchy, uniting his crown with Babylonia’s in an attempt to both placate and awe the Babylonians. The move, like most Assyrian solutions to the “Babylonia problem,” proved to be only a temporary fix. In 721 bce, as Sargon II was busy consolidating his power, a certain Merodach-Baladan led an uprising in Babylonia and was proclaimed king. Merodach-Baladan would prove a persistent foe of the empire for years to come, vexing both Sargon II and his son and heir, Sennacherib, eventually driving Sennacherib to take the extreme measure of razing Babylon completely.

When he took the throne, Sargon decided to let Merodach-Baladan have his kingdom for the time being—there were frontiers to secure and internal rivalries to stamp out before he could take his army south. By 710 bce, with the west subjugated and Urartu in ruins, Sargon II launched an expedition against Babylon from Dur-Sharrukin. Babylon was taken and Merodach-Baladan was taken prisoner, at least for the time being. The fact that he shows up in later chronicles has led some to speculate that reports of his capture were simply Assyrian propaganda and that the rebel leader had actually fled to the southern swamps at the mouth of the Euphrates.

Assyrian Zenith

Whatever Merodach-Baladan’s fate, the year 710 bce marked the Assyrian Empire’s high point. The seven kings of the island of Cyprus submitted tribute to Sargon that year, as did the legendary King Midas of Phrygia, who was having his own trouble with the Cimmerians. All of Assyria’s long-time enemies, from Urartu in the north to Egypt in the south, were pacified. Sargon II could look out over an empire at the height of its power and influence.

The manner of Sargon’s death is unclear, but it is most likely he fell in battle against the Cimmerians in 705 bce In his seventeen years as king, Sargon II had expanded the empire and brought his many enemies to heel. Although his reign was cut short, his legacy was safe. His son and heir, Sennacherib, is remembered as an able general and great patron of art and architecture who held on to and expanded upon his father’s conquests while simultaneously increasing Assyrian power and prestige.

Sennacherib

King Sennacherib (ruled 705-681 bce) was one of the “four great kings”who led Assyria during the last century of that empire’s existence. Although he spent most of his reign fighting to hold together the conquests of his father, Sargon II, Sennacherib also managed to turn his capital at Nineveh into one of the jewels of the Near East.

Babylonian Trouble, Part I

Although he was not the eldest son, Sennacherib was chosen by his father Sargon II to succeed to the throne of the mighty Assyrian empire. The crown had scarcely been placed on the heir’s head when revolts broke out across the region.

Babylonia, that old hotbed of insurrection, rose up against Assyria under the leadership of the would-be king, Merodach-Baladan. The rebellion was put down with little difficulty, although Merodach-Baladan escaped ahead of Sennacherib’s army, fleeing to the marshlands of the Persian Gulf.

Rebellion in the West

Meanwhile, the petty kingdoms of Syria and Palestine, encouraged by Egypt, refused to pay tribute to the new king and so, having scarcely stamped out one fire, Sennacherib was compelled to march west to extinguish these new blazes of rebellion.

Thanks to the Assyrian mastery of siegecraft, the city-states of Ascalon and Sidon were quickly taken and the Assyrians turned their attention to Judah, the last Hebrew kingdom.

Sargon II had completed the conquest of Israel, long an Assyrian tributary, and deported the “Ten Lost Tribes.” Judah, with its capital at Jerusalem, had so far escaped its northern neighbor’s fate. After the Assyrians had quickly taken strategically important towns like Lachish, reducing them to smoking ruin, the previously rebellious Judean king Hezekiah proved quite willing to negotiate when Sennacherib showed up at the walls of Jerusalem. He is quoted in the Bible as saying: “I have done wrong. Leave me, and I will pay whatever tribute you impose on me.”

An emergency tax was levied and Sennacherib left Judea. He turned his army south, intending to march into Egypt to punish that kingdom for its role in stirring up insurrection. The expedition was a failure, however. It is unknown why his army turned back, although a plague among the troops is the most likely explanation.

Babylonian Trouble, Part II

Babylonia, meanwhile, continued to simmer. A second rebellion was quickly put down and Sennacherib installed his son, Assur-nadin-shum, as governor.

Suspecting that the rabble-rouser Merodach-Baladan had stirred up the latest revolt, Sennacherib built a fleet at Nineveh, his capital in the far north on the banks of the TigrisRiver. He sailed the ships downriver, dragging them overland to the Eurphrates at one point, before reaching the Persian Gulf.

In a series of sea battles, Sennecherib pacified the coastal communities of the Gulf, burning several towns in the process.

Meanwhile, the governorship of the king’s son was not working out as planned. Assur-nadin-shum’s appointment was just the latest in a long line of Assyrian attempts to find a way to effectively rule Babylonia, attempts that included merging the kingships of Assyria and Babylonia into one. Nothing had worked.

The Destruction of Babylon

Assur-nadin-shum was deposed and murdered in 689 bce. This proved the last straw for Sennecherib, who assembled an army and marched on the holy city of Babylon. The cultural preeminence that Babylon enjoyed in the ancient world, as well as the close linguistic and religious ties the Assyrians had to their southern cousins, had spared the city the full wrath of the empire. No longer. Sennecherib took the city, razed it to the ground, and flooded it, proclaiming that it could not be rebuilt for at least eighty years.

This action shocked the ancient world. Babylon was once the seat of a great empire itself and still maintained a reputation as a major cultural center and seat of learning. Nevertheless, Sennecherib’s extreme action accomplished what none of his predecessors’ efforts had. The smoldering embers of Babylonian revolution were finally extinguished.

The Glory of Nineveh

Although he earned his reputation as a ruthless general, Sennecherib was also responsible for one of the greatest cultural projects of the Neo-Assyrian period: the rebuilding of Nineveh.

Long a cult center of the goddess Ishtar, Nineveh had enjoyed a rather scholarly reputation before Sennecherib chose it as his new capital. Once established in the city, the king undertook a massive overhaul of the ancient town. He expanded and strengthened the walls, building fifteen magnificent gates to provide access. In one of the great engineering feats of the time, he built an aqueduct twenty-five miles long to bring fresh water from the hills into the city.

Buildings were knocked down to accommodate new street construction, turning dark and twisting alleyways into sunlit avenues. The city was suddenly dotted with grand plazas, parks, and orchards. Through the city, running in a straight line, was a broad ceremonial boulevard paved with bright limestone.

Sennecherib’s palace sprawled over eight acres and featured botanical and zoological gardens and man-made wetlands stocked with cranes and wild pigs for hunting.

A Violent End, A Violent Legacy

Like many who came before him and many who would come after him, Sennecherib both lived by the blade and died by it. In 681bce, he was stabbed to death while at prayer by two of his sons. The Bible describes the incident: “When he was worshiping in the temple of his god Nisroch, his sons Adram-melech and Sharezer slew him with the sword and fled into the land of Ararat.”

Evidently the motivation was jealousy of the heir-apparent, Esar-haddon, who did indeed become king upon his father’s death.

Sennecherib’s legacy lived on in the grandiosity of Nineveh, which would remain the capital of the empire right up until the fall of Assyria in 612 bce, when the city was burned and leveled by an allied army that included a resurgent Babylonia thirsty for vengeance.

Ashurbanipal

Ashurbanipal (ruled c. 668-626 bce) was the last great king of Assyria. One of that Empire’s few scholarly kings, the documents collected in his library are responsible for most of the knowledge concerning the culture and history of the region. Ashurbanipal’s military campaigns, although successful in the short-term, ultimately began a series of events that would see the mighty Assyrian Empire in ruins a mere fourteen years after his death.

Like most Assyrian kings, Ashurbanipal was adept at the military arts, being skilled in the sword, spear, and bow and arrow, as well as hunting and falconry. He differed from many of his predecessors, however, by demonstrating the other legendary “divine” quality of the Assyrian king: wisdom. His love of learning and his cultural innovations earned him widespread fame, such that the Greeks would remember him—as King Sardanapalus—centuries after his death.

Campaigns

Like all Assyrian kings, Ashurbanipal’s reign is marked with one military campaign after another. His first task was to subjugate the Phoenician island-city of Tyre, which had been withstanding a siege laid by Ashurbanipal’s father, Esarhaddon. The city surrendered shortly after the new king took the throne and the Assyrian Empire added both the rich city-state and territories in northern Syria to its ever-expanding borders.

The other conflict inherited from Esarhaddon was with Egypt, a recent addition to the empire. The deposed pharaoh, Tarku, had returned and led an uprising that Esarhaddon had been unable to put down before his death.

Ashurbanipal assembled a massive army, drawing troops from twenty-two provinces and sent Tarku fleeing south to Nubia once again as his army sacked and razed the city Thebes, carrying off the riches of the ancient capital.

However, Egypt was not pacified—the governors the king installed soon stirred their Egyptian subjects to revolt and Ashurbanipal had to return yet again, sacking the cities of Sais, Mendes, and Tanis in the usual thorough Assyrian fashion. One of the Egyptian rebels, Necho, so impressed Ashurbanipal that he was appointed regional governor. Necho would later lead an Egyptian army in support of the crumbling Assyrian Empire in 612 bce.

Closer to home, Ashurbanipal would spend much of his time fighting in the south of his empire, in and around Babylonia, that perennial source of trouble and rebellion. The king’s adversary came in the form of his brother, Shamash-shum-ukin, who had been named governor of Babylonia by Esarhaddon.

Shamash-shum-ukin attempted to stir up revolt in Babylonia, but his attempt failed. Only managing to gain the support of the king of Elam, who just as quickly abandoned him, Shamash-shum-ukin chose to die in the flaming wreckage of his palace in Babylon as Ashurbanipal took the city after a long, brutal siege. Ashurbanipal took the Babylonian crown, taking the name of Kandalanu in 647 bce after his brother’s failed revolt and then turned his attentions to Elam.

Centered on the city of Susa and perched at the edge of the Iranian plateau, Elam had long served as a buffer region against the nomads and hillmen of the east, the expanding country of the Medes in particular. In a series of campaigns, Ashurbanipal destroyed Elam, but in so doing he eliminated this buffer. This would have dire consequences for the empire after his death.

Disappointing Legacy

Despite his long reign, and his status as the last great Assyrian king, Ashurbanipal left his empire on the edge of collapse. The legacy of learning Ashurbanipal attempted to establish died with him—the chronicles of Assyrian history end with Ashurbanipal, leaving great gaps in the record of his two successors, the last kings of Assyria. Within fourteen years of his death, the Assyrian capital of Nineveh would lay in ruins due in large part to events that played out during his reign.

There were indications of trouble even before the end of Ashurbanipal’s time on the throne. Egypt would rise in revolt shortly before his death. The destruction of Elam left Assyria wide open to invasion by the Medes, who would ally with the Babylonians and bring down the greatest empire the world had yet seen.

Major Battles

Qarqar, 853 bce

Sometime in the year 853 bce near the town of Qarqar in modern-day Syria, a coalition of twelve allied kings fielded their combined armies in a bid to stop the relentless advance of a war machine that was threatening to absorb their corner of the Near East. The Assyrian Empire was on the march, and had set its eyes on the squabbling city-states of the Levant (modern Syria, Jordan, Israel, Palestine and Lebanon). The Battle of Qarqar would mark a point where the seemingly unstoppable Assyrian army and the ambitions of its king were checked, and the Assyrian domination of the region delayed by about a century.

The town of Qarqar (also spelled Karkar) was located on the Orontes river in the Kingdom of Hamath, one of many small kingdoms and city-states that dotted the Levant in the ninth century bce. The various kings of this region spent most of their military efforts in petty wars with each other, but as the Assyrian Empire entered a new phase of expansionism, the wisdom of presenting a united front must have become obvious.

Present knowledge of the alliance, down to the relative amount of troops each king provided, is owed to the Assyrians, who were inveterate record keepers. An Assyrian stele, or carved stone monument, commemorates the battle and presents a roll call of the various enemies faced by the would-be conquerors. The stele lists approximate numbers for each allied faction, but these are almost certainly inflated. What we can determine, however, is who fought at the battle and the relative number of troops they contributed.

The Alliance

The leader of the coalition, and the faction with the biggest individual contribution of troops, was the city-state of Damascus, led by King Hadadezer I. Damascus was the greatest local power in the region outside of the Phoenician city of Tyre, which stayed out of the battle. Several Phoenician cities did send troops, however: Byblos, Irqata, Arvad, Usanat, and Siannu are all listed on the stele with minor contributions to the army—the Phoenicians’ strength lay in their navies, not their armies.

The two biggest contributions to the allied effort after Damascus were courtesy of King Irhuleni of Hamath—whose land was being most directly threatened, after all—and King Ahab of Israel. Israel’s army was about half the size of the Damascene force.

Composition of the Assyrian Army

The king would have personally commanded the Assyrian army that met this motley alliance on the field of battle in 853 bce, with the assistance of a field marshal whose job it was to coordinate the fifty-man companies that made up the overall force. Each company, commanded by a mace-wielding officer, was further broken down into groups of ten men. This level of organization and discipline was one of the keys of Assyrian success.

The well-drilled, disciplined infantry formed the backbone of the Assyrian army, a rarity in the days of armies dominated by massed chariots. The Assyrians did employ chariots as well, but assigned them a supporting role.

The bulk of the infantry was armed with a variety of weapons, from spears to swords to battle-axes. They were supported by teams of archer-spearmen: a trio of warriors, one armed with a bow as tall as himself, another armed with a shield large enough for the archer to hide behind, and a third armed with a spear in case the enemy got too close for arrows.

This attention to mutual defense reflects another key to Assyrian success at Qarqar and elsewhere: the relatively high priority the army put on protecting its troops. The development of armor in battle was a slow process due to its expense, and most armies at the time were very lightly armored as a result. But even the lowliest skirmisher in the Assyrian army wore hardened leather, and the main infantry troops were often provided with “scale” armor, a type of metallic armor resembling fish scales, as well as distinctive conical metal helmets that increased the soldiers’ apparent height while providing protection.

Qarqar: Its Outcome and Consequences

Perhaps it was due to the fact that there were twelve enemy kings to target that the Assyrians were not able to secure a decisive victory at Qarqar. Their stele claims the battle was a victory, but the actions of Shalmaneser’s army after the battle and Assyrian activity in the region for the next decade would suggest that, at best, the battle was fought to a stalemate.

In light of the apparent invincibility of the Assyrian army, a draw is perhaps the best result the allies could have realistically expected. In the end, Qarqar merely delayed the Assyrians in their bid to become masters of the region, which they gradually accomplished over the next 150 years, picking off one territory after another.

Lachish, 701 bce

The Battle of Lachish provides a detailed example of the Assyrian method of taking a fortified city, as well as what fate awaited those unfortunate people whose stone walls proved insufficient in the face of the Assyrian war machine.

King Sennacherib invaded the Hebrew kingdom of Judea, a subordinate state that had risen in revolt, in 701 bce. Judea’s capital of Jerusalem was best approached from the coast; Lachish was a fortified town that guarded the passes leading to the highlands around Jerusalem. It would need to be taken before Sennacherib could besiege the Judean capital.

Knowledge of the siege of Lachish comes from an abundance of sources from both sides involved. The Old Testament refers to the siege in two places, and there are several accounts in Assyrian annals, as well as a detailed carved relief from Nineveh that portrays the course of the siege in sequential art, like an early graphic novel.

Assyrian military operations emphasized speed. The Assyrians preferred to take cities through guile and diplomacy if possible. Failing that, an attempt to take the city by quick assault would follow. Lachish apparently resisted both these methods, as the Assyrians were obliged to settle in for a long siege.

Jerusalem

While the main army was besieging Lachish, a detachment of Assyrian soldiers bypassed the city and made its way to Jerusalem. The account in the Old Testament provides an example of another aspect of Assyrian siegecraft, in which an officer positions himself outside the city and shouts a message aimed at the garrison within, trying to persuade them to open the city gates without a fight. According to the Bible, the Assyrians shouted this message from Sennecherib: “Now do not let Hezekiah deceive you and mislead you like this. Do not believe him, for no god of any nation or kingdom has been able to deliver his people from my hand or the hand of my fathers. How much less will your god deliver you from my hand!”

Although the people of Jerusalem did not open their gates, King Hezekiah did open up a dialogue with Sennecherib that eventually resulted in payment of an emergency tribute to the Assyrians in exchange for a cessation of hostilities. Unfortunately for the citizens of Lachish, this tribute would not be delivered in time to save their city or themselves.

The Course of the Siege

As the Assyrians approached Lachish, they met a column of refugees offering tribute—most likely people from the surrounding countryside who were unwilling or unable to hole up behind the walls of the city.

Following standard procedure, the Assyrians assaulted the town as soon as they arrived. Archers and slingers provided covering fire as the heavily armored Assyrian infantry moved up to the walls with ladders and armored tower/battering rams. The defenders of Lachish would most likely have defended their walls with “wolves”—looped lengths of chain meant to catch the heads of battering rams—and fire in the form of boiling liquids and flaming arrows.

The initial assault failed and the engineers set to building a ramp, a tactic occasionally practiced by the Assyrians that involved heaping earth up against a portion of the enemy wall, slowly creating an inclined pathway to the top of the battlements.

As they built their ramp, the engineers were protected by archer teams who fired from behind shield-bearers holding massive shields the size of a man. The archers’ bows themselves were nearly the same size and had terrific range and power. It was the archers’ job to use their powerful bows to sweep the battlements clear of defenders and allow the engineers to do their job.

The ramp was eventually completed and the Assyrian army, probably led by covered battering rams to knock away any last remaining bit of wall, flooded into the city. At modern-day Tell ed-Duweir, the probable site of Lachish, the ramp can be seen even today, leading up to the artificial mound that marks the foundation of the former city. The grass-covered artificial hill seems peaceful now, but archaeologists have uncovered hundreds of arrowheads at the point where the ramp meets the mound—the defenders of Lachish did not give in without a fierce fight.

They fought fiercely not simply out of honor or duty, but because they were no doubt aware of the fate that awaited them if the Assyrians took the town. The Assyrians did take the town, and the fate of the defenders is well chronicled in Assyrian carvings.

The Defenders’ Fate

The Assyrian stele commemorating the siege shows wagons laden with booty and columns of captive citizens being led off, back to Assyria, as the town leaders are skinned alive at the roadside. A nearby cave recently excavated by archaeologists was found to contain 1500 skulls, likely the remains of beheaded defenders of Lachish.

After capture, the captives were taken before Sennecherib, where some are shown in the carving begging for their lives while their compatriots simultaneously have their throats slit. Those who managed to survive this hellish experience were most likely doomed to a life of slavery.

Nineveh, 612 bce

The fall of Nineveh in 612 bce marked the effective destruction of the Assyrian Empire. The end came quickly and, for the Assyrians at least, unexpectedly. In less than a decade the greatest empire the world had yet seen fell from its position of dominion into utter ruin and oblivion.

The Importance of Nineveh

Nineveh, due to its central importance towards the end of the empire, is often thought of as the traditional Assyrian capital, but in fact Assyrian kings had largely ignored the city until the last century of the Neo-Assyrian period. Prior to the residency of the great king Ashurbanipal, the city was most well-known as a cult center of the goddess Ishtar.

The king most responsible for transforming Nineveh into the political center of the empire was Sennacherib, who turned the city into an urban jewel crisscrossed with broad avenues, wide plazas, magnificent palaces, and rich temples. He also strengthened and expanded the city’s walls, making it, in common estimation, virtually impregnable.

The walls traced an eight-mile perimeter and were up to 150 feet thick in places. Sin-sharra-ishkun, the Assyrian king who would witness the crumbling of the empire, had just a few years before the fall of the city reinforced and repaired the walls, making them stronger than ever.

The walls featured fifteen gates, each a miniature fortress in its own right. The so-called Shamash Gate has been completely excavated and provides an excellent example of the sort of defenses that surrounded each entrance to the city: the fifteen-foot-wide gate was protected by six towers built of mud and fired bricks and faced with limestone slabs. Crenellated battlements topped the towers and the approach to the gate was broken up by two moats.

Babylonian Resurgence

Babylonia had long been a hotbed of insurrection and discontent. Sennecherib was so exasperated with the region, he had the capital city, Babylon, razed in 689 bce. Such was the importance of Babylon as a religious and cultural center that the city was allowed to rebuild after Sennecherib’s death in 681 bce By 626 bce the city was once again up to its old tricks, as a succession of weak Assyrian kings had allowed the Babylonians to form a new breakaway government, the so-called Chaldean dynasty, under the leadership of Nabopolassar.

The Assyrians moved to suppress the rebellion, ushering in nearly a decade of warfare. Although a majority of Babylonian cities had supported Assyrian rule, the ensuing wars against the Chaldeans, with the attendant famine and misery that they spread, pushed more and more people toward siding with Nabopolassar.

A letter from an official in the Babylonian town of Nippur shows how desperate things were getting for the pro-Assyrian faction: “The king well knows that people hate us everywhere on account of our allegiance to Assyria. We are not safe anywhere; wherever we might go we would be killed. People say, ‘Why did you submit to Assyria?’ We have now locked our gates tight and do not go out of town ….”

By the year 616 bce, Nabopolassar had rallied most of the towns in southern Mesopotamia to his cause. The army he now led constituted a major threat to Assyrian power, a threat that was ably demonstrated at the Battle of Gablini, when, after a march up the Euphrates River, the Chaldeans and their allies defeated the Assyrian army.

Sensing weakness, an army of Medes, hill people from the Iranian plateau, invaded Assyria that same year and defeated another Assyrian army at Arrapkha, near Kirkuk in modern-day Iraq.

Such was the threat constituted by the resurgent Babylonians that the Egyptians, another traditional enemy of Assyria who had been partially subjugated by the empire only fifty years before, pledged their support to Sin-sharra-ishkun and sent units to his army while they began assembling an army of their own.

Thus reinforced, Sin-sharra-ishkun marched his army south again, attempting to corral Nabopolasser’s army as it marched back down the Euphrates. The Chaldeans made it to Tikrit ahead of the Assyrians and took shelter behind its walls. The Assyrians assaulted the city for ten straight days, but were unable to dislodge the Babylonian forces within. The Assyrians were forced to withdraw.

Meanwhile, the Medes were still on the move. In 614 bce, under the leadership of Cyraxes, they sacked the ancient Assyrian capital of Ashur. Nabopolasser, arriving at the scene of the battle as the city crumbled in flames, struck a formal alliance with Cyraxes.

The End Draws Near

Despite these setbacks, all indications are that the Assyrians did not sense their impending doom. The year after the sacking of Ashur, the Assyrians forced the allied army south, with Sin-sharra-ishkun pursuing them all the way. Meanwhile, back in the home country, life went on as usual. An indication of how lightly the Babylonian-Medean threat was taken can be seen in the fact that the defenses of a key fortress on the Assyrian border were dismantled that year to begin a series of renovations on the structure.

Nonetheless, the allied Babylonian-Medean army, after the setbacks of 613 bce, was ready to march north again in 612 bce. Along with it marched the so-called “tribal hordes,” hillmen and horse nomads (most likely Scythians) bent on vengeance and plunder.

Nineveh Falls

The city of Nineveh was besieged for three months. The Assyrians, masters and innovators of advanced siegecraft, found themselves victimized by the very tactics they had pioneered. It has been theorized that the Babylonians finally gained access to the city by breaking the dams on the Khosr River, which had been diverted around the city. The resulting flood would have knocked holes in the otherwise impenetrable walls.

The Babylonian Chronicle, a series of tablets recording ancient Babylonian history, describes Nineveh as being “turned into a ruin heap.” The government fled and Sin-sharra-ishkun vanished from history.

The probable crown prince, Ashur-uballit II, holds the dubious honor of being the last king of Assyria. His government retreated to the city of Harran, where it languished for another four years, rulers in nothing more than name.

The Assyrian Empire, held together by bonds of violence and terror, disintegrated nearly overnight. For its part in supporting Assyria, Egypt suffered as well. Sending their main army north in 610 bce, the Egyptians under the leadership of Pharaoh Necho II defeated a Judean army at Megiddo. The Egyptians then met up with the remnants of the Assyrian army, which by this point had been ousted from Harran and had retreated to Carchemish. The allied Egyptian-Assyrian army was defeated once and for all in 605 bce by the legendary Babylonian king, Nebuchadrezzer II. The Assyrian empire completely ceased to exist at this point, and Egyptian power in the ancient Near East was ended for good as well.

With no lofty kings or imperial riches to encourage their growth, the great cities of Assyria were soon abandoned. By the time of the rise of the Persian Empire, a little over a century later, the Assyrian Empire was but a memory, its once great palaces and cities reduced to ghostly ruins.

Key Elements of Warcraft

Siege Warfare

The Assyrians hold a place in history and the popular imagination as a warlike society and as one of the most aggressively militaristic empires of all time. Perhaps most emblematic of the Assyrian war machine was the revolutionary new brand of siege warfare developed and refined by the empire over several centuries. The Assyrians’ contribution to siegecraft long outlived their own empire.

The Near East boasts the oldest known walled city, Jericho, which was enclosed by a stone wall as early as the ninth millennium bce It should come as no surprise, then, that the armies of the region had been working out systems for conquering walled cities since before the dawn of recorded history.

As the Assyrian Empire rose to power in the first millennium bce, the conventional method for taking a walled city was to simply surround it and starve it out, or to somehow make contact with a traitor within the walls and persuade him to open the gates. The problem was, starving a garrison could take years if the city was placed over a deep well and well stocked with provisions.

The Assyrian military philosophy prized speed in all things, and it was probably their desire to extend this philosophy into the realm of sieges that led to their revolutionary developments.

Assyrian Engineers

The Assyrian army always marched with a unit of dedicated engineers. They existed almost exclusively to ensure speedy and successful sieges, but they could also be of use on the march. The engineer unit, like military engineers of today, cut roads through hostile wilderness and constructed pontoon bridges over otherwise unfordable rivers.

The engineers marched in what was probably the first dedicated “siege train,” a column of wagons laden with materials for besieging enemy fortifications. Thus, the army could come off the march and lay siege to a city or fortress almost immediately. And once the siege began, the true power of the corps of engineers would be revealed.

Siege Weapons and Tactics

Building on Sumerian and Babylonian ideas, the Assyrians developed a variety of new weapons and tactics for dealing with seemingly impregnable walls. Perhaps best known of these new inventions was the “ramming tower,” a sort of primitive tank featuring a covered battering ram with a tower on top. The ram would be wheeled up to the perimeter of the fortification and could be elevated to attack different heights of the wall. The tower would be stocked with a unit of archers who would pour arrows onto the defenders on top of the wall. The whole construction was covered with leather or animal hides to provide protection to the crew working the ram.

Sometimes before launching an assault, an officer would approach to within hailing distance of the threatened town and shout to the soldiers of the garrison within, exhorting them to ignore their leader and open the gates. Thanks to the Assyrians’ fearsome reputation for atrocities, this often worked.

Assuming a deal could not be reached and the city or fortress held out against the initial assault, the Assyrians would settle in for a siege. Engineers would begin tunneling under the walls in an effort to undermine their foundations. Archers would fire flaming arrows into the city to sow panic and disorder. If the wall had wooden gates (as most did), a brave unit of engineers would rush forward under fire from the defenders and try to set the gates alight.

A tactic that was sometimes employed to great effect, as at Lachish, Judea, in 701 bce, was to build a great earthen ramp up against the side of the wall. This would be done under constant harassment from the defenders and at great risk, but if the ramp was completed it virtually ensured an Assyrian victory, as it would allow the invaders to simply run up and over the walls themselves. Nearly eight hundred years after Lachish, the Romans took another Jewish fortress, Masada, using the exact same tactic. The earthen ramp was a favorite of the Romans, the ancient world’s other great masters of the siege.

Every ancient empire that followed the Assyrians, from the Babylonians to the Persians to the Macedonian successor states and beyond, all used and improved upon the siege techniques pioneered by the Assyrians. Many of their basic siege tactics were still being practiced long into the Middle Ages, two millennia after the last inhabitants of a walled town quailed at the sound of an approaching Assyrian army.

Impact of the Assyrian Empire

The Assyrian Empire left its mark on world history in many ways, but it is most remembered today as brutal and militaristic. The Assyrians did indeed make their presence felt through war—and it was through war that they sealed their own doom—but they were also responsible for establishing systems of administration and scholarship that would be emulated by almost every empire that followed them.

Perhaps the best example of this is the Assyrian road network. A system of paved roads that connected one end of the empire to the other and a whole corps of messengers to ride those roads in relays allowed for swift communication and administration, as well as rapid movement of armies in times of unrest. Every successful ancient empire, from the Persians to the Romans, would emulate this system.

The Assyrians, although not necessarily great scholars themselves, also made major contributions to the world of learning. The first ever systematically collected library was located in the Assyrian capital of Nineveh, and it is thanks to Assyrian records that we know much of ancient Near Eastern history and mythology, as well as details of economic and domestic life. All was carefully preserved on clay tablets. The clay tablets themselves, many of which were bilingual vocabularies, enabled archaeologists in the nineteenth century ce to decode ancient cuneiform writing, thus unlocking the secrets contained within.

One area of science in which the Assyrians did excel was engineering. Nineveh, for example, was protected by a double bank of walls eight miles in circumference and received its water from an aqueduct twenty-five miles long, a major feat of engineering in its day.

Of course, what Assyrian engineers are perhaps best remembered for is their military endeavors. The Assyrians were masters of siegecraft and introduced techniques never before seen that were to play an integral part in sieges for centuries to come. Prior to the Assyrians, walled towns were virtually impregnable. The only option for the would-be besieger was often simply surrounding the city and starving the inhabitants, a costly proposition. The Assyrian innovations—especially siege towers and battering rams—suddenly made siege warfare much more viable and made town walls seem a lot less reassuring.

Assyrians also introduced psychological warfare to the military world. Assyrian kings preferred to acquire territories through diplomacy. When this proved unfeasible, the army would march forth and besiege an enemy town, often choosing a site that would be relatively easy to take. Upon taking the town, the Assyrians would engage in all manner of atrocities, beheading, impaling, flaying, and roasting the luckless townsfolk. Any survivors would then be sent into a life of slavery, save for one or two who would be sent off to the enemy capital to report in gruesome detail the fate that befell his town. Meanwhile, in perhaps the first recorded examples of wartime propaganda, the Assyrians would carve a record of their deeds and erect it at the site of the siege so travelers would read the news and carry it abroad.

In this way the Assyrians consciously cultivated their fearsome reputation, knowing that more often than not they could force a potential enemy to surrender without a fight for fear of suffering the full wrath of their army.

But in many ways, the fate of the Assyrian Empire impact can be taken as an example of what not to do—their record of atrocities inspired coalitions to form against them, as at the Battle of Qarqar in 853 bce. Their administration of conquered provinces diverted all surplus wealth to Assyria and offered little in return, resulting in an almost continuous stream of insurrections and plots against the empire, especially in Babylon, a hotbed of unrest whose periodic uprisings vexed Assyrian kings throughout the whole of the empire’s history. Many later empires, the Roman Empire in particular, would take this to heart, administering their subjects with a gentle hand whenever possible.