|Gateway from Dur-Sharrukin|
Shalmaneser V was on the throne of Assyria and his armies were in the Levant, besieging Samaria. Piye was king of Kush and held the Nile valley in his control, although the petty dynasts of the Nile Delta still ruled as semi-independent monarchs. Phrygia and Urartu lay to the west and north of the Assyrian empire and Elam to the southeast along the borders of Babylon. The kingdoms of the Levant had been devastated by the campaigns of Tiglath-Pileser III but many of their city states still had independent rulers.
|Vase from the time of Bocchoris|
The Egyptians assert (though they are far from convincing me), they assert, I say, that in the days of the far-famed Bocchoris a Lamb was born with eight feet and two tails, and that it spoke. They say also that this Lamb had two heads and four horns. It is right to forgive Homer who bestows speech upon Xanthus the horse, for Homer is a poet. And Alcman could not be censured for imitating Homer in such matters, for the first venture of Homer is a plea sufficient to justify forgiveness. But how can one pay any regard to Egyptians who exaggerate like this?
Aelian, De Natura Animalis 12:3
In 724, the Assyrians seem to have begun a siege of Tyre. Samaria was already under siege so the Assyrian army was in the region. Elulaeus or Lulli, the king of Tyre and Sidon had revolted against Assyria, possibly in concert with Hoshea of Israel. The states of the Levant were extremely unhappy with Assyrian rule and this period would see revolt after revolt. The Assyrians subdued the Phoenician rebellion but they were unable to capture the city of Tyre, as Tyre was partially built on an island out to sea and could not be attacked except with a fleet. However, the other Phoenician cities were much more vulnerable so they surrendered and their fleets joined the Assyrian armies. Sixty ships attacked the Tyrians only to be beaten back by twelve Tyrian ships. One suspects that the other Phoenicians were not trying very hard. The siege dragged on, with no easy victory for the Assyrians. To conduct two major sieges simultaneously must have been taxing for the army and the people and the army may have grown restless. The Assyrians needed victories and lots of them to sustain the army and to keep the urban populations of their homeland happy. Shalmaneser V had yet to win a single decisive victory. Besieging armies are also much more vulnerable to disease than an army on the march, so it is fair to assume that Shalmaneser’s reign was not popular.
One whose name was Elulaeus, but was called Pyas, reigned thirty-six years. This king, upon the revolt of the inhabitants of Citium, sailed to them, and reduced them again to a submission. Against these did the king of Assyria send an army, and in a hostile manner over-run all Phoenicia, but soon made peace with them all, and returned back; but Sidon, and Acra, and Palaityros, revolted; and many other cities there were which delivered themselves up to the king of Assyria. Accordingly, when the Tyrians would not submit to him, the king returned, and fell upon them again, while the Phoenicians had furnished him with threescore ships, and eight hundred men to row them; and when the Tyrians had come upon them in twelve ships, and the enemies ships were dispersed, they took five hundred men prisoners, and the reputation of all the citizens of Tyre was thereby increased: but the king of Assyria returned, and placed guards at their river, and aqueducts, who should hinder the Tyrians from drawing water. This continued for five years, and still the Tyrians bore the siege, and drank of the water they had out of the wells they dug.
Josephus, Jewish Antiquities 9:283-287 quoting Menander of Ephesus
|Sargon II with emissary|
The roar of battle will rise against your people, so that all your fortresses will be devastated— as Shalman devastated Beth Arbel on the day of battle, when mothers were dashed to the ground with their children.
In King Hezekiah’s fourth year, which was the seventh year of Hoshea son of Elah king of Israel, Shalmaneser king of Assyria marched against Samaria and laid siege to it. At the end of three years the Assyrians took it. So Samaria was captured in Hezekiah’s sixth year, which was the ninth year of Hoshea king of Israel.
2 Kings 18:9-10
It is hard not to have the suspicion that Shalmaneser V was murdered by his half-brother. Shalmaneser was unpopular with the priests of Assyria and probably with the army. He leaves no almost no inscriptions, suggesting that Sargon II destroyed them. Why did Sargon succeed rather than any of Shalmaneser’s children if he had any? Even the name Sargon, meaning “Legitimate ruler”, seems a little suspicious. In fact Sargon II writes about how Shalmaneser was a bad king and that the gods removed him for a more righteous replacement, which sounds almost close to a confession. But it is not proven. Perhaps Shalmaneser V was just an unlucky, childless and short-lived monarch who was not liked by his brother or his people. He may have had no time to undertake large building projects or dedicate inscriptions that were found by later archaeologists. Regardless, Sargon II seems to have had an unorthodox path to power and to have faced opposition to his takeover of the throne.
|Horses being brought as tribute to Sargon II|
Mustering an army at Nimrud, Sargon II moved south to meet the threat. The Elamite and Assyrian armies clashed outside of the city of Der while the Babylonian troops did not arrive to join the battle in time. Perhaps Sargon was moving quickly or perhaps the Elamites were overconfident. Both the Babylonians and the Assyrians claimed victory (presumably the Elamites did as well but it is hard to know without their inscriptions). It was probably an Assyrian defeat but not a serious one. The Assyrians may well have defeated the Elamites but then withdrawn rather than face the Chaldean armies of Babylon. As the Assyrians withdrew it could be claimed as a victory for the coalition but Merodach-Baladan made no effort to take the city of Der after his victory. The main outcome was that the Assyrians held Der and could move their armies to deal with the western rebellion, while the Chaldean tribesmen could hold onto Babylonia, for now. Merodach-Baladan doubtless noted how lucky it was for Babylon that the Assyrians were preoccupied with a rebellion in the Levant.
The second year of Marduk-apla-iddina, Humban-Nikaš, king of Elam, did battle against Sargon, king of Assyria, in the district of Der, effected Assyria's retreat, and inflicted a major defeat upon it. Marduk-apla-iddina and his army, who to the aid of the king of Elam had gone, did not reach the battle in time so Marduk-apla-iddina withdrew.
It seems that the Assyrian army then moved west to attack the coalition of Ia’ubidi. The rebel alliance met the Assyrians in battle at Qarqar, the site of a famous coalition battle against the Assyrians in the previous century. There they were utterly defeated and Ia’ubidi was captured to be sent to Ashur and flayed alive. Samaria was then retaken and its people deported. The Philistines, led by Hanuna of Gaza, tried to call the Egyptians, who sent a small army under the command of a general called Si’be (whether it was a Kushite army or an army of one of the princelings of the Delta is unclear). Si’be was unsuccessful and in the words of Sargon II, “fled alone and disappeared like a shepherd whose flock had been stolen.” Whether it was Bocchoris, Osorkon IV or Piye who had been supporting the rebellions is unclear but the Assyrians would remember it. The siege of Tyre was ended as well once peace was brought to the region. The rebellion in the west had been crushed.
Ia’ubidi from Hamath, a commoner without claim to the throne, a cursed Hittite, schemed to become king of Hamath, induced the cities Arvad, Simirra, Damascus and Samaria to desert me, made them collaborate and fitted out an army. I called up the masses of the soldiers of Ashur and besieged him and his warriors in Qarqar, his favourite city, I conquered it and burnt it. Himself I flayed; the rebels I killed in their cities and established again peace and harmony. A contingent of 200 chariots and 600 men on horseback I formed from among the inhabitants of Hamath and added them to my royal corps.
Inscription of Sargon II
|Relief from Dur-Sharrukin|
On the twenty-fifth of the month Tebêtu, Shalmaneser in Assyria and Akkad ascended the throne. He ravaged Samaria. The fifth year Shalmaneser went to his destiny in the month Tebêtu. For five years Shalmaneser ruled Akkad and Assyria. On the twelfth day of the month Tebêtu, Sargon ascended the throne in Assyria.
A very clever solution to the problem (sadly not my own) suggests that Sargon II was actually Shalmaneser’s general in the west. The Ia’ubidi revolution would be dated to 721 instead of 720 and would be contemporary with the fall of Samaria and probably tied in with it. It would make sense that the other states would rise up while Israel still stood rather than after it fell. Also, it is hard to imagine that the city of Samaria, conquered after a three year siege, would immediately go to war a year later. If this theory is correct, the revolt of Ia’ubidi would predate the fall of Samaria and the battle of Der. Sargon could still claim the victory as he would have led the army. It would also tie in the Egyptian expedition of Si’be to the help that Hoshea was expecting from Egypt.
Alternatively, the Israelite refugees may have been encamped north of Samaria, preparing for deportation, when Sargon withdrew the armies to the Assyrian heartlands. In this case, some of them may have joined Ia’ubidi, assuming they had little left to lose and gambling one last chance for their homeland. Once the revolt failed they would have been deported as originally planned and Sargon could claim to have conquered and deported the Israelites; stretching the truth but not breaking it.
Regardless of the conundrums of time, by the year 720, Sargon II was king and the elites of Samaria were deported to various locations across the empire. Many of them were sent out to the east of the empire to the lands of the Medes, but other groups would have been split up and dispersed across the empire. The entire point of the policy was to discourage rebellion and break up hostile groups. It would not make sense to merely transplant a problem. Also, the sheer amount of people deported was not huge. Tiglath-Pileser III had deported people, possibly Shalmaneser V also, and Sargon deported 27,290 Israelites.
At the beginning of my royal rule, I...the town of the Samarians I besieged, conquered … for the god... who let me achieve this my triumph... I led away as prisoners 27,290 inhabitants of it and equipped from among them 50 chariots for my royal corps... The town I rebuilt better than it was before and settled therein people from countries which I had conquered. I placed an officer of mine as governor over them and imposed upon them tribute as is customary for Assyrian citizens.
Inscription of Sargon II
Many however probably stayed or hid in the countryside. Others fled south. The city of Jerusalem triples in size to around 25,000 inhabitants at this point, with a new wall having to be built on the western side of the city to include the new residents. All the cities in Judah see major growth at this time, so it is reasonable to expect that many of the Israelites were incorporated in the kingdom of Judah.
|Golden Tablet of the foundation of Dur-Sharrukin|
They worshiped the LORD, but they also served their own gods in accordance with the customs of the nations from which they had been brought.
2 Kings 17:33
Around this time, if the chronology is correct, the Kushite king moved against Bocchoris in the Nile Delta, captured him, and burned him alive. This suggests that the Kushites were consolidating their hold on the Nile Delta and would no longer tolerate the little Libyan kingdoms in that region. But Osorkon IV still seems to have reigned in Tanis, acting as a buffer gatekeeper state to the Levant and doubtless under strict supervision.
Sabacon, who, taking Bocchoris captive, burned him alive, and reigned for 8 years.
Manetho, quoted by Africanus
In 719 Sargon II moved north-east into Iran to the kingdom of Mannea, that was situated in north-western Iran. The next year, in 718 the armies turned west to Anatolia where the powerful Phrygian and Urartian kingdoms were interfering with Assyrian vassals.
|Founding inscription of Dur-Sharrukin|
When Sargon began to build the city in 717 he had it modelled on the mountains that he had seen in Lebanon and planted with cypress and cedar and thousands of fruit trees for the orchards. The city was nearly square and was very much a planned city, with its dimensions corresponding to Assyrian numerology. The construction of this new city of cities would consume large amounts of wealth but also make evident the power of the Assyrian king. But to the superstitious this may have seemed a bad omen. He was not the first Assyrian king to attempt to create a new ritual city. 500 years previously, Tukulti-Ninurta I had created a city called Kar-Tukulti-Ninurta. This had angered the people and his sons and Tukulti-Ninurta was murdered in the new city he had named after himself. Time would tell if Sargon’s grand enterprise would have more success.
This year also saw Humban-Nikash, king of Elam, die and Shutur-Nakhunte II take his place on the Elamite throne. It is possible that Shutur-Nakhunte was the son of Humban-Nikash’s sister, who may have been his wife. The Elamite royal family seems to have been quite incestuous (similar to some pharaohs) but it is unclear to what extent it affected the genetics of the Elamite kings.
|Medieval picture of Gyges murdering Candaules|
GYGES: Since you compel me to kill my master and my king, against my will, please let me hear in what way we shall attack him.
QUEEN: The attack will be on the very spot where he showed me naked to you — a perfect retribution for what he has done; and let him be killed while he is sleeping.
Herodotus describing the murder of Candaules by Gyges
The Assyrian war machine continued its conquests even while building work was ongoing for the new city. Carchemish was attacked, conquered and fully incorporated into the empire. Rather tragically, the kingdom of Sam’al, that had made such protestations of loyalty to Assyria, was also swallowed up and turned into a province. Even the loyalty of the small kings could not prevent their destruction if they were no longer deemed useful.
|Bronze snake with gilded head found at Timna|
He removed the high places, smashed the sacred stones and cut down the Asherah poles. He broke into pieces the bronze snake Moses had made, for up to that time the Israelites had been burning incense to it. (It was called Nehushtan).
2 Kings 18:4
Rusa I of Urartu was not idle during this time. Urartu had been defeated by the Assyrians and to try strengthen his position Rusa attacked the kingdoms to the north, east and west of his state. He also was trying to have his candidate placed on the throne of Mannea. To counteract this Sargon II seems to have campaigned in the region around this time.
In 715 the scheming of Rusa I came to completion. Having secured his frontiers he had his candidate placed on the throne of Mannea, made an alliance with Mita of Mushki, whose kingdom lay to the west and an alliance with Daiakku of the Medes, whose tribes lay to the east. With his alliances in place Rusa began to raid the Assyrian frontier while the main Assyrian army had moved west to confront Mita of Mushki.
|Massive tumulus at Gordion|
Dismayed by this strange misfortune, rich and unhappy, he tries to flee his riches, and hates what he wished for a moment ago. No abundance can relieve his famine: his throat is parched with burning thirst, and, justly, he is tortured by the hateful gold.
Ovid, Metamorphoses XI: 85-145
|Decorated wood from Gordion tomb|
Daiakku has less stories around him but is probably the same as Deioces, who is remembered by Herodotus for being the first to unite the Median tribes. A ceremonial capital was founded at Ecbatana in north-western Iran for the tribes to gather. The horse riders who spoke an Iranian tongue and worshipped Indo-European gods were relative newcomers to the region but this showed that they were moving from a vague tribal confederacy to a real organised threat to other states in the region. If this identification is correct it would make Daiakku the first Shah.
The question was at once propounded: Whom should they make king? Then every man was loud in putting Deioces forward and praising Deioces, until they agreed that he should be their king. He ordered them to build him houses worthy of his royal power, and strengthen him with a bodyguard. The Medes did so.
Herodotus describing the rise of Deioces
|Inscription of Sargon describing 8th campaign|
Sargon took a forced march through the mountains, marching swiftly and taking an unpredictable course to try and confuse the Urartian scouts, who were lighting beacons along the mountaintops to warn the Urartian king of the march of the invaders. This was a gamble, as the Assyrians were exhausted when they were brought to battle by Rusa and refused to fight. Deep in enemy territory and unable to retreat, Sargon precipitated a battle anyway, by launching an attack with his bodyguard on the Urartian army. Fearful of what might befall if their king fell the Assyrians joined battle and won a hard fought, but decisive victory. Rusa I fled and his troops retreated to their mountain fastnesses. A series of revolutions broke out among Rusa's commanders but these were crushed and Rusa carried out purges among his governors and generals to root out rebellion. The Urartians were confident that they had been defeated but that the Assyrians could not destroy all their fortresses and that there was nothing more Sargon could do against them. They were wrong.
I could not relieve their fatigue, nor strengthen the wall of the camp. What was right or left could not be brought to my side, I could not watch the rear. ... I plunged into [the enemy's] midst like a swift javelin
Inscription of Sargon II
|The taking of Musasir, note the architecture of the temple|
Sargon made a surprise march through the mountains on his return from Urartu and took the city by sudden storm, losing only a handful of men. The loot of the city was immense, with Sargon reporting over 300,000 objects looted, including a ton of gold and six tons of silver. Religion was deeply, crucially important to the lives of people in this era and Sargon boasts that when Rusa I heard the news that not only had he been defeated by the Cimmerians and Assyrians but that the city of his god had been taken, he took an iron dagger from his belt and ended his own life in despair.
In 713 the Assyrians campaigned in Tabal, in Anatolia, while Argishti II became king of Urartu. Sargon’s priorities would have been to capitalise on Urartu’s defeat by fending off the Phrygian kingdom and curbing the rebellious state of Tabal. Argishti’s priorities would have been to weather the storm of the Cimmerian invasion and rebuild his armies. At this stage the Cimmerians were probably roving through his lands unchecked. In 712 Sargon’s armies campaigned again in the Anatolian region, this time moving against the Neo-Hittite state of Melid. Sargon II was probably not with his armies at this point, as he was supervising the construction of Dur-Sharrukin.
|Transporting timber for Dur-Sharrukin|
In the year that the supreme commander, sent by Sargon king of Assyria, came to Ashdod and attacked and captured it— at that time the LORD spoke through Isaiah son of Amoz.
During this time the Assyrians seem to have taken an interest in the island of Cyprus and forced it to pay tribute, probably forcing the Phoenicians to act as a navy for their troops. How much real control was had is unclear but they had sufficient authority to be able to set up stelas of conquest near the harbour of Citium. Earlier kings had previously made similar claims and it is interesting that they could now claim to have conquered lands in midst of the western sea.
|Palace complex at Dur-Sharrukin|
Inscription of Sargon II
In 710 Sargon II was now prepared to retake the full conquests of Tiglath-Pileser III. He moved south with the armies against Babylon and drove Merodach-Baladan II from the throne. Part of the loot of Babylonia was taken to Dur-Sharrukin, including the victory stela that Merodach-Baladan had erected to celebrate his triumph over the Assyrians. Merodach-Baladan viewed himself as the true king however and continued to fight from his tribal heartlands in the south of Babylonia.
Despite the continued fighting in Chaldea, possibly secretly aided by the Elamites, Sargon now crowned himself king of Babylon and in 709 celebrated the New Year’s Festival (Akitu) there, as his father Tiglath-Pileser had done. While Sargon was in Babylon, his generals continued to fight in the troublesome Anatolian states and there seem to have been small battles against the armies of Midas.
The twelfth year of Marduk-apla-iddina: Sargon went down to Akkad and did battle against Marduk-apla-iddina. Marduk-apla-iddina retreated before him and fled to Elam
|Transporting timber for Dur-Sharrukin|
In 707-706 Sargon returned to Assyria and dedicated the new city of Dur-Sharrukin, moving the statues of the gods into their new temples. The city was still not fully complete but had been turned from almost nothing to being the nearly completed capital of an empire in just over a decade. Rome wasn’t built in a day but that is because it was not built by the Assyrians.
707: Sha-Ashur-dubbu, governor of Tushhan, the king returned from Babylon; the chief vizier and the nobles, the booty of Dur-Yakin carried off, Dur-Yakin destroyed. On 22nd Teshrit, the gods of Dur-Sharruken entered their temples.
Assyrian Eponym List
|Stela of Shabaka|
Meanwhile in Assyria, with his capital now nearing completion Sargon campaigned personally against the rebellious state of Tabal. But despite being a bold and innovative military commander Sargon II over-reached himself and died in a disastrous battle. This was a defeat so terrible that his body was never recovered. The news stunned the empire. The Urartians would have been exultant that their oppressor had been slain near to their kingdom (although not by their hand). They would probably also have seen this as divine vengeance for the assault on their holy city of Musasir. The Assyrians would have been devastated.
Sennacherib took the throne and was crowned the next year. They would have searched for what sin or broken taboo would have led to this defeat. Sargon’s ambitious new capital of Dur-Sharrukin was immediately abandoned and the capital was moved to Nineveh, where it would stay until the fall of the empire. There would be no new cities built. In Armenian legend there is a tale of the founder of the Armenian legend, where the ruler of Armenia, Hayk after whom the Armenians are named (in their language Armenia is named Hayasdan) slew a giant from Babylon named Bel. I have always wondered if the foundation of the legend could be the unexpected death of Sargon, an invader from the south and king of Babylon as well as Assyria. But this is speculation on my part. Sargon was dead and his son Sennacherib was now king.
705 Nashur-bel, governor of Amedi, the king [...] against Qurdi the Kulummaean; the king was killed; the camp of the king of Assyria [...]; on 12th Ab, Sennacherib [became] king.
Assyrian Eponym List
In 704 the Assyrian capital moved to Nineveh, as Sennacherib tried to restore order to his domains. The problem with a system of monarchy is that it is always weakest when at the moment of succession, when there is temporary uncertainty over the ruler and this case was no different. Having heard of the Assyrian defeat the nations of the empire began to plot rebellion once more.
|Kudurru of Marduk-Baladan|
At that time Marduk-Baladan son of Baladan king of Babylon sent Hezekiah letters and a gift, because he had heard of his illness and recovery. Hezekiah received the envoys gladly and showed them what was in his storehouses—the silver, the gold, the spices, the fine olive oil—his entire armoury and everything found among his treasures. There was nothing in his palace or in all his kingdom that Hezekiah did not show them.
|Gateway of Lachish|
The kingdom was not entirely united. Different factions had differing ideas on how best to meet the threat, with some advocating reliance on Egypt. There is a section of Isaiah dedicated to ridiculing Shebna, a scribe and treasurer who built an ostentatious tomb for himself while yet living. This seems to reflect some of the tensions of the time, with Shebna possibly being a member of the pro-Egyptian faction. Strangely, a tomb inscription has been found from this time that some have thought to be from Shebna’s tomb. But the inscription is damaged and I am not convinced.
Go, say to this steward, to Shebna the palace administrator: What are you doing here and who gave you permission to cut out a grave for yourself here, hewing your grave on the height and chiselling your resting place in the rock?
Possible Shebna Inscription
Jerusalem had been besieged in the time of Ahaz and not done well despite its commanding position on the hills. The reason for this was that, in a water scarce region the water system of Jerusalem flowed outside the city walls, thus supplying any invaders with a plentiful water supply. Hezekiah’s engineers launched an ambitious project to protect the city by digging through nearly half a kilometre of solid rock in a tunnel deep underground to divert the Gihon Springs to the newly constructed Pool of Siloam and away from the outer walls. While not unprecedented this was surely an impressive feat of engineering and was thought worthy of record in the Hebrew Scriptures. The tunnel itself was discovered by archaeologists in the Ottoman period, complete with an inscription describing how the tunnel diggers, working simultaneously from both sides suddenly heard the sound of the pickaxes and dug towards each other, completing the join. It is an impressive piece of work and the inscription commemorating it can be viewed in a museum in Istanbul. Hezekiah continued his preparations for war, in particular fortifying the second and third strongest cities of Judah (Lachish and Azekah).
2 Chronicles 32:3-4
... the tunnel ... and this is the story of the tunnel while ... the axes were against each other and while three cubits were left to (cut?) ... the voice of a man ... called to his counterpart, (for) there was ZADA in the rock, on the right ... and on the day of the tunnel (being finished) the stonecutters struck each man towards his counterpart, axe against axe and flowed water from the source to the pool for 1,200 cubits. and (100?) cubits was the height over the head of the stonecutters ...
Siloam Inscription from Hezekiah’s Tunnel
Sennacherib was now under pressure from the west, north and south and once again the Assyrian empire lost many of its most recent conquests. Sennacherib’s first move was to the south. Merodach-Baladan had allied with the kingdom of Elam and Sennacherib records that the Elamite king had sent his field marshal with 80,000 troops to augment the forces of Babylon. Sennacherib correctly estimated that Judah had nowhere near this amount of troops, even with Egyptian help and that the main threat to Assyria was in Babylon.
On my first campaign, I brought about the defeat of Merodach-baladan, king of Babylonia together with the troops of the land Elam, his allies, in the plain of Kish. In the midst of that battle he abandoned his camp, fled alone, and thereby saved his life. I seized the chariot, horses, wagons, and mules that he had abandoned in the thick of battle.
Inscription of Sennacherib
Sennacherib was moving swiftly. After his victory at the rapid siege of Cutha he sent a body of troops to chase Merodach-Baladan who was in Kish rather than Babylon. As a Chaldean from the marshlands, Merodach-Baladan may not have trusted the citizens of Babylon to fight for him, as they had abandoned his predecessors in times of trouble. The Elamites were defeated, as Sennacherib split his foes and destroyed them piecemeal and in 702 Merodach-Baladan was already defeated and Sennacherib had triumphantly marched into the undefended city of Babylon and plundered the palace. As for Merodach-Baladan, like a wily fox hunted by hounds he had slipped away to the marshes and days of searching by the Assyrians were fruitless. He may have fled from there to Elam. A puppet king called Bel-ibni was placed on the throne of Babylon and Sennacherib deported thousands of people to Assyria, where they were set to work on building a splendid new palace in Nineveh. Rather than building a new city as his father had done, Sennacherib would try to turn his existing capital Nineveh into a wonder of the world. 702 saw the Assyrians campaign against the Kassites and Yasubigallians to the east of Babylonia, where they also extorted tribute from the Medes.
I hastened after him to the land Guzummānu and ordered my warriors into the midst of swamps and marshes. For five days they sought him out, but his hiding place could not be found.
Inscription of Sennacherib
|Defenders of Lachish hurling firebrands against the ramp|
I approached the city Ekron and I killed the governors (and) nobles who had committed crime(s) and hung their corpses on towers around the city;
Inscription of Sennacherib
While Sennacherib was besieging Lachish it became obvious to Hezekiah that the war was lost. Like Urartu, Judah had a system of watchers in the hills who would send fire signals (possibly in a type of code) and the messages coming to Jerusalem must have been dire. Hezekiah tried to buy off the Assyrians by presenting a huge tribute of tons of silver and gold, effectively stripping the city of all valuables. Probably handed over as well was Padi, the king of Ekron who had been loyal to the Assyrians. Sennacherib took the tribute but the siege of Lachish continued. Meanwhile, like the commanders of Tiglath-Pileser III against Babylon, Assyrian officials were sent to Jerusalem to try and cajole and threaten the city into surrendering by telling of the power of Assyria and its inevitable victory.
The field commander said to them, “Tell Hezekiah: “‘This is what the great king, the king of Assyria, says: On what are you basing this confidence of yours? You say you have the counsel and the might for war—but you speak only empty words. On whom are you depending, that you rebel against me? Look, I know you are depending on Egypt, that splintered reed of a staff, which pierces the hand of anyone who leans on it! Such is Pharaoh, king of Egypt to all who depend on him.
2 Kings 18:19-21
Now Sennacherib received a report that Tirhakah, the king of Cush, was marching out to fight against him. When he heard it, he sent messengers to Hezekiah with this word: “Say to Hezekiah king of Judah: Do not let the god you depend on deceive you when he says, ‘Jerusalem will not be given into the hands of the king of Assyria.’ Surely you have heard what the kings of Assyria have done to all the countries, destroying them completely. And will you be delivered?...”
In the plain of the city Eltekeh, they sharpened their weapons while drawing up in battleline before me. With the support of the god Aššur, my lord, I fought with them and defeated them. In the thick of battle, I captured alive the Egyptian charioteers and princes …
Inscription of Sennacherib
|Nineveh relief of the siege of Lachish|
So Hezekiah king of Judah sent this message to the king of Assyria at Lachish: “I have done wrong. Withdraw from me, and I will pay whatever you demand of me.” The king of Assyria exacted from Hezekiah king of Judah three hundred talents of silver and thirty talents of gold. So Hezekiah gave him all the silver that was found in the temple of the Lord and in the treasuries of the royal palace. At this time Hezekiah king of Judah stripped off the gold with which he had covered the doors and doorposts of the temple of the Lord, and gave it to the king of Assyria.
2 Kings 18:14-16
|Remains of the Assyrian siege ramp at Lachish|
That night the angel of the LORD went out and put to death a hundred and eighty-five thousand in the Assyrian camp. When the people got up the next morning—there were all the dead bodies! So Sennacherib king of Assyria broke camp and withdrew. He returned to Nineveh and stayed there.
2 Kings 19:35-36
This episode has attracted a lot of scholarly attention, if for no other reason than that it is one of the few conflicts of the period that has sources from both sides. The thoughts that follow are my own. Firstly, the figure of 185,000 seems very high; too high. The Assyrian army might well have numbered over 200,000 at this point so it could technically be true, but the Assyrian army campaigns for years afterwards without showing any sign of loss of strength. Also their field armies would tend to be smaller, probably around 50-100,000 strong at the most. Perhaps such a figure might include captives and camp followers in the region. Or it might be a scribal error. But the figure is implausibly high.
|Sennacherib Prism describing siege of Lachish|
Thirdly, there is a strange story in a much later source (Herodotus) that records an Assyrian invasion against the Kushites in Egypt around this time. Here Herodotus speaks of the Assyrians being thwarted by mice that ate the bowstrings of the Assyrians, forcing them to withdraw. This is a silly story but might be an Egyptian folk memory of a plague (rats and mice were seen as symbols of plague).
Then after they came, there swarmed by night upon their enemies mice of the fields, and ate up their quivers and their bows, and moreover the handles of their shields, so that on the next day they fled, and being without defence of arms great numbers fell. And at the present time this king stands in the temple of Hephaistos in stone, holding upon his hand a mouse, and by letters inscribed he says these words: "Let him who looks upon me learn to fear the gods."
Herodotus describing the defeat of the Assyrians in their march on Egypt
|Assyrian slingers at Lachish|
My own assumption is that the Assyrians moved against Jerusalem, it seems too strange that they would leave a rebel unscathed, without even paying homage, but that something happened outside Jerusalem, probably an outbreak of some epidemic. Rather than stay in an arid land and continuing the siege against an already defeated enemy and fearing omens, more Egyptian armies and outbreaks of rebellion elsewhere in the empire, they simply decided to declare victory and return to Assyria, where they documented their victory in such a way as to explain why they left Jerusalem standing. This is of course a theory. It is possible that Sennacherib is lying in his inscriptions, or that the book of Kings invents the whole story of the death of the Assyrians. But it is an odd story to invent out of nothing. I like to think that my favoured explanation (not entirely my own of course: a lot of people have written about this) harmonises the sources as best as possible but others of course disagree.
|Slingstones found at Lachish|
Description of Sennacherib’s Victory
As for him (Hezekiah), I confined him inside the city Jerusalem, his royal city, like a bird in a cage. I set up blockades against him and made him dread exiting his city gate.
Inscription of Sennacherib
Prophecy of the Salvation of Jerusalem
“Therefore this is what the Lord says concerning the king of Assyria:
“He will not enter this city
or shoot an arrow here.
He will not come before it with shield
or build a siege ramp against it.
By the way that he came he will return;
he will not enter this city,”
declares the Lord.
“I will defend this city and save it,
for my sake and for the sake of David my servant!”
Then the angel of the Lord went out and put to death a hundred and eighty-five thousand in the Assyrian camp. When the people got up the next morning—there were all the dead bodies! So Sennacherib king of Assyria broke camp and withdrew. He returned to Nineveh and stayed there.
|Captives being paraded before Sennacherib |
(note that Sennacherib's head has been defaced)
The Assyrian came down like the wolf on the fold,
And his cohorts were gleaming in purple and gold;
And the sheen of their spears was like stars on the sea,
When the blue wave rolls nightly on deep Galilee.
Like the leaves of the forest when Summer is green,
That host with their banners at sunset were seen:
Like the leaves of the forest when Autumn hath blown,
That host on the morrow lay withered and strown.
For the Angel of Death spread his wings on the blast,
And breathed in the face of the foe as he passed;
And the eyes of the sleepers waxed deadly and chill,
And their hearts but once heaved, and for ever grew still!
And there lay the steed with his nostril all wide,
But through it there rolled not the breath of his pride;
And the foam of his gasping lay white on the turf,
And cold as the spray of the rock-beating surf.
And there lay the rider distorted and pale,
With the dew on his brow, and the rust on his mail:
And the tents were all silent, the banners alone,
The lances unlifted, the trumpet unblown.
And the widows of Ashur are loud in their wail,
And the idols are broke in the temple of Baal;
And the might of the Gentile, unsmote by the sword,
Hath melted like snow in the glance of the Lord!
The Destruction of Sennacherib by Lord Byron