Monday, 5 March 2018

625-600BC in the Near East

Assyrian wall relief
This blog post will be looking at the years 625BC to 600BC in the Near East, which for the purposes of this blog, extends from Kush in the south, Lydia in the west, to Urartu and Iran in the north and east. Occasionally other regions may be mentioned but the Greek world during this period will be written about in another post. As always, the sources must be mentioned. The Assyrian records, which have been the main historical record for the preceding century, become scarce and then silent, for reasons that will become clear. These can however be replaced with the Babylonian chronicles, which become quite thorough and detailed around this time. They do however have some gaps nonetheless. They are written in very sparse prose that has certainly omitted crucial details, and while they are less biased than the Assyrian annals, the writers still have their own opinions. 

There are some Egyptian and Kushite records of the time but these are not easily available. Occasional Urartian and Elamite documents exist, but these are so fragmentary and isolated that they can seldom even fully provide names of rulers. The writings of Herodotus shed some light on this period but must as always be used with caution, as Herodotus is writing at a later date and without a full understanding of what he documents. Other Greek writers such as Xenophon and Diodorus Siculus may be used, but these must be treated with extreme caution. Berossus, a Babylonian writer contemporary with Alexander the Great, has some writings that deal with this time period, but his work only survives in quoted excerpts from a lost summary of his work. 

Assyrian Lamassu 
The Hebrew Biblical writers shed some light on the period and the books of Kings, Chronicles, Jeremiah and possibly some of the other prophetic writings may be examined here. However, as always, while these texts are historical, they are not history and the preoccupations of the contemporary historian will not often match the preoccupations of the scribes who wrote these documents. Lastly we have some Talmudic writings and Armenian legends that may prove interesting, but will be treated with extreme caution, as they are much, much later. They also tend to be full of details that, while perhaps possible, seem rather unlikely. But we will mention them in their place. 

I must reiterate that I am not a professional historian, or any other type of historian for that matter. There are certainly mistakes and errors in the sources and I may make mistakes in my interpretations of these sources. Mistakes are particularly likely to occur when dealing with years, as the Babylonian/Assyrian/Jewish years do not correspond exactly to our own. So, there is the possibility that I may have, for example, interpreted an event as happening in late 609 when it may in fact have been early 608. If the reader spots any errors such as this, please let me know in the comments and I will research it and correct it as soon as possible. Even professional historians have differing opinions on the exact ordering of events at this time, so exact precision is not likely here.

Pottery vessel from Jin state in China
To give context to the period I feel it would be useful to mention what else was happening in the world. In China, the ineffectual Zhou Dynasty was headed by King Xiang of Zhou, but the most powerful man in China had been Duke Wen of Jin. Duke Wen had been succeeded by Duke Xiang, who tried to cement the power of the central Jin state against the southern and western states of Chu and Qin. In India, there were a number of powerful kingdoms, such as Kuru, Panchala, Kosala and Videha, which were establishing themselves across the northern Indian plains, particularly along the Ganges River. These states would later be known as the Mahajanapadas but not much can be said about them here. In Greece, the city-states continued to develop, in some cases having autocratic rulers known as “Tyrants”, but also seeing further formalisation of hoplite warfare. Literature in Greece continued to expand, with a number of poets extant and even the beginnings of Greek philosophy and science. This is a very loose summary of some of the events elsewhere in the world between 625-600BC. 

Assyrian ritual bath in Pergamon Museum Berlin
In the Near East, in the year 625BC, Sinsharishkun was king of Assyria. Some scholars believe that Ashur-etil-ilani was still ruling but I have addressed this chronology in my previous post and I believe that Ashur-etil-ilani had actually died in 627, as well as the usurper Sin-shumi-lisir. Sinsharishkun’s position was rather precarious, as Nabopolassar had launched a rebellion in Babylon the year previously and had successfully broken away from the Assyrian empire. In Babylon Nabopolassar, a Chaldean who probably was previously been an allied general of the Assyrians, had broken free of the Assyrian yoke but was locked in a war with Sinsharishkun. To the west, in Lydia, Ardys II was king of Lydia and engaged in war with barbarian steppe tribes and in wars with the Greek city states along the western coast of what is now Turkey. These tribes were part of a loose tribal grouping that included the Medes in what is now Iran. The Medes were probably under the rule of Cyaxares at this time, although this cannot be said for certain. 

In Urartu, Rusa III was the king but not much is known of his reign apart from some inscriptions at Armavir and Rusahinili. In Egypt, Psammetichus I, or Psamtik I depending on how the spelling is done, was the Pharaoh. He had stopped acknowledging Assyrian rule, despite having been put in power by the Assyrians, but he still seems to have maintained an alliance with the Assyrian kings. To the south of Egypt, in Kush, Senkamanisken was Pharaoh of Kush. He was probably a grandson of Tantamani, who had fought Ashurbanipal in the 660’s. In Judah, King Josiah reigned from Jerusalem and was in the early stages of a religious reform. Other rulers and states were in the region at this time but these are the main ones who will feature in this blog. It should be mentioned that there was a powerful kingdom called Saba in what is now present-day Yemen, but the sources for this region at this time are not easy to find or interpret so this may be left for a later blog. 

Assyrian wall relief
I, Sinsharishkun, great king, strong king, king of the world, king of Assyria…

In 625 Sin-sharru-usur was probably Limmu of Assyria, although, as noted in the previous blog, the Limmu lists become uncertain after 649. All further mentions of Limmus in the blog will be equally tentative. Even some of the previous ones are speculative. 

Around this time Cyaxares became king of the tribes of the Medes, but the dating of this is uncertain. In April of 625 the chronicles record that a panic fell upon Babylon, which must have been due to the approach of the army of Sinsharishkun. The gods of Sippar and Shapazzu were withdrawn into Babylon to protect them from the invaders and the Babylonian Akitu festival may have been disrupted at this time due to the warfare. On the 14th of May 625 the Assyrians captured Raqmat and looted it. I am unsure exactly where Raqmat was, but it must have been close enough to Babylon to force Nabopolassar to try and retake it. On the 30th of July 625 the armies of Babylon marched to Raqmat but had to withdraw when the Assyrian army approached.

On the ninth day of the month Abu Nabopolassar and his army marched to Raqmat. He did battle against Raqmat but did not capture the city. Instead, the army of Assyria arrived so he retreated before them and withdrew.

In 624 Kanunaiu was the Limmu of Assyria. In the month Ululu, around August/September, the Assyrian army moved towards Banitu Canal, which was near Nippur. Nippur was a regional rival to Babylon, had an ancient temple that was older than any in Babylon and was the main Assyrian base in the region. The Assyrian army must have been trying to reinforce their garrisons and strengthen them against the Babylonian/Chaldean uprising of Nabopolassar. The armies of Babylon and Assyria clashed but the engagement was indecisive. In Lydia, Ardys II died (probably) and his son Sadyattes became king of Lydia. 

Assyrian wall relief
They did battle against Nabopolassar but achieved nothing

In 623 Asshur-matu-taqqin was the Limmu of Assyria. The rebellion against the Assyrians spread, with the vital city of Der, a key fortress city on the border of Elam, rebelling against the Assyrian king Sinsharishkun. Possibly as part of this rebellion, an Assyrian general called Itti-ili rose up against Sinsharishkun. On the 15th of Tashritu (15th of November) Itti-ili attacked Nippur, which was the main Assyrian base in Babylonia. For all those who know the story of the next few decades it is important to remember that the outcome of these wars was not inevitable. In some ways Sinsharishkun was probably the most powerful man in the world, even with the constant rebellions from every direction. The situation resembled the accession of Sargon II, with Babylonia lost to rebellion and the western provinces in outright revolt. It took Sargon around a decade to bring the empire fully under control once more and there was no reason to suppose that Sinsharishkun would be unable to do the same. 

Sinsharishkun marched against the rebel Itti-ili, seems to have defeated him, recaptured Der, stabilised the garrison at Nippur and plundered Uruk. But rather than following up on his victory and attacking Nabopolassar, who seems to have hidden elsewhere, Sinsharishkun immediately returned with his army towards Nineveh. Babylon itself may have been abandoned by Nabopolassar at this time but the Assyrians were unable to finish the war. The Babylonian chronicle describing these campaigns is damaged at this point but it seems as if there was yet another rebellion in the Assyrian heartlands. The Assyrians would not be defeated from without, before they had destroyed themselves from within. 

Sinsharishkun pursued Itti-ili, ravaged Uruk, and set up a garrison at Nippur. He went up from beyond the Euphrates and set out toward Assyria. He ravaged [?] and set out for Nineveh. … Who had come to do battle against him … When they saw him they bowed down before him ... The rebel king … One hundred days …

In 622 Daddi was Limmu of Assyria. The Babylonian chronicles fall silent for a number of years at this point and there are no corresponding Assyrian records to fill in the silence. We know that Sinsharishkun remained on the throne so it is probable that whatever revolt happened in Assyria was quelled by Sinsharishkun. But this crushing of the rebellion may have taken a number of years and other campaigns may have happened at this time. We do know that Sinsharishkun was still undertaking building projects at this time, including renovations of the temple of Nabu at Nimrud during this year. 

Assyrian wall relief
I re-laid its foundations and the temple … I built and completed that temple. Its grand designs… eponymy of Daddi the treasurer.

Around this time, the leadership of the Iranian steppe tribes was being consolidated by Cyaxares. The Cimmerians and Scythians that had been mentioned by Herodotus, and the Umman-manda mentioned by the Assyrians (who may have been Scythians), seem to be either destroyed or coalesced under the leadership of Cyaxares and the Medes. Herodotus tells that Cyaxares destroyed the Scythians by inviting them to a great banquet and slaying them all while they were drunk; thus eliminating all threats to his rule. However, this story is only recorded in Herodotus. No mention of it is found in any other source of the period (in fact a lot of the details about the steppe tribes come purely from Herodotus). It is possible that the banquet happened but that it was to do something else. The Medes and Scythians were nominally tributary to the Assyrians, whose supremacy Cyaxares seems determined to overturn. Perhaps the banquet story was a memory of a purge of all the pro-Assyrian nobility of the Scythians and Medes? Without better sources we shall never know. If it did in fact happen, it may have happened around this time, but might have also been at any stage in the 620’s or the early 610’s. 

Most of them were entertained and made drunk and then slain by Cyaxares and the Medes: so thus the Medes took back their empire and all that they had formerly possessed

In Judah, King Josiah was engaging in a religious reform around this time. This reform was probably begun at a slightly earlier date, as the book of Chronicles records that this began around 632/630. Both dates are probably correct in certain ways. The events being described are extensive reforms of the entire religious apparatus of the state, rebuilding of large structures in the city and campaigns to enlarge the state of Judah. These doubtless took a number of years and could be described with equal truth as happening at various points. The reforms were three-fold. Firstly, the religious practices of earlier rulers, including his grandfather Manasseh, were overturned. Josiah may have been trying to reinstate the practices of the time of Hezekiah, his great-grandfather and mirrored his policies. The Asherah poles and statues of other gods were destroyed. Various sanctuaries around Judah were also demolished and the main temple in Jerusalem was rededicated purely to the God of Israel. 

He desecrated Topheth, which was in the Valley of Ben Hinnom, so no one could use it to sacrifice their son or daughter in the fire to Molech. He removed from the entrance to the temple of the LORD the horses that the kings of Judah had dedicated to the sun. They were in the court near the room of an official named Nathan-Melek. Josiah then burned the chariots dedicated to the sun.

Assyrian wall relief
Secondly, Josiah took the opportunity of Assyrian weakness to assert his independence in the absence of the Assyrian armies. While the religious reforms were underway he marched north to Bethel and destroyed the sanctuaries there. Bethel was an ancient religious centre; even its name means “The House of God” and it had had a temple to the gods of the northern kingdom there since the time of Jeroboam I. Josiah destroyed the temple and desecrated it so that it could not be rebuilt, even burning human bones on the altars, which would have been seen as a terrible desecration. Interestingly the temple at Bethel (like the temple further north at Dan) may have actually been a temple to Yahweh, the god of Israel, but it was seen as idolatrous by the reformers and destroyed. 

Even the altar at Bethel, the high place made by Jeroboam son of Nebat, who had caused Israel to sin—even that altar and high place he demolished. He burned the high place and ground it to powder, and burned the Asherah pole also. Then Josiah looked around, and when he saw the tombs that were there on the hillside, he had the bones removed from them and burned on the altar to defile it, in accordance with the word of the LORD proclaimed by the man of God who foretold these things.

The third part of the reform was the rededication of the Temple in Jerusalem. This was a very large structure that had stood since the time of the united kingdom of Israel and was dedicated to the God of Israel. It had been restored by earlier kings of Judah, such as Joash, but was in need of repair at this time. Josiah gathered money to restore the structure and rededicated the entire structure. While the temple was being rebuilt, the priests found a lost book, which was then taken to Josiah. This book may have been the book of Deuteronomy and it described the laws of God and the punishments for those who failed to obey them. This further spurred on the reform, as the king and the priests tried to make the state follow these regulations. Some have supposed that the book was a forgery from this time period. I don’t think that there is sufficient evidence to say this but it is clear that, if the book was previously unknown, that the Pentateuch in its current form could not have been common knowledge at the time of Josiah. 

Modern drawing of Josiah
hearing the scroll read to him
When the king heard the words of the Book of the Law, he tore his robes. He gave these orders to Hilkiah the priest, Ahikam son of Shaphan, Akbor son of Micaiah, Shaphan the secretary and Asaiah the king’s attendant: “Go and inquire of the LORD for me and for the people and for all Judah about what is written in this book that has been found. Great is the LORD’s anger that burns against us because those who have gone before us have not obeyed the words of this book; they have not acted in accordance with all that is written there concerning us.”

The books of Kings and Chronicles record that Josiah and the priests inquired about the newfound book from a prophetess called Huldah. The prophet Jeremiah had begun to prophesy some years earlier but may not have been known to the court at this time. Later Talmudic sources suggest that King Josiah asked Huldah rather than Josiah because Huldah was more likely to be merciful, but there is no evidence of this. Huldah did not spare the king’s feelings. She prophesied that Jerusalem would be destroyed but that it would not come in Josiah’s lifetime. 

Tell the man who sent you to me: “This is what the LORD says: I am going to bring disaster on this place and its people, according to everything written in the book the king of Judah has read. Because they have forsaken me and burned incense to other gods and aroused my anger by all the idols their hands have made, my anger will burn against this place and will not be quenched.”

If this prophecy was given to the king it may not have been shared as common knowledge or universally accepted; or perhaps it may have been taken as a prophecy for the far future. Josiah pressed on with his reforms and dedicated the rebuilt temple, reading the newfound Book of the Law to the people. This year also saw Josiah bring the Ark of the Covenant to Jerusalem and reinstate it in the Temple. It is not clear where it was before this. Perhaps it had been removed by an earlier king such as Manasseh. This is, to my knowledge, the last definite mention of where the Ark was, in the Hebrew scripture. It also makes the plot of the first Indiana Jones movie somewhat less plausible than it already is. There are later traditions that the Ark was hidden away so that it could not be taken to Babylon and also traditions from various peoples and groups around the world who claim to have it or to have once had it. But it seems clear from context that the Ark was becoming less important in the actual practice of Judaism and it is no longer mentioned. 

Model of Judah's fortress at Megiddo
He said to the Levites, who instructed all Israel and who had been consecrated to the LORD: “Put the sacred ark in the temple that Solomon son of David king of Israel built. It is not to be carried about on your shoulders. Now serve the LORD your God and his people Israel.”

Also in the year 622, it is recorded that Josiah held a large Passover celebration, with people assembled from all of his expanded kingdom. It was said by the writer of Chronicles to have been the largest Passover celebration of any of the kings of Israel, although this may be hyperbole. It would seem that celebrating the Passover may have been rather unusual, as it is mentioned in the sources, whereas if it had been celebrated every year it would have been commonplace and not worthy of record. The celebration of the Passover is also interesting, as the last king to have celebrated the festival lavishly was Hezekiah, showing yet another instance of Josiah emulating his great-grandfather. 

Assyrian relief
The Passover had not been observed like this in Israel since the days of the prophet Samuel; and none of the kings of Israel had ever celebrated such a Passover as did Josiah, with the priests, the Levites and all Judah and Israel who were there with the people of Jerusalem.

In some ways the Biblical narrative of this time period is somewhat independent of the other historical sources of the time. Egyptian, Assyrian and Babylonian sources all tell us nothing of this, nor do the Hebrew writers have much interest in the events happening outside Jerusalem. But despite being an interesting perspective on the region the very fact that the accounts are in parallel shows us that the Assyrian empire in the west was effectively absent at this time, confirming our suspicions. The behaviour of Josiah shown in Kings and Chronicles also leads us to believe that Josiah was modelling his behaviour on Hezekiah’s, who had tried to win independence from Assyria by befriending Babylon. It is very likely that Josiah pursued a similar course, which would explain certain later developments in the story. 

In those days, when your numbers have increased greatly in the land,” declares the LORD, “people will no longer say, ‘The ark of the covenant of the LORD.’ It will never enter their minds or be remembered; it will not be missed, nor will another one be made.

Inscription of Senkamisken
In 621 the limmu for this year seems to be even more uncertain than for other years. The Babylonian, Assyrian, Egyptian, Hebrew, etc. records all seem silent for this year, so this is as convenient a place as any to mention that around this time Susa was once again occupied and that a king or kings tried to rule again in Elam. While we have some inscriptions that are possibly from this period there are no certain dates and we cannot even give the names of the kings with certainty. The strength of the Elamite nationalism is extraordinary, in that they would once again try to resist their enemies after the devastation of the previous decades. But resist is indeed what they tried to do. 

In 620 Sa’ilu was Limmu of Assyria and the other records of the time are scant indeed. Herodotus records that Sadyattes of Lydia began a war against Ionia around this time, but this may have happened during previous years. In Kush, Senkamanisken of Kush died and Anlamani succeeded him as Pharaoh of Kush, ruling from the city of Napata. In this year Sinsharishkun probably restored or began to restore a temple of Nabu in Asshur. Nabopolassar seems to have captured Sippar, the sacred city of Shamash the sun god, and a strategic location preventing the Assyrians from striking directly at Babylon. The main Assyrian garrison in Babylonia, at Nippur, was besieged around this time, but our evidence for this is rather indirect. 

Lydian royal tombs:
Picture from here
In 619 Mannu-ki-ahhe was Limmu of Assyria. In Lydia Sadyattes probably died around this time and his son, Alyattes II succeeded him. Alyattes II was the most powerful of the Lydian kings and it is a great pity that this period is not better studied or known, as he was a powerful king indeed, but there is little that can be said. He continued the wars against the Greek city states of Ionia that his father Sadyattes had begun. It was around the time of his reign that coinage began to be first used. Interestingly, coinage appears to have had a parallel and unrelated development in China around this time as well. In the west, it is not clear if the Greeks or the Lydians were the first to coin precious metals but it was probably the Lydians, with the Greeks following suit shortly thereafter. The coins of the Lydians were of electrum, a mixture of gold and silver, which they minted in great quantities. The symbol on the obverse of the coin was a lion, the symbol of the ruling Mermnad dynasty. Occasionally this included a sun symbol or a bull that was attacked by the lion. The reverse was a punch mark used in the stamping of the coin. If this is indeed a Lydian invention it was their greatest invention and certainly helped to change the world. 

Lydian coinage
The next two years, 618 and 617, saw Nabu-sakip and Asshur-remanni as the respective Limmu’s for the Assyrian empire. With the Babylonian chronicles silent, there is not much more that can be said for these two years but during this time it should be presumed that the war between Sinsharishkun of Assyria and Nabopolassar of Babylon continued. During this time Uruk seems to have been under siege by the Assyrians and Babylonians at various points. As merchants were supposed to date their contracts by the name and regnal year of the king, and as it was very unclear which king would triumph, the merchants of Uruk conveniently label their documents around this time as “the x years of the siege”. This prudently avoided acknowledging whoever might prove to be the loser in the struggle for Mesopotamia. This also suggests that the outcome was very much in doubt, even to those closer to Babylon. Around this time Nippur, the main Assyrian fortress in Babylonia, fell to Nabopolassar after a prolonged siege. 

In 616 Bel-ahu-usur was Limmu of Assyria. In this year another Babylonian chronicle begins, which gives details of the ongoing war between Assyria and Babylon. The war seems to have been stalemated for some years, with Sinsharishkun able to work on the restoration or reconstruction of various temples in Asshur and Nineveh at this time. In other words the war was serious but not an existential threat to Assyria. This seems to change in this year, probably because of the fall of Nippur, and as far as I can tell, there was no more building work undertaken by Sinsharishkun after 616. While it might seem strange to have building work and large-scale wars undertaken simultaneously this was not unusual for the Assyrian empire, which existed in a near constant state of war, even at the best of times. 

View of the plains of Megiddo from the citadel
In this year Nabopolassar marched up the Euphrates to try and detach the region south of Harran from the Assyrian Empire. The people of the region paid tribute and did not attempt to resist. Sinsharishkun had not been idle. The few allies yet loyal to Assyria had been called to battle. The Manneans, an Iranian kingdom near Urartu, were summoned and Psammetichus of Egypt sent troops. The case of Egypt is strange, as they had rebelled against Assyria but remained allies with them. The behaviour of these Pharaohs seems very strange indeed. The Egyptian contingent would have marched along the Via Maris, the trade route by the sea that snaked inland near the Valley of Jezreel and passed near the northern Israelite town of Megiddo across the hills and towards Damascus. Josiah had recently tried to establish his power in this region and the passing of Egyptian troops would have been noted.

A part of the Assyrian army met the Chaldeans near Gablini on the Euphrates on the 12th of Abu (the 4th of July) and the Chaldeans were victorious. The gods of the nearby cities of Mane, Sahiri and Bali-hu were captured and sent to Babylon and the Chaldeans deported a number of people. However this was not an outright victory, as later, in the month of Tashritu (September/October) the Assyrians arrived in force with their full army and the Chaldeans withdrew before them, possibly abandoning Gablini. 

Reconstructed Walls of Nineveh
In the month Tashritu the army of Egypt and the army of Assyria went after the king of Akkad (Nabopolassar) as far as Gablini but they did not overtake the king of Babylonia. So they withdrew.

The Chaldeans had redeployed their troops to the east of Mesopotamia and attacked Arraphu (near present-day Kirkuk). A battle was fought at Madanu outside the city and the Babylonian chronicles record a major Chaldean/Babylonian victory over the Assyrians. It seems that in this year the city of Nimrud was sacked, probably by the Medes under their king Cyaxares. The Medes would have seen the problems that the Assyrians were having with internal and Babylonian rebellions and seem to have attacked in this year, although as yet, Cyaxares and Nabopolassar were probably acting independently. 

The army of Babylonia inflicted a major defeat upon the Assyrian army and drove them back to the Zab River. They captured their chariots and horses and plundered them extensively.

In 615 Sin-alik-pani was Limmu of Assyria. The Babylonians/Chaldeans marched up the Tigris River and attacked Asshur, the founding city of Assyria itself. They laid siege to the city around April or May and unsuccessfully tried to take it. A month later the Assyrian army under Sinsharishkun arrived at the city and pushed the Babylonians back to Takrita’in (modern Tikrit) further down the Tigris. The Babylonians retreated into the fortress and Sinsharishkun tried to besiege it for ten days. But the Babylonians sallied out of the fortress and defeated the Assyrians, forcing them to withdraw. Rather than continue the attack the Assyrians withdrew, as the Medes were threatening the eastern frontier. In the month Arahsamna (around October/November) the Medes attacked Arraphu and probably captured it, although the text is broken at this point. The constant pressure from both Nabopolassar and Cyaxares allowed the Assyrians no time to regroup and now the very core of the Assyrian empire was threatened. 

The king of Assyria mustered his army, pushed the king of Akkad (Nabopolassar) back from Asshur and marched after him as far as Takrita'in, a city on the bank of the Tigris.

In 614 Pasi was Limmu of the Assyrian empire. No movements of the Assyrian or Babylonian armies are recorded, perhaps worn out from the rapid attacks of the previous year. Around July or August the Medes took the initiative and captured Tarbisu, which was a city very close to Nineveh itself, before marching south along the Tigris and laying siege to Asshur, which had survived a month long siege the previous year. Perhaps the walls were damaged from the previous siege. The Babylonians heard that the city was under siege and marched towards the embattled city. But before the Babylonians could reach Asshur the Medes took the city. Even though the Assyrians were the enemy, the Babylonians were somewhat awestruck when the city fell and recorded it in grim tones. The Medes plundered the city and in the ruins, Cyaxares of Media and Nabopolassar of Babylon met and formed an alliance against Sinsharishkun of Assyria. Possibly Amytis, the daughter of Cyaxares, married the son of Nabopolassar to cement the alliance, but I am unsure if this actually happened. 

Drawing of an Assyrian relief showing the
capture of a city
They (the Medes) went along the Tigris and encamped against Asshur. They did battle against the city and destroyed it. They inflicted a terrible defeat upon a great people...

The Assyrians were now in a very dangerous position. Their armies had been the terror of the region for centuries, but they had very few actual allies. If their armies were gone, their state was lost. At the height of their power they had been able to field armies possibly numbering up to a quarter of a million men. Now those numbers had been whittled away in the numerous civil wars after the time of Ashurbanipal. The constant fighting against the Medes and Babylonians had also taken their toll on their numbers. Their best generals had been lost fighting on both sides of the rebellions. Now they could no longer count on weight of numbers to decide victory. 

This too the saying of Phocylides: The law-abiding town, though small and set on a lofty rock, outranks foolish Nineveh.

The Babylonians may well have had Assyrian soldiers and generals in their armies, as most Assyrian troops would have chosen to submit rather than face death, and the large Assyrian garrison at Nippur may have switched sides rather than fight to the death. Thus the Babylonian armies would have known all the tactics of the Assyrians and now probably outnumbered them. The unreliable Scythian allies of the Assyrians fought with the same tactics as the Medes, so no strategic advantage could be gained there. Finally, Sinsharishkun had come to the throne in dubious circumstances, meaning that even his Assyrian troops probably had limited loyalty to the crown. 

“I am against you” declares the LORD Almighty. “I will burn up your chariots in smoke and the sword will devour your young lions. I will leave you no prey on the earth. The voices of your messengers will no longer be heard.”

In 613 Nabu-tapputi-alik was Limmu of the Assyrians. The region south of Harran now revolted against Babylon and the Babylonians marched along the Euphrates to attack Rahi-ilu, which was on an island in the Euphrates. On the 11th of May, using siege engines brought from both sides of the river, and possibly building a pontoon bridge, Nabopolassar attacked the city and captured it shortly thereafter. The Assyrians were still a force to be reckoned with however, as their army arrived on the scene while the Babylonians were looting it and the Babylonians were forced to retreat.  

Reconstructed Gateway at Nineveh
He did battle against the city and captured it. The king of Assyria and his army came down and the king of Akkad (Nabopolassar) and his army went home.

There is a strange and unusual document that may be from this time. A later Babylonian cuneiform tablet, from the Hellenistic era, claims to be a copy of a letter from Sinsharishkun to Nabopolassar. It seems that Sinsharishkun believed that the war was nearly lost and that he was imploring Nabopolassar to break his alliance with the Medes and instead ally with Sinsharishkun. In return Assyria would acknowledge the supremacy of Babylon. The letter is very fragmentary and full of strange literary allusions. If real, it would probably have been sent after the Assyrians had forced back the Babylonians from the Euphrates River, south of Harran, as this would have given Sinsharishkun some bargaining power. It was an interesting proposal, as the Babylonians and Assyrians were weakened from over a decade of warfare, while the Medes were not. The possibility that the Iranian horse tribes might turn on the Babylonians was a real one. 

The weak man … the partridge, which wishes to share a nest with a falcon.

But the letter may not be genuine at all but may simply be a Babylonian literary forgery. But if it is real it is a startling insight into the mind of a man who was once the most powerful man in the world but was now in fear of his life. There are fragments of other letters from Nabopolassar who may have entered into correspondence. If this correspondence was real, it was not take seriously by Nabopolassar, who had no intention of breaking his alliance with Cyaxares.  

Cuneiform letter of Sinsharishkun
to Nabopolassar
Letter of Sinsharishkun, king of Assyria, which … he wrote to Nabopolassar his lord.

In 612 Marduk-remanni was Limmu of Assyria. The Babylonians and Medes set their armies in motion and in the month Simanu (May/June) the armies joined forces, possibly at Opis on the Tigris River. Marching up the river at speed, possibly transporting troops on boats, past the ruins of the destroyed city of Asshur, the armies reached Nineveh. The siege of Nineveh began towards the end of the month of Simanu. Nineveh was the largest city in the world at the time and was fortified with a double layer of walls, protected on two sides by the Tigris and Khosr rivers and defended by what was left of the formidable armies of Assyria. 

The king of Akkad (Nabopolassar) and his army crossed the Tigris; Cyaxares had to cross the Radanu, and they marched along the bank of the Tigris. In the month Simanu, the Nth day, they encamped against Nineveh.

Sinsharishkun was in the city and it was defended fiercely. The Babylonians and Medes assaulted the city for three months, until finally, in the month of Abu (July/August), the city fell to the attackers. There was fierce fighting in the streets and the defenders were slaughtered. Sinsharishkun died at this time, either by suicide or in battle. He was not captured by the attackers. A remnant of the Assyrian army, possibly led by a general named Ashur-uballit, may have fought its way out of the falling city and escaped to the north and west, but this is unclear. 

Fall of Nineveh, painting by John Martin
The shields of the soldiers are red; the warriors are clad in scarlet. The metal on the chariots flashes on the day they are made ready; the spears of juniper are brandished. The chariots storm through the streets, rushing back and forth through the squares. They look like flaming torches; they dart about like lighting. 

The city that had dominated the region was put to the torch and the libraries of Ashurbanipal burned. The palaces and temples were looted and accumulated plunder of centuries was taken by the Medes and Babylonians. At least one high Assyrian official submitted to the Babylonians during the capture, probably fearing the Medes more than the Babylonians. There have been some tablets found containing treaties where the Medes were forced to submit to the Assyrians, and these have been found smashed. Perhaps this was done deliberately by the Medes when the city fell; perhaps it is a mere accident of history. 

On the Nth day of the month Abu they inflicted a major defeat upon a great people. At that time Sinsharishkun, king of Assyria, died. They carried off the vast treasure of the city and the temple and turned the city into a ruin heap

Skeleton from Nineveh
Picture taken from here
The brutality of the siege was even found by archaeology, where the skeletons of twelve archers and a horse were found preserved underneath a gate they had defended. Arrowheads and spearheads were found by the scene and the fact that the bodies were undisturbed suggests that the gatehouse collapsed upon the corpses shortly after the fighting, perhaps because of siege rams or fire. The multiple wounds on the bones testify to the ferocity of the fighting. 

Woe to the city of blood, full of lies, full of plunder, never without victims! The crack of whips, the clatter of wheels, galloping horses and jolting chariots! Charging cavalry, flashing swords and glittering spears! Many casualties, piles of dead, Bodies without number, people stumbling over the corpses

I should take a moment to discuss a story often told about the fall of Nineveh, that it was taken after a flood had destroyed some of the walls. The Hebrew book of Nahum is often quoted to back up this assertion. The book of Nahum was a Hebrew text that described the fall of Nineveh. It was probably intended as prophecy but if it was not prophecy it may have been written shortly after the fall of Nineveh (as the state of Judah very swiftly had new enemies to write about and these are not mentioned in Nahum), as a triumphant poem over the destruction of a great enemy. Either way, it was probably written nearly contemporarily with the events it describes. There are some phrases that might be construed as depicting a flood, but are more likely to just be poetic imagery, e.g. “The river gates are thrown open and the palace collapses” or “Nineveh is like a pool whose water is draining away”. Both of these are more likely to be poetic imagery, as the rulers of the Near East often describe “devastating a city like the Flood” to indicate the destruction done. 

Ford Madox Brown's painting of the
Dream of Sardanapalus
The rebels, encouraged by their advantages, pressed the siege, but were foiled by the strength of the walls from harming the defenders, for in those days, artillery, defences for sappers, or battering-rams had not been invented. Moreover, there was great abundance of all provisions for those in the city, as the king had attended to this beforehand. Consequently the siege dragged on for two years, assaults were continually made upon the walls, and the occupants were cut off from egress to the country, but in the third year, a succession of heavy downpours swelled the Euphrates, flooded part of the city, and cast down the wall to a length of 20 stades. 

A much later source, Diodorus Siculus describes the fall of Nineveh but his account contains so many errors that I feel his account should be treated cautiously, as his probable source (Ctesias) was also unreliable. He records that Nineveh fell after a siege of three years and that the river flooded at the end of the siege, washing away the walls, at which point the king killed himself. This account errs in the names of the river, the king and the duration of the siege. Also, the city had flood defences that were in place to prevent flood damage. Even if such a section of the wall was destroyed by either the rivers Khosr or Tigris, the walls of Nineveh were a double circumvallation. So, supposing a large flood, manmade or natural, washed away a large section of the first wall, the second, much higher, wall would still stand in the path of the attackers. The key here seems to be the name Sardanapalus. 

Eugene Delacroix's painting of the
Death of Sardanapalus
Thereupon the king realized that the oracle had been fulfilled, and that the river had manifestly declared war upon the city. Despairing of his fate, but resolved not to fall into the hands of his enemies, he prepared a gigantic pyre in the royal precincts, heaped up all his gold and silver and his kingly raiment as well upon it, shut up his concubines and eunuchs in the chamber he had made in the midst of the pyre, and burnt himself and the palace together with all of them. The rebels, hearing of the end of Sardanapallus, burst into the city where the wall was down and captured it, then arrayed Arbakes in the royal robe, saluted him king, and invested him with supreme authority.

Sardanapalus was the supposed last king of the Assyrians. The Greek memories of the Assyrian Empire were extremely confused. Only the names of Sardanapalus and Semiramis are remembered in later tradition. Sardanapalus is a portmanteau of the names Sargon and Ashurbanipal. His supposed campaigns in Cilicia appear to be a folk memory of the campaigns of Sennacherib. As the last king in Nineveh he is probably taken from Sinsharishkun but his death in the flames of a burning palace sounds suspiciously like the death of Shamash-shuma-ukin when Babylon fell to the Assyrians. So, what seems to have happened is that later Greek legends lumped every tradition about the later Assyrian empire and ascribed it all to Sardanapalus. Diodorus’ account of the fall of Nineveh is probably a similar conglomeration of different memories, rather than an actual account of the siege. The fiery suicide of Sinsharishkun may have some more truth to it however, as it is also mentioned in the Babyloniaca of Berossus, but Berossus may be simply copying Ctesias in this matter.

Sarakos (Sinsharishkun), dismayed at his attack, burned himself together with his palace

The city of Nineveh was looted for several weeks after its fall. If any remaining Scythian allies of the Assyrians had not already switched sides, by this point they had joined the Medes under Cyaxares. The king of Urartu, Rusa III, may have been part of the alliance and sent some troops. A much later Armenian writer called Movses Khorenatsi mentions that an Armenian king called Paruyr Skayordi took part in the destruction of Nineveh, so this may be a memory of the Urartian king Rusa III. Alternatively, it may simply be a later invention. 

Assyrian wall relief
Plunder the silver! Plunder the gold! The supply is endless, the wealth from all its treasures!

The Medes left Nineveh in Ululu, about a month after the city had fallen, returning to their Iranian homelands laden with plunder. Nabopolassar continued the campaign, with his generals attacking the city Nasibina (classical Nisibis/modern Nusaybin) and the land of Rusapu in southern Turkey. More plunder was taken back to Nabopolassar at Nineveh. Presumably this was an attempt to stop any surviving Assyrian generals in the north-western provinces from regrouping and trying to reform the Assyrian empire after its cataclysmic defeat. The Assyrians had been hated for their vicious policies of conquest and terror and the news of their destruction must have been heard with joy and stupefaction across much of the Near East. 

King of Assyria, your shepherds slumber; your nobles lie down to rest. Your people are scattered on the mountains with no one to gather them. Nothing can heal you; your wound is fatal. All who hear the news about you clap their hands at your fall, for who has not felt your endless cruelty?

The Assyrians seem to have tried to reform the empire from the city of Harran, which was slightly further west than Nasibina. It held the temple of the moon god Sin and the previous Assyrian kings had gone there to hear prophecies of their future. The new king was Ashur-uballit II and with Harran as his base and a plea to Pharaoh Psammetichus for troops, he attempted to re-forge the empire that had been lost. 

Tell of Sultantepe near Harran
On the … of the month … Ashur-uballit ascended to the throne in Harran to rule Assyria. 

In 611 Nabu-mar-sharri-usur was Limmu of what remained of Assyria. Nabopolassar returned to Assyria to continue plundering and to quell any attempted Assyrian recovery. In the month of Arahsamna (around October/November) Nabopolassar attacked Ruggulitu, the location of which I am unsure of. Within a month it was taken and the defenders annihilated. Nabopolassar returned to Babylon. At this point Nabopolassar appears to have been getting older and struggled to lead campaigns personally, but it was vital for the Babylonians to crush the Assyrians once and for all. 

He did battle against the city and on the twenty-eighth day of the month Arahsamnu he captured it. He did not leave a single man alive.

In 610 Nabu-sharru-usur was the Limmu of what remained of Assyria. In Egypt Psammetichus I died and his son Necho II became Pharaoh of Egypt. Around April or May the Babylonian army once more assembled and marched towards Assyria, campaigning there until around October or November. In the month of Arahsamna the Babylonians marched to Harran and besieged it. Ashur-uballit II, not wanting to get caught in the city, fled the city with his field army and his Egyptian allies, hoping for Egyptian reinforcements to try and retake the city. Ashur-uballit II crossed the Euphrates River, heading southwest, probably at Carchemish, which was held by an Egyptian garrison. If this was Ashur-uballit’s plan he was disappointed, as the death of Psammetichus and coronation of his son would have delayed the main Egyptian army, which was now desperately needed by the last Assyrian remnants. 

Assyrian wall relief
The Babylonians took the city of Harran and looted the city and the temple of Sin. The aging Nabopolassar left his field army in the region and returned to Babylon, while the forces of the Medes also withdrew. Presumably they had been summoned to help wipe out the last bastion of the Assyrians. 

The king of Akkad (Nabopolassar) reached Harran, fought a battle, and captured the city. He carried off the vast booty of the city and the temple. 

In 609 Gargamisaiu was the Limmu of the remnants of the Assyrian empire. Gargamisaiu is not a name but means merely “The Carchemishite”, presumably because the Egyptian-held city of Carchemish was all that remained of the Assyrian Empire. Early in the year Necho II of Egypt led a large army from Egypt towards Carchemish on the Euphrates River to try and support Ashur-uballit II against the triumphant Babylonians who had recently captured Harran. Josiah of Judah had tried to extend the kingdom of Judah to include all the territories held by the old northern kingdom of Israel and the fastest route for the Egyptians led through this newly conquered territory. If Josiah had followed the precedent of Hezekiah he would have pursued a hostile policy against Assyria and fostered friendly relations with Babylon. It seems that this was the case.

Gateway of Megiddo
Necho king of Egypt went up to fight at Carchemish on the Euphrates, and Josiah marched out to meet him in battle. But Necho sent messengers to him, saying, “What quarrel is there, king of Judah, between you and me? It is not you I am attacking at this time, but the house with which I am at war. God has told me to hurry; so stop opposing God, who is with me, or he will destroy you.”

Necho II saw that Josiah had mustered his armies against him and requested free passage, making the argument that the Egyptians had no quarrel with the kingdom of Judah, that time was of the essence and that his army was marching elsewhere. But Josiah would have been wary of any attempt to save the Assyrian army on the Euphrates and sent his army into battle near the city of Megiddo. In a small aside, while Josiah is nowhere referenced in other histories, it does seem as if Herodotus records a memory of this battle where he refers to Necho fighting the inhabitants of Syria at a place called Magdolos, which does seem very likely to have been Megiddo, particularly as it was placed south of Kadesh by Herodotus. 

Necho also engaged in a pitched battle at Magdolos with the Syrians…

The battle was a terrible defeat for Josiah and he lost both his army and his life in the battle. Josiah’s attempt to rebuild the united kingdom of Israel had failed and this was the last time that a king of Judah was able to lead an army in the field. Necho II had no time to stop and consolidate the kingdom of Judah under his rule but marched northwards instead. In Jerusalem, Josiah was mourned, with the prophet Jeremiah writing a lament for the fallen king. The Crown Prince Shallum, who was not the eldest son of Josiah but may have been groomed for the succession, changed his name to Jehoahaz and took the throne in Jerusalem. 

Francesco Conti's Renaissance painting of the
Death of Josiah
Josiah, however, would not turn away from him, but disguised himself to engage him in battle. He would not listen to what Necho had said at God’s command but went to fight him on the plain of Megiddo. Archers shot King Josiah, and he told his officers, “Take me away; I am badly wounded.” So they took him out of his chariot, put him in his other chariot and brought him to Jerusalem, where he died.

Around June/July the combined Assyrian and Egyptian army under Ashur-uballit II and Necho II marched across the Euphrates towards Harran, capturing a city held by the Babylonians. This was to be the last Assyrian victory however. The Assyrians and Egyptians laid siege to Harran for over a month before the approach of the aged Nabopolassar and the full Babylonian army forced them to retreat back to Carchemish. There was no battle in the field but this is the last that we hear of Ashur-uballit II. He may have survived and continued fighting in later battles with the Egyptian army but he was a king without a kingdom and history records him no more. The Assyrian Empire, heavily centralised around the capital in their homeland, could not be revived once the capital was lost. The Assyrian people did however survive and their history since then has been a deeply tragic one. Like the empire, in this year the Assyrian limmu dating system comes to an end. 609 was the year of the Gargamisaiu, the Carchemishite, and because the Assyrian Empire will never rise again, from a certain point of view, it will be the year of the Carchemishite forever. 

Ruins of Harran
When they had defeated it they encamped against Harran. Until the month Ululu they did battle against the city but achieved nothing. The king of Akkad went to help his army but did not join battle.

With the Egyptian army forced back to the Euphrates, the Babylonians pushed north and east towards the edges of Urartu. Possibly there were further pockets of Assyrian resistance in the mountains bordering the northern edge of Assyria. If so, it is likely that the Medes would have been attacking these and the Babylonian forces of Nabopolassar would have tried to support their allies in crushing these remains. Excavations in Assyria have shown that there was some continuity in Assyrian administration, meaning that the officials who did not resist were formed into a replacement bureaucracy that functioned for the Babylonians as they had for the previous Assyrian kingdom. 

Assyrian relief of a wounded lioness
Your guards are like locusts, your officials like swarms of locusts that settle in the walls on a cold day – but when the sun appears they fly away, and no one knows where.

Necho II set up his court at Riblah, near the city of Hamath, where he sent troops to Jerusalem and dethroned the new king Jehoahaz, who had reigned for only three months. Jehoahaz was taken prisoner and later sent to Egypt in chains, where he died in exile. 

Pharaoh Necho put him (Jehoahaz) in chains at Riblah in the land of Hamath so that he might not reign in Jerusalem, and he imposed on Judah a levy of a hundred talents of silver and a talent of gold.

Another of Josiah’s sons, Eliakim, was placed on the throne of Judah and a heavy tribute was placed on the kingdom. Eliakim changed his name to Jehoiakim, which was very similar to his previous name but possibly seen as having more dignity. Jehoiakim is viewed as being a bad king in the Biblical books of Kings and Chronicles, prophesied against in the book of Jeremiah, and in the later Talmudic sources he is described in an unbelievably bad light. He is supposed to have not only reverted all the religious reforms of his father but to have slept with his mother and tried to make a replacement sun to show that he did not need God. At least some of the Talmudic attacks on Jehoiakim are probably unjustified later writings about a king who was in a difficult situation and who would prove spectacularly unsuccessful at handling it. There is the possibility that Jehoiakim made his son Jehoiachin co-regent around this time, despite his youth, but possibly placing him under the tutelage of Jehoiakim’s brother Zedekiah. 

Jehoiakim burnt the Torah; …He dishonoured his mother. His mother remonstrated with him: “Have you then taken any pleasure in the place from whence you came?” He replied: “Do I do this for any other purpose than to provoke my Creator!” When Jehoiakim came, he said, “My predecessors knew not how to anger him: do we need Him for anything but his light? But we have Parvaim gold, which we can use for light; let him take His light!”

Lydian coinage
In 608 the Babylonian army mustered in August/September and marched up the Tigris to fight in the mountains bordering Urartu, possibly quelling any remaining Assyrian rebels and assisting the Medes in subduing their portion of the region. After burning cities in the mountains of Bit-Hanunya the Babylonians returned around the month of December. Urartu at this point was a subject kingdom to the Medes. In the west Alyattes II of Lydia began to conquer all of Anatolia, filling the power vacuum caused by the collapse of the Assyrian empire. 

In the year 607 there were further campaigns in the mountains near Urartu. There now appear to have been two Babylonian field armies, one led by Nabopolassar and the other by his crown prince Nabu-kudurri-usur. Nabu-kudurri-usur is better known to history as Nebuchadnezzar II or just Nebuchadnezzar. The two armies marched towards the mountains of the north, attacking Biranati near Urartu, around the month of May/June. Nabopolassar returned to Babylon a month later, leaving Nebuchadnezzar to finish the siege and finish the subjugation of the Urartian hinterlands. The army of Nebuchadnezzar then returned to Babylon around August/September before marching westwards and capturing the city Kimuhu (the later region of Commagene) on the upper waters of the Euphrates. Nebuchadnezzar may have been threatening to outflank the Egyptians who were further south. The city was attacked around November and fell about a month later. 

Depiction of Assyrians attacking a city
If you search for the year 607BC online you will sometimes see this given as the year the Babylonians took Jerusalem. This is almost certainly incorrect, as it contradicts a great number of other dates that are well established. There is a religious group that believes the year 1914AD and the number 2520 to be prophetically important and thus try to count backwards from this to establish the date of the fall of Jerusalem. It is a minor point and not really relevant here but I did find that this incorrect timeline was showing up a lot when I checked stuff out online and thought people should be aware of it. There is a full discussion of this date here. 

In the year 606 the Egyptians counterattacked and attacked Kimuhu, capturing it after a siege of four months. In the month of September/October Nabopolassar marched his armies northwest along the banks of the Euphrates to try and threaten the southern flank of Necho’s new empire. Switching from one bank of the river to the other the Babylonians captured the smaller cities of Shunadiri, Elammu and Dahammu before returning to Babylon in November/December. Nabopolassar’s health was failing and this was to be his last campaign. Nabopolassar had left the armies in place, presumably under the command of Nebuchadnezzar or one of his generals. The Egyptian army stationed at Carchemish counterattacked and pushed the Babylonians back along the river, forcing a retreat.

In 605 Nabopolassar was too weak to campaign but with the hinterlands under their control and the Median alliance with Cyaxares securing their eastern flank, the Babylonians decided to confront the Egyptians head on. Nebuchadnezzar led the army to Carchemish where they crossed the River Euphrates unopposed. At Carchemish the Babylonian army won a massive victory and the Egyptian army was crushed. The remains of the Egyptians and any Assyrians that might still have been fighting alongside them, retreated to Riblah, near Hamath. The Babylonians were aware of the Egyptian base there and followed them at their heels, winning another victory against the survivors of the rout and scattering them a second time. 

They fought with each other and the Egyptian army withdrew before him. He accomplished their defeat and beat them to non-existence. As for the rest of the Egyptian army which had escaped from the defeat so quickly that no weapon had reached them, in the district of Hamath the Babylonian troops overtook and defeated them so that not a single man escaped to his own country.

It is unclear if Necho II was with his army at the time, but if he was he managed to escape the carnage. The short-lived Levantine empire of Necho II was over and all the land from the Euphrates to Egypt lay open for the Babylonians. For all that it failed, it should be remembered that Necho’s campaign on the Euphrates was possibly the most sustained Egyptian power projection in the history of Egypt to date. Even in the glory days of Tuthmosis III of the New Kingdom there tended only to be swift campaigns before the Pharaoh would return to Egypt. 

Nebuchadnezzar probably received the submission of the local rulers at this time. Having seen that Jehoiakim of Judah had been put on the throne by the Egyptians, Nebuchadnezzar attacked Jerusalem (which probably surrendered immediately) and placed Jehoiakim in chains for deportation. But despite the Egyptian collapse at Carchemish and Riblah, there was a temporary delay in the Babylonian assault and Jehoiakim was not to be deported. 

On the 15th of August Nabopolassar died; the rebel general who had helped to destroy the most powerful kingdom in the world and set up another to rival it in its place. Upon hearing this news, Nebuchadnezzar abandoned the campaign in the west and returned swiftly to Babylon, leaving Jehoiakim as king in Jerusalem, but deporting a small number of high-ranking officials and looting some of the sacred vessels of the temple. By September Nebuchadnezzar had returned to Babylon and on the 7th of September he was crowned king of Babylon. 

Inscription of Nebuchadnezzar II
For twenty-one years Nabopolassar had been king of Babylon, when on the 8th of Abu he went to his destiny

In 604 Nebuchadnezzar returned to the Levant with his armies and generals and continued the conquest of the region. Ashkelon, one of the Philistine cities of the coast, resisted. Possibly it was garrisoned with Egyptian troops. Ashkelon was besieged by the Babylonians. While Ashkelon was under siege the other kings of the region were invited to submit to the conquerors, who had taken up the mantle of the old Assyrian Empire. Jehoiakim of Judah and the kings of Ammon, Moab, Edom and the other small states in the region submitted to the new order. 

During Jehoiakim’s reign, Nebuchadnezzar king of Babylon invaded the land, and Jehoiakim became his vassal for three years.

It is recorded in the book of Jeremiah 36 that the prophet Jeremiah, who was deeply against the Egyptian alliance, sent a scroll to King Jehoiakim, to denounce him. The king listened to the scroll and then burned it, prompting Jeremiah to denounce the king further and proclaim that Babylon would destroy the city. The tensions within the kingdom of Judah were growing, with a pro-Egyptian party and a pro-Babylonian party, which may have been led by Jeremiah. These two groups would try and influence the kings but the pro-Egyptian party seems to have had more influence. The incident of the scroll burning, which is a good example of the tension in Jerusalem, probably took place around 604. 

Cuneiform text
In early 603 Ashkelon fell and was plundered and burnt, with the garrison and Philistine inhabitants taken into exile. The Babylonians continued consolidating their power in the region, levying tribute and gathering soldiers. Meanwhile Necho II had retreated to Egypt and was gathering a new army to face the Babylonian threat. The Babylonians continued to campaign in the Levant but not much is known of their exact movements at this time. 

Gaza will shave her head in mourning; Ashkelon will be silenced. You remnant on the plain, how long will you cut yourselves? “Alas, sword of the Lord, how long till you rest? Return to your sheath; cease and be still.” But how can it rest when the Lord has commanded it, when he has ordered it to attack Ashkelon and the coast?

In 601 Nebuchadnezzar made an attempt to break Necho’s army and invade Egypt. Necho II made a stand at the edge of Egypt itself and managed to defeat the Babylonians. It does not seem to have been a total defeat but Nebuchadnezzar was forced to retreat and he returned to Babylon with much of his army. Seeing the chaos in the region and probably under instructions from Necho, Jehoiakim of Judah decided to revolt against Babylon. The Babylonians did not respond immediately, as they were gathering their strength for the next battle with Egypt. But the other kingdoms that bordered Judah would have seen this switch of allegiance as open season for attacking and raiding Judah, which had no real field armies left after the disaster at Megiddo. 

Inscription of Necho II
In open battle they smote the breast of each other and inflicted great havoc on each other. The king of Akkad turned back with his troops and returned to Babylon.

In the year 600 the Babylonians were rebuilding their army and preparing to reassert their dominance in the Levant. Meanwhile Necho II seems to have tried to support the rebellion of Judah by attacking the city of Gaza and capturing it. 

In Judah the prophet Habbakuk was probably active around this time and the book that bears his name may have been written around this time, however dates are not explicitly given in this work and it may be later. In Kush, to the south of Egypt, the king Anlamani died and was succeeded by his brother Aspelta. 

As for the Etemenanki — the ziggurat of Babylon, which had become very weak and had been allowed to collapse before my time — the god Marduk — my lord — commanded me to firmly secure its foundation on the surface of the netherworld and to have its summit rival the heavens. 

Inscription of Anlamani
Finally, around this time, there was the rebuilding of the Etemenanki, the huge ziggurat in Babylon. The reconstruction of this had begun under the Assyrian kings but the revolt of Shamash-shuma-ukin had probably put a stop to it. Nabopolassar had begun to rebuild it but the work was only completed under his son, Nebuchadnezzar II. The tower reached 91 metres and was one of the tallest structures on earth at the time, although still nowhere near the heights of the Great Pyramid at Giza. Some have speculated that this gigantic tower was the inspiration for the story of the Tower of Babel but ziggurat towers were well known in the Near East, so I am sceptical of this. It is possible as well that its ruins were the inspiration for the Hanging Gardens of Babylon but again this is highly speculative. 

Thus the period ends, with the empire of Assyria destroyed and three new powers, Media, Babylon and Lydia, taking its place. Each kingdom was led by strong rulers, with Cyaxares, Nebuchadnezzar II and Alyattes II being the strongest rulers that each of these kingdoms would have. Egypt was also very strong at this point, with a vigorous and capable Pharaoh Necho at its head but militarily it wasn’t a match for Babylon. Assyria had been the dominant power in the region for centuries and with its sudden collapse, new changes might soon appear in the region. 

Leonard Woolley and T.E. Lawrence at
the excavation of Carchemish
A list of some of the sources used in the blog