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Assyrian Campaigns
Ancient Mesopotamia


At first the gradual growth of Assyria did not directly affect Palestine. Tiglath Pileser I (1114-1076 BC) pushed Assyrian control to the Mediterranean but not southward into Hebrew territory. However in 853 BC, Ahad of Israel was defeated by Shalmaneser and Israel began paying heavy tribute to Assyria as is reflected on the black obelisk of Shalmaneser III showing its king Jehu, prostrate before Shalmaneser. The obelisk also lists the booty paid to Assyria. Israel existed from then on as more or less a vassal of Assyria.


In the late eighth century BC, Assyria had risen to unprecedented power, dominating the known world. On the eve of Sennacherib's accesion to the Assyrian throne in 705 BC, the Assyrian Empire extended from Elam and Babylonia on the south, to Anatolia on the north and to the Mediterranian Sea and the border of Egypt on the west.

Each year the Assyrians expanded their kingdom by a military expedition. The two principal tasks of an Assyrian king were to engage in military exploits and to erect public buildings. Both of these tasks were regarded as religious duties. They were, in effect, acts of obedience toward the principal gods of Assyria.


Assyrian domination of the land of Israel [then composed of the kingdom of Israel in the north and the kingdom of Judah in the south] proceeded step by step. In 732 BC Tiglath-Pileser conquered and annexed large portions of northern Israel. At one point Israel, already but a shadow of its former self and crushed by the burden of the annual tribute to Assyria, decided to revolt. In 722 BC Shalmaneser V, successor of Tiglath-Pileser, marched throught north Israel and beseiged its capitol, Samaria.



Overview of ruins of Samaria

After three years of fighting, the city was destroyed. Shalmaneser died during the seige and his successor, Sargon II, later claimed credit for the victory. This defeat ended the national identity of the northern kingdom of Israel which from then on was referred to by the Assyrians simply as Samaria. Sargon II deported, according to his own records, nearly twenty eight thousand Israelites (nine tribes) to Haran and the mountains of eastern Assyria.


Partial ruins of Samaria


Ivory plaques excavated from the palace of Samaria-note the Egyptian influence

The Kingdom of Judah to the south realized that it would probably be the next target of Assyrian aggression. Under King Hezekiah, Judah managed to stave off destruction for nearly two decades by paying tribute to Sargon. However, after the death of Sargon II in 705 BC, Sennacherib ascended the Assyrian throne and Hezekiah revolted. This promped Sennacherib to attack Lachish, Jerusalem and forty-four city-states of Judah. Jerusalem managed to withstand the seige but Lachish and the rest were completely destroyed.


Seige of Lachish from carved panel at Nineveh



artist's reconstruction of Lachish


Overview of Lachish today

Lachish was the second most important city in Judah, surpassed only by Jerusalem, and its destruction is important not only historically but also because it is uniquely documented in a least four independent sources: (1)in the Bible; (2)in Assyrian cuneiform accounts; (3)in archaeological excavations at the site of Lachish; and(4)in the monumental pictorial reliefs uncovered at Sennacherib's palace at Nineveh (the closest thing to an ancient movie from the beginning to the deportation of the conquered Judeans).


Sennacherib's prism concerning the conquest of Lachish


Stone carving from the Palace of Nineveh-Judean deportee with two children

The Assyrians then beseiged Jerusalem, but the seige failed according to the Bible and Assyrain records. It is also carved in cuneiform on the walls of Sennacherib's palace. An Assyrian account of the seige of Jerusalem is on one of the collosal bull sculptures at the door of the throne room. The Bible and the Assyrians  give different versions of the seige and Herodotus has yet another version. In the Bible there are two stories about the campaign. In one, the Angel of the Lord comes in the night while the Assyrians are encamped outside the Jerusalem wall and slays 185,000 men (2Kings 19:35). In the same narrative, but a few verses earlier (2 Kings 18:13-16), Hezekiah agrees to pay a tribute to Sennacherib, a kind of  bribe to make him go away. Herodotus says that the seige failed because mice ate the Assyrians' bow strings, so they couldn't shoot their arrows at the Israelites and therefore they withdrew.  The Assyrian account is remarkably like the second of the biblical accounts involving tribute. The tribute includes 30 talents of gold in both the Bible and the Assyrian inscriptions. The silver tribute is different in the two accounts--300 talents in the Bible and 800 in the Assyrian account.


Assyria was the first power to exile the Isralites from their native land. The deportation of the Isralites began with the early Assyrian campaigns in 734-732 B.C.E.  and continued until at least 715 B.C.E. The three Assyrain Kings who were responsible for Isralite deportations were: Tiglath-pileser III (745-727 B.C.E.), Shalmeneser V (727-722 B.C.E.) and Sargon II (722-705 B.C.E.) Below is a map which shows the route and destination of the deportatoions by these three kings.


Historians have recently started to give respectability to an intellectual exercise they use to shy away from: the what-if game. This is an effort to assess the historical importance of an event by projecting what the effect on the world would have been if that event had had a different outcome---if, for example, a battle had turned out the other way. In 1998, the Quarterly Journal of Military History asked 37 historians to identify what they deemed to be the most important might-have- been in military annals. Not surprisingly, one of them named the Greek navy's famous upset victory over Persia at the Battle of Salamis in 480 B.C., while another cited England's surprise defeat of the Spanish Armada in 1588. But in its presentation of these great events, this respected journal gave the last word--and the implicit place of honor--to the nomination of Sennacherib's invasion of (and failure to capture) Jerusalem.
The scholar who made this case is William H. McNeill, professor of History at the University of Chicago and author of Rise of the West, a sweeping work that won the National Book Award for history. McNeill, who subscribed to the idea that an epedemic leveled Sennacherib's force, wrote:
"Had the Assyrian army remained healthy in 701 (BC), Jerusalem would probably have been captured and its people dispersed, as had happened to Samaria only 20 years before. Think of what that would mean! For without Judaism, both Christianity and Islam become inconceivable. And without these faiths, the world as we know it becomes unrecognizable: profoundly, utterly different."
He comcluded: "Surely, there is no greater might-have-been in all recorded history.
c.f. The Rescue of Jerusalem, Henry T. Auben