I was recently asked to write a short piece on where I would most like to visit – archaeologically speaking. It came down to two sites Lachish in Israel or Carchemish in Turkey/Syria. Here is what I wrote about my choice.
The Battle of Carchemish
The site of the city of Carchemish lies on the banks of the River Euphrates. It originated in the Hittite empire and expanded over time. 3 distinct phases can be identified, a nuclear tell area or citadel, a surrounding area dating to the Hittite empire (early Iron age) and an expansion area dating to the Assyrian period . There are also Roman structures on the site. Excavations of the site ended in 1920 following the Turkish war as the site straddles the border of Syria and Turkey and it has remained a military zone since that date with no access. A new excavation in the Turkish section of the outer city was begun in 2010 although the citadel area remains under military control. Part of the outer city is within Syrian territory and is still off limits to archaeologists.
The city of Carchemish was an important commercial site and border stronghold on the river Euphrates in the Iron age. As well as the potential trade opportunities (it had road links to Damascus and Nineveh), it was also a strategic stronghold for controlling access the Euphrates into the Assyrian empire.
The Battle of Carchemish occurred in 605 BCE. Most of the Assyrian empire had fallen to the Babylonian King Nabopolassar. The capital city of Nineveh and its successor Harran had been captured and so the Assyrian King Assur-ubalit and the remnant of his army relocated to Carchemish. Carchemish had been an Assyrian city but at this stage is thought to have been garrisoned by the Egyptians following the Assyrian withdrawal from Eber-Nari (‘the land over the River’) in 615-610 BCE. It was here that the Assyrian empire made its final stand. The armies of Assyria, aided by an army from Egypt under the Pharaoh Necho II, met with Babylonian forces under the command of Nebuchadnezzar II. The Egyptian –Assyrian army was defeated, the city was besieged and eventually fell.
The Babylonian Chronicles, now housed in the British Museum, claim that Nebuchadnezzar “crossed the river to go against the Egyptian army which lay in Carchemish. The armies fought with each other and the Egyptian army withdrew before him. He accomplished their defeat and beat them to nonexistence. As for the rest of the Egyptian army which had escaped from the defeat so quickly that no weapon had reached them, the Babylonians overtook and defeated them in the district of Hamath so that not a single man escaped to his own country.
Why is this my choice?
This battle marks a profound change in the status of the ancient world. The Assyrian empire, dominant in the region for thousands of years had been swept away. The might of the Egyptian army had been broken and they retreated back to their border in the south allowing the Babylonians to take control of the lands of Syria, Phoenicia, Philistia and Judea (These had been part of the Assyrian empire but were coveted by the Egyptians as a security ‘buffer zone’ to the northern empires). Although they remained independent, they too would soon fall under the Persians and in turn Greek and Roman rulers. I think this battle can clearly be seen as a major turning point in ancient history.
Apart from its place in history, I am fascinated by the fact that this site is largely unexplored by archaeology in modern times and so has much still to tell us about the people who lived here; their culture and the effects on the city of the battle and the siege.
Artifacts collected during the excavations of 1910-1920