Posts Tagged ‘Assyria’

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

Fragment of relief showing Teshub, the storm god from Carcamesh (10th century BCE) British Museum

Fragment of relief showing Teshub, the storm god from Carcamesh (10th century BCE)
British Museum

Terracotta figurine of women with elaborate headdress and holding baby from Carcamesh (12th-7th BCE). British Museum

Terracotta figurine of women with elaborate headdress and holding baby from Carcamesh (12th-7th BCE). British Museum

Terracotta figurine with clasped hands from Carcamesh (12th-7th BCE) British Museum

Terracotta figurine with clasped hands from Carcamesh (12th-7th BCE) British Museum

Terracotta Horseman from Carcamesh (12th-7th BCE) British Museum

Terracotta Horseman from Carcamesh (12th-7th BCE) British Museum

George Smith was born into a working-class family in Chelsea, London, on March 26, 1840. He had a limited education and at the age of 14 went to work in a London publishing house as an engraver. He was fascinated by the ancient world and would spend his lunch hours either at the British Museum or studying the early works of Layard and Rawlinson on the cuneiform tablets that had been unearthed near Mosel (The site of the Assyrian city of Nineveh) during the excavations between 1840 and 1855.

George Smith
George Smith

At some point during this period, Smith was introduced to Henry Rawlinson, and by 1861, he was working in the evenings, sorting, cleaning and cataloging cuneiform texts in the Museum’s collection. During this period he made a number of important discoveries, including the text regarding the tribute payment made by Jehu King of Israel to Shalmanessar III, the first independent confirmation of a king from the OT.


He assisted Rawlinson in the preparation of some of his manuscripts and was eventually appointed to a position at the British Museum in 1870. He continued to make important discoveries amongst the text tablets in the museum’s collection. The discovery, for which he is perhaps best known came in 1872 when he realised that the text he was working on was an account of a great flood.

tablet from the epic-of-Gilgamesh detailing the flood story

tablet from the epic-of-Gilgamesh detailing the flood story

Further work on this showed it to be the 11th tablet of what we now know as the epic of Gilgamesh [handout p3]. Armed with the information as to the discovery of this text, Smith set off to Nineveh to carry out further excavations and hopefully to find more of the flood story. In this he was successful as well as also discovering other texts which would enlighten scholars on the history of the Assyrian Empire. Smith was to return to Nineveh for two further seasons of excavation, but in 1876, he contracted dysentery and died at Aleppo.
The collection of Ashurbanipal in the library at Nineveh and the work 1900 years later of George Smith, Henry Rawlinson and subsequent scholars has given us a unique insight into many aspects of the Assyrian Empire and its client kingdoms. It has taught us about administration and religion and literature in the Assyrian empire.

Ashurbanipal is regarded by many historians as the last of the great Kings of the Assyrian Empire. He was the son of Esarhaddon and the grandson of Sennacherib, who had between them expanded the Assyrian Empire to its greatest ever size.

Ashurbanipal from the Lion Hunt Reliefs (British Museum)

Ashurbanipal had elder brothers and was not expected to succeed his father as King of the Empire. As a result, he turned his mind to more scholarly pursuits. In a unique surviving autobiographical statement he tells of his studies in divination, mathematics reading and writing. Tradition tells us that he was in fact the only Assyrian king who knew how to read and write .
Sometime prior to 672 BCE Ashurbanipal’s older brothers died or were killed and he found himself unexpectedly in the position of Crown Prince. Three years later, his father Esarhaddon was killed while campaigning in Egypt and Ashurbanipal acceded to the throne in his place. Aware of the already difficult problems that were occurring with the government of such a large empire, Ashurbanipal installed his brother Shamash-shum-ukin as the King in the eastern part of the Empire, the region of Babylon.
To get the impression that this scholarly King was in anyway not made in the mold of his father or grandfather would be a mistake. He finally put Egypt under Assyrian control in 667 when he defeated the Nubian king Tarhaqa in a battle near Memphis with the aid of his Egyptian ally, Necho I , whom he then installed as client King of Egypt. In 652 Shamash-shum-ukin rebelled against his brother and Civil War ensued. It took four years for Ashurbanipal to re-establish Assyrian control in the east. His brother died just before the city of Babylon surrendered to the Assyrian troops -whether he was killed or committed suicide is unclear . Ashurbanipal’s response was to kill anyone who was associated with the rebellion and to abolish the kingship of Babylon and replace him with the governor.
So in many respects Ashurbanipal was indeed a typical member of his family. Yet there is clearly another side to this fascinating figure . It seems clear that he was proud of his education.

ash autobio
The autobiography of Ashurbanipal (British Museum)

One inscription reads ‘I Ashurbanipal took care of the wisdom of Nebo [the Assyrian God of Knowledge], the whole of the inscribed tablets of all the clay tablets the whole of them their mysteries and difficulties I solved’. This inscription gives an insight into the nature of the scholar. During his kingship he collected together cuneiform texts from all over the Empire so that he could study them and in order to house them, he created a library in his palace at Nineveh, the Assyrian capital. This collection of material is regarded by many as one of the most important discoveries in our understanding of the ancient near East. Many types of documents were included – financial, administrative, literary and prophetic texts have been identified which is given us an insight into the running and religion of the Assyrian Empire at its height.
We’re not absolutely sure when Ashurbanipal’s rule came to an end but it is likely to have been some time between 631 and 627 . His death was followed by a number of Civil Wars and regional revolts which began to cripple the Assyrian Empire. The period also saw the rise of independent Kings in the Babylonian region of the Empire. This was the foundation of the neo-Babylonian Empire, which in due course would consume the entire Assyrian Empire all the way to the borders of Egypt.

The final scenes in the wall reliefs from Sennacherib’s palace in Nineveh show the conquering Assyrian army returning with the spoils of victory and presenting them to the King.





The reliefs of the Capture of Lachish are on display in a newly refurbished gallery at the British Museum

Arriving back in Ninevah following his campaign in Judea, King Sennacherib decided to record the battle of Lachish as a permanent reminder to all his subjects of what happens when you rebel.

The wall reliefs which he commissioned show us a lot of information about the Assyrian army.




They also depict scenes showing the defence of the city

From around the year 900 BCE, the Assyrian Empire began to expand and by 700 BCE had reached as far as the Mediterranean and the northern borders of Egypt.

The expansion of the Assyrian empire 900-700 BCE

The expansion of the Assyrian empire 900-700 BCE

in 701 BCE King Hezikiah of Judah was implicated in a rebellion against the Assyrians. Sennacherib, King of Assyria, responded promptly and marched into Judah where he crushed the combined Judaean and Egyptian armies. He laid siege to but did not manage to capture the Judean capital, Jerusalem (an account of this story from a Judean point of view is told in the biblical second book of Kings). Sennacherib did however attack and capture the town of Lachish to the south-west, which served as his headquarters during the campaign against the Judeans (see 2Kings chapter 18).


It was from here that Sennacherib negotiated the eventual peace settlement with Hezekiah.

The site of Lachish has been excavated and evidence for the city’s capture has been discovered. In addition, finds have cast light on some of the weapons used during the battle for the city

Finds from the gate area of Lachish

Finds from the gate area of Lachish

Sennacherib returned home to Ninevah and had his version of the story recorded on the walls of his palace.