Ancient History & Civilisation



Towards the end of the tenth century B.C. Assyria was at her lowest ebb. The lack of unity among her enemies had saved her from rapid destruction, but economic collapse was impending. She had lost all her possessions west of the Tigris, and her vital arteries, the great trade routes that ran across Jazirah and through the mountain passes, were in foreign hands. Hostile highlanders occupied not only the heights of the Zagros but the foothills down to the edge of the Tigris valley, while Aramaean tribes pitched their tents almost at the gates of Assur. Her territory consisted of no more than a narrow strip of land, hardly 1, 600 kilometres long and 800 kilometres wide alongside the river, mostly on its left bank. Yet reduced, cornered and exposed as she was, Assyria was still a compact, solid and tough nation. Her main cities were free; she had chariots, horses and weapons; her men, trained by years of almost constant fighting, were the best warriors in the world; above all, her dynastic line remained unbroken, the crown having passed from head to head in the same family for more than two centuries.1 In the fragmented and chaotic Near East of the time no other kingdom could claim such privileges: Babylonia was partly occupied and regularly plundered by the Aramaeans; since the victory of Nebuchadrezzar I over ‘Hulteludish’ (Hutelutush-Inshushinak), Elam had disappeared from the political stage; Egypt, ruled by Libyan princes in the Nile delta and by priests of Amon in Thebes, was almost powerless; the latest invaders – the Phrygians in Anatolia, the Medes and Persians in Iran – were still remote and relatively harmless competitors, and in Armenia, the great rival kingdom of tomorrow, Urartu, was not yet fully grown. Of all these nations Assyria, despite appearances was undoubtedly the strongest, and many must havethought that if only she could awake and fight back, she would be second to none.2

Genesis of an Empire

Assyria awoke in 911 B.C. The prince who ascended the throne that year, Adad-nirâri II (911 – 891 B.C.), does not rank among the illustrious, and his name did not go down to posterity, as did those of Sargon and Ashurbanipal. But it is he who loosened the grip of Assyria’s enemies and unknowingly opened the last and most brilliant chapter in the history of the northern kingdom. The war he waged and won was, in his own view, a war of national liberation.3 The Aramaeans were driven out of the Tigris valley and dislodged from the Kashiari mountains (Tûr ‘Abdin, a rugged volcanic massif lying to the east of Mardin) from which they threatened Nineveh. Several cities in eastern Jazirah, which had been ‘torn away from Assur‘, were recovered and their walls either dismantled or fortified against possible counter-attacks. Other campaigns saw the Assyrian army in Kurdistan, whose inhabitants were ‘cut down in heaps’ and pushed back to the mountains. Finally, the King of Babylon – who was then Shamash-mudammiq, of the eighth dynasty – was twice attacked, twice defeated and lost not only a large piece of land to the north of the Diyala river, but also Hit and Zanqu, border-towns on the Middle Euphrates.4 Another campaign against his successor, Nabû-shuma-ukin, was apparently less successful but ended in a treaty which ensured peace between the two kingdoms for about eighty years.5 Tukulti-Ninurta II (890 – 884 B.C.), apparently as energetic as his father, did not live long enough to substantially enlarge the royal domain, but he rebuilt the wall of Assur ‘from its foundation to its top‘, and a circular expedition in the south-western districts reconquered by Adad-nirâri won him the respect of the Aramaeans settled therein.6 When he died the frontier of Assyria encompassed the whole of northern Iraq from the Khabur to the Zagros and from Nisibin to Anat and Samarra. His son, the young Ashurnasirpal II, inherited this already large and powerful kingdom and took the first steps towards transforming it into what we call an empire.

It would be a mistake, however, to think of the Assyrian empire as a planned enterprise, an organized body formed by the deliberate addition of land after land, province after province to the original nucleus. The wars which the Assyrian monarchs waged year after year and which eventually resulted in the conquest of the greater part of the Near East, these wars which fill their annals and make us almost forget their other achievements, had different, though closely interwoven motives.7 There can be no doubt that some of them were defensive or preventive measures aimed at protecting from avowed or potential enemies the relatively narrow plain on either side of the Tigris which formed the core of Assyria and to keep open the vital trade roads that traversed the Jazirah towards Syria, crossed the Taurus and the Zagros towards Anatolia and Iran, and ran southward along the Tigris. At the end of the tenth century B.C., some of these roads were blocked by tribes from the steppe or the mountains and others by the Babylonians, the rulers and soldiers of a large country which the Assyrians coveted for its riches, revered as the holder of the great Sumero-Akkadian traditions but also feared, for since the days of Narâm-Sin of Akkad the kings of the South had never ceased claiming possession of the North, as witnessed by the multiple ‘border wars’ they had deliberately started. To fight on all these fronts was the price the Assyrians had to pay for their political and economic freedom, but if they won, then there would be no limit to their ambitions, including to obtain access to the Mediterranean Sea or the Gulf. It must be borne in mind that Assyria was the only country of the Near East that had no ‘window’ on a sea.

But it was not enough for the Assyrians to survive: they had to become wealthy in order to finance major architectural or agricultural projects, to provide their kings and their gods with the luxury to which they were entitled. During most of the second millenniumB.C., Assyria had obtained the surplus she needed first from the fruitful operations of her merchants in Cappadocia, then from the ‘royal trade’ which flourished in the 15th and the 14th centuries, until the economic equilibrium of the entire Orient was toppled by the great invasions that took place around 1200 B.C. But since that time, the campaigns of Tukulti-Ninurta I and Tiglathpileser I had shown how much bold armed expeditions could pay and how useful it was to possess a vast hunting ground, ‘a geographical area through which one could raid without encountering effective opposition’,8 bringing back a heavy booty. As long as foreign countries could be plundered and/or persuaded to pay the ransom of their independence, there was no need to annex and govern them directly.

To these economic motives must be added, of course, the greed and ambition of the Assyrian kings, their typically oriental desire to cover themselves with glory, to pose as invincible demi-gods in front of their subjects.

Moreover, as vicars and representatives on earth of their national god regarded as standing well above all other gods, they felt it their duty to impose the cult of Ashur in what was for them the whole world.9 This in general could only be achieved by force, but it did not matter since the king's enemies were ipso facto the god's enemies and therefore wicked devils who deserved to be punished whatever they had done.10 Thus, brigandry and occasional massacres were justified by the politico-religious ideology of the Assyrians; each of their campaigns was a measure of self-defence, an act of gangsterism but also a crusade.

Almost every year, usually in the spring, the King of Assyria mustered his troops ‘at the command of Ashur’ and led them on the dusty tracks of the Mesopotamian plain or on the perilous paths of the Taurus and of the Zagros. In the early days his opponents in those regions were merely chiefs of tribes or local princelings. Some fought bravely, though rarely with success; others fled to the desert or hid on inaccessible mountain peaks; others ‘embraced the feet’ of the Assyrian war-lord, brought presents, promised to pay regular tribute and were spared. But woe to those who failed to keep their promise! In the course of another campaign a punitive expedition was directed against them and a storm swept over their country: the rebels were tortured, the population massacred or enslaved, the towns and villages set on fire, the crops burned, the trees uprooted. Terror-stricken, the neighbouring chieftains hastened to offer gifts and to swear allegiance. Then, its duty accomplished, loaded with spoil, trailing behind it human captives, flocks and herds, the army returned home and disbanded. As an example of what Assyria gained from these wars, here is a list of the tamartu (the ‘spectacular gift for display’) taken by Ashurnasirpal in one single, small district of Bit-Zamâni, the region of modern Diarbakr.

40 chariots ‘equipped with the trappings of men and horses’

460 horses ‘broken to the yoke’

2 talents of silver, 2 talents of gold

100 talents of lead, 100 talents of copper

300 talents of iron

1,000 vessels of copper

2,000 pans of copper

bowls and cauldrons of copper

1,000 brightly coloured garments of wool and linen tables of sha-wood and ‘couches made of ivory and overlaid with gold’ from the ruler's palace

2,000 heads of cattle

5,000 sheep,

not counting the ruler's sister, the ‘daughters of his nobles with their rich dowries’ and his 15,000 Ahlamû-Aramaean subjects ‘snatched away and brought to Assyria’. The local prince was put to death, and an annual tribute was imposed on his successor, consisting of 1,000 sheep, 2,000 gur of grain, 2 minas of gold and 13 minas of silver.11 In the same campaign Ashurnasirpal gathered presents and spoil from no less than five countries and nine major cities.

As years went by, the boundaries of the Assyrian hunting ground were pushed farther and farther afield. Behind the petty states of their immediate neighbourhood, the kings of Assur found larger and more powerful kingdoms: Urartu in Armenia, the Medes in Iran, Elam and Egypt. The raids of rapine became wars of conquest. Assyria had grown stronger, but her opponents were bigger and tougher. The increased distances rendered more difficult the collection of tribute and the suppression of revolts. In most places it became necessary to replace the native rulers and their courts by Assyrian governors and civil servants and to extend to these far-away regions the division into provinces which had prevailed in Assyria proper since very early days. In this way an empire took shape with its huge, complex and perfectly organized administrative machinery. But the original objectives were never forgotten, and the extortion of taxes remained the foundation of Assyrian government. It is certain that the Aramaean merchants and the Phoenician sailors and craftsmen benefited to a certain extent from the facility and security of communications throughout this vast territory and from the ever-increasing demands of the Assyrian palaces for luxury goods. It is probable that some of the more backward districts received a thin varnish of civilization.12 But outside Assyria proper – which now included the entire steppe between the Euphrates and the Tigris – there is no evidence that the conquerors made much effort to diffuse their highly advanced culture, to care for the economic development of the distant provinces and satellite states, to improve, even indirectly, the welfare of their populations. The silence on this subject of the royal correspondence found at Nineveh and at Nimrud, the almost complete absence of Assyrian texts in Syria, Palestine, Armenia and Iran, the generally poor character of the Assyrian level in excavated sites of these countries, the frequent references to spoil, massacres and destruction in the royal annals (however exaggerated they may be), everything points to impoverishment or, at best, stagnation. The men, horses, cattle and sheep brought into Assyria by the thousand, the enormous yearly income in silver, gold, copper, iron, grain and other commodities so accurately registered by the palace scribes, all this was generally not purchased but taken by force. Wealth was constantly being transferred from the periphery to the centre, from the dependencies and ‘protectorates’ to the Mesopotamian homeland.13 The Assyrians took much and gave very little, with the result that if the state was rich its distant subjects were destitute and in almost constant rebellion. The system upon which the empire was founded had in itself the germs of its own destruction.


With Tukulti-Ninurta's son we meet the first great Assyrian monarch of the new period. Ambition, energy, courage, vanity, cruelty, magnificence, Ashurnasirpal II* (883 – 859 B.C.) possessed to the extreme all the qualities and defects of his successors, the ruthless, indefatigable empire-builders. There is no smile, no piety, almost no humanity in the statue of him found at Nimrud and now in the British Museum, but the rigid attitude of a conceited despot, the aquiline nose of a bird of prey, the straight-looking eyes of a chief who demands absolute obedience, and in his hands the mace and the curved spear.14

No sooner was he upon the throne than, without the shadow of a pretext, he went forth to ransack the hilly countries to the north of Mesopotamia.15 This took him as far as the land of Kutmuhu in the Upper Tigris valley, where he received tribute from several local princes and presents from the Mushki, or Phrygians, who held outposts on the southern slopes of the Taurus mountains. While he was there he received news that a vassal Aramaean city on the lower Khabur had revolted, and he immediately proceeded to punish the rebels – a march of at least three hundred kilometres, in the middle of the summer:

‘To the city of Sûru of Bît Halupê I drew near, and the terror of the splendour of Ashur, my lord, overwhelmed them. The chief and the elders of the city, to save their lives came forth into my presence and embraced my feet, saying: “If it is thy pleasure, slay! If it is thy pleasure, let live! That which thy heart desireth, do!”… In the valour of my heart and with the fury of my weapons I stormed the city. All the rebels they seized and delivered them up.’16

Further campaigns in the course of the reign were directed against other rebels in the Kashiari mountains, in the land of Zamua (the region around modern Suleimaniyah) and on the Middle Euphrates. Then, when the kingdom was pacified, the first stride was made towards reaching Syria and the Mediterranean, a goal which Shamshi-Adad I once had set and which no Assyrian monarch of value could overlook. Beyond the Khabur and the Balikh, within the great bend of the Euphrates, lay the important Aramaean kingdom of Bît-Adini, Ashurnasirpal invaded it and ‘with mines, battering rams and siege engines’ took Kaprabi (possibly Urfa), a city which ‘was exceedingly strong and hung like a cloud from heaven’. The ruler of Bit-Adini, Ahuni, brought tribute and left hostages in Assyrian hands: the way was clear for the great Syrian expedition of the following year (877 B.C.). The annals go into considerable detail over this campaign, and we can follow the king and his army step by step, by daily marches of about thirty kilometres from Karkemish to the plain of Antioch, across the Orontes and finally, ‘along the side of mount Lebanon and to the Great Sea of the land of Amurru’. There Ashurnasirpal repeated the gesture of his predecessors:

‘I cleaned my weapons in the deep sea and performed sheep-offerings to the gods. The tribute of the sea-coast – from the inhabitants of Tyre, Sidon, Byblos, Mahallata, Maiza, Kaiza, Amurru, and (of) Arvad which is (an island) in the sea: gold, silver, tin, copper, copper containers, linen garments with multi-coloured trimmings, large and small monkeys, ebony, boxwood, ivory from walrus tusk – (thus ivory) a product of the sea – (this) their tribute I received and they embraced my feet.’17

The Assyrians returned home via the Amanus mountains, where trees were cut down and sent to Assur, and a royal stele set up. Taken by surprise, the Neo-Hittite and Aramaean princes of northern Syria had offered no resistance. Contrary to the claims made by the king, however, this triumphal campaign was not a conquest but another razzia, the first long-range Assyrian razzia since the days of Tiglathpileser I, two hundred years before. Even in Mesopotamia the territory gained by Ashurnasirpal was comparatively small, and the main result of the reign was to pave the way for the following kings. Fortresses such as Tushhan on the Upper Tigris, Kar-Ashurnasirpal and Nibarti-Ashur on the Middle Euphrates were founded and staffed with garrisons.18 The position of Assyria in northern Iraq was consolidated, its nearest neighbours in the mountainous half-circle counted as vassals. The entire Near East learnt that the Assyrians were once again on the move and trembled with fear.

They had every reason to tremble, for Ashurnasirpal was preceded by a well-deserved reputation for cruelty. Humanitarian concepts in warfare were unknown in those days, and a few spectacular examples duly recorded and displayed in writing and pictures in various places were no doubt necessary to inspire respect and enforce obedience. All conquerors in antiquity (and some in modern times) practised a policy of terror, and the Assyrians were no exception. But Ashurnasirpal surpassed them all. Not only were the rebellious or recalcitrant rulers put to death, flayed and their skin ‘spread over the walls of their city‘, but in a few, exceptional cases unarmed prisoners and innocent civilians, were tortured with sadistic refinements:

‘I built a pillar over against his city gate and I flayed all the chiefs who had revolted, and I covered the pillar with their skin. Some I walled up within the pillar, some I impaled upon the pillar on stakes, and others I bound to stakes round about the pillar… And I cut the limbs of the officers, of the royal officers who had rebelled…

‘Many captives from among them I burned with fire, and many I took as living captives. From some I cut off their noses, their ears and their fingers, of many I put out the eyes. I made one pillar of the living and another of heads, and I bound their heads to tree trunks round about the city. Their young men and maidens I burned in the fire.

‘Twenty men I captured alive and I immured them in the wall of his palace…

‘The rest of their warriors I consumed with thirst in the desert of the Euphrates…’19

It must be noted, however, that these atrocities were usually reserved for those local princes and their nobles who had revolted and that in contrast with the Israelites, for instance, who exterminated the Amalekites for purely ethno-cultural reasons, the Assyrians never indulged in systematic genocides.20

It is only fair to add that the memory of Ashurnasirpal must be credited with other, more commendable achievements. Part of his thirst for blood was quenched by the hunting prowesses which his sculptors have immortalized. He had a taste for zoology and botany and brought back ‘from the lands in which he had travelled and the mountains he had passed’ all kinds of beasts, trees and seeds to be acclimatized in Assyria. Above all, he was possessed with that passion for building which is the mark of all great Mesopotamian monarchs. Without neglecting the traditional restoration of temples in Assur and Nineveh, he decided early in his reign to build himself a new ‘royal residence’ away from the old capital-city. Had the Aramaean invasion shown that Assur, on the right bank of the Tigris, was dangerously exposed to attacks coming from the west, or was the move prompted by pride alone? We do not know, but if safety was sought, the site selected by Ashurnasirpal, Kalhu (biblical Calah, modern Nimrud, thirty-five kilometres south of Mosul) was strategically excellent, protected as it was by the Tigris to the west and by the Upper Zab flowing at some distance to the south. Shalmaneser I in the thirteenth century B.C. had founded a town there, but it had long fallen into ruins. Thousands of men were put to work: the ruin-mound,

Plan of Nimrud. 1, The archaeologists' house; 2, temple of Nabû; 3, palace of the city's governor; 4, ‘burnt palace’; 5, street; 6, private houses; 7, building; 8, Ishtar's temple; 9, Ninurta's temple; 10, ziqqurat; 11, Ashurnasirpal's palace with A; domestic wing; B, throne room; C, archives room; D, well; 12, ‘central palace’; 13, ‘south-west palace’. From M. E. L. Mallowan, Iraq, XIX, 1957.

the ‘tell’, was levelled, and the building site extended; a massive wall reinforced with towers was erected, enclosing a rectangle about eight kilometres in perimeter, and a partly natural, partly artificial hill in a corner of this rectangle became the acropolis supporting the ziqqurat, several temples and the royal palace:

‘A palace of cedar, cypress, juniper, boxwood, mulberry, pistachio-wood and tamarisk, for my royal dwelling and for my lordly pleasure for all time I founded therein. Beasts of the mountains and of the seas of white limestone and alabaster I fashioned and set them up in its gates… Door-leaves of cedar, cypress, juniper and mulberry I hung in the gates thereof; and silver, gold, lead, copper and iron, the spoil of my hand from the lands which I had brought under my sway, in great quantities I took and placed therein.’21

At the same time a canal called Patti-hegalli (‘stream of abundance’) was dug from the Zab with the double purpose of sheltering the town further and of watering the surrounding plain. Prisoners from the subdued lands were settled in the new capital-city, whose tutelary god, significantly, was the war-god Ninurta.

Ashurnasirpal's palace at Nimrud was one of the first monuments ever excavated in Mesopotamia. Between 1845 and 1851 Layard worked on its central part and – much to the awe and wonder of his labourers – dug up a number of colossal winged bull-men, lions, genii and slabs covered with reliefs and inscriptions.22 Some of these treasures were sent to England and are now the pride of the British Museum; others, too heavy to be removed, were reinterred, to be unearthed again just over a century later by other British archaeologists.23 We now possess the complete plan of the palace, which covered an area of more than three hectares and was divided into three parts: the administrative quarters (a series of rooms around a large courtyard), the ceremonial block with its spacious reception-hall and throne-room and, finally, the domestic wing, including royal apartments, harem, stores and ablution-rooms. In the ceremonial block the main gates were flanked by huge lamussû, or protective genii, the mud-brick walls decorated with frescoes and with carved and inscribed orthostats, the floors paved with burnt bricks stamped with the name of the king. An interesting feature of the domestic wing was the presence of an ‘air conditioning’ system in the form of broad air-vents cut in the thickness of the walls to admit fresh air from above. The door leaves of precious wood have perished in the fire which destroyed Nimrud, like other Assyrian cities, in 612 B.C., but a number of objects have survived, in particular beautifully incised or carved panels of ivory, often covered with gold, which once decorated the royal furniture. There were also weapons and tools of bronze or iron, clay jars and a number of tablets. As it now stands, Ashurnasirpal's palace is the best preserved of Assyrian royal dwellings, and the visitor who wanders through this maze of rooms and courtyards, who walks along these narrow corridors lined with huge slabs to be suddenly confronted, in the dim light of a doorway, with some terrifying monster of stone, can well imagine the emotion which must have seized those who entered the building to approach ‘the wonderful shepherd who fears not the battle’.

Among the finds made in the palace was a very large stele bearing the figure of the king and a long inscription from which we learn of the festivities that accompanied the opening ceremony in 879 B.C.24 An enormous banquet – the menu of which is given in detail – was offered by Ashurnasirpal to the entire population of the town as well as to foreign ambassadors, in all no less than 69,574 guests for ten days. And the final sentence makes us for a moment forget the other, unsavoury aspects of this great monarch:

‘The happy people of all the lands together with the people of Kalhu for ten days I feasted, wined, bathed, anointed and honoured and sent them back to their lands in peace and joy.’

Shalmaneser III

Constantly on the battlefield, starting his campaigns from Nineveh or from one of his provincial palaces, Ashurnasirpal's son, Shalmaneser III* (858 – 824 B.C.), appears to have spent only the last years of his life in Kalhu. Yet it is from that city and its neighbourhood that come his most famous monuments. One of them is the ‘Black Obelisk’ found by Layard in the temple of Ninurta over a century ago and now in the British Museum.25 It is a two-metre-high block of black alabaster ending in steps, like a miniature ziqqurat. A long inscription giving the summary of the king's wars runs around the monolith, while five sculptured panels on each side depict the payment of tribute by various foreign countries, including Israel, whose king Jehu is shown prostrate at the feet of the Assyrian monarch. More recent excavations at Nimrud have brought to light a statue of the king in the attitude of prayer, and a huge building situated in a corner of the town wall, which was founded by him and used by his successors down to the fall of the empire. This building, nicknamed by the archaeologists ‘Fort Shalmaneser’, was in fact his palace as well as the ekal masharti of the inscriptions, the ‘great store-house’ erected ‘for the ordinance of the camp, the maintenance of stallions, chariots, weapons, equipment of war, and the spoil of the foe of every kind’.26 In three vast courtyards the troops were assembled, equipped and inspected before the annual campaigns, while the surrounding rooms served as armouries, stores, stables and lodgings for the officers. Finally, we have the remarkable objects known as ‘the bronze gates of Balawat’. They were discovered in 1878 by Layard's assistant Rassam, not at Nimrud, but at Balawat (ancient Imgur-Enlil), a small tell a few kilometres to the north-east of the great city. There Ashurnasirpal had built a country palace later occupied by Shalmaneser, and the main gates of this palace were covered with long strips of bronze, about twenty-five centimetres wide, worked in ‘repoussé’ technique, representing some of Shalmaneser's armed expeditions; a brief legend accompanies the pictures.27 Besides their considerable artistic or architectural interest, all these monuments are priceless for the information they provide concerning Assyrian warfare during the ninth century B.C.

In the number and scope of his military campaigns Shalmaneser surpasses his father.28 Out of his thirty-five years of reign thirty-one were devoted to war. The Assyrian soldiers were taken farther abroad than ever before: they set foot in Armenia, in Cilicia, in Palestine, in the heart of the Taurus and of the Zagros, on the shores of the Gulf. They ravaged new lands, besieged new cities, measured themselves against new enemies. But because these enemies were much stronger than the Aramaeans of Jazirah or the small tribes of Iraqi Kurdistan, the victories of Shalmaneser were mitigated with failures, and the whole reign gives the impression of a task left unfinished, of a gigantic effort for a very small result. In the north, for instance, Shalmaneser went beyond ‘the sea of Nairi’ (Lake Van) and entered the territory of Urartu, a kingdom which had recently been formed amidst the high mountains of Armenia. The Assyrian claims, as always, complete success and describes the sack of several towns belonging to the King of Urartu, Arame. Yet he confesses that Arame escaped, and we know that during the next century Urartu grew to be Assyria's main rival. Similarly, a series of campaigns in the east, towards the end of the reign, brought Shalmaneser or his commander-in-chief, the turtanuDaiân-Ashur, in contact with the Medes and Persians, who then dwelt around Lake Urmiah. There again the clash was brief and the ‘victory’ without lasting results: Medes and Persians were in fact left free to consolidate their position in Iran.

The repeated efforts made by Shalmaneser to conquer Syria met with the same failure. The Neo-Hittite and Aramaean princes whom Ashurnasirpal had caught by surprise had had time to strengthen themselves, and the main effect of the renewed Assyrian attacks was to unite them against Assyria. Three campaigns were necessary to wipe out the state of Bit-Adini and to establish a bridgehead on the Euphrates. In 856 B.C. Til-Barsip (modern Tell Ahmar), the capital-city of Bit-Adini, was taken, populated with Assyrians and renamed Kâr-Shulmanashared, ‘the Quay of Shalmaneser’. On top of the mound overlooking the Euphrates a palace was built, which served as a base for operations on the western front.29 But whether the Assyrians marched towards Cilicia through the Amanus or towards Damascus via Aleppo, they invariably found themselves face to face with coalitions of local rulers. Thus when Shalmaneser in 853 B.C entered the plains of central Syria, his opponents, Irhuleni of Hama and Adad-idri of Damascus (Ben-Hadad II of the Bible), met him with contingents supplied by ‘twelve kings of the sea-coast’. To the invaders they could oppose 62,900 infantry-men, 1,900 horsemen, 3,900 chariots and 1,000 camels sent by ‘Gindibu, from Arabia’. The battle took place at Karkara (Qarqar) on the Orontes, not far from Hama. Says Shalmaneser:

‘I slew 14,000 of their warriors with the sword. Like Adad, I rained destruction upon them…. The plain was too small to let their bodies fall, the wide countryside was used up in burying them. With their corpses, I spanned the Orontes as with a bridge.’30

Yet neither Hama nor Damascus were taken, and the campaign ended prosaically with a little cruise on the Mediterranean. Four, five and eight years later other expeditions were directed against Hama with the same partial success. Numerous towns and villages were captured, looted and burned down, but not the main cities. In 841 B.C. Damascus was again attacked. The occasion was propitious, Adad-idri having been murdered and replaced by Hazael, ‘the son of a nobody’.31 Hazael was defeated in battle on mount Sanir (Hermon), but locked himself in his capital-city. All that Shalmaneser could do was to ravage the orchards and gardens which surrounded Damascus as they surround it today and to plunder the rich plain of Hauran. He then took the road to the coast, and on Mount Carmel received the tribute of Tyre, Sidon and Iaua mâr Humri (Jehu, son of Omri), King of Israel, the first biblical figure to appear in cuneiform inscriptions. After a last attempt to conquer Damascus in 838 B.C. the Assyrian confessed his failure by leaving Syria alone for the rest of his reign.

In Babylonia Shalmaneser was luckier, though here again he failed to exploit his success and missed the chance which was offered to him. Too weak to attack the Assyrians and too strong to be attacked by them, the kings of the Eighth Dynasty of Babylon had hitherto managed to remain free. Even Ashurnasirpal had spared the southern kingdom, giving his contemporary Nabû-apal-iddina (887 – 855 B.C.) time to repair some of the damage caused by the Aramaeans and the Sutû during ‘the time of confusion’.32 But in 850 B.C. hostilities broke out between King Marduk-zakir-shumi and his own brother backed by the Aramaeans. The Assyrians were called to the rescue. Shalmaneser defeated the rebels, entered Babylon, ‘the bond of heaven and earth, the abode of life’, offered sacrifices in Marduk's temple, Esagila, as well as in the sanctuaries of Kutha and Barsippa, and treated the inhabitants of that holy land with extreme kindness:

For the people of Babylon and Barsippa, the protégés, the freemen of the great gods, he prepared a feast, he gave them food and wine, he clothed them in brightly coloured garments and presented them with gifts.33

Then, advancing farther south into the ancient country of Sumer now occupied by the Chaldaeans (Kaldû), he stormed it and chased the enemies of Babylon ‘unto the shores of the sea they call Bitter River (nâr marratu)’, i.e. the Gulf. The whole affair, however, was but a police operation. Marduk-zakir-shumi swore allegiance to his protector but remained on his throne.34 The unity of Mesopotamia under Assyrian rule could perhaps have been achieved without much difficulty. For some untold reason – probably because he was too deeply engaged in the north and in the west – Shalmaneser did not claim more than nominal suzerainty, and all that Assyria gained was some territory and a couple of towns on its southern border. The Diyala to the south, the Euphrates to the west, the mountain ranges to the north and east now marked its limits. It was still a purely northern Mesopotamian kingdom, and the empire had yet to be conquered.

The end of Shalmaneser's long reign was darkened by extremely serious internal disorders. One of his sons, Ashurdaninaplu, revolted and with him twenty-seven cities, including Assur, Nineveh, Arba'il (Erbil) and Arrapha (Kirkuk). The old king, who by then hardly left his palace in Nimrud, entrusted another of his sons, Shamshi-Adad, with the task of repressing the revolt, and for four years Assyria was in the throes of civil war. The war was still raging when Shalmaneser died and Shamshi-Adad V ascended the throne (824 B.C.). With the new king began a period of Assyrian stagnation which lasted for nearly a century.

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